Twenty Years After Stonewall

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

The Editors

AS THIS ISSUE OF Against the Current goes to press thousands of people will be marching in lesbian/gay pride marches in cities from Maine to Missouri to California. Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day IS becoming a national civic festival, complete with politicians and hucksters. But the day does not belong to them. Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day – especially this Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day – is a day for lesbian/gay radicals, past and present.

Twenty years ago this June drag queens at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village who fought back against a police raid sparked the angriest, most spontaneous gay action there had ever been and gave birth to today’s lesbian/gay movement. Ten years ago lesbians and gays in San Francisco sent thirteen police cars up in flames in the “White Night” riots on the night when gay Supervisor Harvey Milk’s killer, Dan White, was let off with a “slap-on-the-wrist” sentence.

Today ACT UP groups show the same will to resist and the same refusal to play by the rules in the fight against AIDS. The people who shut down the Food and Drug Administration last October and blocked the streets around New York City Hall last March understand that U.S. rulers view gay people with contempt or indifference. We will save our lives or no one will save our lives.

The Politics of Identity

Lesbians and gays have been pushing back the barriers to sexual freedom for everyone by flamboyantly affirming our distinctive sexualities, creating vibrant communities and building many institutions and movements. This multiplication of identities and movements is a step toward greater openness toward sexuality and greater unity among all those who are oppressed. It moves us closer to the original goal of lesbian/gay liberation: a world where “sexual preference” as a means to categorize or constrain people is abolished

Some theorists have questioned the “politics of identity” that grew up after the Stonewall rebellion. Starting from the recognition that a homosexual identity was originally created not by nature or lesbian/gay people but by medical and state institutions, they prefer to downplay this identity. Sometimes they end up opposing whatever distinguishes the lesbian/gay movement from the mainstream, contributing to a general drift to the right.

For example, organizers of the1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights were criticized for focusing on the lesbian/gay community, not inviting all the presidential candidates to speak and not doing enough lobbying. Yet the March was a great success: it brought out 800,000 people and gave a new impetus to the lesbian/gay movement. It showed that community-based organizing achieves more than lowest-common denominator politicking.

What We Have Learned

Stonewall, the White Night riots, ACT UP and the March on Washington all show the value of lesbian/gay pride and militancy. But pride and militancy are not enough. Looking at the movement’s ups and downs since Stonewall, we can see that it has done best when it combined independent lesbian/gay organizing with a sense of broader radical possibilities.

The movement took off after 1969 both because lesbian/gay people were ready to be proud and strong and because the anti-Vietnam War movement, the counterculture and the New Left, despite all the anti-gay prejudice within them, gave a context for radical organizing.

But the lesbian/gay radicalism of the late 1970s made little headway because most other movements were disoriented by hard times. The movements ended up trying to block Reaganism by backing Democrats, as hopeless an idea as trying to hold back the tide with sand castles. Despite the militancy shown in the White Night riots, many lesbian/gay people joined Democratic Clubs. Lesbian/gay liberation was derailed.

The 1987 march and the rise of ACT UP come at a somewhat more promising time. The abortion rights marches last April show that while ACT UP is in the vanguard of social movements, it is not completely isolated. The threat of AIDS is encouraging gay people to turn toward their natural allies: working and poor people who can’t get decent health care or housing, Blacks and Latinos, women. The potential is there for building a new, broad, radical alliance.

Some of the left has also learned from the past twenty years, in particular from lesbians and gays. The gay and feminist movements have taught many of us that the personal and sexual can also be political, and that culture and sexuality are crucial to rebuilding the left Those of us who put working class self-organization at the center of our radical vision have learned that the working class consists of many communities caught up in different struggles, each of which is essential. The anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion is an important day for the renewal of the left. The whole left should come out for it.

July-August 1989, ATC 21

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