Stonewall at Twenty-Five

Against the Current, No. 50, May/June 1994

The Editors

Barbara Alper / Getty Images

Stonewall symbolizes the transformation of the gay and lesbian liberation movements into an open and public reality. On June 27, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Sheridan Square, New York City, the patrons fought back against a police raid. The response — from gays and lesbians who had taken endless harassment from both the Mafia and the cops — sparked three days of rioting.

Stonewall’s twenty-fifth anniversary will be celebrated on Sunday, June 26 in an international march on the United Nations to affirm the human rights of lesbians and gay people, demanding implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, drag and transgender people as well as all who have AIDS or are HIV positive.

Twenty-five years after Stonewall the lesbian and gay liberation struggle has not yet won the battle — but there certainly are achievements to celebrate. There is a strong, autonomous infrastructure of lesbian, gay and bisexual organizations — including Black, Latino/a and Asian-American gay and lesbian groups. It has a culture that is expressed in music, dance and writing, with its journals and newspapers, bookstores, coffeehouses and festivals. And every June Gay Pride marches in New York and San Francisco commemorate Stonewall, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of gays, lesbians and supporters.

Several unions now negotiate domestic partner benefits and have standing gay and lesbian rights committees. A number of unions — including AFSCME, AFT, APWU, CWA, NEA, SEIU, UAW, UFCW — have written language barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation into their constitutions. Gay rights legislation has passed in a number of major cities. Openly gay members sit in Congress. The overwhelming number of people who flock to public showings of the AIDS quilt indicate a change in the political climate.

Yet those who defy heterosexist dictates for how they can live and love are still in jeopardy of losing their jobs, their children, even their lives. Religious fundamentalists are sponsoring anti-gay initiatives all over the country, preying on homophobic fear and prejudice, inciting gay-bashing and turning the fight for equal rights on its head by claiming lesbians and gays are demanding “special rights.” AIDS is continuing to take a large toll in the gay community — and the government’s foot-dragging and penny-pinching have caused thousands of needless deaths. But there is no going back to the pre-Stonewall era.

Through zap actions, marches, meetings, manifestoes, sit-ins and die-ins, law suits and referendums, the lesbian and gay liberation struggles have articulated their needs. They have sought nothing less than an end to the normative status of heterosexuality. They have fought for civil rights legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual preference; equal rights, benefits and recognition for same-sex relationships; the right to have, raise and adopt children; the right to health care in the age of AIDS; the right to a sexuality of one’s own making; the right to invent styles and cultures that reflect one’s view of oneself.

The idea that human sexuality falls along a range of behaviors challenges the rigid gender roles the dominant ideology transmits through the church, mosque or temple and enforces through the institutions of the state. It’s not surprising that many — not just fundamentalists — are threatened by a human sexuality that is not “traditionally” defined. It’s often hard for people to acknowledge that something as basic as the idea of sexuality has been shaped by history and culture.

Before Stonewall

An underground gay and lesbian culture existed before Stonewall. Homosexual radicals founded The Mattachine Society (1951) and the Daughters of Bilitis (1955). As early as 1953 the Mattachine Society organized the Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment. These organizations defined the beginning of a cultural and political awakening that was to explode into national movements for gay and lesbian liberation immediately following Stonewall. And those movements built themselves on three essential aspects: a positive self-identity, a desire to rediscover a lost history of same-sex love and resistance to the institutionalization of heterosexuality.

From the beginning, the gay and lesbian liberation struggle has had a confrontational edge. Lesbian and gay activists were unwilling to hide in the closet, denying the truth about their lives. They refused to see their sexuality as “sick,” “evil” or “unnatural.” Instead there was an “in your face” activism in the early years with groups such as Gay Liberation and the Lavender Menace, and more recently, with that of ACT-UP, Queer Nation and Lesbian Avengers. These organizations proclaim self-pride, daring to demand the same public validation and support for same-sex relationships that heterosexuals take for granted.

The movements’ persistent radicalism helps account for the significant role socialists have played in them over the years, from Edward Carpenter in the 1890s, to communists in the World League for Sex Reform in the 1920s, to lesbians and gays in solidarity with Nicaragua in the 1980s. In the movements that have developed since Stonewall, Marxist and feminist analyses have been important in the radical questioning of the very categories of “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality,” “masculinity” and “femininity,” as well as in underscoring the need for an economic transformation that could facilitate a more humane and caring society.

It’s this radical questioning and militancy — this refusal to play along with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule — that energizes the struggle and makes the liberals who say they want to “help” angry. It makes the fundamentalists wild with hostility. It’s why some fellow workers today say, “Okay you’re gay, and that’s cool, but why do you have to flaunt it?” It’s why people are uncomfortable about an openly gay/lesbian teacher who might be a role model for their child. Or why gay rights initiatives are often defeated by voters. As long as traditional gender roles and heterosexuality remain the “standard,” everything else is seen as deviant, and felt as a threat.

And it’s also why Clinton the candidate can make all kinds of promises, but when he becomes president, he backs down in the first confrontation. Clearly this objective, militant and insistent challenge demonstrates the trap of the Democratic Party and propels forward the search for an alternative and independent strategy rooted in a broad alliance for social change.

Recognize Difference, Achieve Unity

In addition to being poorer than most gay men, lesbians have also faced discrimination within the social movements to which they contribute. While the mainstream attacked the women’s movement as a lesbian plot because it rejected male domination and demanded female independence, obtaining recognition and support from the women’s movement for lesbian issues has been a difficult struggle. Lesbians also had to fight for recognition within the gay liberation movement, where raising lesbian issues and putting forward lesbians as spokespeople still causes some tension.

A similar tension exists for people of color within the lesbian, gay, and bisexual liberation struggle. Diversity means these movements speak in different voices and accents, and from different vantage points. That is facilitated through a variety of autonomous organizations and caucuses reflecting and celebrating that diversity — and by recognizing that the liberation struggle is only as strong as its defense of the most vulnerable.

In the battle with AIDS, women and people of color had to challenge the Center for Disease Control’s very definition of the disease. Since their symptoms did not match the original list identified over a decade ago in gay white men, until last year they were ineligible for treatment and government support.

The reality is that women and people of color both within and outside the gay community become HIV positive and are developing AIDS at an alarming rate. In New York City, nearly two-thirds of AIDS cases are among people of color. And because poverty exacerbates the disease, women and people of color who become HIV positive find it even more difficult to obtain health care.

Yet ultimately every HIV positive person confronts the same enemies: a government unwilling to prioritize health and a drug industry intent on profiting from the AIDS crisis.

One of the lessons the lesbian and gay liberation movements teach — just as the civil rights and women’s movements teach — is the importance of defining one’s self and one’s own needs apart from society’s conception of our “place.” From this reality we can come to recognize not only our own oppression, but how hierarchial status is assigned on the basis of race, gender, class, sexuality, disability — and that this limits life opportunities for the overwhelming majority.

The presently constituted minority of people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual obviously suffer the most from the heterosexism of our culture. However, socially constructed gender roles and compulsory heterosexuality actually harms everyone — regardless of the gender of our partners, or how we define our sexuality — because these roles are imposed. As John Stuart Mill suggested 150 years ago, marriage was the norm for women because without that social compulsion a woman might choose another life.

Gays and lesbians have been in the forefront of demanding a redefinition of the “family,” not as a patriarchal relationship sanctioned by church and state, but as an affectional unit committed to the mutual benefit of its members. The well-organized religious right denounces this demand. They want to maintain a society where decisions are left in the hands of the male head of the house. They fear any notion of collective decision-making; they are openly hostile to the idea that the state bears responsibility for insuring the well-being of its citizens.

It’s not an accident that we’re fighting “traditional values” all of a sudden. It’s not just that our society can’t respect diversity; it’s that the profit-driven economic system we live under is in crisis and “traditional values” is the way social tasks get placed upon individuals. That let’s the system off the hook — if families have problems, then under this set of rules, the family is at fault.

The lesbian and gay movements also challenge the puritanism that blocks safe-sex education, including the distribution of birth control and, specifically, condoms, in the schools. While the right tries to hide behind a defense of children, they have, in fact, condemned them to ignorance, poverty, and even death.

On this twenty-fifth anniversary of Stonewall it’s necessary to strengthen our commitment to the demands of the lesbian and gay liberation movements. We need to unite around very specific human rights issues — defeating state or local anti-gay referendums, fighting for passage of a single-payer health care system, promoting safe-sex education and a Rainbow curriculum in the schools, and defense of gays and lesbians against violent attack.

The lesbian and gay movements are a powerful international movement for sexual liberation, organized in some fifty or sixty countries. While those in Northern Europe have achieved far more than in the United States, in many Third World countries lesbians and gays are organizing against ferocious opposition. All seek a far-reaching social transformation in order to secure for humankind the freedom to love without coercion.

ATC 50, May-June 1994