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Significance and achievements of the stonewall riots

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3728 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Figure The Stonewall Inn in September 1969 (Wikipedia 2010)Post World War II America served homosexuals with a triple condemnation; they were sinners, criminals, and mentally ill. Thus America presented a bleak, if not grim life for the homosexual (Carter, 2004; Gittings, 199). Civil laws that criminalized sodomy permitted bars in New York to deny services to gays, lesbians, blacks, and transvestites (LGBT). Most establishments relied on Subsection 6 of Section 106 of the New York State Penal Code which barred premises from becoming “disorderly”. Many, including the courts, regarded gay patrons as being disorderly (Johnson, 2010). According to Johnson, even in bars that attended to homosexuals, touching each other while dancing was disallowed as Section 772, Subsection 8 of the Penal code criminalised the “solicitation of men for the purpose of committing a crime against nature”. Here, homosexuality was considered to be unnatural.

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Thus, law enforcement officers monitored the few places homosexuals could socialise and raids on gay bars were frequent in New York and many other cities (Armstrong & Crage, 2006; Carter, 2004). However, the New York police raid on the Stonewall Inn in the early hours of the 28th of June 1969 was different. This time, gay and lesbian customers fought back instead of submissively tolerating the oppressive and humiliating treatment (Armstrong & Crage, 2006). Tolerance to these sustained harassment and arrests had severely waned.

The resulting altercations soon led to violence that witnessed the throwing of bottles, stilettos, bricks, coins, and other movable objects (D’Emilio, 1998; Johnson, 2010). According to D’Emilio, as word spread around the neighbourhood concerning the situation, other homosexuals and transvestites joined the uprising and it soon developed into a riot involving over 400 policemen and a crowd of more than 2,000 protesters. The riots lasted for six days (Johnson, 2010). Many consider this event to be the turning point in the history of homosexual oppression and fight for emancipation.

However, some argue that the Stonewall riots did not mark the beginning of gay liberation. According to Armstrong & Crage (2006), the Stonewall riots were not the first time that gays fought back against the police; nor were the police raids on the Inn the first to result in political awareness. Other such occasions however failed to produce the mythical significance and stature of the Stonewall riots (Armstrong & Crage, 2006).

This essay aims to consider the significance and achievements of the stonewall riots relative to the gay community in order to determine if the legendary Stonewall riots were anything more but a nine day wonder.

Before the Stonewall Riots

A review of the gay legislative environment in the United States, especially New York in the 1950s and 1960s provides a model for grasping the forces in play in both the local gay political population and the chronicle of gay political organizations in New York. The 1960s was an era of rapid political and social change. Sadly for gay people, it was the most legally oppressive in the history of America (Carter, 2004) .

Due to the legacy inherited from 16th and 17th century English Christian Protestants with strict religious disciplines, homosexuals and lesbians have customarily been mistreated by the American legislative system (Carter, 2004; Rubin, 1984). The military did not provide a safe haven for homosexuals either. Homosexuality was evaluated to be a mental “illness” and was thus a disqualifying criterion for service. Sexual activities between same-sex were grounds for dismissal from the military (Jennings, 1994).Tougher new policies were introduced by the Defence Department to exclude gay men and women from military service with many receiving “blue discharges” which were less than honourable (Carter, 2004).

The late 1940s and early 1950s were made worse for homosexuals by the influence of Senator Joseph McCarthy. With the “Cold War” presenting a “Communist threat”, he proposed that subversive elements working within the government of United States were giving out U.S secretes and sabotaging the nation (Jennings, 1994). According to Jennings, homosexuals were branded as communists, added to the list of subversives and perceived as security risks to the nation. After the testimony of Lt. Roy Blick of the Washington, D.C. vice squad to the senate that over 5000 gay people were in the employment of the government, the Senate ordered a subcommittee to carry out an inquiry (Carter, 2004; Jennings, 1994).

The report released by the subcommittee argued that homosexuals were naturally treacherous and that they lacked the emotional stability of “normal people” (Carter, 2004; Jennings, 1994). According to Carter, the committee recommended that civilian agencies adopt the model of the Defence Department in purging out homosexuals. Carter further explains that the Civil Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) acted on this recommendation by instigating an aggressive crusade to fish out homosexuals. The Civil Service Commissioner requested that all moral arrests by the police departments be reported to the FBI, while the FBI in turn compared reported cases with a list of government employees, checked fingerprints of job applicants against FBI’s records of fingerprints, and reported back to the Civil Service Commission (Carter, 2004; Chandler, 2006)

Prior to this enquiry, the average gay dismissal rate per month in the civil service was five. After the inquiry had begun, this figure rose above sixty (Chandler, 2006). In1953, President Eisenhower approved Executive Order 10450 making “sexual perversion” a legal basis for both barring government employment of gay people as well as their dismissal (Carter, 2004; Jennings, 1994). While this was happening, the established Puritan culture generated frenzy about paedophilia, making homosexuals the scapegoats (Carter, 2004). In California loitering in the toilet became a crime and anyone convicted of staying too long in the toilet was consequently registered with the state and their names published in newspapers and other public records. New sexual psychopath laws were introduced or revised in many states with powers to refuse or withdraw professional licenses of gay people (Carter, 2004; Wolf, 2009).

Penalties for adult consensual homosexual sex, even if done in private, ranged from a light fine to a life jail term (Wolf, 2009). In California and Pennsylvania, homosexuals could be detained in psychiatric institutions for the rest of their lives, while castration was employed as a punitive measure in some states (Carter, 2004; Wolf, 2009). A law enacted in 1941 became the legal basis for the use of pharmacological and electrical shock therapies as well as lobotomy for the treatment of convicted homosexuals. These laws kept most gay men and women strenuously bound to the limits imposed on them by society (Carter, 2004).

Thus the police monitored with eagle eyes, the limited places gays could socialize. Benches in parks were electronically bugged by law enforcement agents while eye-holes and two-way mirrors were employed in public toilets to spy on gays (Carter, 2004). Homosexuals did not find respite in religious institutions but instead received a universal moral reproach. According to Carter, gays lived uneasy, fearful and spiritually asphyxiated lives.

Early Resistance

Gay people and transvestites have on occasion offered some resistance to legal and social establishments that oppressed them. However, the first sustainable political resistance against gay oppression came from the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 by some gay men influenced by the politics of change (Cater, 2004; Matzner, 2004). This registered the beginning of the homophile movement. Their plan was to unify isolated homosexuals, educate them so as to build an “ethical homosexual culture” similar to other minorities, and then engage in political action for liberation (Carter, 2004). The aim was to show that homosexuals posed no threat to the society and were upright members of the society who differed only in their sexual orientation (Matzner, 2004).

Lesbians also started their own organizations called the Daughters of Bilitis. Their aim was to provide discussion groups and social meetings in order to meet the needs of lesbians. They published a monthly magazine called the Ladder (D’Emilio, 1998; Gallo, 2005). The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis adopted a conservative rather than a militant approach in their quest for social change. They tried to gain acceptability by lobbying politically for social change. Their most aggressive protests employed orderly and polite picketing to avoid any arrests (Matzner, 2004).

Stonewall Riots – Its significance

Figure The “Street Kids” were the first to fight the police (Wikipedia 2010) The late 1960’s was characterized by social turmoil which included the civil rights movement, abortion rights, peace movement, women’s Liberation, the student movement, and the general opposition to Vietnam arising from the political controversy about the assassinations of the Kennedys (Edwards, 1994; Oppenheimer, 1996). This already charged atmosphere may have inspired a lot of questions being asked by most gay people – why do we have to tolerate this oppression and harassment? For how long are we going to let this go on?A black and white photograph showing the backs of three uniformed police officers and a man with short-cropped hair in a suit pushing back a crowd of young men with longer hair dressed in jeans and contemporary clothing for the late 1960s, arguing and defying the police; other people in the background on a stoop are watching

The questions were answered on the night of the Stonewall riots when homosexuals fought back. It started with a collective expression of anger, followed by an angry reaction to the raids that spontaneously resulted in the riots. This then produced a collective affirmation and demonstration of gay pride. At that moment, homosexual men and women found unity and strength in numbers and realised that they all had been waiting for such a moment. They shared the same frustrations, fears and hope and spirit was contagious. This was no longer just a battle against oppression; it was also a battle for the dignity of who they were. One thing became certain, they were never going back. The closet had been set on fire and a political consciousness was unleashed.

For many homosexuals, that day changed homosexuality from a thing of stigma to one of pride, from living in the closet to coming out, form being passive to being active, from being timid to being bold, from being alone to being together, from being mute to having a voice, and from a place of weakness to a place of strength. The events of that day provided the foundation on which homosexuals could build their struggle for freedom on. It became more than just a riot; certainly more than a nine day wonder; it became a revolution.

After the Stonewall Riots

The Gay Liberation Front (GLF)

The Stonewall riots triggered a grass-root quest for liberation among gay people throughout America. It raised the political awareness of many gay individuals and inspired dormant gays to actively participate in the effort to stop homosexual oppression. Within a month after the riots, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed and swept through all major cities and state in North America (Edwards, 1994). A notable difference between the Mattachine Society and post Stonewall liberation movements was the affirmation of self-worth, the legitimacy of being oneself whether in the public or in private. Gay people now publicly yelled out “Gay is good”, “Gay is love”, “Gay is proud”. Consequently the word “gay” became an assertion used to project a positive self image distinct from the medical and pathological stereotype of homosexuals (Edwards, 1994).

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GLF was a gigantic leap forward. The group began organizing militant protests, putting on gay dances, and presenting themselves publicly in a manner that emphasized being “out of the closet”. The language employed by GLF in its coming out proclamation was very militant and revolutionary. It was also a castigation on earlier reform groups or movements that only tried to obtain equal rights for gays and lesbians instead of changing the entire society. Soon the organization launched its own gay newspaper “Come Out” (Carter, 2004). According to Carter, such became the political awareness that challenging and uncomfortable questions about gay oppression were posed openly at politicians during political rallies with the result that the GLF drew allies from the largely heterosexual audiences and subsequently from news networks.

However, the movement was not just about external political changes but also about personal liberation. Stonewall had helped gays and lesbians realise that their political lives was related to their sexual lives Even with these successes, internal problems soon split the organisation.

The Gay Activist Alliance (GAA)

The split produced the Gay Activist Alliance who now demanded the freedom to express their dignity and self-worth as human beings by means of confrontation and disarmament of all mediums of repression, whether economic, social, or political (Carter, 2004). GAA confronted every organization that expressed anti-gay sentiments. They employed new tactics in political protests by merging militancy, gay sensibility, and guerrilla theatre in the form of camp, thus promoting significant media coverage that brought permanent political attention to the issue of gay and lesbian rights (Carter, 2004). According to Carter, the homosexual community became organized into a voting bloc that exerted severe pressure on politicians to publicly stand out for change regarding oppressive homosexual laws.

The spirit of the Stonewall riots was again demonstrated on the 7th of March 1970 when policemen raided the Snake Pit gay bar and arrested 163 customers including a Spanish speaking man called Vinales. In fear of being deported, Vinales jumped through a top floor window and got impaled on six fourteen-inch-long spikes of the fence below (Carter, 2004). The remaining arrested customers from Snake Pit bar were those who had already witnessed and experienced the dawning of the new militant spirit within the gay community. Their angry reaction started a protest the next day as 500 protesters gathered outside Christopher Park, the site of the Stonewall riots. Significantly these protesters were made up of people from the GLF, GAA, Homophile Youth Movement in Neighbourhood, Homosexual Intransigent (recently formed gay organization), and many gay people not affiliated to any organization, heterosexuals, Yippies, members of a women’s liberation group, and Reverend Robert O. Week of the Church of the Holy Apostles (Carter, 2004).

According to Carter, this time, the police raid on Snake Pit received a fair amount of media coverage compared to the Stonewall riots – a direct result of the way the Stonewall riots had politically transformed the gay community.

International Impact

After the Stonewall riots, the next few years witnessed the absorption of the gay liberation movement in Latin America and mainly in other western countries. In London, the GLF germinated in the autumn of 1970, the Front Homosexuel d’Action Revolutionnaire (FHAR) sprouted in France in 1971, within Argentina sprang the Frente de Liberacion Homosexual, and in Italy, the FUORI was formed. Germany, Belgium, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Holland were soon populated with similar organizations (Weeks, 1977; Green, 1994). Significantly, they all drew their motivation and rhetoric from gay liberation organizations that were formed in America in the wake of the Stonewall riots. In these countries, the identity as well as the attitude of the society towards homosexuals significantly changed.


Post-Stonewall period of gay activism galvanized large numbers of homosexuals in their own liberation effort. By 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness (D’Emilio, 1998; After Stonewall, 2010). According to D’Emilio, the 1970s also witnessed the repeal of sodomy laws by more than half of the states that had them, the ban on homosexual employment was lifted by the Civil Service Commission, dozens of counties enacted anti-discriminatory statutes, and gay activists began holding discussions with the government concerning oppressive laws. In 1974, Elaine Noble became the first openly gay person to become a state representative after running for and winning a seat in the Massachusetts’ State Legislature. In 1977, Harvey Milk, an openly gay man, was elected City Supervisor in San Francisco and was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance for the city (After Stonewall, 2010). By 1980, there was a gay rights display board included on the Democratic Party platform (D’Emilio, 1998).

Such was the recognition of gay rights and freedom that in 1982, the first ever gay games was held in San Francisco (After Stonewall, 2010). The emphasis placed on coming out by gay liberation movements also encouraged homosexuals to campaign within their professions, communities, and institutions (D’Emilio, 1998), whether entertainment, academic, religious, sports, or other institutions. According to D’Emilio, military and police officers openly proclaimed their sexuality and defended their right to remain in service. Homosexual professionals formed caucuses within their professions to strengthen their peers and challenge discrimination. Reporters and journalists that were openly gay utilised their perspectives as insiders to cover news related to gay matters (D’Emilio, 1998).

The post-Stonewall era redefined the gay identity. Pressure from gay activist movements turned harassment from the police into a departure from the normal rather than the normal in many states of America (D’Emilio, 1998). This led to a proliferation of gay bars in many states. The gay subculture flourished to the extent that even when the gay community was devastated by AIDS in the 1980s and health institutions were unwilling to attend to homosexuals, gay doctors rose to the challenge by forming AIDS practices. Gay organizations like ACT UP sprang up to provide information on AIDS, money for rent, and deliver food needed by AIDS victims (After Stonewall, 2010).

Emphasis placed on gay pride by the liberation movement resulted in the creation of many community institutions. Gay men and women started their own churches, medical services, social venues, professional affiliations, guidance services, and nonprofessional sports league (D’Emilio, 1998). Gay business pioneers established record firms, publishing companies, travel agencies, fashion houses, and holiday resorts. Theatre houses, news papers, journal articles, magazines, and many movie films expressed gay culture and gay subculture expanded beyond being erotic to include a plethora of public and private activities (D’Emilio, 1998).

The National Book Award, the Grammy Award, and the Academy Award for Motion Pictures have been won by openly gay and lesbian people. In some countries like Denmark and Norway, marriages between gay people are legally recognised and in Canada homosexuals can seek political asylum from homophobia (Jennings, 1994). On the 28th of June 1970, the first gay pride parade was held in New York City to commemorate Christopher Street Liberation Day. Today, the month of June is generally regarded as the Month of Gay Pride and parades are held annually in many cities and countries around the world (Johnson, 2010)


Prior to the Stonewall riots, homosexual men and women were thrice condemned. They were cast out as sinners, criminals and sick people. The American legislation confined them to the boundaries set for them by the society. Punishment for sodomy even if consensual and done in private, ranged from a simple fine to live in prison. Castration, pharmacological and shock therapy, as well as lobotomy were sometimes employed as treatment and/or punitive measures. Law enforcement agents monitored the few places homosexuals and lesbians could socialise and many lost their jobs or found none because of their sexuality. If not bleak, life was certainly grim for homosexuals in America.

The Stonewall riots significantly changed that forever. Although there had been earlier resistances and protests against gay oppression and gay bar raids by the police, none produced the wide spread political awareness and sense of self worth that resulted in gay pride, struggle and extent of liberation that was produced by the Stonewall riots. The riots significantly and permanently altered the quality of the homosexual life. It encouraged many gay people of openly declare their sexuality and adopt a radical approach in their struggle for liberation thus enabling the gay subculture to flourish through strength and unity in numbers. Thus many community institutions were created. This was not restricted to America but also spread around the world.

Many oppressive laws have been repealed and many homosexuals have now achieved national and international recognition for their professional works and many have pioneered reputable business establishments. Homosexuality to a great extent is no longer thrice condemned and gay pride parades are held annually in many cities around the world. These achievements brought about by the foundations laid by the Stonewall riots have ensured that the riots were certainly more than a nine day wonder.


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