This week we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots – three days of revolt led by gay men, lesbians and transvestites, which led to the founding of the gay liberation movement.
The riot began on a hot June night after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, an underground bar in New York. The police intended to bully and harass. Instead they were driven from the area. A struggle that would inspire millions had begun.
Wider political events shaped the struggle. The chant “Gay Power” echoed the “Black Power” slogan of black people fighting racism.
When the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) formed several weeks later it named itself after the National Liberation Front—the Vietnamese resistance group fighting the US. The GLF called for revolution.
Sit-ins were organised at establishments that refused to serve gay people, the offices of homophobic newspapers were occupied, bigoted politicians were hounded and protests met police raids on gay bars.
This new movement marked a radical departure from the defensive approach that had previously dominated gay organisations.
It brought a new consciousness to millions of gay people around the world who had lived with fear and humiliation. This, along with the seismic shift in public opinion towards homosexuality, is the gay liberation movement’s legacy.
However the GLF’s dream of a revolution that would bring an end to oppression went unrealised. So what happened?
Just as the movements for workers’ rights, civil rights and national liberation had led to an explosive optimism, their retreat hit the fight for gay rights.
Divisions inside the movement began to matter a great deal. When the GLF talked about revolution, for some it meant the overthrow of capitalism while for others it was about challenging the “straight society”.
Different strategies were followed. In the US a group split away from the GLF to focus more on “gay issues”, in opposition to the GLF’s support for the Black Panthers.
In Britain, some groups supported workers fighting back while others put their energies into living alternative lifestyles.
Unfortunately those who understood the power of bringing the gay and working class struggles together did not have a big influence in the movement.
In part, this was because the socialist tradition of sexual liberation had been distorted by Stalinism. Not all of the left gave their backing to the fight for liberation.
The solidarity that initially drove the movement forward gave way to fragmentation. The idea that only those experiencing oppression can fight became common sense. This led to divisions along ever narrower lines—lesbians separated from gay men, bisexuals were shunned and “straights” were seen as the problem.
As the horizon of what was possible seemed to narrow, many activists settled for the shelter of slow reforms by joining the Labour and Democratic parties.
The very success of the gay movement was exploited by big businesses leading to the commercialised “gay scene”.
The movement that was born in the Stonewall Riots had come up against the limits of change within the capitalist system.
Today we enjoy the gains won by the struggles, but we also suffer from their failure to achieve the dream of liberation.
The GLF had warned that without revolution “reforms we might painfully extract from our rulers would only be fragile and vulnerable”. These words still ring true today.
We can learn much from a radical movement that wanted to change the world. This time round, we need to link the struggle for sexual liberation to that for a socialist revolution that will liberate all humanity.