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Remember Stonewall was a riot

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The Stonewall Riots started a movement for gay liberation. Attacks on LGBT+ people show that five decades later we still need its militancy, argues Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2660
The Stonewall riot saw young people fighting back
The Stonewall riot saw young gay people fighting back against police repression (Pic: First Run Features)

Fifty years ago police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York in the small hours of 28 June 1969. The six nights of rioting that followed marked the birth of a militant ­movement for gay liberation.

But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the official 50th anniversary celebrations.

The street near the Stonewall Inn has been renamed “Acceptance Street”. The move was sponsored by MasterCard as part of its Acceptance Matters campaign, a marketing exercise designed to present the card provider as the LGBT+ friendly one.

The unveiling coincided with the launch of a scheme that will allow trans people to change the name on their debit card. MasterCard laid out how it would be a “force for change to help alleviate unnecessary pain points,” saying, “Our vision is that every card should be for everyone.”

The campaign hollows out the LGBT+ movement, ­rendering it merely a fight for equal legal and consumer rights.

That’s a far cry from the real events of Stonewall—and its militant message of liberation.

Before the riots, groups such as the US Homophile Movement and the Homosexual Law Reform Society in Britain had pushed for reforms.

But they largely restricted these to limited legal changes, making pleas for acceptance, and arguing that gay people should “assimilate” into society.

The new generation of gay rights activists wanted to tear out the roots of oppression and to change society.

The Gay Liberation Front (GLF), set up in the wake of the Stonewall Riots, talked of revolution and wanted to link the fight for gay rights to that for a better society. It provoked people by being openly gay—and emphasising “coming out” as a ­political act.


Martha Shelley, one of the GLF’s first members in the US, was scornful of liberals who talked of equality without addressing oppression. She wrote that their “friendly smile of acceptance is not enough”.

In Gay is Good, written in 1970, Shelley summed up the new mood of militancy. “Look out, straights,” she wrote. “Here comes the Gay Liberation Front, springing up like warts all over the bland face of Amerika.

“It’s causing shudders of indignation in the delicately balanced bowels of the movement.

“Here come the gays, ­marching with six-foot banners to Washington and ­embarrassing the liberals.

“We are shaking off the chains of self-hatred and marching on your citadels of repression.”

There wasn’t a settled view of where the citadels of repression lay, or what revolutionary change to get rid of them meant.

But many in the new generation rejected traditional gender roles and pointed to the nuclear family as a source of sexual oppression. The focus wasn’t on winning equal rights with straight people over marriage or the family.

Carl Wittman, a leading GLF member in New York, explained the aims in The Gay Manifesto in 1970. “Liberation for gay people is defining for ourselves how and with whom we live, instead of measuring our relationship in comparison to straight ones and straight values,” he wrote.

“We have to define for ­ourselves a new pluralistic, role-free social structure for ourselves.

“It must contain both the freedom and physical space for people to live alone, live together for a while, live together for a long time, either as couples or in larger numbers; and the ability to flow easily from one of these states to another as our needs change.”

The GLF wasn’t a pressure group, but a movement fighting to change society. Its name was a nod to the National Liberation Fronts in Algeria and Vietnam that fought against imperial oppression.

And many made common cause with the other movements against war and oppression that grew out of 1968.

In 1970 a GLF group was formed in Britain and was soon holding weekly meetings of up to 300 people in London.

It held impressive direct actions, including disrupting the “Festival of Light” organised by notorious Christian bigot and anti sex education celebrity Mary Whitehouse.

Activists swept into Westminster Central Hall, unfurled banners and kissed publicly in front of the bigots. Others, disguised as workers, made their way to the basement and unplugged the lights.

By 1972 the GLF had organised the first Pride in London, which saw 2,000 march in the face of police repression.

Unfortunately, while ­movements did win changes, the broader revolts of 1968 failed to break through and the establishment regained the initiative. This failure led to fragmentation and a retreat from liberation into pressure group politics.

The movement came “out of the closet and into the streets”—then back into academia and community charity organisations.

But one again we need the militancy and radicalism that the Stonewall Riots unleashed.

This was underlined after the beginning of LGBT+ Pride Month this year was marred by a series of attacks in the US and Britain. In Detroit, Michigan, Swastika-wearing fascists invaded the Pride march.

In the most high-profile case a group of teenagers attacked an LGBT+ couple, Melania Geymonat and Chris, on a night bus in London. They were left bloodied, with a broken nose and jaw.

There was an outpouring of anger from people who were shocked that such an attack had taken place. It put the spotlight on oppression as a daily reality for LGBT+ people.

Homophobes have been emboldened by the advance of Donald Trump and his like, and the far right across Europe. Many of them pose a real threat to LGBT+ rights.

The responses to the London attack also showed that there’s a battle over what LGBT+ ­liberation means.

How can we win sexual liberation?
How can we win sexual liberation?
  Read More

One of the first people to tweet their disgust was soon-to-be former Tory prime minister Theresa May. She said, “Nobody should ever have to hide who they are or who they love and we must work together to eradicate ­unacceptable violence towards the LGBT community.”

May had voted against almost every major piece of LGBT+ inclusive equality legislation during the 1990s and 2000s.

Her response shows how there’s more mainstream acceptance of people being openly gay—but exposes the limits of their tolerance.

LGBT+ people used to be sacked from public and private sector jobs if their sexuality was found out. Now there is more acceptance of people’s gender identities, which are celebrated on the boards of the City of London and top corporations.

When Pride in London takes place next Saturday, the cops won’t be hurling abuse and beating people up like during the first one in 1971. The Metropolitan Police will be marching near the front to celebrate the force’s diversity.

This is underpinned by the idea that equality can be achieved within capitalism. People are now far more accepting of diversity, but LGBT+ oppression still permeates society. That’s not because of a few reactionaries, or “pain points” yet to be alleviated by MasterCard. Oppression persists because it flows from capitalism.

Under capitalism the main institution regulating sexuality has been the nuclear family.

And bigots still place so much emphasis on “defending the family” because they think sex should be about procreation, not pleasure.

The form the family takes has changed. It’s become less rigid, and sex is no longer seen as ­belonging ­exclusively within a ­heterosexual marriage.

After years of opposing it, even some Tories accepted that LGBT+ people should have ­marriage rights in order to defend the institution, though more Tories voted against it than voted for.

But capitalism’s endless drive for profit turns everything into a commodity to be bought and sold. And that includes human beings’ sexuality—something that is intrinsic to us.

While sex is an important part of sexuality, socialists refer to a much wider range of intimate relationships.

So in capitalist society sexuality is alienated from us. Rather than something that is intrinsic to us, it’s presented as a product that can be bought and sold to satisfy an individual’s needs.

Instead of seeing other people as human beings, they’re treated as objects of desire. And the disciplines of capitalism make it difficult for people to have fulfilling relationships.

So capitalism steps in again to fill the void, and has adopted the language of diversity and liberation and repackaged it as a commodity.

The result is that sexuality is still narrow and confined.

Wittman wrote, “We know we are radical, in that we know the system that we’re under now is a direct source of oppression, and it’s not a question of getting our share of the pie. The pie is rotten.”

Reducing LGBT+ politics to “acceptance” leaves untouched capitalist society, which commodifies, represses and distorts people’s sexuality.

We need a movement that fights to free us from it.


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