Michael Bronski wasn’t at Stonewall and doesn’t mind admitting it, unlike many members of the gay and lesbian community of a certain age who, he says, insist they were. The joke is that if everyone who claims they took part in the famous 1969 uprising in lower Manhattan that catalyzed America’s gay-rights movement actually had been there, the crowd, Bronski says with a laugh, “would have filled Yankee Stadium.”
In truth, the crowd that day numbered about 200, at least at first. And they weren’t protesters but mostly patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a popular Greenwich Village gay bar. The trouble started when the police arrived in the wee hours of June 28 to raid the Mafia-run tavern on a trumped-up liquor-license charge. Officers started pushing customers and workers into police vehicles. But instead of dispersing as they had during past routine raids, those who hadn’t been grabbed began cheering those who had. The crowd of onlookers swelled as tourists and neighborhood residents stopped to investigate. Then, according to multiple accounts, a lesbian who was fighting attempts to haul her into a squad car cried out, “Why don’t you guys do something!” The air grew thick with chants — along with bottles and bricks. The officers barricaded themselves in the bar and radioed for back-up as a riot flared. More violent demonstrations shook the neighborhood in the following days.
Today, Bronski, a Harvard professor of the practice in media and activism in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, understands why so many claim to have been present at such a pivotal moment in the history of the gay rights movement.
“It really is like the shot heard around the world, or the hairpin drop heard round the world,” he said, a cheeky parody coined in Stonewall’s aftermath of the stanza from “Concord Hymn.” There had been previous riots in the U.S. involving gays and lesbians fed up with routine harassment, but Stonewall, erupting when it did amid protests over the Vietnam War and civil rights and gender equality, marked a decisive break from the more passive sexual-orientation politics of the day, said Bronski, who has written extensively on LGBTQ culture and history.
“It was really like direct action. It was like the radical feminists invading the Miss America contest, or the Black Panthers standing in front of Oakland City Hall with rifles,” he said, and it ran completely counter to the approach of groups such as the Mattachine Society, one of the nation’s earliest gay-rights organizations, that preferred to press for change through legal and political channels. Not long after the Stonewall raid, a message appeared on the boarded-up window of the bar, pleading for the return of “peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the village.” It was signed “Mattachine.”
“What’s so amazing is that they would never have thought of doing anything public like that before,” said Bronski. “So literally overnight, Mattachine is forced into making a public announcement with essentially graffiti.”
For Bronski, Stonewall represented a “shocking change of consciousness for the world.” And in its wake rose the Gay Liberation Front, a more radical version of the Mattachine Society unafraid to use confrontation to push reform.
But there were other organizations helping drive change. Harvard’s Evelynn Hammonds, chair of the Department of the History of Science, Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science, and professor of African and African American Studies, said that in the years after Stonewall the story of greater visibility for gay people in America was often seen through the lens of gay men. That perspective, she said, overlooks a key connection.
“At the time of what we now call the Stonewall Rebellion, what was also happening was the second wave of the women’s movement. And while there were lots of tensions in some women’s organizations between lesbians and straight women, there was also a great deal of unity, and people were coming together around a shared desire for greater equality for women and gay people,” said Hammonds.
A look at the history
Though their methods may not have been as radical, early so-called homophile organizations — including the Mattachine Society, Janus Society, and Daughters of Bilitis — set the stage for what followed, says Timothy Patrick McCarthy, a lecturer in public policy and core faculty at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
“The foundation for the movement that emerges in fuller form in the wake of Stonewall was laid in the decades before in public and private battles, in different organizations, and through the work of many people,” said McCarthy, whose book, “Stonewall’s Children: Living Queer History in an Age of Liberation, Loss, and Love,” will be published by The New Press next year.
Many such groups materialized during World War II and the post-war era in response to the military’s anti-homosexual policies and the paranoid frenzy of the Red Scare. McCarthy points to the “Lavender Scare,” a fear campaign that paralleled Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s investigations into what he considered widespread subversive forces at work in the federal government in the 1950s. While simultaneously trying to expose suspected communists, the Wisconsin senator also targeted suspected homosexuals, arguing that “deviant sexual behavior, like deviant political ideology, were things that made people more vulnerable to blackmailing,” said the Harvard scholar, who recently edited a special issue of The Nation examining Stonewall’s legacy.
McCarthy’s tactics initially garnered widespread support. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order in 1953 banning homosexuals from working for the federal government, citing security risk. Thousands lost their jobs because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation. Among them was the man many have called the “Father of the Gay Rights Movement,” Frank Kameny, who received his master’s and doctorate degrees in astronomy from Harvard in 1949 and 1956, respectively. After the Army Map Service fired him as an astronomer in 1957, Kameny unsuccessfully sued the federal government and later devoted his life to fighting for gay rights. Among his many achievements, Kameny, who died at the age of 86 in 2011, was known for founding the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., picketing the White House, contesting the American Psychiatric Association’s categorization of homosexuality as a mental defect, and coining the term “Gay is good.”