How 1969 Changed America: The Stonewall Riots

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Editors’ note: 

In this occasional series we’ll look at some of the historical trends and events that occurred in America 50 years ago and consider how they still affect us today.

The Event: The Stonewall riots in New York City on June 28 and 29, 1969.

Why It Matters: The Stonewall riots helped launch the social and political movement known as “gay liberation.”

What Happened: In 1967, three members of the Genovese crime family opened a bar at the Stonewall Inn located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Within two years it would become the largest gay establishment in the United States, catering to drag queens, transgender people, male prostitutes, and homeless male teens.

The bar violated many city laws, such as operating without a liquor license and lacking fire exits. Bartenders did not have access to running water behind the bar, and served drinks in dirty, used glasses (patrons blamed an outbreak of hepatitis on the bar’s unhygienic conditions). The bar was only able to stay open because the mafia-connected owners reportedly bribed police with around $1,200 a month to turn a blind eye to the goings on at the establishment.

Raids on such illegal taverns by the police were common at the time, and gay bars could be expected to be raided about once a month. Despite the alleged payoffs, though, the bartenders at the Stonewall Inn were unaware of the raid on June 28. When six police officers attempted to close the bar at 1:20 a.m., the 200 patrons resisted. When he crowd outside grew to 500 and escalated to violence, the police officers barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn. The rioters threw rocks and bricks and attempted to burn down the building with the police inside.

The Tactical Patrol Force of the New York City Police Department arrived an hour later and by 4 a.m. had managed to quell the riot. Two nights later, though, rioting broke out again with protestors becoming even more violent. Hundreds of police clashed with a thousand rioters until the early hours of Sunday morning.

What It Means Today: A mafia-owned bar where homeless teens were plied with drinks and taken advantage of by predatory men and made famous for violent attacks and attempted murder of police may seem to be an unlikely location for a U.S. National Monument. But in 2016 President Obama added the illegal bar alongside the Statue of Liberty and Booker T. Washington’s birthplace on the short list of national monuments.

Three years earlier, in his second inaugural address, President Obama had mentioned “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall”—equating the starting point for the so-called gay liberation movement with women’s suffrage and civil rights for African Americans.

“Out of the Stonewall riots of 1969—a violent anti-police action that in its memorialization has been largely defanged—the Gay Liberation Movement formed,” Harvard professor Michael Bronski wrote in Boston Review. “Gay Liberation saw itself as a vanguard of the New Left. Central to its politics was the battle against gender and sexual oppression as well as racism, capitalism, and imperialism.”

While the gay liberation movement adopted many of the radical ideas of the 1970s, these activists were particularly enamored with eliminating the institutions related to the traditional family, such as a marriage and child rearing. In 1972 members of Boston’s Gay Men’s Liberation handed out a ten-point list of demands at the Democratic National Convention. Item number six on their list was:

Rearing children should be the common responsibility of the whole community. Any legal rights parents have over “their” children should be dissolved and each child should be free to choose its own destiny. Free twenty-four hour childcare centers should be established where fa*****s and lesbians can share the responsibility of child rearing.

In another article for Boston Review, Bronski points out that gay liberationists theorized that “sexual repressions and lack of sexual knowledge were far more dangerous than same-sex activity for youth.” In “The Gay Manifesto,” published a month before the Stonewall riots, Carl Wittman wrote:

A note on the exploitation of children: kids can take care of themselves, and are sexual beings way earlier than we’d like to admit. Those of us who began cruising in early adolescence know this, and we were doing the cruising, not being debauched by dirty old men. . . . And as for child molesting, the overwhelming amount is done by straight guys to little girls: it is not particularly a gay problem, and is caused by the frustrations resulting from anti-sex puritanism.

As Bronski adds,

Testaments from gay adults that they had had queer sexual desires as kids was a new development in the public conversation about homosexuality and a bold political strategy. Indeed, the naming of the existence of gay teens and children—in the context of an emerging children’s liberation movement—had an immediate effect on political organizing. Soon after the Stonewall riots, as Gay Liberation groups spread across the country, queer youth began to organize. In The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: ‘An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail’ (2008), Stephan L. Cohen documents at least thirty U.S.-based groups formed, and run, by LGBT youth during the decade.

More radical theorists felt that once one accepted the idea that the bourgeois family suppresses children’s sexuality, the logical next step was to demand both an end to the nuclear family and the involvement of gay men and lesbians in the raising of children.

While the gay liberation movement may have gone too far in some places, Bronksi admits, their vision is coming to fruition today:

Amazing numbers of young people are coming out earlier and earlier. Discussions of queer youth sexuality—and gender roles—are increasingly sophisticated and vibrant. In ways that Gay Liberation began to imagine in 1972, the kids are all right; they are taking care of themselves.

At Stonewall, teens were allowed to mix with drag queens. Today, teens—and pre-teens—are allowed to become drag queens. The trend has become so mainstream that NBC News wrote a story last October titled, “’Drag kids’ are slaying the runway—one ‘fierce’ look at a time.” The subhead on the story read, “Drag has historically been part of a nightlife subculture, but its move into the mainstream has cultivated a nontraditional crop of performers.” ABC’s Good Morning America also had a story on an “11-year-old trailblazing drag kid.” In libraries across the country, gay men in drag read to young children. As The New York Times reported earlier this month, “Drag Queen Story Hour Continues Its Reign at Libraries, Despite Backlash.”

Not surprisingly in such a culture, transgenderism has become more popular with children and teens. A study published last year in the medical journal Pediatrics found that many more teens than previously thought say they are transgender or identify themselves using other nontraditional gender terms. The study estimates that nearly 3 percent of teens are transgender or gender nonconforming, meaning they don’t always self-identify as the sex they were assigned at birth. That includes kids who refer to themselves using neutral pronouns like “them” instead of “he” or “she.” As I wrote last year, if these new estimates are correct, it means that young people are 329 percent more likely than adults to identify as transgender, and that there are almost as many transgender teens as there are adult men and women who identify as gay and lesbian.

The effects of Stonewall are still being felt today—and our children are paying the highest price. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can attempt to reach young people with the truth.

“Because our biological sex doesn’t lie, and because our minds are susceptible to confusion, repentance and sanctification for the dysphoric individual involves the long work of bringing their perceived gender identity back into conformity with their biological sex,” Andrew Walker says. “A person may never fully arrive at peace, but putting on the new self, remade in Jesus Christ, means embracing and trusting God’s authority over every facet of our existence (Col. 3:1–11).”

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