Stonewall: A revolutionary legacy


Look how far we’ve come! Pride is the time of great celebration in the gay community, and today everywhere we look we can see celebrations of LGBTQIA+ people and declarations of the universality of Love—from the storefronts of H&M, Gap, Nike, and Adidas, to the Facebook float and even the facades of some government buildings. Unfortunately, the reality for the LGBTQIA+ community is not as rosy as the advertisements would like us to believe.

The material conditions and civil rights for LGBTQIA+ people are being quickly degraded, revealing how precarious they were to begin with; 2021 was the deadliest year for transgender people yet on record, but that is surely only because, thanks to decades of activism, the record is just barely being kept. In 2022, more than 300 bills have been introduced in state and federal legislatures to restrict LGBTQIA+ rights.[1] The bitter truth is that the few rights, policy changes, and health-care resources LGBTQIA+ people have won in the last few decades, hard fought as they were, are minute compared to the money that’s been spent on catering to LGBTQIA+ people as consumers. Meanwhile, we face the same fundamental problems in our neighborhoods and workplaces as our queer forebears; the ever-present conditions of an exploitative society, the threat of violence if we should defy it, plus the usual impending dooms of nuclear armament and climate catastrophe.

If anyone knows about the struggle to live our fullest lives, it’s the LGBTQIA+ community. So, if we want to be the ones to do more than survive, to actually achieve gay liberation, let’s look backward into our rich history of struggle, and be specific about the kind of future we want for our people: a world where our self-expression and relationships are not temporarily won by a privileged few through luck and the selling of our labor, but permanent freedom and the healing of our planet through the abolition of the capitalist economic system.

A brief history of gay liberation and its cooptation

Since there have been human beings who could love, there has been homosexuality. Homosocial and homosexual relations are well documented in the history of geographies from East Asia to pre-colonial Latin America, North America, and the whole world in between.[2] Let’s fast forward to a time much closer to the present day:

The precursor to the gay liberation movement in the U.S. began where many movements do; where social privilege created space for expression. The year 1895 is as good a place to start as any. This is when Oscar Wilde, celebrity playwright famous in the U.S. and Europe, widely praised today for his social commentary and literary wit, entered into a legal battle with the father of his lover, an English nobleman, who publicly accused Wilde of sodomy. Baited, Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, a dangerous gambit that resulted in the Marquess counter-suing, and winning. Under an 1885 law written for the “Protection of Women and Girls” (sound familiar?[3]), Wilde was convicted of sodomy and punished with two years hard labor in an English prison. The terrible working and living conditions took a toll on his health, which resulted in his death a few years later. Wilde was not the first or last to be sent into the carceral system on the basis of being LGBTQIA+.

Throughout the 20th century, state and federal authorities in the U.S. have used a variety of laws to criminalize the LGBTQIA+ community, put LGBTQIA+ people into jail, and exclude them from employment, housing, and political organization. People outed as gay could legally be fired on the spot from any job.

The world has been wowed in recent days by stunning images from NASA’s new deep space telescope, controversially named after former NASA director James Webb, an open homophobe who was undersecretary of the State Department at the time. In what’s known today as the “Lavender Scare,” people like Webb oversaw the purging of thousands of suspected gays from government and public institutions. It’s no surprise that this fascistic policy was part of McCarthyism and the “Red Scare,” which associated homosexuality with communism. This association was in fact well deserved, as the Bolshevik Party in the Russian revolutionary period had more progressive gender politics than what nearly all so-called “first world” nations boast today. The period leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917 marked an increased organization of women and LGBTQIA+ people in the working-class movements. When the revolution succeeded in October 1917 and the slogan was “all power to the soviets!” (meaning, all governing power should go to the workers’ councils), immediately policies were made to eliminate the material basis of gender inequality and discrimination. Homosexuality was explicitly decriminalized, women’s rights to bodily autonomy (including access to free and safe abortion on demand) and civil rights (to marriage, divorce, equal pay, participation in all government positions) were made the word of law.

While people of more privileged economic and racial sectors of the working class were targeted through the Lavender Scare, neither were ordinary working-class people spared from the surveillance and criminalization of gender. Police could arrest anyone, anytime, for “cross-dressing” or displaying “homosexual behaviors,” and this was of course disproportionately enforced against poor Black and Brown LGBTQIA+ people and sex workers of all colors on the street or gathered in bars, one of the only places LGBTQIA+ people were able to come together in community and to share economic resources. Because of this tendency, the State Liquor Authority of New York did not allow homosexuals to be served, under threat of the revocation of the liquor license. This law, and other “morality” laws, were the pretext for police raids and incarceration of LGBTQIA+ people. At the infamous House of D, a women’s prison in Greenwich Village, tens of thousands of queer women, trans men, and gender non-conforming people were housed over the decades, along with famous Black liberation activists such as Angela Davis and Afeni Shakur. It was in this material context, and the midst of the rising Civil Rights movement and the second wave of the feminist movement, that gay liberation would be conceived.

In the 1950s, social organizations in Europe and the U.S. birthed the “homophile” movement. Some groups, such as the Janus Society, had the goal of assimilating cisgender lesbians and gays into the mainstream capitalist society by showing that gays were just as respectable as the straights. They required their members to wear “respectable” clothing, to not cause any trouble at their demonstrations, and to focus most activities on public education and outreach to other “homophiles.” Some of their contemporary organizations—like the Knights of the Clock, Daughters of Billitis, and the Mattachine Society—strived to build interracial connections between working-class people, and focused their activities on education, material social support, and class-based issues such as access to employment and housing. However, the strategy to slowly assimilate LGBTQIA+ people into straight society, like the corporate rainbow-washing of today, did not address the exploitation and inequality that is at the foundation of all capitalist societies.

The 1960s unrolled in an avalanche of social eruptions, driven by the political vision for systemic change. LGBTQIA+ rallies and picket lines burst out in many cities; some were spontaneous, like the protest of over 400 people that gathered in New York City in 1967 after a police raid on the Black Cat bar. Like many revolutionary or would-be revolutionary moments, the short-lived gay liberation movement began as a gut reaction to an ordinary indignity imposed by the state.

The Stonewall Inn was a regular gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York City, where people could go as they were for socializing, work, and the exchange of information. Like many gay-tolerant establishments, Stonewall was run by the New York Mafia. It was common knowledge that the Mob had a deal with the NYPD, who would often inform the Stonewall Inn ahead of time if an “anti-vice” raid was to happen. This deal ensured that the bar could empty the cash register and clear out liquor stores to avoid police extortion, while police were able to continue making their raids to enforce the McCarthyist morality regime of a straight, white, anti-communist America. According to patrons, most of the time the bartender would mention that a police raid was impending so that people could avoid incarceration in the infamous House of D or an even worse prison[4].

However, in the early morning of June 28, 1969, the police didn’t call ahead, and instead busted into the bar unannounced and began beatings, perverse and invasive “searches,” and ultimately arrests. In addition to being LGBTQIA+, many people in the bar were Black folks, Puerto Ricans, or other people of color. Over their lifetimes, they had experienced countless arrests, beatings, and sexual assaults by police. Enough was enough! As some trans-women were being dragged out in handcuffs, people began to resist the police. Over the next hour, dozens of people from the neighborhood turned out to support, to de-arrest the women in chains, and to drive the police out of the neighborhood. The exchange escalated into a full riotous protest, and over the course of several nights over a thousand people turned out on the streets to express the limits that had been reached in the gay community.

The rebellion catalyzed decades of political activism, which at various times had revolutionary elements, including organizations and leaders with openly communist politics, who connected gay liberation with Black liberation, feminism, and antiwar struggles. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two locally renowned trans women, formed Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970. STAR aspired to be a radical political collective that also provided housing and inter-generational support to other trans youth, and sought to organize the whole community through the same model of intergenerational houses. The STAR program made revolutionary demands such as health care and housing for all, and conceived gay liberation as a necessary part of liberation for all oppressed peoples.

Sadly, the history of the lives of Sylvia and Marsha paralleled the history of the gay liberation movement and many revolutionary movements of the time. STAR played an important role in direct actions for the decriminalization of homosexuality, and for transgender and poor people’s inclusion into the movement. But because these Black and Brown women advocated a political program that served the most marginalized sectors of the LGBTQIA+ community, a program that challenged the very economic foundations of capitalist society, they were not able to be assimilated into respectable, middle-class, cisgender society, as their conservative forebearers in the Janus Society had desired. In fact, over the course of the decade, the STAR activists were continuously marginalized in the movement through explicit exclusion and political critique by the dreaded TERFs (Trans Exclusionary “Radical” Feminists), who put forward the same arguments of biological determinism used by the right wing to marginalize all women.

Any time the slavemaster, the boss, or the state cannot outrightly repress a rebellion, their next move is to co-opt it, to support its most moderate elements while diluting the radical ones as much as possible to prevent an overthrow of the ruling class. While STAR activists were spending time advocating for the homeless, other parts of the the mainstream LGBTQIA+ movement focused on lobbying for legislation to protect cis-gender gays in the workplace. The latter is, of course, an important initiative, but it came at the expense of the former. By 1973, STAR was inactive, and the TERFs running the Christopher Street Liberation Day parade tried to prevent Sylvia Rivera and fellow queen Lee Brewster from speaking, even though Brewster was an essential organizer to the first Pride parade only a few years before.

Anti-discrimination laws loosely protecting homosexuals (though not transgender people) were passed in various states over the coming decades. With the unfolding of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the ongoing issue of lack of health-care access for LGBTQIA+ people became explosive, and from this need the anarchistic democratic Act-Up direct action groups emerged. While it’s difficult to pinpoint the legacy of the organization, over the decade Act-Up distributed thousands of educational pamphlets on HIV/AIDS, staged hundreds of die-ins and other high profile actions at key political targets, passed out thousands of condoms and safer-sex packets, and no-doubt influenced local and national politics regarding HIV/AIDS and the LGBTQIA+ community in general. Thanks to Act-Up and the humanity of many medical scientists, it’s totally possible to live with HIV for decades with treatment, and to prevent HIV transmission through the Prep medication. However, due to the exploitative nature of the private health-care system, access to Prep and HIV treatments is severely segregated by race and class.

Gayxploitation today

Today, the militant and organized LGBTQIA+ movement is virtually nonexistent in the United States. That’s not to say that these decades of struggle were fruitless or did not have any victories. Being gay is no longer considered a disease, according to the DSM-5, updated in 2013 to remove the last enduring gay disorder, “distress over one’s In homosexuality” (transgenderism is still in the DSM through the same definition, distress over misgendering). In 2015, through various court rulings, same-sex marriage was allowed in all U.S. states and counties, and federal civil rights legislations like Title IX provide some protection from discrimination for students at public institutions. And today, there are some liberal but pro-capitalist organizations (that is to say, they are not grassroots or rank-and-file but funded through foundations), such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Campaign (HRC), who make their business tracking anti-gay legislation, providing some legal aid to marginalized communities, and at least claiming to mobilize the community when particularly egregious anti-LGBTQIA+ events occur. According to their own financial report, HRC spends most of its funds lobbying or making social media posts[5], their definition of mobilization.

Just as the arc of the STAR activists predicted, over these decades, transgender people, especially transgender women of color, have faced increased vulnerability to violence. In 1992, Marsha P. Johnson, founder of STAR and continuously active with Act-Up, was murdered. Her homicide was covered up by police as a suicide. According to FBI statistics, hate crimes against trans people increased 589% between 2013-2019; 2021 was the deadliest year for trans people on record, with 45 documented murders, with thousands more assaults and murders going unreported by police. In a survey of almost 16,000 police districts, 89% reported that no hate crimes occurred in their jurisdiction, and the same study found across the board that police refused to document victims’ status as LGBTQIA+ people.[6]

Corporations, on the other hand, are happy to use LGBTQIA+ positive words and images for the sake of winning consumer power, or for winning a few more gay and non-white employees to their elite ranks. In 2003, companies were spending an estimated $8 billion on diversity efforts. In 2009, 63% of “diversity hires” in elite companies were hired within the last three years, and “diversity hires” only increased further under the Trump presidency.[7] Global spending on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is expected to exceed $15.4 billion by 2026.[8] This shows that in the midst of a right-wing political climate, corporations are making a concerted effort to expand their workforce base to include some token gender and racial minorities. This is not because corporations genuinely care about “closing the gap” of material inequity between cisgender straight white people and queer people of color. They do this because they want to harvest the quality work and creative talents of LGBTQIA+ people, and they want their products to be sellable to a broad consumer base that includes LGBTQIA+ people.

Meanwhile, the few civil rights we have been granted are feeling shaky under our feet. What seemed like a bastion of civil rights and gender equality, Roe v. Wade, was overturned. This decision sets direct legal precedent for the overturning of LGBTQIA+ civil rights at the state and federal level. The precarity of these wins, and the starkness of the violence that trans people go on facing outright or through health disparities, demonstrates the serious limitations of electoral and state mediated solutions to oppression. Throughout these decades, the vast majority of the LGBTQIA+ working class did not see many material improvements to our lives through the rainbow-washing of corporations, and in fact, income inequality and health-care costs are at an all time high in the U.S.

History should outline for us several important lessons:

1) The changes we have seen at the legislative level and our survival through ongoing public health crises are due wholly to the active rebellion of LGBTQIA+ people, through direct action, marches, riots, and protests, and political organization with specific political targets. These minor legislative changes requiring tolerance of LGBTQIA+ people were ruling-class attempts to sideline the most fundamental demands of the movement; material equality and an end to police and incarceration.

2) These changes are precarious at best, and have always excluded the most economically and socially marginalized sectors of the LGBTQIA+ community through the joint oppressions of racism and classism.

3) The killing of the gay liberation movement happened alongside the killing of the Black Panther Party through COINTELPRO, the killing of the labor movement through the bureaucratization of the unions and the purging of communists under McCarthyism, and the channeling of the militant feminist movement into a legislative outcome, Roe v. Wade, which has been a bulwark of abortion rights, but nonetheless a bulwark that because of its precarity has been easily and suddenly overturned. We should take a hint from the radical programs of these movements that the state worked hard to silence and erase. Gay liberation means quality housing for all people, free public education for all people, abolition of the prison industrial complex including police, an end to war at home and abroad, and above all, the end of the economic system that necessitates this ongoing violence—capitalism.

Rebuilding the LGBTQIA+ movement today

We shouldn’t consider the last decades a waste for LGBTQIA+ people. Our only regret should be in the loss of thousands of beautiful, beloved souls from our community through violence, incarceration, preventable disease, and suicide. To honor them, and to free our children, we should learn and keep going. When the anti-oppression movements of the Civil Rights era were divided by race and class, they were easily channeled into “single issues” that were quickly co-opted by the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, the organized labor and poor people’s movement that took these struggles to our workplaces was defanged.

We need an LGBTQIA+ movement that starts in our working-class organizations and wages the struggle in the workplace and in the streets. We need an LGBTQIA+ movement that doesn’t allow itself to be divided from the contemporary Black liberation and prison abolition movements. Black Lives Matter was meant to include LGBTQIA+ Black people, and LGBTQIA+ struggle has its origins in the Black and Latinx communities.

Likewise, so-called Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists or TERFs, need to be understood not as radical or feminists, but conservatives who use biological essentialism to regress and divide both the women’s and LGBTQIA+ movements. There should be no room for right-wing arguments in these movements, and trans-exclusion and the gender binary must be struggled against in every social, political, and cultural sphere.

Ultimately, all of our anti-oppression struggles must unite behind a working-class people’s program for liberation. We cannot rely on the Democratic Party, which masquerades as the “friend” of oppressed people in this country, but really represents a wing of the capitalist class. Only revolutionary leadership and organization will allow us to avoid these pitfalls, and transform moments of uprising like the Stonewall Rebellion or Black Lives Matter 2020 into sustained, interconnected mass-action movements that can pose a real challenge to the capitalist system.

Photo: March in London on July 6, 1996. (Getty Images)









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