Tuesday, May 31, 2016

People Taking Charge: The Stonewall Riots


"It takes no compromise to give people their rights, it takes no money to respect the individual, it takes no political deal to give people their freedom, and it takes no survey to remove repression." - Harvey Milk

"From the time I was a kid, I have never been able to understand attacks upon the gay community. There are so many qualities that make up a human being that by the time I get through with all the things that I really admire about people, what they do with their private parts is probably so low on the list that it is irrelevant." - Paul Newman


         The Stonewall Riots were a series of unplanned protests and violent outbursts by citizens of New York City's gay community. The anger and frustration clearly visible in the riots were justifiably directed at the New York City Police Department. More specifically against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of mid Manhattan. This is, by far, is considered to be the watershed event that gave rise to the modern gay rights movement. Technically speaking, the police had a solid legal justification for raiding the bar. The bar was a well known Mafia establishment, which was serving liquor without a license, running an illegal gambling racket, and hosting a prostitution ring. Despite this, and with good reason, New York’s gay community had grown weary of the police department targeting gay clubs. New York City had very strict anti-gay laws, and as a result, a majority of the gay clubs prior this event had already been raided and closed. As soon as the police arrived, a crowd began to form outside the club. The crowd watched quietly as Stonewall’s employees were arrested, but when the police started forcing customers into a paddy wagon, the crowd began throwing bottles at the them. The officers were forced to take shelter inside the establishment, and two policemen were slightly injured before reinforcements arrived to disperse the crowd. The crowd, however, would not be dispersed, and the spontaneous protest spilled over into the neighboring streets. It was so raucous, in fact that order was not restored until the deployment of New York City's riot police. The riot was followed by several days of demonstrations all over the city. This incident was also the impetus for the formation of gay civil rights organizations like the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists Alliance, Lavender Menace, and STAR. It is also regarded by many as history’s first major protest on behalf of equal rights for the gay community.


        Prior to the Stonewall Riots, the gay community in the United States was not unrepresented. The Society for Human Rights was a gay rights organization established in Chicago in 1924. Society founder Henry Gerber was inspired to create it by German doctor Magnus Hirschfeld and his work with the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Germany. It was the first recognized gay rights organization in the United States, received an official charter from the state of Illinois, and produced the first literature publication for the gay community, Friendship and Freedom. However, just a few months after being chartered, the group ceased to exist. This was, unfortunately, because many of the group's top members were arrested on charges of sodomy and immoral behavior. Despite its short existence and small size, the group is recognized to have contributed an early push for the gay rights movement. The Mattachine Society was founded in 1950. Harry Hay, and other members of the  Las Angeles gay community, founded the group to protect and improve the rights of gay men. To secure anonymity because of anti gay laws in California, they adopted an independent cell style structure. By 1961, as they expanded, however, they began to form more cohesive regional groups. In the early 1960s, the various unaffiliated Mattachine Societies, especially those in San Francisco and New York, were among the foremost gay rights groups in the United States. Beginning in the middle 1960s, however, things began to change. Especially, following the Stonewall riots. The Mattachine Society was increasingly seen as too traditional, and they were criticized for not being willing to get confrontational. No longer able to meet the needs of the gay community, the Mattachine Society eventually disappeared, replaced by organizations that were more willing to address the community's issues in the manner that they believed best suited their situation and social conditions. These organizations were also better equipped to get involved in the larger social upheaval of the day, opposing the Vietnam War and pushing for the advancement of the sexual revolution.


        The Daughters of Bilitis, more informally referred to as just the Daughters, was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States. The organization was founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, in 1955. They had been together for three years when they complained to a gay couple that they did not know any other lesbians. The gay couple introduced Martin and Lyon to another lesbian couple, one of whom suggested they create a social club. In October, eight women met to provide each other with a social outlet. One of their priorities was to have a place to dance, as dancing with the same sex in a public place was illegal. It was recalled later that women needed privacy, not only from the watchful eye of the police, but also from gaping tourists in the bars and from inquisitive families. Although unsure of how exactly to proceed with the group, members began to meet regularly. Soon, they realized that it would be prudent to be organized, and they speedily elected Martin to be their President. From the start, they had a clear focus to educate other women about lesbians and to reduce their own self loathing brought on by the socially repressive times. The organization endured for fourteen years. During this period, it evolved into an educational resource for lesbians, gay men, researchers, and mental health professionals. Unfortunately, by the end of the sixties, it too found itself outmoded, and the organization was overtaken by the more militant organizations of the seventies.


        The Gay Liberation Front was formed in New York City in July of 1969, immediately after the Stonewall Riots of late June. It was discussions amongst the leaders of the local gay community immediately after the riots that lead to the formation of group. Mark Segal and Martha Shelley, both now known for their many positive contributions to the gay rights struggle, were among the group's founding members. As these leaders began to push the group's agenda, the word, Stonewall, became a rally cry for the people fighting for equality in the gay community. One of the group's first acts was to organize a march that would maintain and boost the momentum of the Stonewall uprising. Then, they started making demands. Their first demand was that an end be put to the persecution of the gay community. The group also developed a broad political platform, denouncing racism, denouncing the war in Vietnam, declaring support for various struggles in the developing world, and offering solidarity to the Black Panther Party. They took an anti capitalist economic stance, and they challenged the boundaries of the post World War II nuclear family, as well as, traditional American gender roles. Additionally, to supplement the marches held immediately after the Stonewall Riots and to commemorate the riots, themselves, Gay Pride marches were organized around the country and held every year on the anniversary of the riots. When the group stated that it advocated for sexual liberation, however, they were not just referring to the gay community. They were, in fact, advocating for all people. They believed that heterosexuality was a remnant of cultural inhibition and felt that change would not come about unless the current social institutions were dismantled and rebuilt without defined sexual roles. The idea was to transform the idea of the nuclear family into more of a loose affiliation of members without biological subtexts. Members were also active outside the group. Many were active in other anti war organizations, as well as, the latter stages of the Civil Rights Movement. Some members even got involved in other anti sexism movements. The only problem for the group was that philosophical differences amongst the leadership limited their ability to take action for the cause. By 1972, unfortunately, these differences came to head, and the group was subsequently disbanded.


         The Gay Activists Alliance was founded in New York City on December 21, 1969, just a week shy of the six month anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. It was founded by former members of the Gay Liberation Front who left the organization because of irreconcilable philosophical differences. The group's first president was Jim Owles. The group was incorporated by Hal Weiner of Coles & Weiner, a two-person law firm. This was after Weiner defended Sylvia Rivera in a criminal court proceeding after she was arrested in Time Squire. She was arrested for gathering signatures for a petition that proposed that the New York City Council pass legislation removing the city's legal restrictions levied against the gay community. She was charged with soliciting for the purpose of sex, and her civil right to petition was not recognized. Further, the corporate certificate application filed by Weiner was rejected by the New York State Division of Corporations and State Records, on the grounds that the name was not a fit name for a New York corporation. Their argument was that they did like the connotation in which the word gay was being used. They were also not happy that the corporation was being formed to violate the state's sodomy laws. The group had to weight another five years to receive permission from the state to incorporate under that name. Politically, the group wanted to form a single issue, politically neutral, social organization, whose goal it would be to secure basic human rights, dignity, and freedom for all gay people. The group was at the height of its activity from 1970 to 1974. However, they published their newspaper, The Gay Activist, until 1980. The group's most famous meeting place was the old firehouse at 99 Wooster Street in Soho. They occupied this building from May of 1971 until it was burned to the ground by anti gay reactionaries on October 15, 1974. Unfortunately, this group also eventually broke up because of philosophical conflicts. The group was dissolved in 1981.


         Lavender Menace was an informal group of lesbian feminists who banded together to protest the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the feminist movement at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City on May 1, 1970. The founding membership included Karla Jay, Martha Shelley, Rita Mae Brown, Lois Hart, Barbara Love, Ellen Shumsky, and Michela Griffo. They were mostly members of the Gay Liberation Front and the National Organization for Women. The story behind how the group got their name is an interesting one. The term, Lavender Menace, was first used in 1969 by Betty Friedan, then President of the National Organization for Women. She used it to describe the threat that she believed associations with lesbianism posed to her organization and the emerging women's movement. Friedan, and some other straight feminists, worried that the association would hamstring feminists' ability to achieve serious political change, and that stereotypes of mannish, man-hating lesbians would provide an easy way for men, and society as a whole, to dismiss the women's movement. The women that soon took Lavender Menace on as a badge of pride, got off to a quick start at the opening session of the congress. To make their presence known, they organized an outdoor demonstration that used humor and nonviolent confrontation to raise awareness of lesbians and lesbian issues. It was their goal to show that these were vital parts of the emerging women's movement. Next, they passed out mimeographed copies of "The Woman-Identified Woman," a manifesto of sorts, moved inside, and took the stage of the congress by force. Once there, they explained how angry they were about the exclusion of lesbians from the congress. A few members of the congress' planning committee tried to take back the stage, so that they could return the event to its original program, but they were soon forced to give up. The Lavender Menace would not yield the stage, and the audience was enjoying the excitement. The group and the audience then used the microphone for a spontaneous speak out on lesbianism in the feminist movement. Subsequently, several of the participants in the affair were invited to run workshops the next day on lesbian rights and homophobia. At the end of the congress, straight and gay women alike joined together in an all-women's dance to show their support for lesbian issues.


        The Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries organization, or STAR, was a gay and transgender activist organization founded in 1970 by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, both famous in the New York City transgender counterculture. Both founders were long term civil rights activists, and they were present during the Stonewall Riots, as well ass, the intense period of gay organizing that came afterwards. Johnson and Rivera were often homeless and both of them were part of the gay community at the Christopher Street piers. However, they were constantly vigilant; and when they could, they took in homeless gay youth, especially young transgender youth. They used to hustle the streets every day in order to keep everyone fed and sheltered. They also worked as hard as they did because they wanted to keep the younger members of their community from having to do the same things that they were doing. The group began as a caucus of the Gay Liberation Front, and with the help of that organization, they were able to create the STAR House, a shelter for transgender citizens that found themselves rejected and homeless. However, as time passed, the mainstream gay community moved away from confrontation as they pushed to show America that gays and lesbians could integrate into normal society without the apocalypse occurring. As a result, Rivera, in particular, often found herself at odds with the mainstream gay community, which practiced what she called, respectability politics. They, unfortunately, also contended that the transgender movement was misogynist. Despite this opposition, she continued to press for the inclusion of trans, and all gender nonconforming people, in the gay community and its social organizations. By 1992, however, the year that Johnson died, under what now consider to be questionable circumstances, the organization had faded.


        In the 1990s, the gay community's cause came to be referred to as the LGBT Movement. This, essentially, served and still serves as an umbrella designation for a multitude of organizations that fight for the rights of gay community in the United States. Among these groups are BiLaw, Marriage Equality USA, the Gay Straight Alliance, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Center for Transgender Rights, and Equality Across America, as well as, many others. Also, by this time period, the LGBT cause had largely moved away from aggressive street demonstrations, and instead, moved its struggle into the court room. One by one, state after state repealed their anti gay laws. The biggest victory in the movement's history, though, would have to wait for the twenty-first century. Decided on June 26, 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges is the landmark US Supreme Court ruling that determined marriage discrimination to be unconstitutional. The Court ruled five to four that no one's fundamental right to marry the person of their choice could be abridged, no matter the gender of the partner they choose. The Court ruled that this right is protected under the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Though this was a major victory and should rightfully be commemorated as big win for civil rights in the United States, the LGBT community's struggle for equality in this country is far from over. The latest attacks have been against transgender citizens. On March 23 of this year, the North Carolina legislature passed, State House Bill 2, or the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act. The bill was put together so quickly that many lawmakers had not seen it before it was introduced that morning, which is terrible by itself; however, worse, is what the bill does. It specifically bars people in North Carolina from using bathrooms that do not match their birth gender, and it goes even further. It also prohibits municipalities from creating their own anti discrimination policies. Instead, it creates a statewide anti discrimination policy that intentionally fails to mention gay, lesbian, and transgender people.


        North Carolina is not the only culprit. The state legislatures in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, among others, have brought similar bills to vote with varying levels of success. Thankfully, there have been public officials and famous personalities who have had the courage to speak up for the transgender population of the United States. Several musicians have cancelled stops on their concert tours in the states that are refusing to repeal their discriminatory laws, and Michael Jordan has threatened to move the Charlotte Hornets out of North Carolina if they do not repeal their law. More importantly, the Supreme Court may soon step in on the issue. The Obama administration has recently instructed the Justice Department to withhold millions of dollars in public federal funding from the states that refuse to repeal their discriminatory transgender laws. As a result, several states, including North Carolina, have brought a suit against the Obama administration to federal court, arguing that he is actually the one doing the discriminating. They argue that he is pushing an unwarranted intrusion of the federal government into state's affairs. They are, essentially, crying states' rights. It will, thus, be up to the Supreme Court, if and when the case reaches their bench, to decide which way the pendulum will swing in the LGBT community's latest battle against discrimination. Hopefully, the ruling will mirror the marriage equality ruling of 2015. If it does, a great deed will have been done for loyal Americans who have been fighting a long battle for equality in this country. If it does not, then this nation runs the risk of falling down a slippery slope, for, as the old axiom says, if even one citizen is robbed of their freedom without cause, then we have all been robbed of our freedom. The time spent and the distance traveled by the LGBT community, since June 28, 1969, is immense, and the roads traveled have not always been smooth, but things are looking up. Remember the Stonewall Inn!

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