Earlier this month, Boston’s 49th Pride Parade drew tens of thousands to the city, and went off happily hitchless. As for several years now, the mood was festive. Marchers filled the streets with a display of rainbow flags, sequins, and sass.
Fifty years ago, the sight would have been inconceivable. In response to a police raid, a riot broke out early the morning of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Clashes continued intermittently for several days. The New York uprising is now widely credited with giving birth to the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
Yet the first march commemorating the event, called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, took shape amid considerable anxiety. Its handful of organizers worried that few would attend, and that those who did would be attacked. Foster Gunnison Jr., a participant in the New York event, recalled that as the marchers set out, everyone was “scared to death.” Some spectators joined the parade. Others stayed on the sidelines but radiated encouragement. In the end, an ebullient Gunnison estimated that 2,000 people had taken part.
The extraordinary courage it took to speak out in those years comes alive in “Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America,” by historian Martin Duberman. Originally published in 1993, the book has been reissued with a new introduction. Duberman weaves the stories of Gunnison and five other activists into what remains one of the most thorough accounts of Stonewall to date. Importantly, he dug deep into the movement’s antecedents, compiling a valuable record for those who might imagine everything began with Stonewall.
In the beginning, Duberman writes, the quest for homosexual acceptance was broadly radical, challenging even the nuclear family. In 1950, in Los Angeles, the secretive Mattachine Society was founded to discreetly seek change. However, its members soon abandoned the notion that gays were simply an oppressed minority, instead embracing the “expert” view that homosexuality was an illness.
Despite rising persecution during the Cold War years, small numbers of gays and lesbians sought to organize politically, frequently differing over strategies and goals. In the mid-1960s some aligned themselves with other forms of protest (the Vietnam War, the Black Power movement) but were stung to find little support in return. By 1969, younger members were pressing gay organizations to take a more militant posture.
David Carter trains a journalistic eye on the causes of that summer’s uprising in “Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution.” At the end of the 1960s, he notes, homosexual intimacy was illegal in every state but Illinois. In New York, serving alcohol to gays was forbidden, providing an opportunity for organized crime. Opened by mobsters in 1966, the Stonewall Inn soon became the most popular gay bar in the Village. Yet it was not universally adored: Some gays saw it as a sleazy pickup joint that peddled underage youth and drugs. Carter offers evidence that a blackmail ring based at the Inn sought to extort money from gays working on Wall Street, a suspicion that may have helped drive the crackdown.
Like Duberman, Carter does his best to reconstruct what happened amid the chaos that first night. Although Stonewall’s owners had been paying off the police, raids were routine. This time though, no advance warning came. A raid just days earlier had left patrons feeling worked up and resentful. Instead of scurrying off, some now resisted. At first, campy humor mingled with hostility. Then some rough actions by the police sparked fury. A growing crowd fought back, throwing coins and bricks. The police finally barricaded themselves inside until backup forces could arrive.
The next day brought a spirit of wonderment to the spot, along with new skirmishes. Shortly, fresh organizing energy would find outlets in the newly formed Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance.
As Duberman makes movingly clear, social change requires individuals to change first. In his memoir “One of These Things First,” the writer Steven Gaines illustrates what a reach that could be. Growing up in 1950s Brooklyn, Gaines felt so ashamed of his homosexuality that, at 15, he attempted suicide. After a stint at a posh mental hospital, he spent years in therapy trying to be “cured.” In 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association decided homosexuality was not an illness, he simply felt betrayed.
For decades, the personal costs ran so high that few gays dared to be photographed. A new collection, “Love and Resistance: Out of the Closet into the Stonewall Era,” offers a powerful visual record of individuals facing down fear and condemnation. Sylvia (Ray) Rivera, a transgender performer and activist, appears ready to run a PTA meeting. Present when the riots began, she would later recall that night with words fit for a banner: “something lifted off my shoulders.”
M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.