on June 24, 2004
In the old days (and some would insist they were the good old days) homosexuals were subject to dismissal just because of sexual preference. Sexual acts between members of the same sex were specifically illegal, and cops would bait homosexuals to see if they were interested in such acts. Professionals who were found to be homosexuals lost their licenses. Homosexuality was a diagnosable psychiatric illness. A consensual homosexual act could get even life imprisonment, and a risk of castration. There may still be discrimination against gays in many ways, but some are now even legally married; societal acceptance is not total, but it is vastly better than it was on 28 June 1969. That date, regarded as epochal by homosexuals insisting on their civil rights, saw the Stonewall uprising; in _Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution_ (St. Martin's Press), David Carter has given a spectacularly detailed and well-researched history of an event that has been often misunderstood even by those interested in the history of the gay civil rights movement.
In the sixties, Greenwich Village was a center for homosexual life; the bohemian residents were simply more accepting of unusual behavior. Within Greenwich, the Stonewall Inn was one of the gathering places especially for male homosexuals. The ambience was "trashy, low, and tawdry," but unpretentious, and all from any margins (including the exaggeratedly effeminate men who were a fashion at the time) were free to go there without risk of feeling alienated. Patrons and the bar staff accepted that the place was going to get raided. Police thought of gays as easy targets in their humiliating sweeps of the bar. Carter is careful to show that the confrontation that night was somewhere between inevitable and fortuitous, but what set the crowd off was a lesbian resisting arrest and being beaten. The initial response was tentative; one man could stand it no longer and yelled, "Gay Power!" only to be shushed by his partner. The cry, however, was taken up, and the outcasts stirred into action. The chapters of the book dealing with the riot itself are often tense, with the police being forced back into Stonewall and barricading themselves in, and the gays outside pounding the heavy doors with a parking meter while chanting "Liberate the bar!" Many who were there shared the view of one participant, who called the newspapers during the riot: "I immediately knew this was the spark we had been waiting for for years."
Carter details the changes in attitude that came after the riots, fostered by the too-inclusive Gay Liberation Front through the more successful Gay Activist Alliance. Political action, confrontation, and street theater were taken up by a group of citizens that had previously kept covert ways. Having shown up at the scene of the riot to see what all the fuss was about, Allen Ginsberg himself said of the participants, comparing them to homosexuals a decade before, "They've lost that wounded look." Carter clears up myths that have grown up around the event. It was reported, for instance, that the rioters breaking back into the bar where the police were besieged were merely trying to get back in and party. There was a further widely reported story that the riots were in response to the funeral the day before of Judy Garland, an idol to some gays. These stories represent the sort of trivialization that society might well attempt to impose on a revolution that it found unwelcome. The revolution isn't complete, but at Stonewall the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights got a real political start. Carter's book is the essential work on an important historical event.