What Happened to the Radical Spirit of the Stonewall Rebels?

What Happened to the Radical Spirit of the Stonewall Rebels?

What Happened to the Radical Spirit of the Stonewall Rebels?

The movement for LGBTQ rights has been domesticated, its goals refocused on marriage and family. It can be so much more.


On the night of June 28, 1969, a racially diverse group of drag queens, sissies, fags, butches, all manner of homosexuals, sparked a riot at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village when the cops showed up to do what they always did: arrest the Stonewall patrons for indecency if they weren’t wearing at least three articles of clothing conventionally associated with the gender they were assigned at birth. And as one man who was present at the Stonewall Inn later noted about the “three articles of clothing” rule, “socks didn’t count.”

The Stonewall uprising was largely spontaneous, as one by one the patrons stood up to the police, first booing and then jeering them. While many details are contested, all agree that the verbal resistance led to more physical forms of defiance on both sides. Billy clubs came down hard on sequin-gowned regulars, and the cops were hammered with stiletto heels as the Stonewall patrons vented the pain and outrage of years of humiliation, taunting, and terror against the members of the gay community. At one point someone salvaged a bag of squeezed oranges from the Orange Julius down the street, and angry queens began pelting the police with the spent, juicy rinds. The police were forced to retreat into the bar for safety as the gay rioters hurled at them bottles, garbage cans, dog shit, and bricks from a nearby construction site. The protesters even dislodged a parking meter and used it as a battering ram to knock down the door of the bar to get at the cops hiding inside. When reinforcements from the local precinct arrived, they were met with a chorus line of Rockettes-style dancers singing:

We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair.…
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!

The police were caught completely off-guard. Being used to either the more macho tactics of anti-war protesters or the fear and cowering of frightened homosexuals, they fumbled in the face of the irony, camp, humor, and courage of the Stonewall rioters. As historian Martin Duberman tells the story, when a Puerto Rican queen was grabbed by a cop, she yelled, “How’d you like a big Spanish dick up your little Irish ass?” The cop was so unnerved he loosened his hold for a second and the “Reina Boriqueña” was able to wriggle free and escape.

Fifty years later I look back at the Stonewall Riot and the gay rights movement it unleashed with respect and reverence. The queer activists flinging orange rinds at police were motivated by a radical vision of freedom: freedom from police violence and the tyranny of the closet, but also sexual and gender-based freedom, liberated from the demands of heterosexuality, monogamy, and rigid gender stereotypes.

I came out in the late 1970s, less than 10 years after Stonewall, and since that time I’ve witnessed the domestication of the radical goals of the movement’s founders. What was born as a sexual and gender rights movement has largely evolved into a marriage rights movement, one that has embraced mainstream, traditional family values. And to the extent that LGBTQ people living in big Northern cities like New York, San Francisco, or Boston can live full, uncloseted lives in 2019, this is not the case for all members of our community, especially in the South. As Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a transwoman of color who was at the Stonewall Inn on the night of the riots in 1969 recently noted, “They’re making a big deal out of this 50 years. But I don’t know what the crap they’re doing…. The community here [in Arkansas] is still living in the late ’50s, early ’60s, you know. I want them to have the things that the girls who live in New York or San Francisco have. I want them to have the opportunity to live their lives the way that they want to live them and have the services that they need here.”

How did the radical gay rights movement go off the rails and end up at with “marriage and the family” as our horizon for victory?

One answer lies in the way that LGBTQ rights activism has evolved, to a significant degree, in the direction of large nonprofits with professional staff, and boards of directors made up increasingly of white and wealthy members of the community, and the need to fund staff salaries means more and more fundraisers in the Hamptons and Fire Island’s Pines. These organizations are more accountable to their donors than to a larger and more diverse base that should include gender non-conforming people, trans people in prison, and homeless youth, many of whom are engaging in survival sex and/or sex work.

At the same time, the movement’s leadership has shifted over time from grassroots activists to attorneys. The old battle cry of “Take to the streets” has been overtaken by “We’ll see you in court”! Successfully defeating laws like those that criminalized sodomy was a fundamentally important step in dismantling structural homophobia. Yet, with lawyers at the helm of the movement, the Stonewall activists’ demand for liberation and sexual freedom morphed into a demand for equality—equality with straight people. So much of the LGBTQ rights agenda in the last 20 years can be understood as a demand to be treated the same as straight people: in the military, in marriage, in divorce, and in the workplace. Yet, as critical as, say, nondiscrimination protections are, being equal is an inadequate substitute for being free. The more radical notions of family, kinship, love, desire, and gender that structured the politics of many activists of the Stonewall generation cannot be found in the advocacy agendas of the big gay organizations today.

I would have preferred if, in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decriminalization of our relationships in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, we had paused before demanding that our intimate lives be legalized through the laws of marriage. It’s as if our files were transferred from the district attorney’s office to the marriage-license bureau and we never left the building. Rather than immediately elevating marriage to the top of the post-decriminaliztion legal agenda, what if we had taken a breath and considered other ways of living and loving that might have provide greater security for our families, but would have done so for a broader slice of the community, and in a way that didn’t merely fold gay and lesbian people into the institution of marriage, a regulatory regime that is deeply heteronormative in nature? Earlier demands for recognition of domestic partnerships, civil unions, and other nonmarital family forms are now regarded as second-class consolation prizes, thus ignoring the potential they held to unsettle the monopolistic grip that marriage holds on the very idea of the family.

By putting marriage equality at the center of LGBTQ organizing in the last 20 years, something important was lost. The normative centrality and, indeed, priority of the institution of marriage has become the standard by which all other forms of kinship, family, friendship, temporary alliance, and love are both rendered legible and assigned value. A more radical project would have demanded access to the legal institution of marriage while at the same time undertaking the project of unsettling marriage as the institutional measure of all things. But the movement’s leaders, instead, went all-in with marriage, declaring that gaining marriage rights would, somehow, set us free. Since when has licensing by the state been the vehicle for greater freedom?

Finally, the theory of change that motivated the early gay rights movement focused primarily on the sources of power that oppressed LGBTQ people, be it the police, the nuclear family, the church, or more generalized homophobia. But today the movement is invested in identity-based strategies that prioritize the rights of LGBTQ people as a class deserving of recognition by the state through protection from public and private discrimination on account of that identity. While this might be a laudable goal, and even a necessary project, we should be fighting for so much more.

This story of professionalization, deradicalization, legalization, and identity-based politics is not unique to the gay rights movement. The women’s movement, to cite just one example, morphed from suffragettes marching in the streets to litigators fighting the statute of limitations of the Equal Pay Act in the Supreme Court.

The fragility of the victories won by the mainstream LGBTQ rights movement is also worthy of attention. While the 2015 win for marriage rights in the Supreme Court came more swiftly and more resoundingly than many expected, and the embrace of LGBTQ rights by the Obama administration was both impressive and comprehensive, the backlash against our community over the past two years has been staggering, felt most acutely by our community’s most vulnerable members. The evangelical right wing responded immediately to the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision by promising to give Obergefell the Roe treatment—that is, to treat it as if it weren’t a real constitutional right, but rather some kind of a judicial gerrymander whereby the contours of the constitution were illegitimately manipulated to meet the demands of a partisan political agenda. The right wing effectively eviscerated the right to reproductive liberty with this strategy, hollowing out Roe to an empty paper rule, and they’re working hard to do the same to same-sex couples’ right to marry. The constitutional right to marry is vulnerable to attack as well, insofar as the legal victory came to pass before an effective social movement strategy built the necessary support for the ruling to take hold not just in the courtroom, but in peoples’ living rooms.

We’ve also seen how easy it has been for the Trump administration to unravel the advances for LGBTQ rights put in place by President Obama. Here, as with the court victories, a more nuanced approach to how power works is necessary. Most of the LGBTQ advances implemented by the Obama administration were accomplished through agency regulation (for example, transpeople serving in the military, the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, sexual orientation and gender identity protections in federal contracting, and in federal laws prohibiting discrimination in education and employment) and could be—and have been—reversed quite easily by Obama’s successor.

What is perhaps even worse is how the explicit homophobia that runs through the Trump administration has licensed an open season of hatred toward lesbian, gay, and trans people. The FBI reports an alarming increase in hate crimes against LGBTQ people nationally, and homophobic/transphobic hate crimes have more than doubled in the District of Columbia since 2016. Hardly a week goes by that we don’t hear of a trans woman being brutally murdered. Civil rights leaders lay responsibility for this significant increase in violence against members of the LGBTQ community at Trump’s feet. Monica Palacio, director of the DC Office of Human Rights observed, “I know that over the last 25 years when you have a national role model spewing homophobia a lot is going to happen in the way people treat one another…and it’s going to tear down that kind of common decency and sense of respect for people’s life choices.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously claimed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If this maxim is true, it is not by virtue of a law of physics or the smart arguments of lawyers, but as the result of persistent work by social movement activists who push cultural values to move in a new direction. The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot provides an opportune vantage point from which to assess the arc of justice of the LGBTQ rights movement.

The radical vision of the Stonewall generation promised so much more than what we have—not just equality but revolution. The world they aimed to bring into being included distinctly queer forms of attachment, kinship, desire, and love that have developed in the shadow of marriage and monogamy. Recovering that world as a viable, or even preferable, alternative to marriage and the nuclear family ought to figure somewhere in a queer sense of justice. And what about sex? The marriage movement has successfully cleaved the sex out of homo-sexuality, rebranding itself as no longer about the right to non-normative sexual pleasure but rather about the dignity of gay families and kin who share a similarity to heterosexuals and the nuclear family. Sex for its own sake, something the Stonewall rioters would surely have celebrated, remains without constitutional protection.

This moment of reflection in the midst of a horrendous political crisis summons us to renew the radical vision of the Stonewall rioters. And to dance with fury, irony, and feathers.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy