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Historically-Grounded Organizing: A Reflection on Stonewall

When the trailer for the Hollywood-produced movie “Stonewall” was released this past August, activists on the internet took to dismantling the narrative the trailer presented. Featured at the center of the historic narrative is fictional Danny Winters, a white gay man who moved to New York from Indiana after being kicked out of his home. The trailer depicts Danny throwing a brick through the windows of what is supposed to be the Stonewall Inn and galvanizing the crowd, framing him as the “hero” of the historic Stonewall riots. In a Guardian article, producer Roland Emmerich was quoted saying, “‘You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people,’ he said. ‘I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.’”

Soon after the release of the trailer, a petition on the Gay-Straight Alliance Network was started to boycott the film, and several YouTube videos were released discussing the trailer, including one by Franchesca Ramsey for MTV News and one by Kat Blaque. Several blogs and news sources reported on the controversy of the film, including an article in The Guardian about what current gay rights activists thought of the film, a Salon review, and an Autostraddle compilation of reviews from around the internet.

Aside from some research of lgbtq history in the United States I had done for an independent study at Goshen College, I didn’t know much about the Stonewall riots. I had enough background on this pivotal historic moment to know that the trailer for the Hollywood movie had erased the true history of Stonewall. During my research, I stumbled onto a few mentions of Stonewall and its marking of the “modern gay rights movement.” In September, I saw many of my peers post articles about the whitewashing (as well as cisgender and male-washing) present in the movie and decided to read Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter upon starting my position at BMC in October. As I read Carter’s secondhand account of the riots, I began looking online for other sources and decided to take this research and present it during my visit to Goshen College in late October.

I supplemented Carter’s book with Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, Vicki Eaklor’s Queer America: A People’s GLBT History of the United States, a few primary sources I found online, the PBS produced “Stonewall Uprising” documentary (based on Carter’s book), an audio documentary and several other videos I found online. As I compiled my research in a presentable form for Regina Shands Stoltzfus’ class, “Race, Class and Ethnic Relations,” I realized the salience of Stonewall as the spark for the modern gay rights movement. I also noticed myself looking for a replacement for Danny Winters. As I came to the end of my research, however, Carter pointed something out in his conclusion that the film, at least based on its trailer, was not able to acknowledge. Carter states, “The question of who gets credit for starting the riots is one that deserves consideration. That question, however, contains a premise: that an individual or group of individuals can be singled out as the prime mover in a complex process that many persons collectively created” (Carter 261).

In my research, I became aware of the ways the internet simplifies events such as Stonewall down to a few sound bites or phrases. While what I had read online in response to the trailer was not false, as a whole, the articles I read didn’t address nearly enough of the intricacies of what led the riots to occur in that specific time and place. In his conclusion, Carter gives a page and a half description of all the factors that made Stonewall the historic event that it was. As I read his conclusion, I wondered why such an important event is rarely discussed in history classrooms, and why most lgbtq people in my generation have little if any knowledge of this history.

The events that took place at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969 are rarely talked about with the nuance they deserve. Most people in my generation are aware of the events only peripherally, and know it mostly as the reason why Pride parades take place in June. Within my own circles, I’ve noticed the move away from historically grounded organizing and paying homage to those who came before us. This is the result of a complicated interplay of institutional practices, curriculum in grade schools, new technology and social media, historical revisionism and other factors. As people in my generation organize, create community, and address institutional oppression, we inherit the work of those who came before us, with all their flaws, failures, and successes. Perhaps because we didn’t or don’t have access to comprehensive education on lgbtq history, we often fail to recognize that work. At Goshen College, and I can imagine on other Mennonite and Brethren campuses, I see the need for historically grounded organizing continue to rise. Without extensive knowledge of the histories, traumas, successes and failures of those who came before us, we can’t effectively combat lgbtq injustice. Stonewall and its legacy felt like a good place to start my research and to fill some of the gap created by this institutionalized void. I also want to acknowledge that an institutional change in curriculum and the framing of history needs to occur to effectively address this lack of access to lgbtq history.

Before I started my lecture, I asked the class what they already knew about Stonewall to gauge where I would need to begin my lecture. The class as a whole knew about as much as I did prior to beginning my research. They knew the names Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, that it was a confrontation with the police and took place in June 1969 at a New York gay bar.

In my research, I discovered aspects about the riots I was surprised to find. The first is that the Stonewall Inn, like many gay bars at the time, was owned by the Mafia. The Mafia recruited youth from the Stonewall Inn for their blackmailing and prostitution rings. The riots were also preceded by nearly two decades of work within the “Homophile Movement.” Several organizations were attempting to gain legal rights for gay people (typically gay men) and focused generally on assimilation and acceptance into heteronormative society. The Mattachine Society in New York, the Janus Society in Philadelphia, the Society for Individual Rights in San Francisco and the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco and New York were part of this movement. Three years prior to the Stonewall riots, there were riots at a San Francisco Compton’s Cafeteria, led by transgender and gay youth in the organization Vanguard. These riots were strikingly similar to the events that took place at the Stonewall Inn. There were riots in other cities as well, but they did not receive as much media coverage as the Stonewall riots.

The police raids of gay bars during that era were frequent and often a joint effort of the Mafia and the police force. Carter states, “There was such close cooperation between the police and the gay bars that the police would time the raids to minimize the disruption to the bars’ business” (Carter 83). In addition to working with the police during the raids, the Mafia paid off the police in order to keep the bars open. Carter further explains, “Even with police payoffs, illegal bars were raided on an average of once a month but more frequently during an election campaign” (Carter 82). In June 1969, five gay bars had been raided over the course of three weeks and the Stonewall had been raided just days before the June 28 raid. The difference between the night the riots occurred and between other raids was that patrons of the bar began to fight back. In other raids, after the police checked IDs and filed people out of the bar, they usually went home. On June 28, 1969, the patrons of the bar stayed outside and eventually formed a sizable crowd. Inside the bar, the police separated the drag queens and trans people present and then barricaded themselves inside the bar as patrons were escorted out. After two patrons resisted arrest, the riots broke out.

It is important to note that Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, who was present at the riots stated, “‘What I know definitely from my own experience is that the people who did the most fighting were the drag queens and hustlers. [They] fought with the same ferocity they would fight with when any situation of survival put their sense of dignity on the line, very much like Bob Dylan’s ‘When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose’” (Carter 162). While there is no identifiable “hero” of the riots, Carter and other sources emphasize that the most marginal elements of the gay community were fighting the hardest against the police. Ironically, and more disappointingly, those fighting the hardest found themselves still on the margins after new organizations formed in response to the riots.

Immediately following the riots, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) formed. The GLF’s official statement was, “‘We formed after the recent pig bust of the Stonewall, a well known gay bar in Greenwich Village. We’ve come to realize that all our frustrations and feelings of oppression are real...We identify ourselves with all the oppressed: the Vietnamese struggle, the third world, the blacks, the workers...all those oppressed by this rotten, dirty, vile, fucked-up capitalist conspiracy’” (Carter 220). There was talk of working with the Black Panthers and other progressive causes of the time. Ultimately, it was this focus on “all the oppressed” that led to GLF’s demise. GLF only remained active for three years. Carter attributes the short life of GLF to disagreements between members on this issue, “But of all the contentious issues that wracked this most contentious organization (which claimed not to be an organization at all but a loose collection of individuals and small groups of individuals), the most divisive of all was the issue that had bedeviled it from its first meeting, whether it should be a one-issue organization or whether it should ally itself with all other progressive causes” (Carter 232).

Subsequently, the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) and Street Transvestite Action Revolution (STAR) formed. In A Queer History of the United States, Bronski states, “GAA’s single-issue politics had a much greater impact than GLF on mainstream gay political organizing. It became the template for the contemporary gay rights movements, which works to change, not overthrow the system” (Bronski 212). He further explains, “Transgender activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson had left GLF to help form GAA, but ultimately found themselves, and issues of gender identity, excluded. In 1970 they started Street Transvestite Action Revolution (STAR), which became the foundational group for contemporary transgender activism” (Bronski 211). Within these political moves was a complicated series of sacrifice and strategy to further the groups’ political aims. In the case of GAA, transgender members of the group found themselves excluded in favor of reforming the system. Ironically and tragically, those who fought the hardest during the riots were eventually left out of the discussion. This was also true of lesbians in those organizations. Bronski states, “The Lavender Menace, who now called themselves Radicalesbians,…understood that their concerns were distinct from those of heterosexual women and gay men, began a distinct movement: lesbian feminism” (Bronski 213).

Bringing this complicated narrative to a Mennonite context was a little anxiety-inducing. I come to this from a context of knowing some of the marginalization the rioters faced and what sort of anger and frustration the rioters brought with them to that space. I also approach this with a double consciousness: knowing well what the privileged class would think of a riot starting the lgbtq rights movement as well as what those inside the community know of that type of violence. There is also a precarious nuance present in Mennonite contexts. While many Mennonites are willing to admit to and readily tackle the violence the Mennonite church has done to lgbtq people, as an institution, the church has held onto its identity as a persecuted people tightly. As a result, the church has not admitted to the violence it has done to lgbtq people.

I’ve wondered if the slow movement the Mennonite church has made in regards to lgbtq rights has to do with the combination of two assumptions: that a group of people identified by pacifism are unable to do violence and that the actions of rioters responding to police brutality is equivalent to the police brutality itself. In my particular social location, on the outside of several different religious communities I was pushed out of, to now having finished my education at a Mennonite college where I poured myself into its community only to find myself traumatized at convention with the passing of the membership guidelines and forbearance resolutions; it seems to me that the Mennonite church is carrying with it assumptions about its own violence it has yet to name. This all to say, when we process this history in Mennonite contexts, we must ask ourselves whose violence we are condemning, what survival is, and how and where we bring our assumptions, prejudices and understandings of violence to this history.

To my surprise, the students were very open to the complexities of this event. In the final discussion, the class broke up into smaller groups and answered one of three questions. Most groups chose to discuss the question: What impact did Stonewall being a violent event make on lgbtq politics then and now? Most students answered this question with attention to the complexity of this event. I was hoping to make it clear that the riots were not a spontaneous act of rebellion but part of a long series of institutional oppression against the lgbtq community, or as Bronski articulates, “Stonewall was less a turning point than a final stimulus in a series of public altercations” (Bronski 210).

The students in Regina’s class, likely as a result of the content of the class and the social climate at GC, seemed to understand that institutional structures, decades of hard work addressing those structures, and the complexity of intersectional privilege and oppression lead to moments of resistance. The Stonewall riots, as a result of its location, the ways news sources at the time picked up the story and the institutions that surrounded it, caught the imagination of the public. What made it different from other acts of resistance during that same time was not that the other acts were in vain, or were not as important as this moment; but rather that dozens and dozens of factors worked together to make it the historical moment it has become.

According to Adam Curle’s model of social change, there are four stages of social change: education, confrontation/activism, negotiation and transformation/sustainable peace. The Stonewall riots fall in the “confrontation/activism” stage, where the subsequent forming of organizations and the politics surrounding those organizations as part of the “negotiation” stage. With this frame in mind, it is easy to see that confrontation and activism stage are not sustainable methods to achieve transformation. It is also within this framework that we see that the negotiation stage also creates a sort of violence within the movement as well. Women, trans people and people of color were sacrificed to one-issue politics, and were excluded from GAA and other similar organizations as a result. What was interesting to me as I processed this information was that the riots were not comprised of people affected by only one political issue. There were multiply-marginalized people: women, trans people and people of color present at the Stonewall Inn that evening. In fact, during my research, it came up again and again that those most “marginal elements” of the gay community were fighting the hardest at the riots. As GLF declined and GAA formed, it became clear that single-issue politics were most palatable to the privileged majority. This is where negotiation can become violent, in that a group or groups of people are silenced, excluded and pushed out to the benefit of those with more power within the movement.

As I think about Stonewall, in all its complexity, in all that came before it and what followed in subsequent lgbtq activism and organizing, I return to the events at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Kansas City this summer. In my experience, the negotiation stage of Curle’s social change theory is most relevant to the relationship between lgbtq people and MCUSA today. It is important to note that there isn’t a linear movement toward transformation and sustainable peace in Curle’s theory. The negotiation stage has been taking place in MCUSA, and smaller Mennonite institutions, for decades. There has been movement between all three stages taking place at all levels of Mennonite institutions. At convention, Pink Menno engaged both in education and activism/confrontation. I took part in the guerilla theater action and the silent witness and with this framework in mind, can now see that both were important acts of resistance and activism. The guerilla theater act disrupted the violence inherent in the processes taking place in the delegates’ hall, and exposed the violence the church has done and continues to do to lgbtq people.

Stonewall exposed the police brutality that had taken place against lgbtq people at gay bars in New York in a similar manner to the way the guerilla theater act exposed the homophobia and transphobia a large number of people in the delegates’ hall had waiting at the tip of their tongues. What followed the Stonewall riots, in the negotiation stage, was a devastating replication of the actions of the police. What this means for Mennonites now, is that we are faced with a similar challenge. Do we continue to silence those of us who have put our bodies on the line for lgbtq justice in the Mennonite church again and again? Do we exclude those who are not “respectable” according to the standards of the majority?

Knowing the ways negotiation failed certain parts of the lgbtq community (and ironically those who fought the hardest during the riots) following Stonewall, and where it has failed and succeeded in Mennonite contexts previously, is important to the ways we approach negotiation now. Organization around trans issues needs to occur not as an afterthought to focusing on LGB people; the ways that homophobia and transphobia intersect with racism and sexism and its effects on lgbtq people of color and women, the nuances of sexual violence against lgbtq people inside and outside the church, the way housing and bathrooms are structured without lgbtq, especially trans people, in mind, and so many other injustices need to be addressed. We have a responsibility to the people at Stonewall who were fighting the hardest to not replicate systems of oppressions within our organizing and negotiations. To replicate the violence inherent in the processes that took place in the delegates’ hall would be to sacrifice those who have been caught in its crossfire for the sake of a compliant, palatable minority and for what we have come to call “forbearance.”

Cross-posted on Coming Out Strong.

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