Stonewall didn’t spark the gay rights movement

(Now a piece in JSTOR Daily, the blog of your favorite academic digital library)

Stonewall was not the spark that ignited the gay rights movement, despite what you may hear during this year’s 50th anniversary commemorations. The story is well known: how a routine police raid of a mafia-owned gay bar in New York City sparked three nights of riots and the global gay rights movement (Duberman 1993a—serialized in JSTOR as Duberman 1993b). It is conventional to date LGBT history into “before Stonewall” and “after Stonewall” periods not just in the United States (see Armstrong and Crage 2006) but in Europe as well: British activists can join Stonewall UK, for example, while pride parades in Germany, Austria and Switzerland are called “Christopher Street Day” after the street in New York City on which the Stonewall Inn still sits.

But there were gay activists before that early morning of June 28th, 1969, previous rebellions of LGBT people against police, earlier calls for “gay power,” prior riots. What was different about Stonewall was that gay activists around the country were prepared to commemorate it publicly (Armstrong and Crage 2006). It was not the first rebellion, but it was the first to be called “the first,” and that act of naming mattered. Those nationally coordinated activist commemorations were evidence of an LGBT movement that had already grown in strength, not a movement sparked by a single riot. The story of how this particular night and this particular bar came to signify global gay rebellion is not only a story about frequently forgotten episodes of pre-Stonewall LGBT activists, but also a story of how collective memory works and whether social movements organize to commemorate their gains.

Credit for this one event erases the growing strength of a movement in the 1960s around the United States. Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Suzanne Crage (2006) detail four previous police raids on gay bars that prompted local gains but either faded from local memory, did not inspire commemorations that lasted, or did not inspire activists in other cities.

For example, San Francisco activists mobilized in response to police raids in the early 1960s, which came to a head during a raid on a New Year’s Eve ball in 1965 that eventually brought down the police commissioner (Agee 2006). This New Year’s Eve raid attracted wide media attention, garnered heterosexual support, and is credited with galvanizing local activists, but they did not choose to remember subsequently. In 1966, again in San Francisco, LGBT people rioted at Compton’s Cafeteria, smashing all the windows of a police car, setting fires, and picketing the establishment for its collusion with police (Armstrong and Crage, 2006). The city’s gay establishment did not participate, however, and disdained the transgender and street youths; their political organization, Vanguard; and their violent mode of protest (Stryker 2008).

San Francisco was not the only US city with gay rights activists gaining strength. In Los Angeles, the first national gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, was founded years earlier, in 1951, and spawned chapters in other cities around the country (Meeker 2001). Bar raids in late-1960s Los Angeles also prompted resistance. The 1967 police raid on the Black Cat bar, for instance, prompted a demonstration 400-people strong that garnered evening news coverage, and played a role in the founding of the leading national LGBT magazine, The Advocate (Armstrong and Crage, 2006). While the Black Cat demonstration garnered support from heterosexual activists for Chicano and Black civil rights, no further coordination occurred and the event was not commemorated.

When police again descended on L.A. nightclub The Patch, patrons struck back immediately, marching to city hall to lay flowers and singing civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Again, its anniversary passed without remembrance. Los Angeles activists did organize a one-year vigil on the anniversary of the night the LA police beat a gay man to death in front of the Dover Hotel, but this 120-person-strong rally and march to the police station did not inspire activists in other cities, and subsequent demonstrations were subsumed by the Stonewall commemorations.

Activists were busy on the East Coast before Stonewall, too. Washington D.C. LGBT veterans chose the Pentagon as their place to picket, making national television with signs reading “Homosexual citizens want to serve their country too” (Hall, 2010) Subsequent demonstrations targeted the White House and the offices of Federal agencies (Johnson, 1994/95). New York City’s Mattachine Society secured legal gains in 1966 when they organized a “sip-in” at bar Julius’, securing the right of homosexuals to public accommodations. None of these actions inspired commemoration, locally or in other cities.

There was an annual demonstration for gay civil rights before Stonewall, however, and it provides the best example of how gay politics were changing before the riots. Beginning in 1965, Philadelphia LGBT activists began an annual picket of Independence Hall on the 4th of July to protest state treatment of homosexuals. Soberly-dressed men and women with carefully worded signs walked solemnly in front of an icon of American citizenship. These “Annual Reminders” were the result of coordination by activists in New York, Washington, and Philadelphia, evidence of burgeoning regional cooperation by gay rights activists in the 1960s. Yet these somber events unraveled in the week after Stonewall, and Philadlelphia activists voted later in 1969 to shift the commemoration from a picket of Independence Hall to a parade in the streets on the Stonewall anniversary (Bruce, 2016).

Screen Shot 2019-04-26 at 11.40.03 AM
Image from Johnson, D. (1994). “Homosexual Citizens”: Washington’s Gay Community Confronts the Civil Service. Washington History, 6(2), 56.

Gay politics had become more radical in the late 1960s under the influence of the Black power movement, second-wave feminism, and the protests against the Vietnam war. Radical organizations advocating “gay power” sprang up in the 1960s, including in Greenwich Village where the Stonewall Inn was located (Armstrong and Crage, 2006). These new activists stereotyped the actions of their forbears as conservative, erasing their contributions from a history that now was credited solely to Stonewall, and ignoring the changing definitions of what was radical in the 1950s and early 1960s (Meeker 2001). The new style of gay activism gave shape to the new form of protest.

What was different about Stonewall was that local organizers decided to commemorate it, and to make it a national event. At a meeting in November of 1969, regional activists broke with the respectable image of the Philadelphia “Annual Reminder” and vowed to secure a parade permit on the anniversary of the raid on the Stonewall Inn, calling it Christopher Street Liberation Day. These organizers reached out to groups in Chicago and Los Angeles who readily agreed to remember something that happened elsewhere, in part because it was one of the few acts of LGBT resistance to get widespread media coverage, including in national LGBT publications and the New York Times. This media coverage was itself the product of previous ties between local LGBT activists and journalists—and the fact that the Stonewall Inn was so near to the offices of the Village Voice (Carter 2004). Interestingly, San Francisco’s activists declined to participate because they had already made inroads with local politicians and clergy. As one member explained, “I did not think a riot should be memorialized” (Armstrong and Crage, 2006) Only a small breakaway group participated, to little local effect, in a city that today hosts one of the largest gay pride parades in the country.

These coordinated marches in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago in 1970 were the first gay pride parades, and sparked an idea that spread around the country—to 116 cities in the United States and 30 countries around the world (Bruce 2016, p. 206)

It was this national act of commemoration represented a truly new political phenomenon, not the riot itself. As Armstrong and Crage described, “without the existence of homophile organizations elsewhere, many of them founded only in the late 1960s, a national event would have been unthinkable” (740). Thus Stonewall was an “achievement of gay liberation,” and not its cause, and an achievement of collective memory and collective action, if not the first LGBT riot or protest.

It is notable that this achievement took the form of a joyful parade, rather than a somber picket like Philadelphia’s Annual Reminder. As Katherine McFarland Bruce describes in her detailed account of pride parades in the United States, “planners settled on a parade format as the best way to accommodate diverse members and to produce the positive emotional experience that brought people together” in part, as early organizers noted, “a fun parade brings out more people than an angry march” (p. 206, 216). Unlike the Annual Reminder, which addressed the state in asserting the similarity of homosexuals with heterosexual citizens, parade participants celebrated their differences and aimed to change minds, not laws (Bruce 2016).

There were unique characteristics of Stonewall, of course. In his detailed history of the bar and those nights, David Carter (2004) lists many: it was the only bar raid that prompted multiple nights of riots; it was the only raid that occurred in a neighborhood populated by lots of other LGBT people who could participate; the bar was the city’s largest and in a transportation hub, surrounded by many public telephones that were used to alert media; among others.

But Carter also notes that the riots were not inevitable, and were just a turning point in the United States’ gay rights movement. New York City, the nation’s largest, had many gay activists “with the specialized skills to take on leadership roles to help shape and direct the event,” for example (p. 257). He also gives special credit to the fact that several of the riots, including Stonewall and Compton’s Cafeteria riots in San Francisco, occurred during repressive acts that occurred right after a period of liberalization, which had given participants both hope that things could be better and anger when politics seemed to be retrenching. As he writes, “revolutions tend to happen after periods of liberalization” (p. 258).

As activists commemorate the Stonewall Riots in 2019, perhaps they should also lay plans for next year, to remember the 50th anniversary of the first gay pride parade in 2020. 1970 deserves to be remembered as the first national act of LGBT remembrance, if not the first act of resistance.


Agee, C. (2006). Gayola: police professionalization and the politics of San Francisco’s gay bars, 1950-1968. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 462-489.

Armstrong, E. A., & Crage, S. M. (2006). Movements and memory: The making of the Stonewall myth. American Sociological Review, 71(5), 724-751.

Bruce, Katherine McFarland. (2016). Pride Parades: How a Parade Changed the World. New York University Press.

Carter, D. (2004). Stonewall: The riots that sparked the gay revolution. New York: Macmillan.

Duberman, M. (1993a). Stonewall. New York: St. Martin’s.

Duberman, M. (1993b). The Night They Raided Stonewall. Grand Street, (44), 120-147. doi:10.2307/25007620

Hall, S. (2010). The American gay rights movement and patriotic protest. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 19(3), 536-562.

Johnson, D. (1994). “Homosexual Citizens”: Washington’s Gay Community Confronts the Civil Service. Washington History, 6(2), 44-63.

Meeker, M. (2001). Behind the mask of respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and male homophile practice, 1950s and 1960s. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 10(1), 78-116.

Stryker, S. (2008). Transgender History. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

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