Stonewall: Activism Transformed

In the midst of all the slow-rolling court cases managed by Mattachine, the Stonewall riots ocurred. Up until the summer of 1969, the police had been unopposed in their regular raids on gay bars in New York City, frequently arresting or roughing up customers. But on June 28th, 1969, some of the patrons at the Stonewall Inn—mostly a mix of street kids, drag queens, effeminate men, hustlers, and a few lesbians—protested the raid and then fought back physically against the police, leading to a violent clash. This touched off several nights of running street battles in Greenwich Village between riot police and protestors.

The exact set of influences and events that caused the Stonewall riots has been much debated, but their immediate overall effect was to galvanize a less conservative approach to gay activism and to greatly expand the number of people participating. This new spirit showed up almost immediately. The July 4th Annual Reminder picket was just a few days after Stonewall. Frank Kameny attempted to enforce his long-time picket line rules about dress code, but some picketers showed up in jeans rather than business suits or skirts. When Kameny rushed over to a pair of lesbians holding hands on the picket line and broke their hands apart, exclaiming “None of that! None of that!”—younger gay activist Craig Rodwell protested by encouraging others to hold hands. It was the last Annual Reminder.


Gay Liberation Front-DC house members

Members of D.C.'s Gay Liberation Front in 1970. Photograph contributed by David Aiken.

In both New York and in other cities, including D.C., new groups formed.  The most immediate and prominent among these was the Gay Liberation Front, formed in 1970. The GLF was aligned with radical Leftist causes and thought. It emphasized gay men and lesbians becoming involved in consciousness-raising and in making common social and political cause with other oppressed minority groups, including African Americans, women, Latinos and Chicanos, and Native Americans. Members tended to be younger and meetings, which were held in completely democratic style, could drift on for hours without anything substantive getting accomplished. Frank Kameny was not in sympathy with the group’s style, and they tended to see him as unforgivably old school, but he did attend some GLF meetings, and common cause could sometimes be found, such as confronting psychiatric practice.