Friday, December 02, 2011

The Stonewall Uprising And The Birth of the Gay Rights Movement

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe how a police crackdown at a gay bar in New York led to the birth of a new civil rights struggle and how gay men and women grew more politically and culturally assertive in the 1960s and 1970s.

It was not the feminist movement alone that challenged the definition of masculinity and femininity in American society. “Most postwar Americans understood sexuality as a spectrum running from most manly to most womanly,” historian Bruce J. Schulman wrote. “They assumed that homosexual men were effeminate, lesbians masculine. For a man to prove his heterosexuality, he had to eschew any effeminate behavior or trait.”

As Schulman argued, during the 1950s and 1960s a focus of the gay rights movement was to point out that these stereotypes were invalid, that “homosexual men were regular guys, professionals, working men.” Promoting tolerance of sexual orientation, he said, became almost secondary to changing the image of the gay community. By the late 1960s, however, a new generation of gay activists wanted to move on from confronting stereotypes. The rise of the “Gay Liberation Movement,” which sought acceptance of homosexuality as an example of human diversity, was greatly aided by the development of large gay communities with thriving subcultures in places like San Francisco’s Castro District.

Perhaps the most critical moment in the history of gay activism happened on June 27, 1969 when New York City police conducted a raid on a nightspot, the Stonewall Inn, on Christopher Street in the heart of the metropolis’ gay community. “The ‘Stonewall’ catered to a young and largely nonwhite clientele, including many drag queens,” Schulman said. Police routinely harassed patrons at gay night spots, with customers rounded up and arrested, but on this night something different happened. The usual arrests were unfolding as police seized control of the Stonewall and loaded up the patrons into a police van when a lesbian began to struggle against arresting officers.

As Lucian Truscott of "The Village Voice" newspaper reported in a condescending tone, “The scene became explosive. Limp wrists were forgotten. Beer cans and bottles were heaved at the windows and a rain of coins descended on the cops.” As news of the uprising spread through the city, upwards of 1,000 protestors arrived on the scene. Gay men, who had been routinely beaten and humiliated by police, fought uniformed officers and covered buildings on Christopher Street with graffiti that read, “Gay Power!” The police department dispatched a riot squad to quell the disturbance, but demonstrations continued in New York for days.

Within a short time, gay men in New York had formed the Gay Liberation Front, a group that consciously modeled itself on groups like the Black Panthers. Similar organizations calling for not just acceptance of homosexuals, but political power for gays, spread throughout the country. By 1973, more than 800 gay and lesbian civil rights, mutual support and social organizations had formed across the United States. Such organizations wanted to end the isolation and loneliness felt by many gays by encouraging those in the movement to publicly “come out,” meaning that they would openly reveal their sexual orientation. Once their numbers could be seen, gays activists believed, and the “straight” public could see gay men and women working as doctors, lawyers, policemen and in other respected professions, some hoped, tolerance would follow.

Gay bars had long been gathering spots for the community, but after Stonewall, restaurants, legal clinics, newspapers, churches and synagogues aimed at the gay public opened in cities across America. Gay rights advocates won one of their most significant political victories in 1974. Until that year, the American Psychiatric Association defined homosexuality as a mental illness in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In pursuit of curing this so-called disease, doctors subjected gay patients to castration, overdoses of insulin, electro-shock and “aversion” therapy.

Activists demanded the profession provide objective evidence that gays were less well adjusted than heterosexuals or drop the designation. A committee could find no scientific evidence that gays were not mentally healthy. In 1974, the psychiatric group voted to drop homosexuality from the DSM. The following year, the United States Civil Service Commission dropped its prohibition on the hiring of gays in the federal government. City governments in Boston, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. included a ban on anti-gay discrimination in their civil rights ordinances.

The gay subculture, which had for decades strongly influenced American music and Broadway theater, reached a mass audience through the disco music craze in the late 1970s. One group, the Village People, featured singers and dancers dressed as masculine archetypes (an Indian in feathered headdress, a policeman, a cowboy, etc.) and had a string of novelty hits beginning in 1977, including “Macho Man” and “Y.M.C.A.” (the latter an inside joke for the gay community because YMCAs had, for much of the twentieth century, served as a place for men to make sexual hookups.)

Inevitably, gays faced a fierce counteroffensive from those describing themselves as defenders of “traditional values.” A gay-rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida, inspired a repeal campaign led by singer and former Miss Oklahoma Anita Bryant, who had a Top 40 hit song, “Paper Roses” in 1960. Bryant, who at one point called gays “human garbage,” had become a fixture in TV commercials for Tupperware, Coca-Cola, Holiday Inn and the Florida Citrus Commission, for whom she promoted drinking orange juice. When Dade County passed a law banning discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations for gays, she organized protestors, and claimed that if socially accepted, gays would sexually assault children.

“As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children, therefore, they must recruit our children,” she said. “If gays are granted rights, next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with Saint Bernards and to nail biters.” Bryant formed a group called “Save Our Children” and nearly 70 percent of Dade County voters elected to overturn the anti-discrimination ordinance June 7, 1977.

Within the next year, voters reversed anti-discrimination ordinances in Eugene, Oregon, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Wichita, Kansas. The biggest battle came in California where conservative state Sen. John Briggs placed a referendum on the state ballot that would have allowed school districts to fire gay employees or anyone who discovered to be publicly or privately “advocating, imposing, encouraging or promoting homosexual activity."

After a string of political defeats, the gay community effectively organized and put together an impressive coalition to oppose the “Briggs Initiative” as it was known. Labor rallied to the defense of gay members belonging to teacher unions, the largest-circulation newspapers in the state editorialized against it and even conservative Gov. Ronald Reagan opposed the law, calling it an attack on free speech. In an editorial, Reagan (who as a Hollywood actor had worked with many gays) asked what would happen if a student upset about a bad grade made a false accusation of homosexuality against a teacher. More than 58 percent of voters cast “no” ballots on November 7, 1978, and the measure was even rejected in Briggs’ base in Orange County.

Such elections drew gays into politics and brought to the limelight the first openly gay politicians. In 1980, the Democrats included a gay rights plank in their national platform. However, anti-gay attitudes remained at high levels in the American public. Only 27 percent of the American public believed that gays should be allowed to teach in elementary schools, according to a 1977 Gallup poll. Only 26 percent in 1978 said they would vote for a “well-qualified” gay candidate for president. For three years in a row after her anti-gay campaigns, readers of Good Housekeeping named Anita Bryant “Most Admired Woman.”

Harvey Milk’s political career captured the triumph and tragedy of gay politics in the 1970s. A Navy veteran and former Wall Street investment banker, Milk moved to San Francisco and opened a camera shop on Castro Street in 1972. Milk organized the Castro Village Association, a merchants’ organization in the neighborhood famous for its large gay community. A mayor and a County Board of Supervisors governed both the city and the county of San Francisco. After losing three times as an openly gay candidate in races for the Board of Supervisors when elections were held on a city-wide basis, the “Mayor of Castro Street” finally won an election on January 8, 1977 when the county races were broken into individual districts.

Milk received letters of admiration and praise, as well as ugly threats from across the country. “I thank God," read one letter from a 68-year-old lesbian, "I have lived long enough to see my kind emerge from the shadows and join the human race." More sinister was another note that said, “Maybe, just maybe, some of the more hostile in the district may take some potshots at you--we hope!!!" Milk took such threats in stride. One of his biggest accomplishments was passage by the board of an anti-discrimination ordinance that prohibited businesses from firing individuals based on sexual orientation. He also supported free public transportation and called for a citizens’ commission to oversee the San Francisco Police Department.

Yet, Milk seemed to sense his life was in danger and he made a tape recording on November 18, 1977, leaving a note that the message was to be played only after his death. “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door," he said. Milk was assassinated just nine days later by Dan White, a mentally imbalanced man who had recently resigned from the Board of Supervisors over the issue of pay and then became enraged when San Francisco Mayor George Moscone would not reinstate him.

On November 27, White, a conservative Catholic and former police officer, fire fighter and military veteran, arrived at city hall, sneaked into the building with a handgun, fatally shot the mayor and then killed Milk, shooting him five times. Insult was added to injury at Dan White’s trail when defense attorneys successfully kept gays and people of color off the jury and argued that at the time of the murders White suffered from “diminished capacity” mentally from eating too much junk food, the so-called “Twinkie defense.” The jury convicted White of voluntary manslaughter, rather than first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to only seven years and eight months in prison. A mob of 3,000 gay men and women rioted the night of the verdict May 21, 1979, leaving more than 160 hospitalized, including 61 police officers, and more than $1 million in damages across the city.



Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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