Stonewall was a riot banner, Chicago 1994 Stonewall was a riot banner, Chicago 1994. Photo: / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked below article

Kevin Ovenden reflects on the Stonewall riots of 1969, the historical dynamic that gave rise to it and the potential for struggle today

Fifty-three years ago tonight was the start of the Stonewall riot. Police in New York City raided a mafia-run bar where gays and street kids paid over the odds to get a drink, hang out and maybe hook up. 

The mafia and police worked hand in hand and dollar for dollar. It was a routine raid. This time people erupted in resistance. Crucially, it continued for three days and nights sparking a wider movement. 

There had been at least a dozen known confrontations with the police at gay bars in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. They included “unlikely” places, such as Milwaukee. Repressed and illegal it may have been, but homosexuality, both male and female, existed in the US at that time and so did a semi-underground culture. Stonewall went on longer than previous flashpoints, drew in wider numbers and came after the global eruption of 1968 and the radicalisation of the US civil rights movement. 

Some of the efforts by the US state to demonise homosexuality in the post-war period had led to the creation of highly localised communities able to organise themselves socially and at points politically. Thus San Francisco’s famous gay area arose from the US navy dumping sailors accused of same-sex activity onshore at that port in the 1940s and 1950s. Talk about the law of unintended consequences. 

There was already before Stonewall an important historical dynamic. Shifting post-war mass consciousness, particularly among young people, ran up against an archaic social and legal order, and against old conservative forces. The state drive to get women out of the factories and back to the home to make way for men returning from the war was a driving force of what became a new upsurge of the women’s movement in the 1960s. In the US especially there was a female revolt against domesticity and the conservative view of women as dutiful wives making a nest for the family. 

The 1950s was a period of state reaction in the US and in its western allies as the Cold War set in. But beneath that was a deep social shift: urbanisation, industrialisation and new horizons. All of this is explored in Chris Harman’s great history of 1968.

The result was a kind of tectonic social and political pressure that would find a way to explode.

Crucially, there was the interaction between the revolutionary developments in what we now call the global south and the social struggles within the US, and in Europe. A pivot of that interaction was the struggle against colonialism abroad and against racism at home. 

So even before Stonewall you had agitation for liberal reform by very brave activists, often connected to the left in a broad sense, and sadly too often forgotten today. 

There were some sincere liberal political figures also. 

The 1957 Wolfenden Report in Britain recommended legalising homosexuality, which was a criminal offence between men.

It took until the 1967 Sexual Offences Act for parliament to act on it. In the US the lobbying for change in the 1950s and 1960s is also interesting. There it especially ran up against the anti-Communist witch-hunting. You saw the fusion of the defence of racist segregation, of a conservative view of family relations, of the subordination of women, of anti-socialism and of violent oppression of lesbians and gay men. 

A result of these contradictions in Britain was the socially reforming Wilson government elected in 1964. It sought modernisation of both British capitalism (which included confronting trade union power) and its archaic institutions. There was also a reforming part of the capitalist class. Difficult as it is to imagine now, but Margaret Thatcher voted in 1967 for Labour MP Leo Abse’s Bill on liberalising the law on homosexulaity, on her own capitalist-individualist grounds.

There was, of course, the agitation and campaigning. After that came the radicalisation into seeing the issue as revolutionary gay liberation in the 1970s. That came to Britain formally in 1971 with the creation of a British Gay Liberation Front echoing what had developed post-Stonewall in the US. 

The “revolutionary” part had a huge range of meanings from versions of Marxism through to radical drag. That was men dressing as women, while being and identifying as men, in order to provoke bigoted reaction and thus create a moment in which to question sex role stereotypes. Gutsy, whatever its effectiveness. 

Important gains were made. They survived the backlash of the 1980s, though not without major mobilisations under the hammer of the Aids pandemic. 

If convservative reaction came from one direction, liberal-capitalist absorption came from the other. 

We have had 25 years of corporate capitalist efforts to adopt a deradicalised parody of the politics of gay, LGBT and women’s liberation. It is simultaneously testimony to the gains have been made but also to the capacity of this system to blunt and trivialise them. And so we have had for a couple of decades a period of what you might call liberal light-mindedness.

It has been a kind of political decadence in which we have had an indulgence of more and more absurd and splintering debates about language and privilege as opposed to defending and extending rights in the real world. 

I mean in the US, Britain, Australia and the like. There are vast parts of the world where to march for gay or LGBT (or whatever term you use) rights is to be met by state violence. Turkey, for example. 

So, many places have not had even the minimal liberal breakthroughs in law or in corporations and military bureaucracies displaying the right flag in the right month in the right place. The US embassy in Greece flies a huge “Progress Pride” flag this month. It doesn’t in Saudi Arabia – why not, do you think?

Events in the US, Poland, Malta and elsewhere in the west over the throwing back of women’s rights tell us that we don’t have room for that luxury anymore. By luxury I don’t mean taking up and fighting on the issues of specific social oppression. Far from it.

I mean the folly of substituting navel-gazing drivel for actually fighting over oppression and unifying struggles against the capitalist class, its state and the forces of reaction.

Stonewall was a wonderful event. We do not have to wait for such events. The years prior to it show that it is possible to organise and win things out of a system under strain.

Corporate brands will pretend to be responding to any and all of our personal branding as an individual. They are not. They are sucking the life out of the liberatory potential of half a century ago. 

We should unite and get our lives and true individuality back – whatever flags states and billionaire-owned companies choose to fly.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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