Marking the half-centenary of the Stonewall riots, Morgan Daniels looks at the history of the Stonewall Inn and what it means for radical queer politics everywhere
Trotsky once wrote that he was 'impressed' by New York City, that it represented the 'fullest expression of our modern age'. It is difficult not to share in this awe—New York, one of the supreme cities of capitalism, brings home the vast productive capacity of the human race, its skyscrapers and bridges and boulevards infused with giddying ambition and imagination. Yet the point is not just that the Big Apple attests to the triumph of industrial capital, but that it is (therefore) pregnant with resistance: its streets and history belong to striking garment workers, to civil rights campaigners, to those who walk on the wild side.
Today this beautiful, contradictory city hosted the largest gay pride march in history, the grand finale of a month-long WorldPride extravaganza. Organisers are insistent that we should, indeed, speak of a 'march' rather than a 'parade', as we need to remember its angry origins in the aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall uprising: this was the moment when patrons of a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, routed the NYPD during a routine after-dark raid on its premises.
But if the capitalist state breeds revolt, revolt, in turn, can be commodified, even revolt against police brutality: the Reclaim Pride Coalition staged an alternative demonstration in New York this afternoon, incensed at the way in which everyone from Deutsche Bank to Calvin Klein wants their bit of the LGBT action, sponsoring floats, recasting their bland logos in rainbow colours.
They have a point. Whilst it is an honour to be in New York today, commemorating the struggle for LGBT equality half a century on from Stonewall, the apolitical nature of the WorldPride march was haunting, especially under the reactionary Trump administration. There was an eerie symbolism to be had in the official mayoral float taking the form of a decorated sanitation truck—the very same type of vehicle that had previously been instrumental in clearing Zuccotti Park of Occupy Wall Street protestors.
So much for a march paying its dues to the anti-establishment fervour of Stonewall!
The Stonewall Inn fifty years ago sounds a pretty grim place: Mafia-run, it had no running water behind the bar, served diluted drinks, and operated, illegally, without a liquor licence. Police raids on such venues were regular, almost ritualised, a corrupt merry-go-round in which bar owners got tipped off ahead of time and dodgy cops received a backhander.
There was no such tip-off before the police descended upon Stonewall on 27 June 1969—but those making merry in this dubious bar were not in the mood to be roughed up. Officers were pelted with bottles, coins, whatever was at hand—dog shit, say some reports—and were forced to take shelter inside the bar they had come to raid, away from a crowd that numbered 500 by the end of the night. Violence restarted the following evening, a hundred cops from multiple precincts confronting a thousand rioters, prominent among whom were the street queens Sylvia Riviera and Marsha P. Johnson.
A spark had been lit in the movement. By early July the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed, an anti-capitalist group whose name made direct allusion to the liberation movements in Vietnam and Algeria. That same month 500 people attended a 'Gay Power' rally in Washington Square Park. And on Sunday, 28 June 1970, the first Christopher Street Liberation Day saw at least two thousand march 51 blocks from Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village to Sheep Meadow in Central Park.
What is the 'meaning' of Stonewall now?
Martin Duberman's classic Stonewall (1994) suggests some interesting answers to this question. Re-released a few months ago, it is a striking case study in political organisation—the 'riots' on Christopher Street aren't covered until a good 200 pages into the text. For all the spontaneity of Stonewall, it was a watershed because it supercharged and shook up already-existing networks of gay rights activists. As Duberman traces the development of these groups prior to 1969—their publications, their in-fighting, their tactics—a very clear lesson emerges, namely that organisation is vital for social change.
Stonewall is also vital for its discussion of a theoretical division in the gay rights movement between conservative, 'assimilationist' groups and those with a more radical, systemic analysis. For the latter, the fight against gay oppression demanded a fight, too, against the racism, war, and exploitation necessary to capitalist society. Duberman characterises the suspicion faced by the early GLF at a convention of the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations in November 1969:
"Did they regard themselves as revolutionaries? Were they prepared to work for their ideas within the frame of parliamentary procedures? Did they consider themselves Good Americans, or were they bent on destroying the country's basic institutions?"
It is surely true that we need to connect up struggles against oppression. After all, the uprising at Stonewall was a furious response to a type of institutionalised gay-bashing—and if the violence of the state is felt disproportionately by LGBT people, it is obvious that this holds painfully, fatally true, too, for black people, Muslims, refugees, the homeless, and so many more oppressed groups besides.
Put otherwise, Stonewall illuminated precisely the structural nature of oppression, and in turn pointed to the need for a collective response thereto. For a famous and invigorating example of LGBT politics operating in a systemic, class register, think of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. But the bold, joined-up anti-capitalism promised by the GLF was not to last, the group dissolving in 1973—and as Kevin Ovenden wrote on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, the loss of radicalism within the gay rights movement and the collapse into the politics of identity has had a demoralising and destructive effect:
"The idea that simply asserting your identity is the way to overcome oppression leads away from collective struggle … Furthermore identity politics centres on enlarging the pink economy, making money for gay businessmen rather than challenging homophobia in the rest of society. … The need for a politics which breaks out of the ghetto and unites those fighting back … has never been clearer."
That was in 1994. We are now a quarter of a century deeper into neoliberal capitalism, a project that has served to wreck many traditional forms of solidarity and collectivity, whilst breeding untold levels of alienation. Hence the desperate and understandable recourse to identity.
Yet to take to the streets, to march with thousands upon thousands, is something counterposed to alienation. Is it not the case that self-knowledge comes in the course of collective struggle, as one begins to be rid of what Marx called the muck of ages? To demonstrate is to understand that so very much more unites us than divides us, and that division is essential for the ruling class to keep on ruling.
Whatever the infuriating contradictions of an event branded heavily by big capital—'pinkwashing'—it remains in some way radical to affirm gay pride on the streets of New York. But in a polarised society like Trump's America, an apolitical appeal to identity alone carries terrible risk.
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