This article is adapted from a public talk by Ian Anderson, active in the Workers Party and Queer Avengers. The talk was originally delivered at Wellington’s Marriage Equality Conference in November-December 2012. It gives a snapshot of the “Gay Liberation” movement of the late 1960s-1970s.
In 1969, the night of the Stonewall riot, was a very hot, muggy night. We were in the Stonewall [bar] and the lights came on. We all stopped dancing. The police came in…
We were led out of the bar and they cattled us all up against the police vans. The cops pushed us up against the grates and the fences. People started throwing pennies, nickels, and quarters at the cops.
And then the bottles started. And then we finally had the morals squad barricaded in the Stonewall building, because they were actually afraid of us at that time. They didn’t know we were going to react that way…
It was street gay people from the Village out front-homeless people who lived in the park in Sheridan Square outside the bar-and then drag queens behind them and everybody behind us. The Stonewall Inn telephone lines were cut and they were left in the dark…
All of us were working for so many movements at that time. Everyone was involved with the women’s movement, the peace movement, the civil-rights movement. We were all radicals. I believe that’s what brought it around.
You get tired of being just pushed around.
-Sylvia Rivera, interview by Leslie Feinberg (Workers World Party 1998)
The 1969 Stonewall Riots, which galvanised the Gay Liberation movement throughout the First World, are a well-documented but little understood rupture. On June 28th, 1969, a regular police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a queer-friendly bar, triggered resistance from marginal queer communities in New York City. This event can only be understood in the context of a wider process of social transformation, while the ensuing political project – “Gay Liberation” – contained internal contradictions which are still relevant today.
Gay Liberation: Continuity and disruption
Gay Liberation groups weren’t the first to take up the cause of “homophile equality.” In the US, the Mattachine Society formed out of the Communist Party in 1950; in the UK, the Homosexual Law Reform Society formed in 1960; in Aotearoa/NZ, the Dorian Society formed in 1962. However, these were politically safer than the later Gay Liberation groups, less concerned with visible public actions, and were ‘boys’ clubs’ to a significant degree. The Gay Liberation movement is notable partly as a rupture with this kind of politics.
The Stonewall Riots also weren’t the first queer public rupture of their kind. In the US alone, the 1965 Dewey’s Lunch Counter Sit-In, (LGBT African Americans resisting a ban on ‘non-conformist clothing’) and the 1966 Compton Cafeteria Riots, (transfolk fighting police harassment) both preceded this explosion in 1969. The Stonewall riots are remembered partly because of the radical political organisations which formed.
Many queers were already active in the wider movements of the time, as highlighted by Sylvia Rivera, a transwoman who played a founding role. The movements against US imperialism, for Civil Rights, for women’s liberation, gave queers the confidence to fight back at Stonewall. With the skill-sets gained from their work in social movements, queer activists returned to the Stonewall Inn over subsequent nights, organising and distributing leaflets.
In early July, radical queers in New York formed the first “Gay Liberation Front.” Notably, this name aligned with anti-imperialist liberation struggles, particularly the Vietnamese National Liberation Front then resisting US occupation. The Gay Liberation Front organised regular public demonstrations. Groups outside New York, and outside the US, began adopting the name Gay Liberation Front – growing to more than 80 chapters worldwide.
Radical movements and solidarity
Standing in solidarity with the radical movements of the time, Gay Liberation groups also had a radical analysis of society. The Gay Liberation Manifesto written 1971 goes beyond the call for reforms, and links the struggle for gay liberation with a wider struggle against the imposition of restrictive gender roles:
“Gay liberation does not just mean reforms. It means a revolutionary change in our whole society… The long-term goal of Gay Liberation, which inevitably brings us into conflict with the institutionalised sexism of this society, is to rid society of the gender-role system which is at the root of our oppression.”
Radical queers were largely isolated from the established working class organisations of the time; unions and Stalinist parties, which tended to be socially conservative. Although sections of the New Left showed solidarity with gay liberation, queer radicals generally lacked economic and political clout.
In some rare cases, links were forged between queer radicals and the established working class organisations. The Builders Laborers Federation in Sydney, influenced partly by communist involvement, took up demands of the wider community including the demands of gay liberation. When Jeremy Allan Fisher, an “early member of gay liberation” was thrown out of Macquarie University in 1973, the BLF placed a green ban on construction work. Allan reports that this was the first time an industrial union took action in defence of gay rights.
In New York, the movement split between reformists and radicals. In 1971 Sylvia Rivera formed the Street Trans Action Revolutionaries (STAR) out of the Gay Liberation Front, while ex-members formed the Gay Activist Alliance, which became increasingly single-issue. While the single-issue “gay” movement began to win reforms, it dropped the trans* demands and radical perspective in the process.
1972-1979: Gay Liberation in Aotearoa/NZ
In Aotearoa, the first Gay Liberation groups formed in 1972, the year of the first National Gay and Lesbian Conference. Gay Liberation Front branches opened in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, and Christchurch.
Also in 1972, takataapui/lesbian activist Ngahuia te Awekotuku was denied a visa to the US (reportedly aiming to visit the Black Panthers) on the basis of “sexual deviance,” triggering protest actions. In the following years, Ngahuia te Awekotuku and Barry Lee would popularise the term takataapui, or close companion of the same sex, to refer to gender and sexual variance in Maori communities.
Various gay liberation groups came together in the National Gay Rights Coalition, which lobbied for reforms. MPs proposed Homosexual Law Reform Bills in 1974 and 1979, however these were compromised by proposing a discriminatory age of consent for gay men. The National Gay Rights Coalition actually lobbied MPs to vote against the 1979 bill, stating they were “not prepared to accept anything less than full equality.”
Although the last Gay Liberation Front groups dissolved in 1979, they were succeeded by other local groups which continued to lobby for reforms.
Lessons for today
A number of key lessons, observations and questions can be drawn from this historical snapshot. A key point to remember, often brandished on banners in the US, is that ‘Stonewall was an unpermitted action.’ Although some may argue that gay welfare has improved since 1969, making street-fighting less of a necessity, gay liberation was a rupture from the politics-as-usual of reformist groups. Many of the problems that triggered the initial Stonewall Riots; police violence, trans* oppression, homelessness; continue to this day.
This raises the question of how to build strong coalitions beyond a single-issue basis. Even the name ‘Gay Liberation’ is controversial in queer politics, covering only one letter on the LGBT+ spectrum. As Angela Davis asked in a speech at Occupy Wall Street: “How can we be together in a unity that is not simplistic and oppressive? How can we be together in a unity that is complex and emancipatory?” Revolutionary organisations can play a key role both supporting existing queer struggles, and pushing towards a more radical perspective.