In a very real sense, it is inescapable that the gay liberation movement would have strong parallels with other social and civil rights causes of the 1960s and 1970s. The “Stonewall Uprising” documentary makes this clear, and the similarities are expressed by more than one gay person recalling the riots; it was the “Rosa Parks moment,” it is said, identifying the gay surge of resistance to one of the most memorable events for African Americans. Then, and as I perceive it, the sexual orientation issue itself equates the gay marginalization with the women’s movement of the period. Clearly, homosexuality was largely viewed by the society in those years in a manner far more hostile than was early feminism. As the film reinforces, prior to Stonewall, being gay was typically considered a mental illness, and the issues facing women were not so emphatically hateful. Nonetheless, there remains the common factor of cultural objection to perceived violations of gender roles.
There is as well the obvious element of the timing and force of the Stonewall riots as reflecting other movements. Early feminism was not marked by such dramatic events, but the speed with which the women’s movement gained momentum was, as I see it, almost as shocking to the society. Then, and the actual Civil Rights protests and marches aside, Stonewall was very much an echo of the student uprisings of the late 1960s, as college students similarly battled with the police to assert their social standing as legitimate objectors to the Vietnam War. The Stonewall experience, in fact, seems to me linked powerfully to the Kent State protests and shootings occurring less than year later; in both cases, populations that viewed themselves as marginalized were overtly resisting police authority, as both were resisting for the purpose of being permitted to express their identities and beliefs. As with the Civil Rights action, violence and a refusal to submit to police authority are undeniably common factors, so it may be said that Stonewall was something of the gay version of the social eruptions generated by profound senses of injustice felt by blacks, students, and women no longer willing to be denied. Added to all of this is the solidarity experienced by the gay men resisting the police, as the same solidarity has been so present in other social movements.
All of these similarities acknowledged, the primary impression I received from the documentary goes to actual differences between gay liberation and other social movements of the time, and I believe this is based on the fundamental issues society continues to have with homosexuality. On one level, there is debate within the gay community as to the actual effects of the Stonewall riots. Many feel that the event has become “famous for being famous,” and that the cause of gay liberation was too complex for Stonewall to have taken on its legendary aspect as the great deciding moment. There were certainly other uprisings in these years, and Stonewall by no means launched a new age of gay freedom or directly altered discriminatory legislation (Eaklor 124). Gays then, as now, have been focused on acquiring legal standing on a par with basic citizenship, and it seems that many gays favor actions that more calmly go to the heart of these legal barriers. However, if the documentary makes anything particularly clear, it is the intense fear and mistrust regarding gays that has longed fueled discriminatory policies and social dismissal. There is Mike Wallace reporting, for example, that two out of three Americans view homosexuality with “disgust” (Stonewall Uprising, 2010). This attitude in place at the time, I believe, is the key to understanding why the gay movement was and is unique. If mainstream America in the 1960s objected to African American rights and held biased views regarding women, “disgust” was not a part of the feeling. Consequently, and despite opinions that the actual impact was in a sense illusory, Stonewall was clearly as profound a social event as may be conceived. A population was not merely insisting upon the right to carry on as it saw fit, but was demanding that its identity be recognized in a completely different way.
There is still here the similarity with the black movement but, again, the critical component of disgust changes everything. If blacks were reviled, they were not seen as mentally ill; if blacks were denied opportunity, it was not due to feelings that they were deviants. In this single regard, there can be no true parallel between gays and any other marginalized population, for perceptions of innate inferiority, as offensive as they may be, do not so drastically imply condemnation. That gays were so hated must arise from the factor of orientation, which in turn defies the fundamental ideologies of a patriarchy. More to the point, it defies the adamantly “masculine” patriarchy of the U.S. , certainly in sway at the time. Stonewall was a crucial moment because a group of men were contradicting the tenets of the nation and the culture, and in more than one way. They were asserting that their orientation had been viewed completely incorrectly, which blatantly then asserted that the dominant culture was wrong. They were suddenly claiming the unthinkable premise that a man could be gay and not be damaged or ill. They were, in a word, violently challenging whatever American ideology was in place that created a reaction of disgust towards them. Biased ideas of inferiority are tame in comparison with such a stand, for the actual right to personhood was the issue, and beyond even legal rights.
It was about personhood as existing contrary to the widespread conviction that, in cases of homosexuality, it had no right to exist.
As I see it, Stonewall was not a tactical, or even goal-oriented, action. As with Rosa Parks’s decision on a bus, it was very much of the moment. This being the case, it is unreasonable to demand or expect actual progress to have been generated by it, just as the other social movements of the era more typically revealed organizational strategies and long-term thinking; if Rosa Parks acted with no agenda, her action was nonetheless a facet of a greater process underway. This same element of spontaneity, however, all the more adds integrity and import to the New York riots of 1969. It was, in my view, as organic a protest as may be, in that the victimized population acted on a virtually unconscious level. It was, above all, reactive, and a response to another random group arrest. The reaction was utter abnegation, so the riots had the effects of all the power of an ultimate saying of, no. If gays and others debate today the true value of Stonewall, they partially do an injustice to an extraordinary and courageous moment when a population, long accustomed to being an object of disgust and ridicule, refused to comply in its own condemnation. This is a reality immensely strong, and one that separates Stonewall from all other active pursuits of social justice at the time.
- Eaklor, V. L. (2008). Queer America: A GLBT History of the 20th Century. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
- “Stonewall Uprising” (2010). Prod. Davis, K., & Heilbroner, D. .American Experience. PBS, Televsion. Retrieved from HYPERLINK “http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/stonewall/player/”http://www.pbs.org/wg