50 Years of Queer Anger: While pivotal, Stonewall wasn’t the beginning

Pallas Gutierrez, Columnist

This is the first column in “50 Years of Queer Anger,” a series examining LGBTQ+ issues in the United States since 1969.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a moment that kickstarted the gay liberation movement in the United States. The Stonewall riots erupted on June 28, 1969, in response to a series of police raids on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York. Although there had been many other riots and protests across the country in response to police brutality against queer people in queer spaces, none captured mainstream national attention quite like Stonewall. For this reason, Stonewall is often presented as the first event in modern American queer history.

The significance of Stonewall cannot be ignored. It led to the founding of various queer rights groups like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). But perhaps the most important results of the Stonewall riots were pride marches and celebrations. To commemorate Stonewall, GLF and GAA organized the first Gay Liberation Day March in 1970, and those marches continue today in New York City Pride, as well as pride celebrations across the country.

Despite the radical nature of Stonewall, its modern portrayal has been sanitized, whitewashed and ciswashed. Stonewall was a spontaneous police riot. There was no planning, no forethought; the protests were the result of an oppressed group reacting simultaneously and angrily against their oppressors. Stonewall and the pride marches after it were largely led by trans women of color like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, but modern depictions of Stonewall often focus on white cis gay men. This is just one example of a widespread problem within representation of queer history and the queer community that needs to be corrected. White cis gay men are not the only queer people, and, historically, they certainly not the only radical actors.

In order to fully understand queer history and culture in the United States, it is important to recognize that there is queer history before 1969. Although Stonewall was spontaneous and the first event to truly capture national attention about queer rights, there were riots and celebrations before then that the queer community felt strongly about, regardless of attention from the mainstream press. In 1965, six San Francisco-based homophile groups (which preceded gay liberation groups) organized a fundraiser ball, which was stalked by police and resulted in four arrests. Activists met with police officers, and police harassment of gay bars declined. This victory was celebrated locally but did not reach national media. Compton’s Cafeteria, a coffee shop in San Francisco, was raided in 1966 and a violent riot ensued, but the lack of media coverage and police records let the event escape public notice.

These events are important to recognize, because without them and the networks they created an eruption like Stonewall may never have happened. Stonewall was important because of its scale and the national queer response it elicited, but it did not stand alone; it was the culmination of years of queer anger about systematic oppression. For the first time in American history, the queer community as a whole decided that enough was enough, and the gay liberation movement began.

The upcoming 50th anniversary of Stonewall provides a logical moment to reflect on American queer history. In the 50 years since the Stonewall riots, the American political and social landscape has changed in ways that people at the first pride could never have imagined. As people who are living through the anniversary of this historic moment, it is our duty to reflect on Stonewall, the work and sacrifices that got us here, our own society and where we still have to go.

A. Pallas Gutierrez is a Communication freshman. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.