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Stonewall Riots

Asked by jotresser | Oct 4, 2007 | University Level > Sociology > Homework
jotresser asks:

I have to do an essay on what the impact of the stonewall riots has been on contempory gay lifestyles?!
Thanks x

etutor answers:

This needs to be put in context in order to show the transformation in attitudes towards, and in the status (and confidence) of gays as a result of the Stonewall Riots. It is also very much a US-led transformation.

The Second World War saw large numbers of gay young people leaving families, small towns, and closely knit neighborhoods to enter a sex-segregated military or to migrate to larger cities for wartime employment. After the war, many of them made choices designed to support their gay identities, not returning to their home towns after being discharged. The effect was to sustain a vibrant gay subculture that revolved around bars and friendship networks. Many US cities saw their first gay bars during the 1940s. This new visibility provoked latent cultural prejudices; many gays were dismissed from government jobs and purged from the military in the 1950s. President Eisenhower issued an executive order in 1953 barring gay men and lesbians from all federal jobs. Many state and local governments and private corporations followed suit. The FBI began a surveillance program against homosexuals.

The lead taken by the federal government encouraged local police forces to harass gay citizens. Vice officers regularly raided gay bars, sometimes arresting dozens of men and women on a single night. In response some gays began to organise politically, with (mostly male) organisations establishing chapters in several cities and publishing magazines. In the 1960s, influenced by the model of a militant black civil rights movement, the 'homophile movement', as the participants called it, became more visible. Activists picketed government agencies in Washington to protest against discriminatory employment policies. In San Francisco police harassment was targeted. By 1969, perhaps fifty homophile organizations existed in the United States, with memberships of a few thousand.

At the time, it was common all over the USA for police to raid gay and lesbian bars. While they were purportedly looking for violations of the liquor laws, patrons were arrested and dragged off to jail with no legitimate charges. The names of those arrested were often published in the papers and many of those people were fired from their jobs as a result. In 1969 bars were about the only places gays and lesbians could gather in public. Generally, when the police raided a bar, the gay and lesbian clientele would try to slip out the back or cower in the corners. On Friday evening, June 27, 1969, the police in New York City raided a Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. Contrary to expectations, the patrons fought back, throwing bottles and rocks at the police, and provoking three nights of rioting in the area, accompanied by the appearance of 'gay power' slogans on the buildings. Almost overnight, a massive grassroots gay liberation movement was born. Owing much to the radical protest of blacks, women, and college students in the 1960s, gays challenged all forms of hostility and punishment meted out by society. Choosing to 'come out of the closet' and publicly proclaiming their identity, they ushered in a social change movement that has since grown substantially. A month after the Stonewall Riots, the Gay Liberation Front was formed, just one of many politically focused lesbian and gay organisations that formed in the wake of the riots, both in the USA and around the world. The number of lesbian and gay publications skyrocketed as well, which led to an even greater sense of community. Homosexuals were no longer strictly marginalised in US society. Instead, 'out and proud' lesbians and gay men were rapidly developing their own communities in cities across the country.

By 1973, there were almost eight hundred gay and lesbian organisations in the United States; by 1990, the number was several thousand. In 1970, 5,000 gay men and lesbians marched in New York City to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots; in 1987, over 600,000 marched in Washington, demanding equality. As a result, the USA saw far-reaching changes. Over the next two decades, half the states decriminalised homosexual behaviour, while police harassment was sharply contained. Many large cities included sexual orientation in their civil rights statutes, as did Wisconsin and Massachusetts, the first among the states to do so. In 1975 the Civil Service Commission eliminated the ban on the employment of homosexuals in most federal jobs. Many of the nation's religious denominations engaged in spirited debates about the morality of homosexuality, and some, like Unitarianism and Reformed Judaism, opened their doors to gay and lesbian ministers and rabbis. The lesbian and gay world ceased to be an underground subculture but, especially in larger cities, a well-organised community, with businesses, political clubs, social service agencies, community centres, and religious congregations bringing people together. In a number of places, openly gay candidates ran for elective office and won.

Naturally these changes spawned opposition. In 1977 the singer Anita Bryant led a campaign to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida. Her success encouraged others, and by the early 1980s, a well-organized conservative force had materialised to target the gay rights movement. Politicians, such as Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and fundamentalist ministers, such as Jerry Falwell of Virginia, who formed the Moral Majority, Inc., joined forces to slow the progress of the gay movement.

The onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, although it intensified the anti-gay rhetoric of the New Right, also stimulated further organising within the gay community. AIDS made political mobilisation a matter of life and death. With a large majority of the cases striking male homosexuals, the gay community created a host of organisations, such as the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City, to provide services and assistance to those infected. Local and national gay civil rights groups also grew in size and number, as the community sought to increase funding for research and education and to win protection against discrimination.AIDS paradoxically strengthened the political arm of the gay movement.

Stonewall means different things to different people, whether they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. Indeed, arguments among organisers during the 25th anniversary celebrations regarding the inclusion of drag queens and transgendered people in the march only highlighted rifts already present within the gay community. In addition, 'queens of colour', who were on the front lines during the riots, have complained of what they feel is the taking over of Stonewall by gay white men. There is hence a sense of separatism and fragmentation within the gay movement.

I hope this is helpful.

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