It’s been 41 years since the Stonewall Rebellion in New York sparked the gay liberation movement. One wag called it “the hissy fit heard ’round the world.”
The Stonewall riots in 1969 were an immediate reaction to police harassment in a New York bar. But they emerged out of a swirling vortex of social change fueled by the Old Left, the Civil Rights Movement, the Sexual Revolution and Women’s Liberation.
There’s some credence to the old right-wing saw that gay rights is a Commie plot. The founders of Germany’s pioneering gay movement more than a century ago were socialists committed to extending to homosexuals the “rights of man”
championed by Enlightenment philosophers. Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society in 1951 and universally recognized as the father of the gay rights movement in the United States, was a member of the Communist Party who fought for the rights of workers and minorities.
Today’s LGBT rights movement owes its greatest debt to the African-American civil rights movement. Many early gay activists were inspired by the example of civil rights organizing. Some were veterans of freedom rides and voter registration drives. Once organized as homosexuals, they adopted the black movement’s rhetoric, goals and tactics.
Chants of “Gay Power!” and “Gay Pride!” were derived from black nationalist slogans. The goal of achieving equality through legal provisions against discrimination voiced by black leaders was adopted by gays and lesbians seeking an end to prejudice. Gay people held protest marches, walked picket lines, lobbied legislators and began running for office as openly gay and lesbian candidates.
Some African-American leaders criticized the gay movement for co-opting their rhetoric and goals and riding on their coat tails. But most people today recognize that the appropriation of civil rights goals by gays, women, Latinos, people with disabilities and other groups does not diminish the black experience. It expands the vision and enhances the prospects for greater dignity and freedom for everyone.
LGBT people of all colors can honor the debt we owe to the civil rights movement by confronting racism and ethnocentrism when we see or hear it, especially in queer communities.
The Sexual Revolution of the 1960s gave the gay rights movement a big push. The introduction of the pill and other contraceptives, newly published research about sexuality, the counterculture’s call for “free love,” and the relaxation of media censorship opened the door to more honest discussions about sex. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people bolted out of their closets in growing numbers, leaving shame behind and asserting pride in our identities.
Women’s Liberation played a critical role in the struggle, mobilizing tens of thousands of lesbians and providing the movement’s intellectual ballast. Feminist critiques of gender socialization and power relations within society are central to our understanding of homophobia. The lesbian critique of “heterosexism” – male supremacy allied to compulsory heterosexuality – speaks to the oppression of all LGBT people.
The feminist movement provided the gay rights movement with some of its best leaders. Organizational skills honed in women’s groups continue to benefit campaigns for gay civil rights. Feminist principles of inclusiveness, like consensus decision-making, racial and gender quotas for governing bodies, ASL interpreters at events, and ticket prices scaled to income, are still evident in progressive LGBT groups today.
I love that the rainbow flag has become our standard. Besides its dazzling effect (a must for those of us with queer genes), it reflects our diversity as individuals as well as our cultural and historical heritage. That heritage teaches us that there can be no real gay pride without racial equality, sexual autonomy and women’s liberation.