Gay Immaculate Conception
The Queer Origin Myth
“The gay liberation movement began on a Friday,” writes Lisa Wade in her 2018 book American Hookup. “It was summer in New York. It was 1969. The event was routine, a police roundup of the motley crew that frequented the Stonewall Inn, one of Greenwich Village’s known gay bars. But that night the bar’s regulars had had enough.”
This is where most tales of the gay liberation movement begin, in June of 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, the first time that thousands of gay people mobilized in the streets. That summer’s riots have since been immortalized in queer consciousness, celebrated annually in the form of Pride parades, and in various catchphrases as well: “The first Pride was a riot.” Gay history is often divided into “pre-Stonewall” and “post-Stonewall.” If you pull someone aside, queer or not, and ask them where the story of gay liberation began, they will almost certainly respond without hesitation that gay liberation began, well, “on a Friday.”
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However, the deeper we peer into this idea, that gay liberation began in an instant, on a single day in a single month in a single year, localized entirely in New York’s Greenwich Village, the more absurd it begins to seem. How did thousands of gays, lesbians, and street queens mobilize out of thin air? Are we sure that this event, with its large scale and intense energy, really marks the starting point of liberation?
It’s hard to blame people for internalizing what scholars have begun to call the “Stonewall myth,” the idea that gay liberation began with one of its most significant outbursts. After all, other events and histories are mostly confined to scholarly books and articles. For the average gay person, their understanding of their own history comes through their city’s annual gay pride parade, rather than the last issue of GLQ.
But the Stonewall tale isn’t a harmless one. In reducing the complex origins of gay liberation to a single moment, there’s a lot that we miss. Not only are we overlooking the contributions of other activists in other cities, we also overlook how we got to Stonewall in the first place, a story that is of much interest to gay people today, if we are to successfully counter this new wave of homophobic legislation. In what follows, I’ll trace the story of gay liberation back to the 1950s, looking at what Stonewall has obscured about our history, and how it came to such prominence in the first place.
Telling Queer Stories
In May 1959, a riot erupted at Cooper Do-Nut in Los Angeles, a donut and coffee shop situated between two popular gay bars. Cooper’s drew a crowd of drag queens and male hustlers, many of them Black and Latinx. While I am not in any way claiming that the Cooper’s riot was the “origin” of gay liberation, I start my story here to make an important point: the question of how gays liberated themselves raises the question of who is considered to be gay. When we think of gay people, drag queens and male prostitutes (many of whom were heterosexual, despite offering services to other men) are probably not who come to mind. Any account of gay liberation will implicitly or explicitly promote a certain definition of “gay people.”
In his essay “The End of Queer Urban History?” Kwame Holmes argues that our conception of who is “queer” in “queer history” too often focuses heavily on people who identify or could easily be read as LGBT. This approach quickly runs into problems, as many people and groups of importance to queer history do not neatly fall under the LGBT umbrella. Rather, as we will come to see, those involved in the various movements, organizations, and disturbances that make up gay liberation were often just “kids on the street.” Clare Sears makes a similar point in Arresting Dress, that trans legal histories which focus too much on people who can be neatly read as “trans” ignore others who, for one reason or another, get caught in the crosshairs of anti-trans legislation. For the purposes of this essay, when I refer to “gay” or “queer” people, I am drawing from Holmes’ use of the word:
Black feminist political scientist Cathy Cohen offers guidance by expanding the realm of the nonnormative and arguing for a theory of queer that is “inclusive to all those who stand on the outside of . . . state-sanctioned white middle and upper-class heterosexuality.” Borrowing from Cohen, Roderick Ferguson and a now significant black feminist/queer literature, I contend that “queer” speaks to a historical object’s disruptive relation to normativity.
As the police descended on Cooper’s and began rounding up drag queens, they and others nearby spontaneously resisted arrest. Patrons began by throwing donuts at cops, and eventually resorted to street fighting. Amidst the chaos, many people who had been arrested managed to escape. It is likely that the 1950s saw dozens of similar spur-of-the-moment outbursts, only unrecorded and unremembered.
Homophiles vs. Radicals
In the 1950s and 1960s, much of gay activism took place within homophile organizations in response to police harassment at bars and similar locations, as these were the primary social institutions of homosexual life in postwar America. As such, they were frequently raided by police. Bar raids were fairly routine and followed a predictable script: police entered the bar, stopped activity, and arrested patrons. Occasionally, newspapers would publish the names of patrons, which could lead to them losing their jobs.1
The primary aims of the homophile movement were to push back against myths and stereotypes about homosexuals and gain acceptance from the heterosexual mainstream. However, their approach would eventually be regarded as assimilationist by a new generation of radicals who borrowed their politics from the New Left, Black nationalism, and Third World liberation movements. In contrast to the respectability politics of their predecessors, the gay liberationists were a part of the new counterculture which held sexual revolution as one of its primary aims.
This new generation did not represent a clean break from the homophile movement, however, as in the 1960s the two generations existed alongside one another. In 1963, San Franciscan radicals founded the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), which by 1965 amassed a greater membership than the combined homophile groups in the city, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.
Further tensions were created between homophile and gay activists when the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO) demanded gay inclusion in the military, whereas newer groups such as the CHF (Committee for Homosexual Freedom) were inspired by Vietnamese liberation movements and fundamentally linked to antiwar organizing.
The generations differed wildly in tactics. In contrast to the anti-cop riots that have now come to be seen as synonymous with gay liberation, homophiles preferred direct negotiation with police departments. Following the police raid of a New Year’s costume ball put on by six homophile groups in San Francisco, gay activists went to court and set up meetings with police, who immediately halted their harassment of gay bars and other institutions.
In April 1965, Dewey’s, a Philadelphia restaurant frequented by gays, lesbians, drag queens, and street prostitutes, began refusing service to young people dressed in what a gay publication at the time called “nonconformist clothing,” claiming that gay youth were driving away other business. On April 25th, over 150 patrons were turned away, but three teenagers refused to leave in what Susan Stryker calls “the first act of civil disobedience over anti-transgender discrimination.” They were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, but over the next week, Dewey’s patrons and local homophiles picketed the restaurant and handed out literature raising awareness about Dewey’s discriminatory practices. On May 2nd, another sit-in was staged and police were once again called in, but they made no arrests, and the restaurant’s management promised “an immediate cessation of all indiscriminate denials of service.”
The sit-in at Dewey’s highlights how minority rights activism, primarily the Black civil rights movement, “cross-fertilized” other movements. However, it is crucial to note that gay activists were not merely influenced by Black activists, as this assumes that all gay people involved in activism were white. A large portion of Dewey’s patrons were themselves people of color, and by no means borrowing tactics from a movement that they were not a part of. Rather, the struggles for Black and gay rights were intertwined as part of the political and countercultural movements of the 60s.
In 1966, Los Angeles liberationists founded the organization PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education) in response to the “stodginess of the homophile movement.” Following the Black Cat bar raid on January 1, 1967, which ended a two-year de facto truce between the notoriously violent and homophobic LAPD and the city’s homosexual bars, PRIDE led protests and passed out leaflets to drivers.
By the mid-1960s, New York homophile activists had successfully mobilized to block police use of mass arrests and entrapment, as well as forcing the New York Liquor Lobby to acknowledge that a bar’s liquor license could not be revoked because the bar is frequented by homosexuals. However, in 1966, mayor John Lindsay began a crackdown on gay bars in Times Square and Greenwich Village. As the movement radicalized, activists dabbled in public protest, and the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) organized a series of pickets.
The Stonewall riots, which built on these two decades of homophile and gay activism, were seen as and declared to be a decisive tipping point away from the liberal appeals to equality that defined so much of postwar gay activism, and toward what we now know of as gay liberation. Allen Ginsberg famously wrote after Stonewall that the new activists had “lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.” While not the origin of gay liberation, Stonewall was important for the solidification of a more radical gay politics.
Kids on the Street
After World War II, urban renewal in San Francisco led to the deterioration of many Black and working-class neighborhoods that existed in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving the Tenderloin district as the last remaining affordable neighborhood in the central city. Many transsexual women and street queens called this neighborhood home, either because of housing and job discrimination, or because police would pick up trans people in other parts of the city and bring them to the Tenderloin, helping to create a vice district.2
In response to poverty and poor living conditions, Tenderloin residents in 1965 launched a campaign for economic justice, hoping to receive federal antipoverty funding and establish necessary social services. As a part of this campaign, the first known queer youth organization—called Vanguard—came about in 1965, describing itself as “an organization of, by, and for the kids on the streets.” Vanguard members treated the streets as their home, encouraging those who come into the neighborhood for sex and drugs to clean up their “dirty needles and empty bottles.”
In the summer of 1966, management at Compton’s, a 24-hour cafeteria in the Tenderloin, instituted a service charge to make up for income lost to tables of youth who hung out for hours without spending a lot of money. These rules were enforced in a discriminatory manner, however, as it was largely the street kids who were escorted out by police. In July, Vanguard attempted to set up a picket line protesting this mistreatment, but the cafeteria’s management refused to listen.
That same month, endocrinologist Harry Benjamin published The Transsexual Phenomenon, drawing on his research with transsexual patients to advocate for a similar style of care to that promoted by Magnus Hirschfeld in prewar Germany. Essentially, Benjamin was the first in America to promote on a large scale the idea that gender identity was innate and fixed, and that the doctor’s responsibility was to help trans people bring their bodies in line with said identity. As Benjamin worked in San Francisco for part of the year and saw several Tenderloin residents as his patients, the publication of his book resonated through the community. One afternoon, Tenderloin resident Louise Ergestrasse entered the office of Elliott Blackstone, the police officer assigned to the San Francisco homophile community, slapped a copy of Benjamin’s book on his desk, and demanded that he do something for her people.
With this new understanding of self, when the police entered Compton’s on a busy weekend night in August and attempted to drag away one of the queens, she threw her coffee in his face, sparking a riot. In the months following Compton’s, the Central City Anti-Poverty Program Office was established. The office was home to Elliott Blackstone who, after Ergestrasse’s demands, took a prominent role in addressing police treatment of transsexuals, notably the practice of arresting trans people under the guise of crossdressing law.3 The Anti-Poverty Office also taught transsexual women clerical skills, allowing them to escape prostitution.
In early 1967, the first known trans support group—called Conversion Our Goal (COG)—began meeting at a nearby church, where they steered people toward the Center for Special Problems. Wendy Kohler, one of Benjamin’s patients, worked with activist doctor Joel Fort at the Center, which provided trans clients ID cards that matched their gender, allowing transsexuals to open bank accounts and find employment. The Center also offered group support sessions, psychological counseling, hormone prescriptions, and surgery referrals to the Stanford Medical School.
While I do not wish to argue that Compton’s should take on the same historical status as Stonewall, it is worth exploring why Compton’s—an anti-cop riot in a largely trans neighborhood that led to lasting change—has not been remembered as significant while Stonewall has, and for much the same reasons.
“Come out for freedom! Come out now! Power to the people! Gay power to gay people!” These were the first words of the first issue of Come Out, a gay magazine created in 1969. But Stonewall’s politics of “coming out” were not shared among many people across the country who called themselves gay.
In the book Queer Twin Cities, composed of oral interviews conducted with Minnesota residents, Tom, a 59-year-old white gay man, says the following:
When you’re known and you’re out you can also be an easier target for people’s homophobia, whereas in years gone by when people were closeted, maybe they could sneak through without getting the homophobic reaction. I mean, look at all the born-again Christians that are much more hostile to homosexuals than maybe they ever would have been in the past. Don’t you think that’s a part of what we’re dealing with now?4
Minneapolis gay bars were mostly tolerated by local authorities. When asked about Stonewall, an interviewee named Robert said he had “trouble remembering what year it was… ‘69? No, we were too busy partying at the Gay 90s and Sutton’s and Tony’s. We weren’t being harassed by the cops.” For gays in the Midwest, the coastal imperative to come out of the closet threatened to complicate their existing queer lives.
The politics of coming out are further complicated by immigrant experiences. In his ethnographic research with the Filipino diaspora in New York, Martin Manalansan finds that many gay Filipinos living in New York were unimpressed by Stonewall. Mama Rene, one of his interviewees and a fifty to sixty year old “gay man,”5 was present at the Stonewall riots and said nonchalantly:
It was one of those nights. It was so hot. I was wearing white slacks—dungarees I think you call them—and I was really sweating. I knew that there had been a police raid several nights before, but I didn’t want to be cooped up in my apartment so I went there—to the Stonewall bar. Anyway, I was standing there, trying to look masculine, it was the thing then. All of a sudden the lights went on and the police barged in. They told us that they were arresting everybody there. I don’t know why, I guess I forgot why they were doing that.
When asked how he felt being a part of that moment, he replied, “They say it is a historic event. I just thought it was funny. Do I feel like I made history? People always ask me that. I say no. I am a quiet man, just like how my mom raised me in the Philippines. With dignity.”
Manalansan spoke with Ron and Rodel, two other interviewees, about the meaning of Stonewall, to which Ron answered, “I am an ordinary bakla. I have no anger. I have no special joys. Other gay men have so much anguish. I came here to America to seek a new life. I have been successful. I don’t have too much ‘drama.’”
For those with immigrant experience, “coming out” does not always resonate. For many of Manalansan’s informants, coming out is seen as something for other racial and ethnic groups, and not at all central to their personal narratives. One said that “I know who I am and most people, including my family, know about me—without any declaration.” Filipino “gay men” tend to see identities not as proclaimed verbally but as felt and intuited, not as “declared” but as “worn.” When Mama Rene speaks of himself as a quiet man with dignity, this is not internalized homophobia, but as a racial and ethnic position shaped by his experience as an immigrant.
Remembering Gay Liberation
How did Stonewall come to be remembered as not only central to, but the very origin of the gay liberation movement? Finn Enke urges us to pay attention to inaccuracies in collective memory, as “the inaccuracies themselves are signs of the collective production of knowledges that, even when partial, misleading, or inaccurate, tell us critical things about that collectivity.”
What can the Stonewall myth tell us about our collective existence? Elizabeth Armstrong and Suzanna Crage answer this question in their 2006 article “Movements and Memory,” which looks at the specific reasons that Stonewall is remembered and commemorated while other similar events were not. They analyze five events: the New Year’s ball raid and the Compton’s riot in San Francisco, the Black Cat raid in Los Angeles, and the Stonewall and Snake Pit riots in New York City.
The San Francisco ball raid, taking place on New Year’s Day, had the potential to be commemorated. Vector, a local homophile publication covered the raid on its first page, asking readers to “Remember January 1!” However, the local movement had no idea how to commemorate a gay event, or even that a gay event could be commemorated. In 1965, enlisting other cities in a commemorative ritual would have been nearly impossible. Out of the 13 gay periodicals published at the end of 1964, only three were national in scope, and none had particularly high readership. The Compton’s riot was in a similar position, although, importantly, the homophile establishment in San Francisco largely overlooked Compton’s as they did not consider a riot led by street people to be a desirable form of gay activism.
The 1967 Black Cat raid did not have much luck either, as The Advocate, a Los Angeles-based newsletter that was an important source of news about Stonewall, would not be founded until September of that year. However, in 1969, when New York activists reached out to Los Angeles, proposing that they celebrate “Christopher Street Liberation Day,” the anger toward police stemming from the Black Cat and subsequent raids led LA activists to warmly embrace Stonewall.
After one of the early pickets led by ECHO in New York, Craig Rodwell suggested an annual July 4th demonstration called the Annual Reminder: “the Reminder that a group of Americans still don’t have their basic rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” New York’s experience with the Annual Reminders made it logical, when Stonewall did occur, to commemorate it in a similar way.
While Los Angeles was on board with commemorating Stonewall, San Francisco remained opposed. They considered themselves the national forefront of the movement and did not wish to look to events elsewhere to explain their origins. The city’s homophile groups regarded the event as a pointless outburst, much in the same way they remembered Compton’s, with one person saying “I did not think a riot should be memorialized.” San Francisco radicals attempted to participate regardless, and Gary Alinder, a delegate from New York, handed out tens of thousands of leaflets. However, only about 100 people attended and the event was dispersed by police.
Chicago activists were enthusiastic about sponsoring a commemorative event, as the city had no claim of its own to vanguard status, and the request to commemorate served as a jumping off point for their movement. In the June 1970 issue of the Mattachine Midwest Newsletter, they wrote that “although the beginnings of Gay Liberation had already been seen in Berkeley and San Francisco, the single historical event of the Christopher Street riots had come to be seen as the ‘official’ start of gay liberation.”
Stonewall’s commemorative potential remained strong. Nine months after the initial riots, New York police raided the Snake Pit bar. Worried about additional riots and unable to differentiate customers from management, all 167 customers were arrested and brought to the station house. Later that day, the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) distributed 3,000 flyers announcing an evening march on the precinct. They brought false arrest suits for all 167 people and most of the charges were dismissed. Police Commissioner Howard Leary resigned in September of that year due to criticism. While some claim that the Snake Pit raid “galvanized more heretofore quiescent gay men into gay liberation than the Stonewall riot had,” it was not the first, and so it did not receive sustained attention.
The Stonewall riots did not themselves spark gay liberation. However, they were important to its growth. The first commemoration event was gay liberation’s biggest and most successful protest. It is not Stonewall itself that is so important to gay history, but an attempt on the part of the New York activists to commemorate Stonewall. Without this attempt, it likely would have taken years longer to form a national gay liberation movement.
Origin stories of radical movements can be useful in promoting political mobilization and providing a digestible account of a movement’s history. However, in doing so, they often present a movement as immaculately conceived, occurring suddenly and without any precedent. The Stonewall myth obscures the long preamble to the riots, including the very events that made the riots possible in the first place. If we are to understand how to go forward in an age of homophobic and transphobic backlash, we ought to move away from this simple story, and allow ourselves to remember the decades of organizing and community formation that went into such an event. Otherwise, we risk waiting in futility for another Stonewall, never thinking to do the community work and organizing necessary to liberate ourselves once more.
This section draws primarily from Whitney Strub’s essay entitled “Gay Liberation (1963–1980)” and an article by Elizabeth Armstrong and Suzanna Crage titled “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth.”
This section is entirely made possible by Susan Stryker’s research on the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot, as presented in Transgender History.
However, as Leah Tigers points out in her essay “Dismembering Elliot Blackstone,” the officer’s reputation deserves to be questioned.
This critical perspective on queer visibility politics resonates with what trans people have been saying in recent years, that visibility, while allowing us to find each other, has ignited a reactionary flame, spurring the recent onslaught of anti-trans legislation.
I put this word in quotes as Filipinos do not always identify with the Western “gay” identity, oftentimes referring to themselves as bakla, a word with a similar yet different meaning.