Pride month is a festive celebration of the journey of the queer rights movements around the globe and also to commemorate the Stonewall Uprising. It is a powerful display of love and solidarity. However, there is a lot about the queer history that remains unacknowledged and underappreciated. I read a lot of books, heard podcasts, watched documentaries and read articles from archives to inform myself about the rich legacy of this movement and its unsung heroes. I want to share all that I have learned through this post.
The gay community has been invisible for decades. Invisibility here means both – that they were too stigmatized to even be mentioned in media or in public, as well as too fearful of drawing public attention to themselves. If you were seen cruising around a known gay area or were suspected to be gay or having knowledge of a gay person, then you were at risk of being jailed. In the worst case, you would be sent to a mental hospital to ‘treat’ your homosexuality through electric shocks, hormone therapy or chemical castration. One could lose everything — job, dignity and even life.
“But the systematic suppression of the gay community was not due to some age-old, unchanging social antipathy, nor was it a sign of passivity and acquiescence by gay people. Anti-gay forces created the closet in response to the openness and assertiveness of gay men and lesbians in the early 20th century”, Historian Geroge Chauncey writes in an article in the New York Times (1994).
The gay sub-culture, Chauncey stated, was there since the 19th century and was blooming in the 1920s urban landscape as the United States of America entered an era of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in the years after World War I; cultural mores loosened and a spirit of sexual freedom reigned while homosexuality remained criminalized. The tradition of masquerade and civil balls, more commonly known as drag balls, had begun back in 1869 within Hamilton Lodge, a black fraternal organization in Harlem.
By the mid-1920s, at the height of the Prohibition era, they were attracting as many as 7,000 people of various races and social classes— gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight alike. The news about these lavish gatherings reached the rural areas away from their urban setting. Average American heterosexual couples could be found among the attendees who came to witness how the ‘other side’ lived.
This visibility, by extension, was also reflected on the silver screen. One of the earliest depictions of gay people was in a movie titled, The Gay Brothers in 1895. First gay kiss scene was featured in Wings in 1927, and there are no records of public outrage about it. However, there are records of backlash after the appearance of a lesbian drama on Broadway and after Mae West’s threat to stage a farce about transvestites called The Drag in 1927, a state law was passed prohibiting the representation or discussion of homosexuality on the stage. This was the paradox of those times. The tolerance that was recorded was neither absolute nor uniform.
The situation worsened after the Depression when the queer community fell out of favour as part of what Chauncey called the “depression-era condemnation of social experimentation that was blamed for the economic downfall.” With increased hostility, the community went further underground. Soon the comfort and a sense of security that came from these gatherings dissipated in the environment of animosity.
In the ’30s, the New York City police, using a 1923 state law that made it a criminal act for one man to invite another to have sex, began sending good-looking plain-clothed officers into gay bars to strike up conversations with men, lead them on, and arrest them if the victims suggested going home. (Between 1923 and 1967, when gay activists persuaded Mayor John V. Lindsay to end most entrapment, more than 50,000 men had been arrested on this charge.) Police raids became a part of lives as they systematically shut down institutions that catered to gay patrons under the guise of State authority’s order that barred “disorderly” premises.
Furthermore, an outdated law on cross-dressing was used to arrest men and women if they were spotted in public, not wearing clothes according to the gendered clothing statute . Kate Redburn, a JD/PhD candidate in queer and trans legal history at Yale University, has discovered that the mentions of the three-article rule are almost all retrospective, meaning they come up in interviews and memoirs about the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, but not in documents produced in those years.
A more apparent threat to being gay than arrests was street violence. Marsha P Jonson recounts in an interview with Eric Marcus on Making Gay History, “It was difficult to look inside the bars [Eric: Why?] It was for safety. To protect ourselves from men who believed it was their masculine duty to come in and beat us up.”
The New York State Liquor Authority issued an order making it illegal to serve alcohol to queer patrons. As the gay community was marginalized further, they found the most unlikely ally in the mafia. The mafia operates outside the legal framework, and it saw a profiting business opportunity in these circumstances. For decades, the mob had the monopoly over the gay bars and clubs – one of the only safe spaces  of the community. They even operated some of them under the guise of it being a ‘straight’ establishment. The Stonewall Inn too was owned by a member of the mafia Genovese family, Tony Lauria, a.k.a. “Fat Tony.”
Phillip Crawford Jr., the author of the book The Mafia and the Gays, argues that the Mafia was much more than proprietors of illegal nightspots; he says that they are an intrinsic part of the LGBT movement, sparking the Stonewall riots and enabling the gay community to thrive.
Mafia was homophobic much like the larger society and some among them considered running “fag bars” was for people on lower echelons of the mafia hierarchy, but soon it became a part of the major mafia projects as they cashed massive profits from it. They used these bars to smuggle drugs and for pimping out young boys. Police raids were a blow to their business, so they would bribe officers who would in return tip off the bars before raids to give them time to stash away unlicensed liquor and clear the premise.
The narrative around the gay community in the coming decades [the 1940s – present day] became politically charged. At the end of world war, two Americans faced the new dangers of the Cold War. The domestic fear and paranoia about national security grew. It triggered a slew of policy changes by legislators to flush out any political non-conformists in the government.
Senator McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) is credited for the birth and rise of the red scare – a campaign to root and fire Communists and its sympathizers from the government – and the lesser-known lavender scare.
David K Johnson noted in his book The Lavender Scare:
In February 1950, McCarthy, in his now-famous speech, claimed that 250 [two people on that list were homosexuals] card-carrying Communists were working for the State Department. Appearing before a congressional committee, Deputy Undersecretary John Peurifoy denied that the department employed any actual communists. At the same times, however, he revealed that several persons considered to be security risks had been forced out and that among these were 91 homosexuals. Many interpreted it as proof that the State Department – perhaps the entire government — was infiltrated with sexual perverts. Committees were set up to investigate the homosexuals in the offices and fire them.
This became a point of contention throughout the nation. There were debates on TV, host of newspaper editorials, many White House meetings and debates on the floors of Congress about the “security threat”. Many politicians, journalists and citizens considered homosexuals more dangerous than communists. Despite its wide coverage, it was conveniently forgotten by historians and scholars who documented the McCarthyism era. Why? David Johnson states in the book that the articles then were too cryptic and one couldn’t spot the reference to gays if they weren’t informed about it.
In the news coverage, there were two narratives based on the publisher’s political leanings. The conservatives wanted to embarrass the democratic administration delighting in the possibility of government brimming with “deviants” while the liberal supporters tried to downplay the Republican charges of both morality and disloyalty in the ranks.
“Many assumptions about Communists mirrored common beliefs about homosexuals,” notes National Archives archivist Judith Adkins. “Both were thought to be morally weak or psychologically disturbed, both were seen as godless, both purportedly undermined the traditional family, both were assumed to recruit, and both were shadowy figures with a secret subculture.”
The argument about homosexuality being a mental illness became common knowledge since the 1940s when both the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association categorized it so. When, in 1948, Dr Alfred Kinsey published his Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (hereafter the “Kinsey Report”), which declared among other things, that as many as 10% of adult American males had had some homosexual experience, the effect was like setting off a bombshell.
The report itself went through five printings in the first month of its publication and was denounced on the floor of Congress. Put simply, it offered scientific proof that as many as one in every ten men in America had what was then considered a mental illness of a sexual nature. Kinsey’s own rather progressive response to these numbers was not echoed within society at large. The non-conformist targets of post-war scorn, be they liberals, New Dealers, intellectuals, or homosexuals, were so intertwined that one congressman’s derisive quip about “short-haired women and long-haired men messing into everybody’s personal affairs and lives” could be understood to cover all potential targets of a growing political and cultural backlash.
Even queer people themselves believed that they might be sick. Few voluntarily enrolled for treatment or they would be pressurized to by their families. Most lived their life hiding their sexuality. Up until now, there has been no recorded resistance from the LGBTQ community nor was there any organized movement. That changed when in the backdrop of Lavender scare, two hemophilic groups were formed. The first of their kind — the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis (DOB).
MSNY and DOB had meetings where queer people could meet people like themselves for the first time of their lives in a non-alcoholic setting. Martha Johnson recounts in an interview with Eric Marcus that she met a lesbian for the first time in the DOB. There was no literature on gay people and for lesbians; they didn’t even know the term to look it up. Psychiatrists who sympathized with the community and believed they were not ill would often come to these meetings and talk.
This ‘mental illness’ argument was shattered by a psychological study that for the first time in history proved that homosexuals were normal people and it was not a pathological symptom. That ground-breaking study was conducted by Evelyn Hooker who started this project at the request of her gay friend Sam From. She was invited to gay cultural spots to introduce her to the ‘normal gays’ and show the world that they were just like any other heterosexual person. She faced discrimination for being a woman in her career. So, she knew the destructiveness of bigoted ideology, and hence was committed to the project to help the community. Just like she hoped, the study changed many lives for better.
She recruited 30 exclusively homosexual and 30 exclusively heterosexual men, matched for age, IQ scores and education. With the aid of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay-rights organizations, access to homosexuals was no problem, but finding heterosexual men who would agree to participate was very difficult. She approached firemen, policemen, maintenance workers, any heterosexual men she could persuade to participate. Her husband said, “No man is safe on Saltair Avenue.”
Each participant took three projective tests: The Rorschach, the Make a Picture Story Test (MAPS) and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). After scoring the tests herself, she then gave the test protocols with all identifying information removed to experts in those tests: Bruno Klopfer for the Rorschach, Edward Shneidman, the inventor of MAPS, and Mortimer Meyer for the TAT. Experts were unable to identify the gay participant’s protocol from the matched pairs any better than chance accuracy. There was no association between homosexuality and psychological maladjustment. One of her experts who was sure he could distinguish the groups asked for another chance to review the protocols but was no more successful the second time than the first.
Hooker reported that one of the most exciting days of her life was the day she presented the results of her research at APA’s 1956 Annual Convention in Chicago. This ground-breaking research and the work that followed on the homosexual subculture led to Hooker’s award in 1992 for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology in the Public Interest from APA.
Away from the scientific community, another pioneering event was taking place amidst the Lavender scare. Frank Kameny, fired in 1957, had petitioned the Supreme Court for relief in recognition of his civil rights. They declined to take the case, so he picketed the White House. He fought to counter workplace discrimination for the rest of his life. His fightback was one of the first, dare I say the first, public resistance towards anti-LGBTQ legislation. Josh Howard, the director of the documentary The Lavender Scare said, “In terms of his importance, he was the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement: a private individual who one day stood up and said, ‘I’m not going to take this anymore.’”
Riding on the wave of thrilling change in the pace of the movement, what comes next? The Stonewall Uprising? No, even before the Stonewall Uprising, in the spring of 1969, there was a protest — a “Sip-In”— in the bar scene that was staged by three members of the Mattachine society.
Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell and Randy Wicker walked into a bar Julius. They declared that they were homosexuals and asked to be served drinks. The bartender refused to do so stating the Liquor authority’s order. The trio had accomplished their goal; their “Sip-In” had begun. Soon after, the Mattachine Society – with the support of the American Civil Liberty Union in New York – moved forward with action against the State Liquor Authority.
Because a person’s sexual orientation couldn’t be discerned as easily as a person’s sex or race, the New York State Liquor Authority instead based requirements for service on what was deemed “orderly conduct.” Intimate encounters between two men were deemed disorderly, so gay men were often refused service at bars. Bars that served homosexuals ran the risk of having their liquor license revoked.
The State Liquor Authority denied the discrimination claim, responding that the decision to serve or refrain from serving individuals was up to bartenders. Soon after, the Commission on Human Rights got involved, claiming that homosexuals had the right to be served in bars, and the discriminatory policy by the State Liquor Authority no longer viewed homosexuals as “disorderly.” Afterwards, gay patrons were allowed the freedom that they hadn’t experienced before.
Alcohol could be legally served to gay customers but the Mafia still controlled the thriving gay club/bar scene. Stonewall, in particular, was special even before the revolt.
Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village of New York was cheap, thereby giving shelter and a sense of community to much homeless queer youth. It was one of the rare bars that allowed dancing and welcomed drag queens who were unwelcome at other bars. Sylvia Rivera, however, states that Stonewall wasn’t particularly a drag queen bar. Her first visit to the inn was the early morning of the uprising.
Police usually tipped off the bars before raids; it was common practice for exchange of bribe. However on June 28, that wasn’t the case. Eight plain-clothed police officers went in, roughed up patrons, and, finding bootlegged alcohol, arrested 13 people, including employees and people violating the state’s gender-appropriate clothing statute. Fed up with constant police harassment and social discrimination, angry patrons and neighbourhood residents hung around outside of the bar rather than disperse, becoming increasingly agitated as the events unfolded and people were aggressively manhandled.
At one point, an officer hit a lesbian [speculated to be Stormé DeLarverie] over the head as he forced her into the police van— she shouted to onlookers to act, inciting the crowd to begin to throw pennies, bottles, cobblestones and other objects at the police. According to David Carter, historian and author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, the “hierarchy of resistance” in the riots began with the homeless or “street” kids, those young gay men who viewed the Stonewall as the only safe place in their lives. Martha P Johnson was believed to have resisted arrest and throw the first bottle.
Within minutes, a full-blown riot involving hundreds of people began.
The police, a few prisoners and a Village Voice writer barricaded themselves in the bar, which the mob attempted to set on fire after breaching the barricade repeatedly. The fire department and a riot squad were eventually able to douse the flames, rescue those inside Stonewall, and disperse the crowd. But the protests, sometimes involving thousands of people, continued in the area for five more days, flaring up at one point after the Village Voice published its account of the riots.
Stonewalls was one milestone among many in this fight for equality. What followed in later years is largely documented and reported. Things are better now than then.
Homosexuality is decriminalized in the USA. On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, legalized it in all fifty states, and required states to honour out-of-state same-sex marriage licenses in the case Obergefell v. Hodges. In 2016, Barack Obama designated the Stonewall Inn along with Christopher Park a national monument for their role in the fight for equality. Recently on June 15, the Supreme Court said the language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination, applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
I read and educated myself about queer history to feel less lonely, to make sense of this identity and to know about the roots of our community. I learnt so much for this and here, I wanted to share a portion of it. Remember the visibility I mentioned at the very beginning? I hope this post adds a little more visibility to this lesser-known part of history. That is one of the beautiful things about Pride month celebrations and the ongoing protests — visibility. Both back in 1969 and now and many times in between — people came out in support with pride. ‘Say it loud, Gay is proud!’ was the slogan for the first pride parade in 1970 New York. It was pride over power. We might not have the power to influence but we sure are proud of what we are.