The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on June 7 approved an official resolution praising the House of Representatives for passing the LGBT civil rights bill known as the Equality Act and urging the Senate to move expeditiously to pass the legislation.
The Commission’s action came on the same day gay historian David Carter, author of the widely acclaimed book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked The Gay Revolution, appeared before the commission at its invitation to give a presentation on the historical significance of Stonewall and its impact on the LGBT civil rights movement.
“The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, by majority vote, applauds the passage of the Equality Act by the House of Representatives as an important first federal step in securing the equal rights of the LGBT community,” the resolution states.
“The bill amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other civil rights laws to explicitly ban discrimination against LGBT people in public accommodations, education, federally funded programs, employment, housing, credit opportunities, and jury service,” the resolution says.
The resolution goes on to say that the Commission recognizes that existing federal law “properly interpreted already protects LGBT persons from discrimination in the workplace.” But it says that given “inconsistent federal court decisions” on the issue and conflicting state laws federal legislation like the Equality Act is needed to ensure equality under the law for LGBT people.
In his presentation before the Commission, Carter provided detailed historical background on the discrimination and persecution faced by LGBT people prior to the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City that have been credited with triggering the modern LGBT rights movement.
Carter pointed out, however, that a fledgling gay rights movement that he credited D.C. gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny with starting in the early 1960s made it possible for activists to convert the spontaneous street protests that followed the Stonewall riots into a focused and effective political movement for LGBT rights.
He noted that Kameny and his supporters modeled their efforts on the African American Civil rights movement.
“The Stonewall Uprising is historic for one reason,” Carter said in his presentation. “It inspired the creation of a new phase of the movement for the rights of gay men and lesbians (and later, for bisexuals and the transgendered) and this new phase, the gay liberation movement, created a mass movement, making most of the gains over the past five decades possible,” he said.
“The narrative of the Stonewall Uprising is a very powerful story for a number of reasons,” Carter said. “It seemed to come out of nowhere and was totally unexpected. It was a spontaneous event, totally unplanned and undirected,” he continued.
“And what happened in a seedy club run by the Mafia, and the groups that first turned against the police were primarily effeminate boys who lived on the streets, sissies rejected by their families and by society, prostitutes, a butch lesbian, and transgendered [women] – that such a group could not only lead an effective revolt against the police but also terrify them seemed too good to be true,” Carter said.
“Yet this is what happened,” said Carter, as Commission members and about 25 visitors listened intently. “Thus Stonewall symbolizes both gay people standing up for themselves en masse for the first time – spontaneously – and winning,” he said. “And this is the kind of raw material from which legends have always sprung.”
Presentation before the United States Civil Service Commission
On the History of the Stonewall Uprising and the LGBT Civil Rights Movement
By David Carter
June 7, 2019
Good afternoon. I want to thank Catherine E. Lhamon, the chair of the Commission, as well as the other members of the Commission for according me the honor of appearing before you.
I have been asked to speak about my work on the history of the Stonewall Uprising, which is, of course, the best-known single event in the history of this movement, a 6-day rebellion that began as a result of a police raid on June 28, 1969 on the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay club in Greenwich Village. The facts of the Stonewall Uprising are well established as is general information about the Stonewall club and how it operated. However to understand the meaning of the event requires information that goes beyond these sets of facts, including information that has not become integrated into media accounts, documentaries, and museum exhibitions. Because one needs to be aware of a much greater context of the history beyond the events of the Uprising to interpret the Uprising’s meaning and its historical implications accurately, I will not spend much time today on the Uprising itself but on this larger context.
Homosexual acts had been illegal since the nation’s founding but an increase in the intolerance of homosexuality seems to have taken root around the time of the Great Depression. After World War II, with the advent of the Cold War and the Red Scare, exemplified by a virulent anticommunism and the demand for total conformity that characterized the 1950s, laws aimed at homosexuals became so harsh that at times they were draconian.
The Defense Department hardened its policy of excluding homosexual servicemen and women, tripling the World War II discharge rate and reversed prior practice by generally giving less-than-honorable “blue discharges.” These punitive discharges stripped thousands of veterans of the benefits that had been promised them in the G.I. Bill of Rights. After Lieutenant Roy Blick of the Washington, DC vice squad testified before the Senate in 1950 that 5,000 homosexuals worked for the government (a figure he had fabricated), the Senate authorized an investigation into the matter by a subcommittee chaired by North Carolina Senator Clyde Hoey. The Hoey subcommittee’s report stated: “those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons.” Having concluded that “One homosexual can pollute an entire office,” the subcommittee urged that the military’s recent purge of homosexuals be the model for civilian agencies.
The Civil Service Commission and the FBI complied by initiating an intense campaign to ferret out homosexuals by correlating morals arrests across the United States with lists of government employees and checking fingerprints of job applicants against the FBI’s fingerprint files.
After Dwight Eisenhower became president, he signed Executive Order 10,450, in April, 1953, which added “sexual perversion” as a ground for government investigation and dismissal. The government shared police and military records with private employers, resulting in the dismissal of hundreds.
While McCarthyism encouraged the toughening of laws toward homosexuals because they were believed to be security risks, America’s Puritan tradition was producing a furor over child molestation. Homosexuals were believed to be the main culprits. As the right-wing demonization proceeded apace, the negative qualities attributed to homosexuals overlapped until it became a common assumption that any man or woman who was homosexual was so beyond the pale that she or he must also partake of the most forbidden ideological fruit of all, communism.
As homosexuals became handy scapegoats for both of these postwar preoccupations, antihomosexual laws were made more severe. Twenty-nine states enacted new sexual psychopath laws and/or revised existing ones, and homosexuals were commonly the laws’ primary targets. In almost all states, professional licenses could be revoked or denied because of homosexuality, so that professionals could lose their livelihoods. In 1971 twenty states had “sex psychopath” laws permitting them to detain homosexuals. In Pennsylvania and California, sex offenders could be locked in a mental institution for life, and in seven states they could be castrated. At California’s Atascadero State Hospital, men convicted of consensual sodomy were given electrical and pharmacological shock therapy, castrated, and had lobotomies performed on them, as authorized by a 1941 law.
It has been pointed out that no specific statute outlawed being homosexual and that only homosexual acts were illegal. While this is technically true, the effect of the entire body of laws and policies that the state employed to police the conduct of homosexual men and women was to make being gay a crime de facto. The harshness of these laws made judges generally unwilling to sentence homosexual men, lesbians, and transvestites to such inhumane sentences and instead they tended to hand out light fines or to place those convicted on probation. But the random or selective use of far harsher penalties, and the potential threat of their use, combined with other sanctions and harassments, major and minor, official and nonofficial, were more than sufficient to keep the vast majority of homosexual men and women well with the lines that society had drawn for them.
Having created all manner of sanctions to make it difficult for homosexuals to meet their own kind, the police aggressively patrolled the few places where homosexuals could mingle: bars, bath houses, and outdoor cruising places such as streets, parks, and beaches. Some jurisdictions planted microphones in park benches and used peepholes and two-way mirrors to spy on homosexuals in public restrooms.
While the law classified homosexuals as criminals and the scientific establishment used psychology to medicalize homosexuality into an illness, gay men and lesbians found almost universal moral condemnation from religions, whether mainstream or obscure. Thrice condemned—as criminals, as mentally ill, and as sinners—homosexuals faced a social reality in post-World War II America that was bleak if not grim.
To shift from the national perspective to that of a single state, namely New York, one place that gay people sought as a refuge was Greenwich Village. The Village’s Bohemian reputation first attracted gay people to the area around the turn of the 20th century, as they sensed that a place known for wide tolerance might accept even sexual nonconformists.
As word increasingly got out nationwide that there were large numbers of gay people in Greenwich Village, more and more gay men and lesbians were drawn there. Eventually New York had the largest gay population in the United States, and the Village increasingly served as a center for the growing homosexual subculture.
But New York was also the city that most aggressively and systematically targeted gay men as criminals. Police vice squads—which New York City was the first to create—attempted to control homosexuals by observing locales where people congregated, using decoys to entice them, and raiding gay bars and baths.
When Prohibition ended, New York created the State Liquor Authority (SLA) and gave it practically total leeway in administering and enforcing these laws. The SLA interpreted the laws so that even the presence of homosexuals—categorized as people who were “lewd and dissolute”—in a bar made that place disorderly and subject to closure. The result was that New York City was the most vigorous investigator of homosexuals before World War II. Responding to right-wing pressure after the war, New York City modernized its stakeout, decoy, and police raid operations and continued to haul in thousands of homosexuals, sometimes just for socializing at a private party. More commonly the police arrested them at bars and in cruising areas. By 1966 over one hundred men were arrested each week for “homosexual solicitation” as a result of police entrapment.
Making it impossible for bars to legally serve homosexuals created a situation that could only lead to criminals stepping in. The Mafia entered into the vacuum to run gay bars, which in turn set up a scenario for police corruption and the exploitation of the bars’ customers. These last were not likely to complain because they had nowhere else to go and because they feared the mob. The corruption spread as the police and SLA agents were paid off by the Mafia, and lawyers charged homosexual clients caught between the Mafia, the police, and the SLA exorbitant fees, part of which was then used to bribe judges.
Such repression resulted in resistance. The first organization to begin organized ongoing political resistance to the oppression of gay people was the Mattachine Society, founded in 1951. However, because of the intense rightward shift the nation experienced in the 1950s, the early radical spirit of that organization was lost. The approach then changed to relying on psychiatrists to say that homosexuals were not criminals but mentally ill persons who needed therapy. The Mattachine, or homophile, movement, also hoped to educate the public to be more tolerant. These approaches constituted a strategy that became known as the education and research approach.
Frank Kameny was one of those citizens caught up in the federal dragnet. A Harvard-educated astronomer, Kameny had been hired by the Army Map Service but was summarily fired when the government discovered that he was homosexual. After failing to get his job back in spite of doing all he could as an individual, he turned to an organizational approach. His last gambit had been a petition he sent to the US Supreme Court to hear his case. Inspired by basic principles of American democracy, the black civil rights movement, and sociologist Edward Sagarin’s assertion that homosexuals are a valid minority, Kameny argued that the government should not only not persecute homosexuals but should work to end discrimination against them. Kameny used the analysis from his Supreme Court petition when he started an organization in Washington, DC, the Mattachine Society of Washington, to argue that the homophile movement is a civil rights movement that must settle for nothing less than full legal and social equality.
Kameny’s was at first a lonely voice, but he soon won a few activists over to his side, and with each passing year won more support. In 1964 Kameny was invited to give a speech to the Mattachine Society of New York. There he articulated publicly the arguments he had crafted in his Supreme Court petition. He also urged that New York City activists work to accomplish two goals: to end police entrapment and to legalize gay bars. The speech so electrified the Mattachine-NY membership that the next year they threw out the officers who supported the education and research approach and elected a slate of militants to pursue a civil rights strategy.
Dick Leitsch became president of Mattachine-NY and, following Kameny’s advice, succeeded in ending the NYPD entrapment of gay men and gradually made significant progress toward legalizing gay bars.
The Stonewall Inn club opened during this period of progress toward the legalization of gay bars. It became popular because it was the only gay club in New York City where dancing was allowed regularly but more particularly where slow dancing was allowed. It was also the city’s largest gay club and was located just a block and half from the very heart of the male gay social area, the intersection of Christopher Street and Greenwich Avenue. The club was broadly tolerant about who was admitted and thus became popular with a wide cross-section of the community.
At the same time, it was a Mafia bar that was run only to exploit a community ripe for exploitation, so it charged exorbitant prices for drinks. It was also dirty and sold questionable Mafia alcohol. But while most customers were willing to put up with these features to have a place to dance and socialize, some customers fared worse. One of the managers of the Stonewall was a career criminal named Ed Murphy who was arrested in the mid-sixties for running an extensive national operation blackmailing homosexuals Murphy found via a prostitution ring. He used an office above the Stonewall in the late 1960s to run a prostitution ring. The Stonewall’s waiters were also used to collect information on their customers, especially those with more lucrative careers.
When the New York Police Department received a query from Interpol about bonds surfacing on European streets, they investigated and determined that they were stolen by a Wall Street employee who had been blackmailed because of his homosexuality. Further investigation pointed to the area around the Stonewall as the likely origin of the blackmailing operation. At a time of extensive investigation into police corruption in New York City, Seymour Pine, a police officer with a reputation for being honest, had been transferred against his wishes to head the First Division of the Public Morals police. Soon thereafter he was summoned to a meeting with his captain and ordered to put the Stonewall out of business because of its connection with the Mafia blackmail operation.
After some more routine raids on the Stonewall, Pine organized a large raid early in the morning of June 28, 1969, but the real reason for the raid was not made public. By this time, Pine had gathered from previous raids on the Stonewall that the local Sixth Precinct was informing the club when a raid was planned, so for this larger raid Pine did not inform the Sixth Precinct, which was supposed to assist in the raid after it was underway.
When the raid began, almost everything went wrong from the beginning from the police perspective. Pine, who was used to raiding early when there were few occupants in the club, this time ran into an unusual degree of resistance from patrons. Also, the 6th Precinct did not respond to Pine’s signals for help later when the crowd began to get out of control.
The crowd that had gathered in the street outside the Stonewall was made up of the club’s customers and passersby. Initially, the reaction of the crowd to the police went back and forth between expressions of anger and humor. As the crowd witnessed the police be rough with some of the club’s patrons, they became more angry. The culmination came when a lesbian being carried out of the club was treated brutally by the police. After she escaped twice from a patrol car, she was thrown inside the vehicle. The lesbian’s harsh treatment was the tipping point that caused the crowd to become furious. Pine, sensing the danger to his officers after the patrol wagon left with the initial group of prisoners, thought it too dangerous to remain on the sidewalk. He retreated into the club, where the remaining prisoners were being held for the next patrol wagon. One reason for the great anger was a belief that the gay persons held inside the club were being beaten by the police. A loose parking meter was uprooted and used as a battering ram on the club, cobblestones and bricks were thrown, and lighter fluid was used to try to set the club on fire.
Pine finally managed to get an undercover policewoman out through a back window. She went to a fire station and put in a call for help from the Tactical Police Force, or riot police. Soon firetrucks arrived as well as the riot police and a patrol wagon from the 6th Precinct. The police inside the Stonewall were rescued and the prisoners taken away. The police wrecked the bar and the riot police were brutal in clearing the streets of protestors.
But the crowd was not cowed by the large numbers of helmeted police brandishing batons. When the police formed a phalanx and cleared Christopher Street, the street the Stonewall club was on, the crowd merely used the highly irregular Village street layout to come back around behind the police. This was a scenario that was repeated many times. On the next day, the crowds were much larger and the violence was even greater. On Sunday, the third day, the police were less confrontational, the crowds smaller, and there are no reports of violence. There were only sporadic skirmishes between the police and small numbers of civilians on Monday and Tuesday. The following day, the Village Voice appeared, featuring the Uprising but using derogatory terms such as “faggot” and “dyke” to describe members of the crowd. The Voice coverage brought the Uprising to the attention of a much larger group of people and angered the gay population. The result was that the sixth and last night of the Stonewall Uprising was much like the first two nights: a large crowd and much violence.
When the Uprising was over those who witnessed it sensed that nothing would ever be the same for the movement. There was much discussion about what should be done. A handful of people realized that it was urgent that something be made of this event before the unleashed energy dissipated. After a series of meetings, a decision was made to form a new organization, the Gay Liberation Front or GLF. The GLF was modeled in large part on New Left groups of the 1960s. However those who became the leaders of the GLF were generally those with extreme views; some were avowed Marxists, and the organization wanted to take on all issues of oppression. Meetings tended to break down into long theoretical discussions, ad hominem attacks, and there was a lack of democratic process. Soon many of the founders and early members quit.
Some of these founded a new organization, the Gay Activists Alliance or GAA. GAA decided to work only on the issue of rights for gay people, to adhere to democratic principles at meetings, and to eschew the use of violence. GAA also used tactics that it called zaps—creative demonstrations that combined guerilla theater and camp humor—to undermine its opponents. To give one example, when Harper’s published a vicious essay attacking gay people and refused to publish a rebuttal written by homosexuals, GAA occupied their offices but brought along coffee and doughnuts, approaching members of the staff saying, “I’m a homosexual. Would you like a doughnut?” With zaps and other subversive and creative tactics, GAA was soon in the national media, growing rapidly, and starting new chapters nationwide.
Because of GAA, GLF, and other new gay liberation organizations that sprang up, such as Radical Lesbians, there was soon a mass movement for the civil rights of lesbians and gay men. Having a mass movement made possible the passage of new legislation to decriminalize same-sex behavior and changes by nongovernmental organizations to end discriminatory practices.
So why is the Stonewall Uprising historic and what are the lessons from the Uprising?
The Stonewall Uprising is historic for one reason: it inspired the creation of a new phase of the movement for the rights of gay men and lesbians (and later, for bisexuals and the transgendered) and this new phase, the gay liberation movement, created a mass movement, making most of the gains over the past 5 decades possible. Stonewall and the gay liberation movement also inspired similar new organizations around the world, so that globally LGBT people have more civil rights than they did 50 years ago. This is why I often say that to study the Uprising without learning about the gay liberation phase of the GLBT civil rights movement is like studying the fall of the Bastille while knowing nothing about the French Revolution.
Second, I would like to note that while there are many factors that came together to create the Stonewall Uprising, the most important of all these causes is the progress made during the homophile phase of the movement, particularly locally in New York City. This was a conclusion reached by none other than Craig Rodwell, a man whose perspective is of primary importance for he was the chief critic of the Stonewall club, he was the main propagandist of the Stonewall Uprising, and it was he who had the idea to celebrate the event annually with a march commemorating the revolt. In other words, had it not been for the work done by Dick Leitsch to end entrapment and legalize gay bars, following up on Kameny’s earlier suggestions, the explosion at Stonewall would in all likelihood not have occurred. I say this because of a series of reflections I had after I finished the first draft of my history of Stonewall because the narrative did not make sense to me: why did the explosion occur after all the progress under the Lindsay administration? The answer is that, as historians have noted, revolutions tend to occur after periods of liberalization. Or, to put it another way, while it took many factors coming together to create Stonewall, the longer I have lived with this history, the more I have come to feel that the most important cause in the long list of causes that created the matrix for the Uprising, the most fundamental was that work began as a result of Kameny’s civil rights approach, the local movement’s success in ending entrapment and the progress it made toward legalizing gay bars.
Immanuel Kant famously wrote about the French Revolution in “The Contest of Faculties” that “The occurrence in question does not involve any of those momentous deeds or misdeeds of men which make small in their eyes what was formerly great or make great what was formerly small. . . . No, it has nothing to do with all this. We are here concerned only with the attitude of the onlookers as it reveals itself in public while the drama of great political changes is taking place.” In other words, the French Revolution had the impact it did not because of its effects on those who participated in it but rather upon those who witnessed it. It was the same phenomenon with Stonewall: the event derived its power from the emotional shock it created in those who heard about it.
All of the above goes far to explain the powerful symbolism of Stonewall. But why does that power endure?
I believe that the answer lies in the meaning of historic or national symbolism itself. All nations and important movements have moments that have a power that exceeds what can be expressed by mere rational analysis of their historic effect. This is because these moments are symbolic, because they express the deepest truths experienced by the human heart. They become emblematic of the best in us, they symbolize our hopes and dreams, our feelings and yearnings, and all that we sense is our potential: the vision of a world as it should be or could be or as it needs to be. Thus when we learn about American history, certain stories, events, people, and moments are emphasized. For example, all school children learn the story of how Francis Scott Keyes watched through the night to see if Fort McHenry would fall under the intense British bombardment to which it was being subjected. When he saw the flag still flying in the morning, he knew that an important battle had not been lost and expressed this moment of hope and the triumph of faith in the words that became our national anthem. The stories—or images—of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his “I Have a Dream” speech, or of the American flag being raised over Iwo Jima, or of Rosa Parks refusing to move to a seat at the back of the bus are all moments and images that help define who we are, moments that exemplify our best and highest values and thus are potent symbols.
The narrative of the Stonewall Uprising is a very powerful story for a number of reasons. It seemed to come out of nowhere and was totally unexpected. It was a spontaneous event, totally unplanned and undirected. And it happened in a seedy club run by the Mafia, and the groups that first turned against the police were primarily effeminate boys who lived on the streets, sissies rejected by their families and by society, prostitutes, a butch lesbian, and transgendered men—that such a group could not only lead an effective revolt against the police but also terrify them seemed too good to be true. Yet this is what happened. And the police were astonished and terrified at the anger that they witnessed. Pine, who led the raid, had written the manual for hand-to-hand combat in World War II and been seriously injured in the Battle of the Bulge, yet he said he was never more afraid than he was inside that bar surrounded by hundreds of homosexuals. Thus Stonewall symbolizes both gay people standing up for themselves en masse for the first time—spontaneously—and winning. And this is the kind of raw material from which legends have always sprung.
All who witnessed the Stonewall Uprising were transfixed by it. That is the reason that less than half a year after the Uprising a homophile conference voted to celebrate the event annually. And the movement spawned by Stonewall continues to surge around the nation and the world. There was little international movement for LGBT civil rights before Stonewall, but the liberation movement inspired by the Stonewall Uprising has known no boundaries and has continued to overturn discriminatory and unjust policies in Europe, Asia, Africa, and every other part of the world. Thus the Stonewall Uprising is the most celebrated and symbolic event, both nationally and internationally, in the history of the LGBT movement for civil rights and equality from its earliest beginnings in Germany in the 19th century down through the present day.
Given the preeminence of Stonewall in the history of the LGBT civil rights movement, the event has been widely commemorated and celebrated within the movement. But until very recently the history of this movement has generally been ignored or given very limited recognition outside of the movement. This has begun to change, especially since the ruling establishing the right to marriage for same-sex couples by the Supreme Court, which seemed to say to many people that this is a legitimate moral movement. The two major speeches in which President Barack Obama linked the LGBT movement with those of the black civil rights movement and the movement for women’s rights helped the public to recognize the movement as legitimate American and civil rights history.
As for as official recognition of the Stonewall Uprising by the US government, this began with the Uprising site being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, being declared a National Historic Landmark in 2000, and being made a national monument in 2016.
I thank the Commission for its time, and I will be happy to respond to any questions that you may have.