Fifty years ago this month, the Stonewall Rebellion happened. Forty-nine years ago, the first commemoration of the Rebellion occurred in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. That commemoration changed how we all think about the role of defiance and fraternity in the gay struggle. Stonewall was hardly the first episode of gay resistance against police abuse. It became, however, the riot that everyone remembers. The June 28, 1970 marches, the annual Pride parades that they spawned, and the expansion of the gay revolution that they helped to launch are why the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion is celebrated.
But the commemoration that today has a such taken-for-granted aspect — after all, it happens like clockwork every year all over the world — in fact depended on two things that very few of us remember today. The first was prior commemoration that had a patriotic and Americanist cast to it. The second was an inventive repurposing of that prior commemoration to instead emphasize identity and resistance.
The 1970 Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade built on an event called the Annual Reminder, held at Independence Hall each July 4th from 1965 to 1969. By leading the Annual Reminder at Independence Hall, Frank Kameny of Washington, Barbara Gittings of Philadelphia, and Craig Rodwell of New York linked the nascent gay rights movement to the promise of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution – and thus to earlier struggles for equality and freedom. Their annual action in front of Independence Hall reminded passersby that America’s charters included gay women and men.
The Annual Reminder indeed was the single largest and recurring gay and lesbian protest in American history and the first to call for equality. It grew from 40 in 1965 to 150 in 1969, which was held five days after Stonewall. That kind of turnout was a big deal. In the mid-1960s there were no more than a few hundred gay activists nationwide.
Of the three – Kameny, Gittings, and Rodwell – it was Rodwell who witnessed the Stonewall Rebellion. He owned the Oscar Wilde Bookstore, the nation’s first gay bookstore, located in Greenwich Village. What he saw at Stonewall gave him the idea to dramatically scale up the Annual Reminder into a new and different form of collective action, a parade emphasizing liberation.
On the evening of June 26, 1969, the people at the Stonewall Inn hardly knew that they would start a liberation movement. A Mafia-owned property, the Stonewall Inn was typically populated by gay men, queens, transvestites, and homeless teens. But that night’s spontaneous resistance to police abuse, followed by three days of disruption, built deep bonds between the closeted respectable and the marginalized, and an ethic of previously unknown fearlessness.
Taking a train back to New York from the July 4, 1969 Annual Reminder, Rodwell decided to enlist the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO), a sponsor of the Annual Reminder. Over the next few months he also worked on his plan with the recently formed Gay Liberation Front. At a November conference of ERCHO, he put forward his idea to suspend the Annual Reminder and to organize in its place a Stonewall march. With the support of Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, ERCHO pitched in for the 1970 Stonewall remembrance.
Their mutual gamble paid off; more than 2,000 people marched in Manhattan, from Greenwich Village up to Central Park. Among them were Barbara Gittings, whose partner Kay Lahusen, a talented and prolific photographer, recorded the demonstration. So was Frank Kameny, holding a sign that read “Gay is Good,” a slogan adopted at a Chicago conference in 1968. The Pride Parade was born. It grew into an international phenomenon.
Without the Pride Parade, we would not commemorate Stonewall. But the first New York parade depended, more than we have recognized, on the Annual Reminder. Critically, the leaders of that little-known Philadelphia venture were open to change and innovation. The early years of the gay revolution required nothing less if it was to grow – and they knew that. As we mark Stonewall at 50 we should also honor the political entrepreneurship that led to one of the world’s great recurring commemorations.
Rick Valelly is professor of political science at Swarthmore College. Malcolm Lazin is executive director of LGBT History Month.