The Stonewall Riots — From oppression to resistance

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The Stonewall Riots — From oppression to resistance

The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History by Marc Stein, NYU Press, US $35.00, Pp 344, May 2019, ISBN 978-1479816859

Fifty years ago, in 1969, thousands of people came in the streets of New York in response to a police raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar — The Stonewall Inn. Whether you look at the riots that followed as the starting point or turning point in the history of the LGBT resistance movement, they are a key moment in the history of one the most transformative social movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The Stonewall Riots have become an iconic symbol of resistance to oppression and empowerment of the oppressed. Each year, millions of people around the world participate in pride parades and protests to commemorate the rebellion on or near its anniversary. Most people know little or nothing about the Stonewall Riots in spite of its iconic importance. In The Stonewall RiotsMarc Stein gives a brief history of the LGBT resistance movement and gathers some 200 primary documents on the movement.

Marc Stein explains that the LGBT people were structurally and systematically oppressed in American society, commonly treated as criminals by law, sinners by religion, diseased by science, defective by business, deviant by popular culture, faulty by friends and family. Police officers routinely engaged in acts of anti-LGBT hate, harassment and discrimination, and disrespect, especially against people of color, immigrants, poor people, sex workers, and gender queers. Police raids on gay bars, many owned or operated and protected by organized crime, were common. Bars were especially vulnerable when they did not pay off the police and when politicians wanted to present themselves as paragons of virtue, opponents of vice, and proponents of law and order. New York City was home to the largest LGBT communities in the United States and an even larger world of queer desires and acts. Greenwich Village, a longtime hotbed of cultural bohemianism and political radicalism, was a center of LGBT life. Marc Stein argues that it is not surprising that the rebellion occurred in the context of a police raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar.

But why did the uprising begin in June 1969 rather than earlier or later? One of the most popular interpretations — often criticized as a myth by historians — is that the rebellion was a spontaneous eruption of anger and an unprecedented explosion of resistance. Marc Stein says that they were furious that the police were yet again raiding a popular gay club and targeting the most vulnerable members of their communities. Consequently, the Stonewall patrons and their allies on the streets fought back and started a revolution. Those who claim that the gay movement began at Stonewall — an assertion made by gay liberationists in the aftermath of the riots and now invoked commonly in the mainstream media — typically view the rebellion as unprecedented.

Marc Stein says that the LGBT radicalization in the second half of the 1960s was influenced by changes in the other social movements as well. In this period, red, brown, and yellow power activism grew, radical feminism strengthened, protests against the Vietnam War escalated, and US leftists increasingly saw themselves as part of a global revolution against colonialism. Countercultural activism celebrated “sex, love, rock ‘n roll” and critiqued bourgeois culture, capitalist consumerism, and suburban conformity. LGBT people were influenced by all of these developments and by the growth of a sexual liberation movement that challenged multiple forms of erotic repression. These influences were not just intellectual and theoretical — LGBT people moved between and among these movements, becoming agents of inspiration and vectors of transmission in the “movement of movements.” From this perspective, the Stonewall Riots happened because of the radicalizing effects of other social movements on LGBT activism and resistance.

The Stonewall Riots not only gives a brief historical and analytical introduction to why The Stonewall Riots happened when and where they did but also provides new perspectives on the LGBT resistance movement. It is an insightful look into the LGBT struggle for civil rights. Marc Stein has gathered some 200 little known but immensely important primary documents on the LGBT movement in one volume. This is probably the volume that carries so much wealth of primary documents on the LGBT resistance movement. The Stonewall Riots is an invaluable addition to the existing literature on the LBGT movement and the sexual revolution. It is a perfect tribute to the LGBT resistance struggle that has shaped the modern world.

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