Stonewall Was a Riot

We wrote this article for Freedom, Vol 71 no 14.

Stonewall was a riot!

On Saturday 3rd July, approximately a million people came to central London for Pride. Although it was billed as an opportunity to celebrate the events of 40 years ago – the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, followed by the formation of the Gay Liberation Front – it seems that much of that radical history has been forgotten.

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people – and anarchists – have heard of the “Stonewall Riots”, but are a bit hazy about what actually happened.

At the end of the ’60s, New York City gave LGBT people the chance to find community, or at least escape small-town homophobia. Gays used public spaces, and a number of bars. These were small and dingy, owned by Mafia men who routinely sold watered-down liquor. They charged a cover on the door, and high prices for the booze. The police received regular pay-offs, and in return would usually warn the owners before they staged their raids.

The police had many laws at their disposal, including the New York State Penal Code. Bars which openly served homosexuals, or permitted them to dance with each other, could be labelled “disorderly houses”. Plain-clothes police officers were used to entrap gay men for “soliciting men for the purpose of committing a crime against nature”, while “sumptuary laws” were used against anyone not wearing “gender appropriate clothing”.

The Stonewall Inn was raided in the early hours of Saturday 28th June 1969. Many of those present – especially the street youth, the butches and the drag queens – had been harassed, beaten, arrested and invasively searched by cops. They felt like they had nothing to lose, and every reason to fight back this time. Enough was enough. Stilettos, bottles, coins, and bricks were thrown. The cops found themselves trapped inside the bar, while a crowd of angry queers outside tried to set fire to it. The riots continued for days and nights, with over a thousand people out in the streets on the Wednesday.

The Stonewall Rebellion sparked the Gay Liberation Front, which then organised the first Gay Pride march exactly one year later, on “Christopher Street Liberation Day”. The GLF was explicitly revolutionary, and aligned itself with other radical social movements, for example anti-war protesters and the Black Panther party. The GLF were against patriarchy, against capitalism,against colonialism, against exploitative gay bars, and they organised without a formal, hierarchical structure. These ideas spread quickly, and a GLF group formed in London. Its members established communes, often in squatted houses, and were active on a broad range of issues, seeing the struggle for sexual liberation as part of a wider struggle for all kinds of liberation.

Pride events now happen around the world every year. In some places, it is still a struggle to create this level of public visibility, and fascist groups threaten violence against marchers.

However here, Pride has been de-politicised and increasingly commercialised. From 1999 to 2003, the whole event was re-branded as “Mardi Gras” (copying Sydney, Australia), and the free post-march festival was replaced with a ticketed event, with corporate sponsors. Pride London, a charity, has now taken over the organisation, but followed the same route: a themed parade (not a march, or a protest), with lavishly-decorated floats representing the LGBT “community”, and the latest assimilationist campaigns, for example the “rights” of gay people to get married, get a mortgage, join the military etc. The police, armed forces, and prison service march proudly; this year the Home Office float has one of the loudest sound-systems. Pride is used to sell London as a destination for gay tourists.

The GLF used to urge people to come out, and join in. But each year, participation in the parade is more strictly controlled, the sides are sealed off, and stewards are instructed not to let spectators in. So yes, there are more people coming along to the West End to celebrate Pride, but for them the march is pure spectacle, something to watch go by, not something to be part of. The “gay lifestyle” has been packaged up and sold to us, capitalism continues to see LGBT folk as yet another category of consumer to exploit.

Queer resistance has come in many forms. New York activists questioned the whole notion of “Pride” and created “Gay Shame awards” instead. Here in London, anarch@-queers have set up alternatives to the gay mainstream, and to Pride itself, occupying space both on the march and afterwards. A spoof newspaper, the ‘Pink Pauper’, has appeared twice. Last year’s flyers questioned the need for hate-crime legislation, and criticised police and prison service LGBT recruitment drives. Placards and banners like “Queers Bash Back against Homophobia” “Fuck the Pink Pound”, “Queers against Capitalism” attract the unwelcome attention of the Met, and Pride organisers; both of whom seem to find radical politics much more offensive than, for example, the presence of a float-full of LGBT Shell employees!

Radical queers are active in a range of struggles, and seem to be especially well-represented in No Borders and anti-prison groups. Bent Bars was established last year to link up LGBT prisoners with pen-pals on the outside, and now need more pen-pals. More info at:

London anarcha feminist kolektiv:

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