Although June 1969 is in many ways burned in the public consciousness as the pivotal month for the development of the modern LGBTQIA+ Rights Movement, in many ways, the July which followed may have been just as if not more important. It was that month which saw the establishment of several key organizations and traditions that came to shape and define this movement and its far-reaching social impact. The Stonewall Riots were not a one-night occurrence, but a five-day series of protests between June 28 and July 3rd. These riots marked a pivotal transition from the Homophile Movement (roughly 1945 to 1969) to the Gay Liberation Movement (1969 to roughly 1974). However, it was the actions after the Riots that made Greenwich Village the center of this new movement.
Prior to 1969, the Homophile Movement was characterized by civil disobedience akin to the sit-ins and peaceful protests organized by the Civil Rights Movement in the American South. It was lead by chaptered, secretive organizations, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, as part of a carefully calibrated effort to reframe homosexuality as an intrinsic and innocuous orientation, rather than as a mental illness or subaltern class as the law and medical/psychiatric establishment in the United States branded it at that time. However, the Stonewall Riots effectively ended the movement, as more radicalized members embraced direct action and physical resistance as effective tools for capturing media attention to the cause rather than the Homophiles’ more subdued and polite methods. Within weeks following the Riots, activists within Greenwich Village formed the Gay Liberation Front (GLF)
The Gay Liberation Front was an incredibly militant and fast-acting group that sought to redefine social stereotypes of gay men and their relationships. The organization used Alternate U, a now-demolished counterculture and leftist school located at 69 West 14th Street, as their base of operations. The organization drew inspiration from other radical militant groups, like the Black Panthers, and formed a broad political platform denouncing capitalism, police brutality, and queer assmilation. However, the group was short-lived due to its primarily white, male focus as well as its ardent support of violent, nationalist, and radical governments in Cuba, Vietnam, and Algeria. By July of 1970, its members had essentially disbanded the group and founded other organizations, like the Gay Activists Alliance, Queens Liberation Front, Lavender Menace, Street Transvestite Action Revoulionairies (STAR), and Radical Lesbians.
Despite its short life in Greenwich Village, the Gay Liberation Front expanded incredibly quickly, establishing chapters in 35 states, Canada, and several European countries. The Gay Liberation Front organized neighborhood protests and established the framework for the modern LGBTQIA+ Pride March. Its GAY POWER March, held on July 27th, organized over 500 people to march from the Washington Square Arch to the Stonewall Inn to commemorate the 1 month anniversary of the uprising. Reporter Jonathan Black for the Village Voice captured the spirit of this march in his article, “Gay Power Hits Back,” published in the newspaper’s Thursday edition on July 31st, 1969:
They marched under a lavender banner, 500 strong, from Washington Square to the Stonewall Inn. The young man in pin-striped caramel hip-huggers and an apricot halter suddenly boomed out, “Give me a G! Give me an A! Give me a Y! Give me a P!…an R! What does it spell?” And from the purple column echoed the resounding cry: “Gay Power!” Then in repeating choruses: “Gay, gay power to the gay, gay people, Gay, gay power to the gay, gay people.”
A man’s head peered out from a Sunday afternoon tourist bus. “What are they saying, Henry?” came the rasp from behind a Kodak Zoom 8. “Play power,” muttered Henry. “It’s a demonstration.”
It started in Washington Square with the distribution of lavender ribbons and arm bands. “Brothers and sisters,” began Martha Shelley from the Daughters of Bilitis, standing on the fountain’s rim, “welcome to this city’s first gay-power vigil. We’re tired of being harassed and persecuted. If a straight couple can hold hands in Washington Square, why can’t we?” Eruptions of applause, a delirium of screams and giggles. “Sock it to ’em! Sock it to ’em!” and “Long live the queen!”
“We’re tired of straight people who are hung up on sex,” she continued. “Tired of flashlights and peeping-tom vigilantes. Tired of marriage laws that punish you for lifting your head off the pillow. Socrates was a homosexual. Michelangelo was a homosexual. Walt Whitman and Richard the Lion-Hearted were homosexuals.”
Marty Robinson from the Mattachine Society, one of the demonstration’s co-sponsors, took over: “Gay power is here. Gay power is no laugh. There are one million homosexuals in New York City. If we wanted to, we could boycott Bloomingdale’s, and that store would be closed in two weeks!” Cries of “Close it down!” and “Tell ’em sweetie!”
“We will not permit another reign of terror,” urged Robinson. “Let me tell you, homosexuals, we’ve got to get organized. We’ve got to stand up. This is our chance!”
When things were beginning to get a bit slack, Sister Marlene was introduced. “I’m sister Marlene and I’m running for mayor on the Salvation Party,” said the buxom beauty. “I’m not homogenized, I’m still heterosexual. But when I’m elected mayor there’s going to be a Universal Erogenous Zone, and everyone’s invited.” She eventually concluded, “The government is a pimp. Bless you all. Everyone here is now married.”
The march to Sheridan Square began then, an orderly four-by-four column, with cadenced clapping and gay-power cheers. No one could quite believe it. Even 4th Street’s resident gypsies unearthed an Instamatic from the bowels of their trailer and snapped away.
As the traffic up Sixth Avenue ground to a halt, the marchers gathered confidence. The chants and the cheers rang out more defiantly. Maybe it wasn’t just a joke. Maybe there really was a gay power. In the park outside the Stonewall Inn, scene of the bust two weeks before, the rally re-convened. Appeals for money, organization, and the start of a newspaper from Robinson. A suggested march on the Sixth Precinct. And, finally, a curiously moving “We Shall Overcome,” punctuated by an occasional pulsing falsetto, somewhere in the crowd.
Gay power had surfaced. Sick and tired of police harassment, of prehistoric sodomy laws, of “park protection” in Queens (Queens!), and of vicious busts in the underground haunts where public decency had driven them, homosexuals struck back. A mild protest, to be sure, but apparently only the beginning.”Jonathan Black. “Gay Power Hits Back.” The Village Voice 42, Vol. XIX (1969).
The GLF’s actions and the legacy it left behind also long out-lasted their organization and started the broader Gay Liberation Movement both here in Greenwich Village as well as across the nation. In July 1969, the GLF began organizing a protest and information campaign that contributed to the eventual closure of the Women’s House of Detention in 1971. The GLF was also part of a coalition of organizations (many of which its previous members founded) that put pressure on the American Psychiatric Association to change their definition of homosexuality from a “mental disorder” to a “sexual orientation” in 1974. One of the group’s members, Paul Goodman, published his gay manifesto, “The Politics of Being Queer,” in November of 1969, and the text is credited as a precursor to the 1990s’ movement reclaiming the previously derogatory word “queer.” In collaboration with Craig Rodwell (activist and owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop) and numerous other organizations, they also participated in the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee, which organized the world’s first Pride March in June of 1970.
If you’d like to learn more about LGBTQ+ activism and history within our neighborhoods, then we encourage you to check out our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map! We also have a list of further reading and resources if you’d like to learn more about any of the topics mentioned in today’s blog post: