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Stonewall at 50

Watershed Moment in Gay Rights Movement Still Resonates, Expert Says

By Sala Levin ’10

Stonewall riot

Photo by New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images

A crowd attempts to impede police arrests outside the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969. Christina Hanhardt, associate professor of American studies, reflected on the riots’ legacy ahead of their 50th anniversary.

Fifty years ago tomorrow, an early-morning raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar sparked a two-day riot as patrons and crowds on the street fought the police, catapulting the gay rights movement into the mainstream.

To mark the anniversary, Maryland Today talked with Christina Hanhardt, associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and author of the book “Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence.” She discussed the legacy of the Stonewall Inn riot, the meaning it continues to hold for activists and the challenges that a broadened LGBTQ+ community still faces.Christina Hanhardt

What made the Stonewall riots a tipping point when previous displays of activism hadn’t been?
There had already been decades of political organizing around some of the same issues that activists after Stonewall took on, including against the criminalization of lesbians and gay men. In addition, there had been incidents in cities across the country in which people responded to routine police raids of gay bars by fighting back.

What makes Stonewall exceptional are two things: One, it led to a large, multiday riot. Some of these other bar-based uprisings were smaller and more contained, or they were more quickly and effectively repressed by the police. This one sustained in a way that it was able to really gather momentum.

Two, it galvanized a different kind of political organizing, one that was trying to really transform our culture along a wide range of lines. It saw the fight against policing to be not only for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, but also for other social outsiders, including along race, gender and class lines. This led to the founding of organizations like the Gay Liberation Front and Third World Gay Revolution that would sustain not only in New York but in places across the country for a period of time and shift the political agenda of the gay movement, putting it in conversation with a range of radical activisms from the late 1960s, including radical feminism, black power and the antiwar movement.

There were two factions: those who wanted LGBT people to be part of mainstream straight society, and those who wanted a more radical agenda. How do we see those competing interests playing out today in the continuing fight for LGBT rights?
One of the things that existed at the time of Stonewall and today is the question of whether people want to broadly change many aspects of the status quo and the structures of uneven power in our world, or whether they want to get a seat at that exclusive table. The most visible and largest parts of the LGBT movement have focused on acquiring a seat at that table. LGBT people should not be excluded from the rights and benefits afforded to others, such as the right to marry, but that has not changed the fact that the table has limited seats, that it is in a room with locked doors and that it remains square.

Other activists have sought to reconceptualize the ways in which we might live collectively—to say, “Rather than the right to marry, why can’t we all have social benefits regardless of marital status, whether you’re straight or gay?” Some of the most exciting queer activism today is associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. One has to not just look for a rainbow flag or the term “LGBT” to be able to recognize the queer political commitments of a range of social movements.

Do you think Stonewall resonates with young LGBT people?
I think Stonewall does resonate very significantly, largely for its mythical status. It is a story that people like to tell in order to create a sense of identity, a sense of history and a sense of community. Among a lot of young people that I speak to today, the story of Stonewall that resonates the most heavily for them is what has now become a more collective history of Stonewall. Many mainstream representations of the early years of gay liberation highlight the contributions of white, middle-class lesbians and gay men, and many young people I talk to today are interested in learning more about the place of gender-nonconforming people and people of color involved in the riots. This is the story with which they increasingly identify.

Taylor Swift performed at the Stonewall Inn earlier this month. Is there any fear of its legacy being co-opted by straight people or even by corporate interests?
I don’t think that the concern is that straight people will appropriate this legacy, because one of the real transformations of sexual politics in the 50 years since is that these very categories of straight versus queer have become much more muddled. Is there a fear that it will be co-opted by corporate interests? Absolutely. That’s a dynamic that’s been well in place for at least the past 25 or 30 years. It continues to risk undermining the radical potential of LGBT social movements as a kind of bottom-up, world-changing transformation that was at the center of Stonewall, and making it into a niche identity in the marketplace.

The NYPD recently apologized for its actions at Stonewall. Is that meaningful to the LGBT community?
I think that the apology is meaningful to some people, but I think it is an incredibly limited gesture. The strategies of policing that the NYPD adopted in the late 1960s and continues to adopt today target a wide range of activities that it designates as disorder. The fact that they would apologize that a specific group was targeted by these policies does not change the fact that these policies continue to criminalize many of the everyday ways in which people live in the world. In a way, I fear this apology functions to justify a system of policing that still targets many LGBT people, especially those who are young and people of color and who live, work and play in the public spaces of cities like New York, and nearby Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

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