27 June 2019 Blogs

After Stonewall: A Community Finds Its Voice(s)

Out of the streets and onto the pages: the birth of LGBT media.

By Courtney Suciu

In the 1960s, police raids were common at joints like the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

“The bar was seedy, but it was one of the few places where gay people could socialize and dance together,” according to Betsy Kuhn, author of Gay Power! The Stonewall Riots and the Gay Rights Movement1.

“In this dark little bar on Christopher Street, no one told them they were deviates, no psychiatrists told them they were sick, and no one threatened to hurt them because they were gay,” she added.

But an upcoming mayoral election in 1969 involved efforts to “clean up” New York City, which meant, according to Kuhn, dealing with “drug pushers, prostitutes and gays.” That spring, law enforcement came down hard on the city’s gay bars, and patrons were getting fed up. So, when police barged into the Stonewall early on Saturday, June 28, the raid did not go as planned. This time, patrons retaliated.

Amid shouts of “gay power!,” they lobbed rocks, bottles and pennies at law enforcement. The disenfranchised, repressed LGBT community had reached its breaking point. Gays, lesbians and genderqueers from all over joined a series of violent demonstrations that spontaneously erupted over the following days.

No longer willing to put up with having to live in secrecy and tolerate discrimination and abuse because of their sexual identities, demonstrators found strength in stepping out of the shadows and banding together to fight against their oppression.

This series of events has come to be known as the Stonewall Uprising and was a turning point in the history of gay rights.

Looking at media coverage during and after the uprising, we’ll explore the evolution of awareness and attitudes in the early days of the LGBT movement. We’ll also discover how gay publications helped a community of people from around the world find and support each other, and at long last, have a platform to speak about themselves and their experiences to others who were like them.

Local and national news coverage of the raid and riots

According to Kuhn, local coverage of the unfolding events on Christopher Street added fuel to the flames for the angry mob protesting outside the Stonewall – and for today’s researchers, it gives us a valuable glimpse of how LGBT people were treated, even by more progressive media outlets.

On the Wednesday following the initial raid and subsequent melee, The Village Voice ran two frontpage reports of the weekend’s riots. “The Voice,” Kuhn explained, “with offices close to the Stonewall, had always positioned itself as the city’s hip, progressive newspaper— except when it came to gay life.”

The publication made it an editorial point to distance itself from the LGBT community, and articles on the events at Stonewall contained language that reflected the widespread homophobia of the 1960s.

In response to this derogatory coverage, some of the protestors “wanted to burn down the paper’s offices,” Kuhn wrote. “Instead,” she continued, “they took to the street again” for another night of rioting.

In contrast, The New York Times, which had a more mainstream, national readership, barely mentioned the Stonewall events at all and its coverage stuck to the most basic facts.

In the first of a couple of short briefs, the headline simply read2, “Four policemen hurt in ‘village’ raid” and according to the article, “Hundreds of young men went on a rampage…after a force of plain-clothes men raided a bar that police say is well-known for its homosexual clientele.”

This reference to the “homosexual clientele” is the only indication of the sexual identification or orientation of the rioters; otherwise they are referred to repeatedly as “young men.”

Such an account of the Stonewall riots not only ignored the participation of lesbian and genderqueer demonstrators who were among the most harassed by police during the initial raid, and the ones who most vehemently fought back against the harassment; it also indirectly portrayed the rioters simply as hooligans and hellraisers – not as a community fighting for liberation.

In other words, it was a sign of the times that the struggle of LGBT people didn’t warrant a mention, even in coverage of events which would prove pivotal in the burgeoning gay rights movement.

Reporting on a new equal rights movement

One year after the Stonewall Uprising, crowds gathered in Central Park to celebrate “Christopher Street Liberation Day,” organized to mark the anniversary of the riots. The occasion culminated in a gay pride march which, according Kuhn, swelled to include thousands of participants chatting the likes of “Two, four, six, eight, gay is just as good as straight!” and “Out of the closets and into the streets!” throughout the neighborhood of the former Stonewall Inn.

When Newsday reporter Robert Mayer3 covered the march and related events, his tone was strikingly different than those previous accounts during the riots.

For one thing, Mayer provided more context and understanding of why the Stonewall riots erupted and the significance of the uprising for the LGBT community. He also wrote of the tremendous progress of the growing gay rights movement over the course of a single year.

“The Stonewall Inn is still a battered, barren place with a ‘For Rent’ sign on it now,” Mayer wrote:

But those nights were a turning point in the long quest by homosexuals for equal rights. They have adopted in the past year the tactics used by the peace movement, the black power advocates and the women’s liberationists. One tactic involves organizing for political power. The other required public demonstration.

In this case, the public demonstration was a five day “convention of homosexuals” in the village, sponsored by about 20 LGBT groups from the northeastern U.S. Events included lectures, dances, film screenings and public discussions related to gay rights. The convention closed with a celebration in Central Park, where Mayer observed “participants having a joyful, unself-conscious day.”

“The men danced together to music from portable phonographs and kissed each other on their necks,” he wrote. “Bystanders watched with no visible outrage. ‘I’m surprised to see so many straight people around accepting it,’ one homosexual said.’”

According to Mayer, “that fact alone made the day a success.”

However, while articles like Mayer’s revealed changing attitudes and perceptions of LGBT people and were a step in the right direction for the cause of gay liberation, they were still written exclusively from a mainstream perspective.

What the movement needed was a place where LGBT people could speak for themselves and talk about the things that mattered to them, in their own words.

In their own words

Though not mentioned by Newsday, another tactic in the early movement for gay rights involved creating platforms where members of the LGBT community could report on and discuss news and issues that mattered to them, from their own points of view, and help people understand there were others in the world who were like them and enduring the same struggles.

In response to this need, several LGBT newspapers and magazines, including Albatross and Lunch started in the early ‘70s. In 1972, the Gay News out of London planned its debut to coincide with the 3rd anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in honor of this critical event in the battle for equal rights and acceptance.

In the first issue, the Gay News4 included an inspirational and welcoming editorial which explained the motives and intentions of the new newspaper. “[This] is not our paper, but yours;” it read, “it belongs to the whole gay community. It’s for gay women as well as gay men, for transsexuals as well as transvestites, for anyone with a sexual label but who we like to call ‘gays of all sexes.’

This editorial also acknowledged that despite legal reform and social progress since the Stonewall Uprising:

Many gay people are still extremely isolated, and still live restricted lives. We feel that a medium which could help us all to know what we all are doing, which could put us in contact and be open evidence of existence and our rights for the rest of the people to see could help start the beginning of the end of our current situation.

“The current situation,” of course, referred to a lack of mainstream tolerance and understanding which made it difficult for many gay people around the world to live full, happy, complete lives. And part of living such a life meant being able to speak freely and openly to an audience that is interested in what you have to say.

“After all, gay people are the same as anyone else,” the editors continued. “Whether you are part of the majority or one of the minorities, you are still people wanting and needing to share news and information.”

Gay magazines and newspapers offered a place where the challenges, concerns and experiences of the LGBT community could be discussed from their perspectives, rather than simply described by a frequently biased and uninformed mainstream point of view.

“And for us especially, there is still a need to dispel and counteract much ignorance and misinformation,” editors of The Gay News wrote. “So far we seem to have accepted society’s idea of us as something that’s not very nice, to be seen perhaps, but not heard.”

But publications like the Gay News, The Advocate, Albatross and other titles included in the LGBT Magazine Archive would change that by providing a place for LGBT people to sound their voices and chronicle the progress of their movement.

And, subsequently, they provide unique and intimate insights for those of us looking back 50 years after the Stonewall Uprising to trace the evolution of LGBT history and culture.

For further research

Learn more about the Gay News and other hard-to-find LGBT publications in the LGBT Magazine Archive.

Notes:

*Image: Gay rights demonstration at the Democratic National Convention, New York City, July 1976, from the Library of Congress.

  1. Kuhn, B. (2011). Gay Power!: The Stonewall Riots and the Gay Rights Movement 1969. Available from Ebook Central.
  2. 4 POLICEMEN HURT IN 'VILLAGE' RAID: MELEE NEAR SHERIDAN SQUARE FOLLOWS ACTION AT BAR. (1969, Jun 29). New York Times (1923-Current File). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  3. Mayer, R. (1970, Jun 30). Out of the Closets, Into the Streets. Newsday (1940-1990). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  4. Editorial. (1972, May 01). Gay News. Available from the LGBT Magazine Archive.

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Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu