Gay Power

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David Eisenbach, Carroll and Graf, £9.99

The Stonewall riots are one of the most important events in 20th century gay history. Until Stonewall most LGBT people accepted that they were weak, inferior - certainly not capable of rioting. Yet in New York, on two nights in June 1969, gays fought back after cops raided a bar.

Eisenbach quotes a woman from Miami who read about Stonewall in the press: "I had a sense that I had lived an oppressed life... I had a sense that that was wrong... I had a sense that there should be a 'struggle', but I wasn't sure how to form it. Reading that article, I realised there were other people like us. The sense of joy we felt!"

Eisenbach documents a time when gay liberation was part of a radical mass movement. Thousands of lesbians and gay men were sacked by the federal government during the McCarthy witch hunts, for example. It was against the law in New York to sell alcohol to homosexuals - giving cops an excuse for periodic raids on gay bars.

Through the 1960s small numbers of gay people became radicalised, looking to the example of the civil rights movement. In 1968 campaigners adopted the slogan "Gay is good", consciously echoing "Black is beautiful". Stonewall began to make such ideas a reality for millions.

Eisenbach describes the riots in inspiring detail - I simply couldn't sit still while I read this. A mostly young crowd - including many Latino and black people, and many drag queens - first threw bottles and coins at cops as they raided the Stonewall bar. When police retreated inside the bar, the crowd broke the windows and held them prisoner. Riot police then arrived, to do battle with several hundred people. Rioting continued the next night.

The riot led to the establishment of the Gay Liberation Front, whose name echoes that of the National Liberation Front, otherwise known as the Viet Cong. By the summer of 1970 thousands took part in the first Gay Pride parade. The next year gay organisations existed in 60 American universities. By 1978, 19 US cities had adopted gay rights legislation.

Despite these successes, gay organisations were full of political splits and confusion. Rather than confronting the sexism and homophobia prevalent within the movement in order to work together, activists split - women from men, gay from straight, radicals from moderates. Talk of revolution was commonplace, but few people had any clear idea of how to bring one about.

All this means that the second half of the book is less inspiring than the first. It doesn't help that Eisenbach doesn't relate the history of gay politics to their wider context in the US - Watergate isn't mentioned, for example. Instead he over-emphasises the role of the media, and the media stunts ("zaps") which became a central part of gay movement activity.

Despite these issues, everyone can learn from this book and be inspired by it. Highly recommended.