Fifty years on from the Stonewall riots, the picture for LGBT+ people is very different, yet there can be no complacency in a time when the far right is attempting to weaponise our struggle, writes Bethan Turner.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. These six nights of violent demonstrations in New York’s Greenwich Village transformed the struggle for LGBT+ liberation, from a collection of mainly small and conservative lobbying groups, to a vibrant and radical movement that called for revolution as the way to win sexual liberation.
The gains of this movement were undeniable. By the end of the 1970s homosexuality was decriminalised in most US states and in 1973 homosexuality was removed from the American Phycological Association list of psychiatric disorders.
Fifty years on it is indisputable that the lives of LGBT+ people have been transformed. However we are far from the “complete sexual liberation” that was envisioned by those that hurled coins and glasses at the cops in June 1969.
We also see the rise of a far right that seeks to weaponise the issue of LGBT+ rights while at the same time espousing the most vile homophobia and transphobia, threatening the gains of the last 50 years.
In 1969 the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), the group set up in the immediate aftermath of Stonewall, declared in its founding statement “We are a group of revolutionary men and women formed with the realisation that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot be won until all the existing social institutions are abolished.”
When asked what they meant by revolution they said, “We identify ourselves with all the oppressed, the Vietnamese struggle, the third world, the blacks, the workers, all those oppressed by this dirty vile fucked up capitalist conspiracy.”
Their revolutionary rhetoric reflected the atmosphere of the 1960s, which had seen waves of struggle that has rocked the US establishment, from the struggle for Black Civil Rights to the movement against the Vietnam War. These movements undoubtedly had an influence on those that would go on to lead the LGBT+ movement.
Sylvia Rivera, a drag queen and founder of the GLA who went on to form Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) summed it up like this:
“We had done so much for other movements… Everyone was involved in the women’s movement, the peace movement, the civil rights movement. We were all radicals.”
The revolutionary mood of the 1960s opened the eyes of LGBT+ activists to the idea that another world was possible. Not just one where we enjoyed some limited reforms but one where society was completely transformed. They also saw that their liberation was impossible without the liberation of all oppressed people.
One of the GLF’s first actions was to declare its support for imprisoned Black Panther Huey P Newton, who in turn pledged the Panthers to support gay liberation.
Although the movement for LGBT+ liberation declined as the radicalism of the 60s faded, Stonewall and its aftermath showed how fighting to transform society and for liberation for all could win real gains.
The aftermath of Stonewall was not the only time that a mass movement fighting to transform society also transformed the lives of LGBT+ people.
At the beginning of the 20th century Berlin harboured Europe’s largest gay subculture. Germany was also home to the largest left party in Europe, many of whose leading members fought for the repeal of anti-homosexuality laws.
But the most dramatic changes were to be found in Russia following the revolution of 1917. Homosexuality and all consensual sexual activity was legalised. Soviet courts recognised same sex marriage and there are documented instances of sex change operations being conducted. Openly gay Bolshevik Grigorri Chichen was appointed commissar of public affairs in 1918.
The Russian and German experiences again showed how the fight for real sexual liberation cannot be separated from the fight for liberation for everyone in society.
LGBT+ activists today would do well to draw on some of these lessons. Despite the self-adulation from (some) Tories for the legalisation of same-sex marriage under David Cameron’s coalition government, the austerity measures the Tories have introduced have hammered working class LGBT+ people.
We also see the rise of the far right that seeks to use the issue of LGBT+ rights to stir up hatred towards Muslims and refugees. Both Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen have attempted to court gay voters in the run up to elections by promising to “protect” us from Muslims.
Yet at the same time Trump chose a known supporter of conversion therapy as vice president and has wasted no time attacking the rights of trans Americans. In Brazil Jair Bolsonaro has said he would rather have a dead son than a gay one and on his third day in office removed LGBT+ issues from the responsibilities of Brazil’s ministry for human rights.
The far right are not friends of LGBT+ people and as they grow levels of homophobia have grown with them. It is imperative that those seeking to fight the return of homophobic reaction must throw themselves into the battle against racism and Islamophobia, which is fuelling the rise of bigots and Nazis.
But we also need to bring back the radical message of Stonewall — that liberation for LGBT+ cannot be won without transforming society and winning liberation for all.