Stonewall was a riot

The front line of rioters outside the Stonewall Inn, 28 June 1969

Jonathan Neale and Nancy Lindisfarne.

The most important event in the long history of lesbian, gay and trans liberation happened on a summer night fifty years ago. It was not direct action, civil disobedience, a meeting, a march, a court case, an election or a strike. It was a riot led by underage sex workers, which was the point, and why that night changed the world. 

In 1969 the Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in New York City, in the beat and bohemian neighbourhood on the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. ‘The village’ was also a homosexual haven – men heard about it from all over the country and came to a place where they could find others like themselves and be a little bit open.

Homosexuality was illegal in 49 out of the 50 United States. Men and women were deep in the closet. The lavender scare of the 1950s had lost even more people their jobs than the red scare. Persecution had been deepening through the 1960s, particularly arrests on the street and in gay bars. Working class communities were more tolerant of openly effeminate men than professional communities and workplaces, which were very hostile.

In this intolerant world, the Stonewall Inn was special. There were, as far as anyone could tell, more homosexual men and women in New York City than anywhere else in the country. San Francisco maybe had a bigger proportion of gays and lesbians, but it was a much smaller a city. And Stonewall was the only gay bar where you could be fully yourself. In the other places, you could dance in the dark, but when the lights came on without warning, you had to sit down abruptly. At the Stonewall, the lights stayed low.

The bouncers at the other bars had rules. No one could enter who looked too feminine, or too young. We need to be clear what we mean by feminine here, because times and words have changed so much. Contemporary witnesses say that many patrons at the Stonewall were queens, even ‘screaming queens’ and ‘flame queens’. So many people are likely to assume now that those were drag queens, and men in women’s clothes. A few were, and most were not. In 1969 a queen meant a man who looked effeminate, but far less so than David Bowie, Freddie Mercury or Prince in their prime. Bell bottoms trousers, a loose shirt with flowers on it, maybe a necklace and a head band, a bit of blush – that would do it. Small touches were enough to be called a queen and noticed on the streets of New York.

You could dress like that and walk like that and get into the Stonewall. The bouncers let young men in. There were many gay, effeminate teenage boys in New York. Some of them still lived at home, but many had been kicked out or left. They heard about the village and came from all over the country. They lived homeless, on the streets, further uptown mostly, and made a living hustling – stealing and prostitution. They were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and they often only had the clothes they stood up in. They were out, flamboyant, tough, and terribly vulnerable inside. Most gay men would have nothing to do with them, even the drag queens. In the village, gay men with homes threw bottles out the window at them. The Stonewall was the only bar that would let them in.

There were women in drag too, though not so many. And some lesbians. They were important in starting the riot. Continue reading

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Abortion politics in America: 1980-2018

March to defend abortion rights, Washington DC, 1989

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write:  With Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the US Supreme Court, the majority of justices are against women’s abortion rights, and they are threatening to overturn Roe v. Wade. This is the second of two posts about the abortion wars in the United States. In retelling this history we are looking for insights that might help us to fight for abortion rights going forward. Continue reading

Defending Abortion after Kavanaugh (1): Lessons from History 1964-1980

Judith Widdecombe, abortion pioneer in MIssouri

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: Kavanaugh’s confirmation after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony now taints the Supreme Court. And not by chance, a majority of the justices on the court are now expressly against abortion rights.

This is the first of two posts looking to the history of abortion rights in America. Both focus on lessons learned at each stage in the struggle. They are valuable lessons, and lessons we can use in the fight to preserve abortion rights in the future.

We make two central points in this post. Abortion rights were won by a mass movement, not the Supreme Court. Second, the abortion wars continue because abortion has come to stand for women’s equality,  sexual freedom and desire. Continue reading

Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh and seven useful insights about sexual violence

Protest in St Louis, 2 October 2018

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: Last Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford testified before the judiciary committee of the US Senate. She said that Brett Kavanaugh, the nominee for the Supreme Court, had attempted to rape her when she was 15. He denied it.

She told the truth and he was lying. Everyone in the room knew this, including the all eleven Republican senators.

What happened next was something else. The Republican senators rallied to defend the right to rape. Sure, class also mattered, and abortion, and Trump, and the midterm elections. But centrally, they did not want Kavanaugh to pay a price for his sexual violence.

An extraordinary moment of #metoo resistance had provoked that Republican backlash, and they closed ranks fast and hard.

When a system is working smoothly the mechanics of power are hidden. But when there is a breakdown, a ‘breach case’, we sometimes have an opportunity to see how the system works. And the links and deep loyalties that keep inequality in place become visible.

The hearing has offered such an opportunity. It gives us a chance to formulate seven useful ideas about sexual violence. Continue reading

Michael Kimmel, #MeTooSociology and Feminist Betrayal of Sex Workers in Academia

Juniper Fitzgerald writes: I’ve made an entire alter ego out of the things people hate most about women: bodily autonomy and self-determination in the form of sex work and body modifications, among other things. The recent allegations against prominent sociologist Michael Kimmel, a man known for his scholarship on masculinity and masculine entitlement, unveil the things people love most about women—complicity in the form of apologetics and silence, among other things.

As a former sex worker and sociologist, the allegations against Kimmel sent me spiraling in ways I did not anticipate, and not just because I have repeatedly experienced sexual harassment in my academic career. I am particularly revolted by the allegations against Kimmel because I disavowed my hard-earned sex worker gut feeling in order to elevate his career. Continue reading

The Rise of Socialism in the United States

Striking teachers occupy the state capitol building in West Virginia, March 2018

Tabitha Spence writes: The American electoral field is witnessing a leftward shift not seen in at least the past four decades. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 bid for president on the Democratic Party ticket sent shock waves throughout the country, as he openly identified as a (*gasp*) socialist, opening up possibilities for the American Left that had been hitherto foreclosed. [This article was first published in the Daily Times in Pakistan.] Continue reading