The real significance of the Stonewall riots by LGBTI people in New York in June 1969 was not the riots themselves – though fighting back against police harassment was a momentous turning point in queer history. No. What was uniquely important about those riots was what they ignited: the formation of the Gay Liberation Front and, a year later, the first Gay Pride marches. This revolution, which began in the US, quickly spread to other western countries and has since gone worldwide.
On 13 October 1970, the London Gay Liberation Front was founded. It was a modest beginning, with 19 people meeting in a basement in the London School of Economics. But it grew rapidly and proved to be a defining, watershed moment in British queer life. From 1970 onward, thanks to the Stonewall rioters and the GLF, the LGBTI community changed for the better – and forever.
London GLF was a microcosm of the many queer liberation movements that sprung up in cities all over the world in the post-Stonewall era.
What it was like to be a part of the London Gay Liberation Front
Together with hundreds of other LGBTI people, I became part of GLF’s queer uprising in the UK, challenging the hetero-normative status quo in ways that were previously unprecedented – and unthinkable. We collectively changed the queer narrative and made LGBTI history.
There had, of course, been earlier, courageous movements in the 1960s, including the Homosexual Law Reform Society and the North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee, which later became the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. I recall with admiration the efforts of trail-blazers like Alan Horsfall, Antony Grey, Jackie Forster and Griff Vaughan Williams. But these organizations and pioneers were almost entirely focused on gay law reform.
GLF had much broader and more radical agenda. It was the cultural and political explosion that sparked a firestorm; first and foremost transforming the mindset of queer Britain – replacing shame with pride, and fear with defiance. And then taking on the heterosexist establishment.
GLF did not plead for reform; it demanded fundamental change. Feisty, radical and uncompromising, our goal was the transformation of straight society. GLF set the agenda for all the gains of the last five decades in Britain.
Rejecting the often closeted, seemingly apologetic pleas for tolerance voiced by many law reformers in the 1950s and 60s, GLF activists were out, proud, assertive and full-on. We demanded gay-positive and sex-affirmative values, laws and institutions, where everyone could love whoever they wanted, without guilt, stigma or discrimination.
Thousands of Brits stopped hiding their sexuality
Inspired by GLF’s freedom cry, for the first time in British history thousands of queers stopped hiding their sexuality and suffering in silence. No longer prepared to remain passive victims of injustice, we came out and marched with pride for LGBT+ liberation. This had never happened before in Britain – or in most other countries.
GLF’s unique style of political campaigning was ‘protest as performance’. Theatrical, imaginative, camp, daring and witty, unlike the straight left it promoted the queer rights message in entertaining ways that caught people’s attention. There were spirited agitprop media stunts and street theatre spectaculars, like the raid on Harley Street in protest at the ‘psycho Nazis’ in the psychiatric profession who said homosexuality was a mental illness.
GLF was serious but not po-faced. We put fun into politics. A 12-foot papier-mache cucumber was delivered to the offices of Pan Books in protest at Dr David Reuben’s homophobic book, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, which suggested that gay men were obsessed with shoving vegetables up their ass.
Realizing that straight men oppress both women and gays, GLF allied itself with the women’s liberation movement. The 1971 Miss World contest at the Royal Albert Hall was upstaged by an alternative pageant outside the main entrance, featuring the GLF drag queens MissUsed, MissRepresented and MissTreated. In protest at global hunger and Britain’s war in Ireland, there were also guest appearances by Miss Ulster, swathed in bloody bandages, and by a starving, emaciated Miss Bangladesh.
There were also serious civil disobedience protests, modeled on the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King; including successful sit-ins in pubs, like the Chepstow in west London, which refused to serve ‘poofs’ and ‘lezzos’ – but which relented under the GLF onslaught.
Putting queer issues on the public agenda
These protests grabbed the headlines, which put queer issues on the public agenda; raising awareness, provoking debate and helping change the anti-LGBT+ attitudes that were wrecking our lives.
Most importantly, the sight of queers fighting back against our persecutors dispelled forever the idea that straight society could walk all over us with impunity. This transformation from victim to victor was emotionally uplifting for millions of previously downtrodden and downcast queers. It helped banish our internalized shame; repairing much of mental damage done to us by previously unchallenged bigotry.
Through GLF, we became the first LGBT+ generation to cast off the stigma and self-hate that had burdened our community for over 2,000 years. The result? We became happier, more confident people, determined to assert our rights and unafraid to challenge even the most powerful homophobes, biphobes and transphobes.
Given the recent massive strides made by our community, it is easy to forget how bad things were five decades ago. Back then, LGBT+ persons could be sacked from their jobs, barred from bars, arrested for kissing in the street, refused rooms in hotels, evicted by homophobic landlords and denied custody of their children by court order. All this discrimination was lawful.
Queer bashing was rife
In the movies, if we featured at all, we were ridiculed as limp-wristed queens and demonized as psychopathic dykes. The only gay people who featured in the news were mass murderers, spies and child abusers. We were the enemy within.
Queer bashing was rife, but largely ignored by the police and media. Victims were often blamed, ridiculed and threatened when they went to report assaults. Cruising and cottaging were treated as serious sex crimes, with constant raids on parks and public toilets. The police also periodically targeted gay clubs, saunas and bars. Owners were charged with ‘keeping a disorderly house’ and gay club-goers were arrested for ‘licentious dancing’.
In the UK, back at the beginning of GLF, there were no openly LGBTI public figures, no sympathetic LGBTI characters on television, and no LGBTI switchboards or help-lines for those in need.
No wonder there was so much queer self-loathing, depression, alcoholism and suicide. Many LGBTIs were ashamed and wished they were straight – or dead. Some went to doctors to get ‘cured’. Many married to hide their sexuality. Arrested men were pressured by the police and courts to undergo ‘treatment’. Leading psychologists, such as Professor Hans Eysenck, advocated electric-shock aversion therapy to turn gay people straight.
GLF had a huge battle on its hands. Centuries of homophobia dictated that LGBT+ people were mad, sad and very, very bad. Undaunted, GLF turned convention on its head, declaring: “Gay Is Good!” These three words, which we spray-painted and stickered all over straight London, kick-started a revolution in queer consciousness.
‘Gay Is Good’
In those days it was deemed outrageous to suggest there was anything good about being LGBTI. Even liberal-minded heterosexuals mostly supported gay law reform out of sympathy and pity. Many were aghast when GLF proclaimed: ‘2-4-6-8! Gay is just as good as straight!’ This simple affirmative slogan had a huge impact. It psychologically empowered queers everywhere. It also frightened the life out of those smug, arrogant heterosexuals who had always assumed they were superior. Unbowed by more than two millennia of heterosexual dictatorship, we dared to question straight supremacy, likening it to racism and misogyny.
While the church and state viewed homosexuality as a social problem, we argued the real problem was society’s anti-LGBTI intolerance. Instead of us having to justify our existence, GLF demanded that gay-haters justify their bigotry.
LGBTI progress in the West
In the 50 years since GLF in Britain, the US and other countries sparked the first great queer rebellion, there have been many advances in the West. The repeal of discriminatory legislation has included equalizing the age of consent, legal recognition and rights for trans people, an end to the ban on queers in the military and legalizing adoption by same-sex couples and same-sex marriage.
LGBTI people are now more visible than ever before, with openly gay politicians, police, priests and pop stars. And also many out sportsmen and women, which was unimaginable in 1969. Public attitudes are much more accepting too. Positive queer images and characters abound on television. Companies run gay-themed adverts and political parties bid for the pink vote. The police have got tougher on hate crimes; with some exceptions, such as the non-prosecution of Islamist extremists who urge the killing of LGBTIs and of reggae singers who advocate the murder of ‘batty men’. But gayness is no longer classified as a sickness. It is homophobia that is increasingly viewed as the real perversion.
These important advances have, however, coincided with a massive retreat from the ideals and vision of the GLF pioneers. Most queers no longer question the values, laws and institutions of mainstream society. They happily settle for equal rights within the status quo; uncritically seeking what straights have got. Increasingly, queer culture has lost its questioning, dissenting edge. We have been mainstreamed, which is great, but mainstreamed on heterosexual terms. Many of us seem to aspire to little more than a LGBT+ version of straight family life.
Queers ‘carbon copies of heterosexuals’
A majority of queers nowadays seem to be carbon copies of heterosexuals. We have internalized straight thinking and become ‘hetero homos’ – straight minds in queer bodies. Our LGBTI psyche has been colonized by a heterosexual mentality.
How times have changed. GLF and the Stonewall rioters never campaigned for equality. Its demand was gay liberation. We wanted to change society, not conform to it. Our battle cry was ‘innovate, don’t assimilate.’
The 1971 London GLF Manifesto set out a far-sighted, radical agenda for a non-violent revolution in cultural values and attitudes. It questioned marriage, the nuclear family, monogamy and patriarchy. Making common cause with the women’s, black and worker’s movements, gay liberationists wanted fundamental social change and pursued an intersectional strategy of solidarity with all oppressed people.
Our idealistic vision involved creating a new sexual democracy, without homophobia, misogyny, racism and class privilege. In our queer utopia, erotic shame and guilt would be banished, together with compulsory monogamy, the nuclear family, and rigid male and female gender roles. There would be sexual freedom and human rights for everyone – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender – and straight!
Are today’s activists reluctant to rock the boat?
As well as opposing the way things were, GLF outlined an alternative vision of how society and personal relationships could be, including living communally, gender subversive radical drag and non-possessive multi-partner open relationships. These were revolutionary ideas, and still are.
But look what’s happened since then. Whereas GLF derided the family as ‘a patriarchal prison that enslaves women, gays and children’, the biggest LGBTI campaigns of recent years were for partnership and parenting rights. The focus on these safe, cuddly issues (worthy though they are) suggests that queers are increasingly reluctant to rock the boat. Many of us would, it seems, prefer to embrace traditional heterosexual aspirations, rather than critique them and strive for a liberating alternative.
This political retreat signifies a huge loss of confidence and optimism. It signals that the LGBTI community has finally succumbed – like much of mainstream society – to the depressing politics of conformism, respectability and moderation. GLF showed it doesn’t have to be this way. As GLF might have said but Oscar Wilde actually said: ‘We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.’
This is an extract from the just published book, Pride: Photographs After Stonewall by Fred W. McDarrah.
Peter Tatchell is the director of the UK-based LGBT+ and human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation.
Gay Star News is commemorating 2019 as the 50th anniversary year of the Stonewall Riots. Our Stonewall 50 Voices series will bring you 50 guest writers from all around the world. They will be discussing the past, present and future of our struggle for love and liberation.