The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights movement saw the fortieth anniversary of its birth on 28 June 2009. On that date in 1969 the police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York. In itself this was nothing rare, the police raided LGBT bars all the time. This time, however, LGBT people and drag queens fought back against the police over two nights of rioting.
Within weeks the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed. In meetings held at the time of the riots, working class LGBT people came to the fore. The existing self-appointed gay spokespeople expended their efforts on promoting the 'respectability' of gay men and lesbians, while trying to win over the US establishment to grant limited gay rights. They treated trans people and drag queens from the Stonewall as the lowest of the low. But their time was over. The emerging LGBT community wanted, not only equality, but liberation.
That a movement for liberation sprang up after the Stonewall Riots should have been no surprise. LGBT people had been looking to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the time. US society was undergoing massive radicalisation in the late sixties.
All that was needed to bring together (in many ways to create) the LGBT community was a spark, an event that would galvanise people from being angry to taking action. The New York police department provided that spark on a hot June night.
The movement spread internationally. Gay Pride marches began - originally as a commemoration of the riots. In 1970 a British GLF was set up. Homosexuality had only recently been legalised in Britain - and in much of the US it was still illegal. LGBT people were confined to the margins of society, meeting clandestinely in anonymous venues. What a contrast to today, when a confident LGBT community has won many democratic rights such as civil partnerships and anti-discrimination laws.
This change happened because of political activism, which started at the Stonewall Inn. In Britain, in particular, many rights were won due to the confidence and cohesion the LGBT community gained when fighting back against attacks, such as the Thatcher government's homophobic law 'Section 28'.
Unfortunately you will not find any mention of the Stonewall Riots in the publicity for this year's London Pride march and festival even though, without Stonewall, there would be no Pride. Instead the slogan for Pride is: "Come out and play". No politics, just commercial sponsorship - although less of that this year. Big businesses sponsor Pride to sell their products, not to support LGBT rights. In a recession advertising budgets get cut.
Lobbying groups such as the misnamed 'Stonewall' put about the idea that the pink pound will buy LGBT people liberation. This is a myth, especially for working-class LGBT people. We were told that the way towards liberation was banks having equal opportunities policies. A strategy based on trusting the banks doesn't look very clever in 2009! Stonewall is the heir of the tradition of seeking acceptability and entry into the establishment which the riots of 1969 swept aside.
There was a small commemoration of the anniversary of the riots in London on 28 June. 35 assembled at the London School of Economics, where the British GLF was founded, heard speeches, including from Greg Randall of the Socialist Party LGBT Group, and marched through central London. A further celebration, with cabaret performers and speakers, took place in the evening.
LGBT people need to organise politically. Anti-discrimination laws alone won't abolish homophobia. Similar laws in place for over forty years haven't abolished racism. We need to rediscover the movement for liberation, not just equality - under capitalist society the question is "equality with what?" Equal treatment by the profit system is no great advance.
The gay liberation movement wanted to transform society. In the Socialist Party we share this aim and shall be part of rebuilding the traditions of Stonewall, raising the need for LGBT people to link up with workers to struggle against oppression and the system that exists only to benefit big business.
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