Pride, Stonewall, and the Importance of Confrontation

Gay pride flag
Happy Pride, everybody! And happy 40th anniversary of Stonewall.

I want to talk about Stonewall today. I want to talk about movements for social change — not just queer, but atheist, and feminist, and black activist, and disabled activist, and just about every other movement for social change I can think of. And I want to talk about the conflict that has gone on in every one of these movements I know about: the conflict between accomodationists and confrontationalists, between people who want to make change by polite, patient diplomacy, and people who want to make change through passionate confrontation.

And I want to point something out:

The Gay Pride parade is a celebration of a riot.

The Stonewall riots began on June 28, 1969, when a bunch of New York bar queens and dykes who had been pushed around by the police all night got fed up and pushed back. Pushed back hard. Pushed back with bottles and rocks, garbage cans and bricks. Pushed back with a riot. A series of riots, in fact: riots that lasted for days.

And that riot is generally considered to have sparked the modern LGBT rights movement.

Gay liberation day 1970
Now, to some extent, that’s a misunderstanding of history. There had been gay activism and organizing well before Stonewall: the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, the homophile movement in Europe in the early 20th century, etc. There had even been some direct confrontations and riots. But it is undeniably true that the Stonewall riots sparked something, around the country and around the world. Before Stonewall, there had been some quiet organizing and a handful of uprisings. After Stonewall, the out, proud, visible, marching- in- the- streets gay rights movement suddenly went into overdrive.

There’s a story — it may be an urban legend, I can’t find an attribution for it, but it doesn’t actually matter — about a plan to put up a monument to Stonewall in Greenwich Village. A prominent gay politico was asked what he thought would be an appropriate monument… and he answered, “A drag queen with a brick in his hand.”

Drag queens with bricks in their hands. That is what we’re celebrating.

I don’t say this to denigrate polite, diplomatic activism. To the contrary: I strongly believe that any successful social change movement needs both diplomats and hard-liners. Without the quiet work that the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society and such had been doing for years, the LGBT movement would have had a much harder time getting off the ground. I believe that diplomacy and confrontation are stronger together, and work together in a synergy that is far more powerful than either would be alone. It’s like playing good cop/ bad cop.

I’m just saying this:

When we celebrate LGBT Pride — whether we’re queer or straight, whether we’re marching in the stroller brigade or dancing half- naked on a bar float, whether we’re wearing a rainbow feather boa or a polo shirt, whether we’re sporting a T-shirt that says “Straight but Not Narrow” or “Nobody Knows I’m Gay” — we are commemorating the anniversary of a riot.

And it’s important that we not forget that.

See also:
Good Cop, Bad Cop: Atheist Activism

Pride, Stonewall, and the Importance of Confrontation
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11 thoughts on “Pride, Stonewall, and the Importance of Confrontation

  1. 1

    The majority never ever just hands out equal rights. Minorities have to insist and demand and occasionally throw a brick. There is no other way to make progress and aggrieved minority groups should never feel guilty for having to take these steps towards equality that the majority forces upon them.
    (Says the straight white guy.)

  2. 2

    This is a case where celebrating a riot and it’s impact are perfectly appropriate. I am convinced that the main obstacle to atheist civil rights is our own apathy.

  3. 3

    Pointing out: that quote is almost certainly referring to a trans woman, who got later pushed out of the movement and ‘claimed’ by gay men as part of a pattern of similar (stepping on trans people to gain access to their own rights among others).
    Which am not accusing you of being aware of, but that memorial quote brought it rather sharply to attention in a moment of disgust.

  4. 4

    I had written up my own thoughts on the whole Good Cop/Bad Cop thing:
    “One can make the opposition upset, angry, irritated, or insulted by pushing the opposition to pay attention to its own wrongs. If the opposition is particularly difficult, this will inevitably be disruptive. One can also make the opposition upset, angry, irritated, or insulted by distorting the facts and being bigoted.”
    I’d put the Stonewall riots in the former category. I would not say the same of much of atheist activism.

  5. 5
    a small snip:
    Forty years to the day after Stonewall — when a police raid of a New York gay club led to riots and launched the modern gay-rights movement — police in Fort Worth, TX, are being accused of repeating the incident.

    The Dallas Voice blog quotes an eyewitness identified only as Alison, who says the police “only arrested men and seemed to be targeting effeminate men.”
    CBS 11 News quoted a witness, Raymond Gill, who said he was pulled aside by officers “because of the way I was walking. He said I looked like I was drunk. But 
 I got to the bar 30 minutes before they got there. I sat down had not got up before police got there. No one saw me walk.”
    According to the Dallas Voice, one man has been hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage after being thrown to the ground by police officers. Pictures of the incident have made their way to the Internet, sparking further anger among the gay community.

  6. 6

    Aesmael: Almost certainly. it seems the in thing to do to reduce the status of transpeople in the stonewall riots to ‘token queens’ and ‘effeminate gay males’. The stonewall in the UK, where I reside, is not even an LGBT organisation, having dropped the T entirely. (oh yeah, and nominating transphobes for awards.) How’s that for progress?
    We need another riot.

  7. 7

    How many events do we celebrate that started with a war, a massacre, a riot, a killing? So many! The independence of this country and many others. The fight against slavery. Black empowerment. When a “riot” is justified reaction to oppression, it is to be celebrated!

  8. 8

    This answers the previous post, ‘Why do Atheists have to talk…’
    A riot may not acheive much in itself, BUT it represents a willingness to speak up, to be visible, to value truth and justice above manners.
    It is a dead waste of effort to self-censor by trying to ‘be nice’ to oppresive assholes. They aren’t going to learn anything that challenges their beliefs by your striving to sugar-coat the message.
    Check out ‘Butterflies and Wheels’ for the same drama played out between accomodationists and ‘incompatibilists.’ There is no payoff to being nice to implacable evil.

  9. 9

    There’s a quote that always comes to mind when I think about accommodationists, to paraphrase:
    “I’ve found that asking politely only works when you have the upper hand.”
    Not that I think accommodationism is a totally misguided tactic, but as the quote suggests, it is an ineffective tactic for minority groups desiring change until those groups gain some leverage. And what is one of the ways that a minority group can gain leverage? By showing the majority that there will be costs for continuing to abuse or marginalize the minority.

  10. 10

    Erich B.: “I’ve found that asking politely only works when you have the upper hand.”
    That depends a lot on what you mean by “polite.” Was MLK polite? He certainly avoided what might be called talking trash, even as he orchestrated boycotts and protests. And he certainly didn’t die a moderate’s death.
    John the Drunkard: “There is no payoff to being nice to implacable evil.”
    But what does this have to do with “accomodationists”? Is Ken Miller an implacable evil? Does that even come close to describing Christians in the pews that he is trying to woo?
    Heck, what does this even have to do with gays fighting back against police thuggery?

  11. 11

    Was police thuggery defeated with bricks and bottles in 1969? No, it is still with us.
    Choosing bricks and bottles over quietly accepting brutal harassment is only a start, and perhaps not the best possible start. Prompt, consistent, resolute opposition to evil (homophobia, the Xian right, Nazism) makes a real difference.
    Making nice with creationists, urging gays to be ‘discrete’ (i.e. invisible) preaching ‘multicultural tolerance’ toward Wahhabis and Shia salafists are suicidal gestures. A firm quiet ‘no’ today, means we will have better tools than bricks and bottles at hand tomorrow.

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