In the early hours of June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a prominent backstairs gay club in Greenwich Village of Manhattan during the 1960s. Tired of continual police harassment and raids, patrons and neighborhood residents began fighting back, throwing objects at police as they loaded arrested patrons of the bar into police wagons. The scene eventually exploded into a full-blown riot, which was followed by subsequent protests that lasted for five more days. These events famously became known as the Stonewall Riots. Many historians consider these riots to constitute the most important event leading to the gay liberation movement.
The Lavender Scare
After World War II, the United States experienced a rise in conservatism and a national emphasis on anti-communism. As a result, the US began searching out suspected communists in the government and its agencies in what has come to be known as the “Lavender Scare.”
Gay men and women were included in this list by the US State Department based on the fear that they were susceptible to blackmail from Soviets from fear of being outed to social circles and that they lacked emotional stability because of their “overt acts of perversion” according to a US Senate report from the time.
As historian David Johnson explained,
“many politicians, journalists, and citizens thought that gay men and women posed more of a threat to national security than Communists.”
During this time, the FBI kept lists of known and suspected homosexuals as well as their friends, and the US Post Office tracked the addresses where material related to homosexuality was delivered. State and local governments began shutting down bars catering to gay men and women, as well as arresting their customers and exposing them in newspapers. Universities expelled instructors suspected of being homosexuals, and thousands of gay men and women were publicly humiliated, physically harassed, fired, jailed, or institutionalized in mental hospitals. Many lived double lives, keeping their personal relationships secret from their professional ones.
Expulsion Leads to Community
Ironically, this persecution of gay men and women both by government and general society brought more visibility to LGBT people, which led them to seek each other out and form communities and political consciousness. Before the 1950s, there was no noticeable “community” of LGBT+ people in many places. Yet as the government and society began trying to expel the country of homosexuals, they became responsible for the creation of communities of LGBT+ people in multiple cities.
In San Francisco and Manhattan, communities of gay men, lesbians, and transgender individuals began to spring up. With the invention of TV and its invasion into the American home, the entire country began to witness the growth of this movement. As visibility of LGBT+ people grew, so did the courage of LGBT+ people to come out to their families and communities. Sadly, many families — religious and non-religious alike — rejected their LGBT+ children, leaving many young people on the streets.
These LGBT+ young people resorted to making ends meet any way possible (even if that included prostitution), and finding a place and community to call their own. The more teens who were kicked out — the more people there were who flocked to gay havens like San Francisco.
The Start of an Uprising
All of this led up to events like Stonewall, which launched the LGBT+ community into a fight for justice. As we discussed in our last post, the Age of Silence, when a people group is suppressed long enough, they will rise up and call for justice. Within two years of the Stonewall riots, gay rights groups had formed in every major city in the United States as well as Canada, Australia, and Western Europe.
In many ways, the fear and injustice of the 1950s and 1960s is what gave rise to the very creation of a visible LGBT+ community in the United States. Every human being longs for a community that reflects them — where they can feel normal. With newfound political visibility of lesbian and gay lives and issues, those who once lived in isolation and secrecy for so long now were able to see that others existed who were just like them. While visibility was negative in the eyes of the government and society, it was still visibility. And it meant gay and lesbian people finding a place to belong, away from violence and harassment.
Check out the other posts in this series of LGBT+ History:
Josh has an M.A. in Biblical Literature, and his greatest passion is help people grow in their relationship with Jesus.
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