50 Years After Stonewall: How Much Has Changed?
The Stonewall riots in NYC kicked off the LGBTQ-rights movement. Journalist-activist Victoria Brownworth reflects on her journey from the frontlines, the movement's progression—and our nation's regression.
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“Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.”
That huge headline ran in the New York Daily News, on July 6, 1969, a week after the Stonewall riots, the week of political action that birthed the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Police had raided the Stonewall Inn, a small bar in Greenwich Village the night of June 27, 1969. Bars often were raided and patrons were roughed up by police, who arrested them for being lesbian, gay, or trans. But that night, the people at the Stonewall Inn fought back.
I was a Catholic junior high-school student at the time, with a massive crush on the beautiful Sister James Patrick, a tall, willowy woman in her early 30s who had clear blue eyes like a Siberian husky’s, perfectly arched black eyebrows, and the flawless creamy skin of her black Irish heritage.
There was also a high-school senior—a tall singer and dancer with dark red hair who had starred in the musicals our school put on every spring who had just signed with a national TV variety show. Years later I would watch the show in syndication on PBS, just to see her. I’d had a bit part in a play her last year at school and she had hugged me hard before I’d gone onstage. I had lingered in her lightly perfumed embrace until she released and propelled me forward from the wings.
These were not the thoughts my junior-high friends were having in 1969, just months before a strikingly handsome, mixed-racial butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie, was said to have thrown that first punch at the police at the Stonewall Inn in the West Village. But this is what it meant to be a budding young queer on the eve of gay liberation outside New York City. In the places that were not Greenwich Village or San Francisco, the young queers-to-be who would become the first generation of out-LGBTQ people post-Stonewall, the closet would continue to define everything for a long while.
Yet not for me.
I was a high-school freshman when, with a notice torn from the local alternative newspaper, I snuck out of my parents’ house on a school night, took a bus and a subway into town, and attended the first meeting of radicalesbians in a big loft space above an adult bookstore in a seedy part of Philadelphia.
I was among 150 or so women at that first meeting—so many that we had to break out into smaller consciousness-raising groups where we introduced ourselves. I was the only teenager among a group of 30- and 40-somethings, who appeared to be a little afraid of me. One woman called me jailbait.
The atmosphere was thrilling and forbidden—I fell in love with it. In those early post-Stonewall years, gay activism was filtering down the coast from New York City—but it was not yet out in the open, or easy to access, and the pushback against it was fierce, even from within the ranks of “homosexuals,” who wanted a slower-paced, less reactive approach to civil rights for gay men and lesbians, rather than the kind of radical, in-your-face actions that others of us were engaged in.
Bar raids like the one that sparked the Stonewall Rebellion weren’t just a nuisance—they ruined lives. And though Stonewall had launched a movement, they hadn’t ended those raids. As a teenager sneaking into the bars in Philly with an altered ID card, I experienced the raids firsthand. There was a flashing red warning light triggered in the bar by the butch lesbian who took our cover charge at the door upstairs, so people could try and flee out the back door or crawl through windows, as I did more than once. Cops would demand sexual favors from feminine gay men and butch lesbians—humiliation was one tactic, blackmail another. There were no protections for the women who were not wearing the legally mandated three articles of women’s clothing nor the men who were, because cross-dressing was illegal. Nor were there any legal protections for me on the eve of my 16th birthday when I was expelled from my all-girl’s high school for being a lesbian after my girlfriend’s mother had called the school and filed a complaint.
In what was the most terrifying moment of my life at that point, the principal told my father that I was “a bad moral influence” on the more than 2,500 other girls at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, one of the top schools in the country, from which my maternal grandmother, my mother, and sister had all graduated. She and the vice-principal used language that was shocking in its vulgarity. Complaints, my father was told, had been made about me, that I was a “dyke, a lesbo, a bulldagger.” If I left quietly, no charges would be filed against me. Gay and lesbian sex was still illegal and would be for another 20 years, until the 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas. These laws were applied capriciously by police, and were frequently used as a threat by school administrators as well as employers. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower fired thousands of federal workers who were gay or suspected of being gay in 1953—the infamous Lavender Scare—these sodomy laws were among the justifications for his Executive Order 10450.
My girlfriend was the upperclasswoman, but I, at 15, was threatened with legal action. And I was being told that I was a disgrace to the school and to my own family. There were several lesbian teachers at the school, including two who had been teaching when my mother had attended 20 years earlier. Not one spoke up for me. The terror of being outed silenced them. My parents—Ivy League– and Seven Sisters–educated socialist civil rights workers with gay and lesbian friends—insisted I was “going through a phase.” My father said, “But you’re pretty and boys like you.”
My parents searched for another school that would take me—but with a lesbian record, none would. So they hospitalized me at Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, which closed in 1981. In the 1970s, however, it was considered groundbreaking for its program in conversion therapy for teens and young adults who “thought they were homosexual.” Thanks to the activism of Barbara Gittings, homosexuality was about to be removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But even today, conversion therapy is still legal in most of the U.S. for minors and all but California for adults, even though it’s been proven to be ineffective and even dangerous.
The Institute put us through aversion therapy, group therapy, individual-talk therapy, and medication combined in an intensive program to convince us we were just confused and could redirect our desires to the opposite sex. So when I was released, I slit my wrists. The pale white scars of the stitches are still visible on the inside of my arms all these years later. A close school friend who had been in the same program ingested her mother’s Seconal (a prescription sedative)—miraculously, we both survived. But how many didn’t?
The “It Gets Better” project declares things are not as bad they were then for LGBTQ teens. But a study released on June 3 from JAMA Pediatrics revealed that non-suicidal self-harm—cutting, bruising, burning—is way down among straight teens (10 to 20 percent of cisgender-heterosexual teens self-harm) and way up among LGB teens (between 38 and 53 percent of LGB kids do). We can only imagine that the numbers are equally exponential for trans and non-binary teens, who were not included in the study.
Not all Stonewall 50 reminiscences are milestones and huzzahs and glitter. A lot has changed for the better, but too much has remained the same. Americans—even millennials and Gen Z-ers—believe LGBTQ discrimination is over.
Fifty years after Stonewall, when it would be tempting to highlight and celebrate only the achievements of the past half-century, we are not free. Hate crimes are up 17 percent. Trans women of color are being murdered with unconscionable frequency. The Trump administration is actively working to dismantle every civil-rights gain LGBTQ people have made over the past five decades and block access to the courts for recourse. The vice-president is one of the most vocal anti-LGBTQ voices in the country with a long anti-LGBTQ history in both Congress and as Indiana governor. In October 2017, New Yorker writer Jane Mayer reported that Trump joked that VP Pence wants to “hang all the gays.” And Trump has packed his Cabinet with anti-gay activists who have ties to the Family Research Council, a hate group that bills itself as “a Christian public policy ministry in Washington D.C. defending religious liberty, the unborn, and families.” Its mission statement asserts that “homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large, and can never be affirmed. It is by definition unnatural, and as such is associated with negative physical and psychological health effects.” The group was co-founded by Edgar Prince, father of Betsy DeVos, the controversial Secretary of Education, who has rescinded Obama-era policy protecting LGBTQ students.
This is our post-Stonewall world. Those civil rights gains and the literal blood, sweat equity, and tears that have gone into LGBTQ activism since those “queen bees” were “stinging mad” cannot be erased or obliterated.
It’s a different time now than it was in that first decade after Stonewall, when the closet was the only protection for most queer Americans. Activism was in a slow crawl across the country and even in the big cities of the South and Midwest, being out was still harrowing. A month after graduating from college, I entered the domestic Peace Corps and was sent to Louisiana. I had never crossed the Mason-Dixon line. One day, in a laundromat, I saw two women who looked like they might be lesbians. In a scene straight out of an Ann Bannon novel circa 1950—it was 1979—I went up to the women, said I was new to town, and asked, using the most coded language I could, where I could find “feminist” groups. It felt far more dangerous than that night I’d gone to the radicalesbians meeting. But it also made me acutely aware of how much work lay ahead.
I have been a queer activist since that night at radicalesbians, and admittedly something of a pioneer in media: In college, I co-founded the first lesbian radio program in the country, with Jesse Ford and Rose Weber, called Amazon Country; co-edited a lesbian quarterly, Wicce. I became the first out lesbian with a daily newspaper column, and published the first book on lesbians and cancer as well as the first book on lesbians and disability. During the AIDS crisis, as a member of ACT-UP, Queer Nation, and Lesbian Avengers, I lay down in streets and hotel lobbies where drug-company executives were meeting, and in front of the White House in die-ins, and got arrested with friends who are now long dead. I have written for most of the major queer and straight newspapers and magazines in the country and I have blurred the lines between activism and objective journalism for more than 30 years.
The stories I have written over those decades chart the trajectory of our queer civil-rights history, like Bowers v. Hardwick, the case that upheld the sodomy laws in the U.S. I had just started covering the Supreme Court—there were no out-queer journalists in the small, select group. I felt incredibly young and a bit of an imposter behind the thick, claret-colored drapes surrounding the press box. On the court sat some of the great jurists of the 20th century: Justices Thurgood Marshall, Walter Brennan, and Harry Blackmun, who would come out of the court the day the 5-4 decision was delivered. Justice Blackmun had written the decision in Roe v. Wade 13 years earlier and took the Hardwick decision personally, as an attack on the work he had done on Roe. He was furious with the ruling. In his dissent, he had written that Byron White’s majority opinion had an “almost obsessive focus on homosexual activity.” Blackmun wrote, “Only the most willful blindness could obscure the fact that sexual intimacy is ‘a sensitive, key relationship of human existence, central to family life, community welfare, and the development of human personality.’”
Not until 1993 was that decision overturned, in Lawrence v. Texas— Justice Anthony Kennedy declared that same-sex couples deserved the same rights to “the pursuit of happiness” as did their straight counterparts. At the time Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissent, wrote that Kennedy was opening the door to gay marriage. Of course, he was right. In 2015, Kennedy would author another groundbreaking opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same-sex marriage.
But before Lawrence, gay and lesbian sex remained illegal in the U.S. At the time, I interviewed so many lesbian mothers whose children were taken from them on the basis of those sodomy laws, like Sharon Bottoms, whose mother fought her for years to keep her from gaining custody of her own child because she was a lesbian.
As brutal as the Hardwick decision was, it was tangential to what was building across the country: the AIDS pandemic. In those years, I was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, OutWeek, the Advocate, the Village Voice, and the AIDS columnist for SPIN. I interviewed the doctors, scientists, and even Surgeon General C. Everett Koop so often that we were on a first-name basis. I held AIDS babies in Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, interviewed a pocket of Black and Latinx people with AIDS in tiny Belle Glade, Florida, wrote exposés of hospices where people with AIDS were treated so horrifically—the men, ridden with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions, were covered with insect and rodent bites. I interviewed Dr. Sam Broder and his patient, Roy Cohn; wrote a book about Rock Hudson; and talked with so many dying writers and artists, it was often overwhelming. I attended every press conference for each news AIDS drug, hoping the dying would soon end, because I was burying friend after friend, including two of my closest, poet and activist Assotto Saint and GLAAD co-founder and writer Darrell Yates Rist. A whole generation of writers died before our very eyes as we screamed and yelled in protest after protest. The police were deliberately brutal to us in those arrests, inflicting as much pain and humiliation as possible without it being actionable.
There were also moments of tremendous solidarity—the huge queer marches on Washington and the pride marches in New York, San Francisco, and across the country. The unveiling of the AIDS Names quilt on the Washington Mall was our Vietnam Memorial—thousands of names stretched out in front of the officials who had stayed silent while our people died. I had seen the very beginnings of that quilt in the late 1980s on the Castro, interviewing Cleve Jones while in San Francisco working on a book. It took my breath away to see what he had achieved from that small workshop to that mammoth project.
There was solidarity, too, over the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old college student, who died from a beating so severe he sustained 18 separate skull fractures. His 1998 murder galvanized candlelight vigils across the country, hate crimes legislation, books, plays, films.
But other victims remained in the shadows, like 16-year-old Sakia Gunn, stabbed to death for telling a man she was a lesbian when he came on to her, and Brandon Teena, 21, and Gwen Araujo, 17, both murdered for being trans. In 2019, violence against lesbians remains an underreported crime, with honor killings and “corrective” rapes happening here and around the world. And there is an unending list of murdered trans women, especially Black trans women— ten have been killed in 2019 alone, and two trans women who’ve died under suspicious circumstances in ICE custody.
Harvey Milk once said, “I’ll never forget what it was like to come out and have no one to look up to.” And so when people flung wide the closet doors, we felt like we’d been given a gift: Sally Ride was the first woman, and lesbian, in space; Tammy Baldwin the first out LGBTQ person elected to Congress; Jared Polis, the first out gay governor; Kate Brown, the first out bisexual governor; Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper, and Rachel Maddow, the first out news anchors; Ellen DeGeneres, the first out gay TV talk show host. There were singers, actors, athletes, writers, artists, celebrities. It never gets old to read that someone famous has come out.
In the 1980s and ’90s, I would appear on TV talk shows as the token “lipstick lesbian in a dress” —a figure palatable to straight audiences as I talked about queer politics. And there was always someone—a host or audience member—whose words echoed my father’s: “But you don’t look like a lesbian.” Because if I were a lesbian, then anyone could be a lesbian. And that is perhaps the most defining thing my post-Stonewall generation has done: challenged the stereotypes of who and what LGBTQ people were supposed to look like and be. And the very first way we challenged that was by refusing to remain in the closet, refusing to give straight America the comfort of our silence, because as we had learned through the AIDS years that silence really does equal death.
Stonewall 50 is a celebration, but it is also a testament to what we have endured. Those of us who came of age post-Stonewall quite literally changed this country from a nation of queer-haters to one where an out gay man legally married to another man is in the top tier of presidential candidates, kissing his husband on stages across the country.
I wanted to tell you what it has been like all these years, from then to now. I wanted to tell you about the first—and second and third time I was denied an apartment for being a lesbian. And the times my girlfriend and I were asked to leave a “family” restaurant, or when my partner was kept out of my hospital room following my cancer surgery. I wanted to say that my life was derailed for years from being expelled from school and undergoing conversion therapy, and that it is still painful all these years later and the thought that other kids are being subjected to it enrages me. I wanted to tell you that I had to out myself at every new job because if I didn’t, someone else would. I had to deal with the blowback and sometimes the firings as I tried to build a journalism career as an out lesbian in a not-quite-post-Stonewall society.
These are experiences cis-het people don’t have and obstacles they’ll never face.
And yet, here we are, forged by those experiences into activists. How we got here, 50 years later, how that nascent movement evolved from those hot June nights in Greenwich Village, is a story built person-by-person, activist-by-activist. The late trans activist Sylvia Rivera said, “I was a radical, a revolutionist. I am glad I was in the Stonewall riot. I remember when someone threw a Molotov cocktail, I thought, ‘My god, the revolution is here.’” Audre Lorde, the late Black poet and activist, said, “Revolution is not a one-time event.” Five decades later, our work is just beginning.
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