Saturday, June 27, 2009

Four Decades After Stonewall

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, considered a critical moment in the gay rights movement.

The riots did not, contrary to popular mythology, start the gay rights movement. They did not even mark the first time that gay bar patrons had fought back against a raid by corrupt police in a major city. (There was a similar event at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles two years earlier.)

Moreover, groups of gay men and lesbians had been organizing around the country for some forty years. The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis each had active chapters in various cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. (This history has been chronicled in many places, notably in the documentary film, Before Stonewall.) As Dale Carpenter put it in a post on the Independent Gay Forum this week,

The liberationists who gave us Stonewall hastened us down a path (already begun long before them) that has brought us to the edge of unprecedented respect and acceptance.
To demonstrate the differences between today and 1969, one need only take a look at how the mainstream media covered the incidents at the Stonewall Inn and compare it to how they might do it today.

As an example of how far mainstream acceptance has come, Conan O'Brien made an inoffensive joke in his monologue on The Tonight Show on Friday about a news item he had seen about a gay senior citizens group. Their slogan, he said, was "We're here; we're queer; we can't hear you." Well, maybe elderly people might take offense at that -- but not gay people.

In 1996, Edward Alwood wrote a comprehensive history of how the news media has covered gay issues and events in a fascinating book published by the Columbia University Press (with copious illustrations and photographs and accessibly readable despite its academic origin), Straight News: Gays, Lesbians, and the News Media. Here is some of what he wrote about the coverage in June and July 1969 of the Stonewall Riots (excerpted from pages 84-88 of Straight News, footnotes omitted). He begins with coverage after the first night of the riots:
The six-paragraph, single-column story ran on page thirty-three of the [New York] Times on Sunday, June 29. It carried no byline, indicating that the author was a junior writer. The small article was classic New York Times. In sterile language it described the clash in terms of the problems faced by the police. It mentioned nothing about the recent rash of arrests at gay bars or the history of police harassment. Readers were left to figure out for themselves the reasons for the uprising. The story began,

Hundreds of young men went on a rampage in Greenwich Village shortly after 3 A.M. yesterday after a force of plainclothes men raided a bar that police said was well known for its homosexual clientele.Thirteen persons were arrested and four policemen were injured. The young men threw bricks, bottles, garbage, pennies and a parking meter at the policemen, who had a search warrant authorizing them to investigate reports that liquor was sold illegally at the bar, the Stonewall Inn, 53 Christopher Street, just off Sheridan Square.
The tone of the article and its placement deep inside the newspaper came as no surprise to homosexuals. “I didn’t expect it to be on the front page because the Times didn’t cover gay stuff,” recalled Martha Shelley, then president of the New York chapter of Daughters of Bilitis. “I knew that if there had been that many black people rioting in Manhattan, the story would have been front page news.”

Reporter Dennis Eskow took a similar approach in his story in the New York Daily News, 3 COPS HURT AS BAR RAID RILES CROWD. It was accompanied by a three-column photograph showing police talking to a group of smiling young men outside the bar, hike the Times story, Eskow’s was buried on page thirty. It began, “A predawn police raid on a reputed Greenwich Village homosexual hangout, the second raid within a week, touched off a two-hour melee yesterday as customers and villagers swarmed over the plainclothes cops. Before order was restored, the cops were the targets of thrown coins, cobblestones and uprooted parking meters, windows were smashed, a police van was nearly overturned and the front of the raided bar, the Stonewall Inn, was fire-bombed.”
The spontaneous demonstrations did not end immediately. They were renewed the next day, after the Stonewall Inn reopened. The newspapers again reported on the events. Their placement and tone suggest (in retrospect) an utter lack of understanding of what was happening and what would follow (including the first gay pride parade in New York exactly one year later, on June 28, 1970). Some of the reports displayed outright bigotry with regard to the gay men who had reacted to decades of police oppression, blackmail, and extortion. Alwood continues:
The Times reported the Saturday night outbreak in a second article. Again, the single column, ten-paragraph article was buried on page twenty-two. It began,
Heavy police reinforcements cleared the Sheridan Square area of Greenwich Village again yesterday morning when large crowds of young men, angered by a police raid on an inn frequented by homosexuals, swept through the area. . . . A number of people who did not retreat fast enough were pushed and shoved along, and at least two men were clubbed to the ground.
Only reporter Jay Levin of the New York Post was able to put the uprising in a context that would enable the average reader to understand the events, despite the condescending tone of the article. His story ran on July 8, more than a week after the riots erupted. Headlined THE GAY ANGER BEHIND THE RIOTS, the story began,
“People are beginning to realize,” said the doorman at the Stonewall Inn, “that no matter how ‘Nelly’ or how ‘fem’ a homosexual is, you can only push them so far.” With a battle cry of “gay power,” the Nellies, fems, gay boys, queens—all those who flaunt their homosexuality -- have been demonstrating that they have indeed been pushed too far."
Although most of the city’s newspapers underplayed the riots, two others sensationalized them beyond extremes. The worst offender was the Daily News, the irreverent paper of the city’s working class. Headlined HOMO NEST RAIDED, QUEEN BEES ARE STINGING MAD, the article by Jerry Lisker appeared on July 6, nearly a week after the riots, on the first page of the local news section:
She sat there with her legs crossed, the lashes of her mascara-coated eyes beating like the wings of a humming bird. She was angry. She was so upset she hadn’t bothered to shave. A day old stubble was beginning to push through the pancake makeup. She was a he. A queen of Christopher Street. Last weekend the queens had turned commandos and stood bra_strap to-bra-strap against an invasion of the helmeted Tactical Patrol Force. The elite police squad had shut down one of their private gay clubs, the Stonewall Inn at 17 Christopher St., in the heart of a three-block homosexual community in Greenwich Village.
In mocking, denigrating descriptions that ran throughout the article, Lisker described gays as “Queen Bees,” “princesses and ladies-in-waiting,” “Florence Nightingales,” and “honeys turned Madwomen of Chaillot.” “Queen power reared its bleached blonde head in revolt ,“ the article said. He referred to the Stonewall Inn as “a gay mecca” and a “homosexual beachhead .“ In one section he wrote,
The whole proceedings took on the aura of a homosexual Academy Awards Night. The Queens pranced out to the street blowing kisses and waving to the crowd. A beauty of a specimen named Stella wailed uncontrollably while being led to the sidewalk in front of the Stonewall by a cop. She later confessed that she didn’t protest the manhandling by the officer, it was just that her hair was in curlers and she was afraid her new beau might be in the crowd and spot her. She didn’t want him to see her this way, she wept.
Written in an entertaining and dramatic fashion, the story evoked the days of yellow journalism, when newspapers put a premium on telling a story rather than finding the facts or providing the truth.

The July 3 edition of the Village Voice struck a similar tone in two front page articles that provided the most extensive coverage of all. By coincidence the Voice’s editorial offices were located on Christopher Street, only a few doors from the Stonewall Inn. When the riot began on the first night, reporter Lucian Truscott IV was in the Lion’s Head, a favorite drinking spot for journalists, and darted outside to see what had happened. As a result he wrote GAY POWER COMES TO SHERIDAN SQUARE, the lead article on the front page of the next edition:
Sheridan Square this weekend looked like something from a William Burroughs novel as the sudden specter of “gay power” erected its brazen head and spat out a fairy tale the likes of which the area has never seen. The forces of faggotry, spurred by a Friday night raid on one of the city’s largest, most popular, and longest lived gay bars, the Stonewall Inn, rallied Saturday night in an unprecedented protest against the raid and continued Sunday night to assert presence, possibility, and pride until the early hours of Monday morning.
Like the article in the Daily News, Truscott’s contained a liberal dose of prejudiced characterizations ranging from “fags” to “blatant queens.” “The stars were in their element,” he wrote, capturing the drama of the moment but ignoring and trivializing legitimate complaints about oppressive police tactics. He referred to the “limp wrists and primed hair” of the gays but described the police as “the city’s finest.”
Fast-forward forty years. So much has happened in that time it boggles the mind. (Who, in 1969, would have imagined that gay and lesbian citizens would be lobbying for equal marriage rights and that they would have achieved them in several foreign countries and six states? That an openly gay man would be heading the U.S. civil service, which once excluded homosexuals from government employment? Or that a majority of Americans approve the idea of gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military?) Gays are no longer disdained: they are courted by politicians (President Barack Obama panders to gay voters almost weekly) and targeted by merchants.

As an example of the latter, consider this article in the June 2009 issue of O'Dwyer's PR Report, a (subscription-only) newsletter for public relations professionals, by Matt Tumminello, president of Target 10 in New York.

Tumminello notes:
In 1969, gay visibility was practically non-existent and only a handful of individuals were willing to stand up and he counted. Today, gay visibility has exploded and the community has become a thriving market segment that holds a wealth of opportunity for major companies and consumer brands.
Gently chiding his PR colleagues and competitors for underserving the gay market, Tumminello lists a few salient facts:
About six to seven percent of the population is gay or lesbian. In urban areas, that percentage can exceed 10 or 12 percent.

The per capita buying power of gay consumers is estimated at $45,300, with a total market estimated at $712 billion.

Gay consumers are concentrated and easy to reach through targeted media, resulting in an efficient use of marketing dollars.

In research we’ve conducted. 73% of gay men and lesbians strongly agree that gay-targeted marketing positively impacts purchasing decisions. This market is extremely brand loyal.

Gay consumers influence trends, styles and tastes beyond their own community. Call it “The Queer Eye effect.”

Gay consumers are early adopters and there are many categories where gays over-index, such as travel, grooming, personal care products, technology and entertainment.

Gay research capabilities have become first-rate in the last five years. The results of a marketing program can be tracked and measured with great precision.
Tumminello concludes by reminding his readers that the gay market is not just a 21st century phenomenon, but it started slowly and is now maturing:
The gay market is not something new or just starting to emerge. It’s been growing up and all around us. A look at the last ten years of pop culture shows how far we’ve come. It’s been more than a decade since we first met Will & Grace. The Queer Eye guys finished giving America a makeover in 2007 after a successful four-year run. And last year, Ellen DeGeneres married her wife the same month she signed on to be the face of Cover Girl cosmetics. Today we even have LOGO, the gay TV network owned by MTV that reaches into more than 30 million homes.

Most recently, marriage equality has found a groundswell of support. Gay couples are now marrying in five states - probably six, by the time this magazine hits your desk. It may have seemed impossible a generation ago, but many of us now believe we won’t have to wait a lifetime to see it happen in all 50 states.
Ten years from now, as historians and activists mark half a century since the Stonewall Riots brought the struggle for gay and lesbian civil rights to public attention, what will they be marveling about? For my money, the most remarkable thing about this progress is the short span it took to get from there to here. While the boys and men who fought back at Stonewall might have stimulated, initially, a left-wing movement, the surprise is that it is the free market, encompassing both commerce and popular culture -- something valued more by the right than the left -- has been the strongest motivator, protector, and stimulant for gay liberation.

1 comment:

lmargol said...

Absolutely brilliant. Precisely the sort of thing I've been thinking about in the last few days. I've extracted your post and added my own reflections in my blog: