Greenwich Village, 1969:
Many histories converged at Stonewall
Lavender & red, part 71
Published Aug 24, 2006 10:04 PM
Gay and lesbian historians who view history
from a materialist vantage point have emphasized that while same-sex affection
and sexuality appear to have existed in all epochs of human society, the
conditions of capitalism were required for the development of a distinct
political and social minority identity: gay and lesbian.
historians describe the Stonewall Rebellion as a qualitative development that is
a social product of capitalism.
They point out that the ascendancy of
capitalist production in the United States created a vast class of “wage
slaves”—workers who owned nothing but their ability to labor. The
organizing of a large-scale workforce also centralized laborers, creating
large-scale industry and dense urban living with same-sex living situations and
They trace the devastating economic dislocation of the
1929 capitalist Depres sion that shook the working class and oppressed, creating
a widespread exodus from rural areas and small towns to these cities in search
of wage work.
World War II drew massive segments of the population into
same-sex working and living situations, and left large same-sex-loving
populations in cities where soldiers were discharged and dumped from the ranks
of the military. And 1950s Cold War repression inevi tably generated
These overall conditions under capitalism, heated to critical
mass by oppression, led to the development of LGBT communities and to a
But Stonewall was not just a product of
capitalism, but of national oppression as well. And it is no accident that the
rebellion, which drew its leadership from the most oppressed, ignited in an era
of national liberation struggles in the United States, Asia and
The Vietnamese people inspired youth of all nationalities, here
and all over the world, by demonstrating that the determination of a people to
fight for their sovereignty and right to self-determination was an unconquerable
force, even in the face of Pentagon might.
The rising strength of national
liberation struggles in the U.S.—Black Power, the American Indian
Movement, the Young Lords, the Chican@/Mexican@ movement and organizations of
militant Asian youth—stirred great pride in the oppressed here and around
the planet. The waves of these movements created more room in their wake for
women and LGBT people of all nationalities to struggle to fight oppression based
on sex, sexuality and gender expression.
The youth of color in leadership
in the sustained battles against the police in Greenwich Village on three hot
summer nights in June 1969—many of them homeless youth who struggled to
survive on the streets—fought for their right to define and defend their
own bodies, sexualities and gender expressions. Their struggle was rooted in a
long history of battles against capitalist colonization and imperialism for the
right of self-determination and national liberation.
In that sense, the
Stonewall insurrection was not the culmination of one history, but of
Roots of same-sex oppression
development of class divisions is at the root of same-sex oppression. And
specifically, as lesbian and gay historians have explained, the ascendancy of
capitalism over agricultural production in the U.S. was the overall class
trajectory that laid the basis for the formation of distinct modern identities
of gay and lesbian, vocalized as “Gay Power!” at
But agricultural production in the United States, and its
defeat by industrial capitalism, was a class war with many battlefields between
oppressor and oppres sed peoples.
Gay American Indians (GAI) made a
dynamic contribution to this understanding in its ground-breaking 1988 book
entitled “Living the Spirit.” In this compilation, Indigenous
peoples narrate their own histories of the diverse forms of organization on this
continent—many of them still pre-class, based on cooperative labor and
matrilineal bloodlines—before the colonial military assault which seized
the land later used for white settler farming, as well as railroads and other
In an essay in the book entitled “Sex/ Gender Systems in
Native North Amer ica,” Midnight Sun (Anishnabe) emphasized that the
400-year history of colonial ethnographic research on Indigenous peoples on this
continent omitted and distorted reports about the sex and gender relations they
observed, “especially where these deviated from the bipolar European norm
of the heterosexual ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and contradicted
the European patriarchal world view.”
GAI’s History Project
lists 135 Indigenous peoples on this continent that made room for many more
sex/gender roles than the European nations did.
Midnight Sun argued for a
historical materialist view of sex/gender systems in these diverse Native
societies, explaining: “Social, and specifically sexual, life is embedded
in the economic organization of society—an organization that gives rise to
a variety of cultural forms. The cultural construction of gender and sexuality
must be seen in terms of the sexual division of labor, subsistence patterns,
social relations, and male-female relations. Within this context, ideology is
not an arbitrary, discrete force—rather, it serves to reproduce and
perpetuate social forms, behaviors, and individuals suitable to a particular
mode of production.”
Colonization, Midnight Sun concluded, attempted
to systematically destroy the diverse economic, ideological—and sex/
gender systems—of Indigenous societies on this continent.
cataclysmic impact of slavery
The history of African American youth
who fought hand-to-hand combat with police at Stonewall is rooted in the
historic struggle in this hemisphere against enslave ment and for national
liberation. To overlook the earth-shattering impact of slavery on social
relations in this country—then or now—would be tantamount to
ignoring the cataclysmic impact of a meteor strike in shaping the history of the
The tens of millions of African peoples who were taken prisoner,
endured the horrors of the Middle Passage and were enslaved as laborers on this
continent, came from diverse cultures with their own systems of economic
organization, kinship, sex/gender and sexual and affectional expression.
The landed aristocracy of slave-owners was hell-bent on re-forging these
social relations, like shackles, to meet its own inhuman economic greed.
Historian Angela Davis reveals the contradictions in relations between the
sexes/genders in the family lives of those battling the horrific conditions of
slavery in her germinal book, “Women, Race & Class” (Random
House, New York: 1983).
Davis pointed out that in the pre-Civil War era,
“As the ideology of femininity—a by-product of
industrialization—was popularized and disseminated through the new
ladies’ magazines and romantic novels, white women came to be seen as
inhabitants of a sphere totally severed from the realm of productive work. The
cleavage between the home and the public economy, brought on by industrial
capitalism, established female inferiority more firmly than ever
However, she explained, “The economic arrangement of
slavery contradicted the hierarchical sexual roles incorporated in the new
ideology. Male-female relations within the slave community could not, therefore,
conform to the dominant ideological pattern.”
By mid-19th century,
she noted, seven out of eight enslaved Black people—female and
male—were field workers.
Davis stressed: “Because husbands and
wives, fathers and daughters were equally subjected to the slave masters’
absolute authority, the promotion of male supre macy among the slaves might have
prompted a dangerous rupture in the chain of command. Moreover, since Black
women as workers could not be treated as the ‘weaker sex’ or the
‘housewife,’ Black men could not be candidates for the figure of
‘family head’ and certainly not for ‘family provider.’
After all, men, women and children alike were all ‘providers’ for
the slaveholding class.”
In terms of the division of labor within
the home life of enslaved families, she added, “Moreover, from all
indications, the division of labor between the sexes was not always so rigorous,
for men would sometimes work in the cabin and women might tend the garden and
perhaps even join the hunt.”
Davis concluded, “This bears
repeating: Black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered;
they were their men’s social equals within the slave community; and they
resisted slavery with a passion equal to their men’s.”
centuries later, the descendants of those who resisted slavery were battling the
police in the streets at Stonewall for the right to define their own sexuality,
gender and sex.
Many histories; many identities
colonialism and imperialism have used bullets and bibles to reshape the social
relations—including organization of the sexes and genders and expression
of sexuality—and destroy the economies of oppressed peoples, the struggles
of the nationally oppressed have also had a deep overall cultural impact on the
For example, the Harlem Renaissance —which
included such a powerful and lyrical articulation of defiant same-sex and gender
non-conforming expressions—is also a defining period in the histories that
converged in Greenwich Village decades later.
The Stonewall Uprising,
therefore, was not an articulation—as though from one throat—of one
sexual minority that has existed in all places, in all historical epochs,
without previous voice. Nor did it represent the emergence of a central identity
that represents sexual liberation in a form so universal that its visibility can
be used as a global marker for who is, or is not, “out of the
closet” and proud.
The role of Latin@ leadership in the Stonewall
insurrection demonstrates that global roads of history led to the rebellion.
Their parents and grandparents were forced by the super-exploitation of U.S.
capital and the dictatorships that enforced it to leave their own
countries—with their own systems of sex, gender and sexuality—to
travel to this country to work and live.
Stonewall combatant Sylvia Rivera
was a transgender teenager who had lived homeless on the streets of New York
City since she was ten years old. She was Vene zuelan and Puerto Rican—and
was one of many Latin@s who fought in hand-to-hand battles with police at
For some of the Stonewall combatants, numerous oppressions
overlapped in their own lives—racism, misogyny, transphobia—like
multiple burdens that create great strength.
When I asked Sylvia Rivera
in an interview before her death, “What do you say when people ask you if
you fought the police at Stonewall because you were gay or trans? Because of
police brutality or racism? Because of being oppressed as a youth or because you
She answered with succinct eloquence: “We
were fighting for our lives!”
The Stonewall Rebellion was living
proof that as many histories converged in the streets of an imperialist
metropolis—the capital of capital—people who did not share a common
oppression wrote a new chapter of history together when they rose up to fight
back against a common enemy.
Next: Early left-wing gay liberation:
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