Technology has played a massive role in modern social justice movements. From documentation to calls for action, tech allows us to be more active, aware, and united than ever before. Not long ago, however, we lived without these tools, and some of our important history has gotten shuffled and mixed up along the way.
The Stonewall Riots are often given credit for sparking the Pride movement. The vital importance of that historical moment is undeniable, but it wasn’t necessarily the origin of LGBTQ organization, or rebellion. Experts agree that Stonewall was, rather, an important turning point that brought with it a heightened level of awareness and participation for LGBTQ activism. There exists no footage of Stonewall – cellphones hadn’t been invented yet!
So what’s behind the curtain of 1969? The very first gay rights organization in the world, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee was founded in 1897 in Berlin by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld more than four decades before World War II. (The Nazis destroyed his Institute of Sexual Research, burning hundreds of books and positive work around gay and trans folks at the time.)
Following that, the first (but short-lived) American gay rights organization was founded in 1924 in Chicago by Henry Gerber, named the Society for Human Rights. Interestingly, Gerber founded this organization after his station in Germany while in the army, where he witnessed open homosexuality and a sense of community that wasn’t mirrored in the United States’ marginalized subculture. With the goal of establishing a more organized, community-driven movement, Gerber started the Society for Human Rights, along with African American clergyman, John T. Graves who served as president. Fear of persecution, which Gerber and other members experienced, dissuaded many people from openly associating with the movement, and the organization withered away after only a few years.
Fast forward to the 1950s, the Mattachine Society was founded in Los Angeles by former communists who had already garnered experience organizing counter-culture movements. They coordinated popular meetings for gay folks to openly share their experiences, and actively pressured political figures to acknowledge their gay constituents. However, the height of McCarthyism made the organization a prime target for communist witch hunts, and it eventually seceded to conservatives who tarnished the original goals and legacy of the group.
There were a number of well-documented confrontations between LGBTQ people and police throughout the 50s and 60s leading up to Stonewall, and each deserves to be recognized and seen within the larger framework of the fights for civil and human rights at the time. Just some of the rebellions before Stonewall:
- Cooper Do-nuts, Los Angeles, 1959
- New Year’s Ball, San Francisco, 1965
- Sit-in at Dewey’s Restaurant, Philadelphia, 1965
- Compton’s Cafeteria, San Francisco, 1966
- Black Cat Tavern, Los Angeles, 1967
The Stonewall uprising may have marked a major turning point in these decades-long efforts to establish a rights movement for the LGBTQ community. It was not the first, nor the last, but its legacy rightfully carries on as a reminder of the necessity of protection, acceptance, and love toward our LGBTQ family.
It is important, too, not to whitewash this movement for LGBTQ+ equality. We must recognize that the Stonewall Rebellion was led by transwomen of color who were also sex workers, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie, who was a butch lesbian. The picture of the “Gay Liberation” movement, sparked at Stonewall, became very white, much more heavily gay male, and largely leaving out transgender folks. To this day, trans folks have been disadvantaged by this de-centering, fighting for basic human rights, fighting to not be horribly and viciously murdered simply for existing.
We also should not forget that many of the protests were simultaneously speaking out against police brutality, among other wider issues. Trans rights are human rights. Black trans lives matter.
Written in collaboration with our incredible intern, Olivia Poulin.