Stonewall at 50: stories from a gay rights revolution

In June 1969, in the violent wake of a police raid on a New York bar, Stonewall was born – a defining moment remembered here by those who protested

The Stonewall riots started in the early hours of 28 June 1969 during a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village, a favourite haunt of gay and lesbian New Yorkers. As customers were hauled out in handcuffs, the crowd outside erupted into fury. That night’s rioting was followed by days of further violent demonstrations in the neighbourhood. It would change LGBT activism for ever. The riots switched protest up a gear and pushed for an unapologetic, inclusive, enlightened culture in which gay pride would see off shame for good.

Fifty years later, Stonewall is one of the most significant global landmarks in the fight for gay rights (the gay rights campaign group in the UK is named after it). In June, the movement’s 50th anniversary will be celebrated in New York with a month of partying, lectures and readings and “the biggest Pride celebration in the world”. A key part of the festivities will be the New York Public Library’s exhibition and its tremendous accompanying book: Love and Resistance, Stonewall at 50. The book is edited by Jason Baumann, coordinator of the library’s LGBT initiative, and features photographs by Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies, an archive that Baumann describes as the “great queer treasures of the New York Public library”.

Diana Davies’s 1969 shot of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, site of the riots that would change LGBT activism for ever.
Diana Davies’s 1969 shot of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, site of the riots that would change LGBT activism for ever. Photograph: Diana Davies

This is a book about the development of national political consciousness and its growing momentum in the gay community. It records pre- and post-Stonewall protests – including a bold march by gay and lesbian activists on the Pentagon in 1965. As writer Roxane Gay makes clear in her introduction, this was a punishing era: “The LGBTQ community was reeling from McCarthyism and a pernicious atmosphere of persecution across the country.” Stonewall challenged that atmosphere, and led to New York City’s first gay pride parade and annual commemorative Christopher Street marches.

The black-and-white photograph of the Stonewall Inn, taken by photographer Diana Davies (a key figure in gay liberation herself), tells a story. The picture is dominated by its battered neon sign, but if you look carefully you can spot a notice, in white capitals, alongside the bar’s entrance. You can only make out part of it, but its words have gone down in queer history: “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the village.” The bid for peace is the moving thing – for even the violent clashes with police had a peaceful objective.

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like in the 60s, when homosexuality was not only illegal but, as Gay points out, “still classified as a mental illness by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by mental health professionals”. If you were gay, it was not safe to be yourself.

Speaking on the phone from Pennsylvania, Lahusen, who was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1930, says of Stonewall: “It was no surprise that when police were raiding our gay bars, gay people would say: ‘Enough of this. We have a right to assemble and be served drinks in bars like any other citizen.’ These kids, they erupted; they went after the police and when we heard about it, we were thrilled.”

The Gay Liberation Front marches in Times Square, 1969.
The Gay Liberation Front marches in Times Square, 1969. Photograph: Diana Davies

Back in 1961, Lahusen, then a research librarian, had joined Daughters of Bilitis – the first lesbian civil and political rights organisation in the US. “Bilitis”, she explains, was supposedly one of Sappho’s lovers, the invention of French poet Pierre Louÿs. The name was intended to alert lesbians to the club’s gay identity, but this was too literary an expectation – most women had no clue who Bilitis was. The group started small, the first meeting “four women sitting around in a living room, saying, ‘We ought to have an organisation.’”

Lahusen took pictures for its magazine, The Ladder, and even though the circulation was tiny, her gay subjects were cautious, asking her to photograph them in profile, in shadow and behind sunglasses. She remembers how, pre-Stonewall, the pickets were “calm, dignified, staid events. Somebody said we looked like a bunch of people dressed up for church on Sunday. We had a slogan: ‘If you want to be employed, look employable’.”

Protesters worried about being recognised. Lahusen never told her parents she was gay: “They were in Ohio and I was in the east, a couple of thousand miles away, and they were older and I felt this was something I did not want to take on.”

The women of the Gay Liberation Front demonstrate in front of New York City’s Criminal Court building, 1970.
The women of the Gay Liberation Front demonstrate in front of New York City’s Criminal Court building, 1970. Photograph: Diana Davies

But post-Stonewall, anxiety started to ease and Lahusen’s photographs became more open – with an intimacy that does not date. This intimacy, as Baumann reasons in the book, was important at the time, because the pictures showed lesbians leading ordinary lives.

Lahusen met her partner, Barbara Gittings – a great presence in the book – at a picnic in 1961 (Gittings died in 2007). She recalls their first meeting and Barbara’s talk, talk, talk – and being dazzled by it. “She was very outgoing and always had a book in her hand.”

Love and Resistance has pictures of Gittings – one sitting in a garden, reading with concentration, and with a pipe in her mouth; another – a chaste snap – of her head peeking round a shower curtain, her hair thickly lathered with shampoo, her smile a playful gleam.

Barbara Gittings (left) and Isabel Miller kissing at a booth called ‘Hug a Homosexual’ at the 1971 American Library Association convention.
Barbara Gittings (left) and Isabel Miller kissing at a booth called ‘Hug a Homosexual’ at the 1971 American Library Association convention. Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen

As Roxane Gay writes: “Queer culture thrives and has always thrived because resistance is as deeply embedded in who we are as our sexuality.”

Veteran activist Ellen Broidy, 73, another former research librarian, retains her eloquence to protest and amuse. Broidy was head of the Student Homophile League at NYU, and at one point asked to appear on a television panel. Knowing her parents would watch the programme, she called her mother and said: “I want to take you to lunch.” They met at a restaurant: “I finally blurted out some combination of gay – lesbian – “and she looked across the table and said: ‘I’ve known since you were three.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ and she said, ‘I didn’t think it was any of my business and that you would find out on your own.’”

Her mother took her father out on the evening to escape the TV broadcast; but next day, at a business lunch, a colleague told him: “I saw your daughter on TV last night.”

Jamen Butler (left) and Tom Malim, 1971. The couple were supporters of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Philadelphia.
Jamen Butler (left) and Tom Malim, 1971. The couple were supporters of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Philadelphia. Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen

“When I got home,” Broidy remembers, “my mother rang. ‘The shit has hit the fan,’ she said, and hung up.” Her father was furious at her mother for not trusting him. “But on the morning of the Stonewall march, he wrote me a beautiful poem and phoned me to say: ‘You need to write a lawyer’s name and phone number on the palm of your hand.’”

There is a photograph of Broidy in 1970, by Davies, marching in the Christopher Street Liberation Day celebration, wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Lavender menace”. She is strolling with two women. They are smiling, she appears pensive. “I always look pensive,” she says. “For me, to smile is a major event, but that is no reflection of my inner feelings…” She recalls the excitement that day, and then explains how “Lavender Menace” was coined by the feminist activist Betty Friedan. “She referred to lesbians in the emerging women’s movement as a ‘lavender menace’ who would undo all the movement’s positive steps.”

The Christopher Street Liberation Day celebration, 1970, with Ellen Broidy, far left.
The Christopher Street Liberation Day celebration, 1970, with Ellen Broidy, far left. Photograph: Diana Davies

Broidy remembers how, in an empty flat next to her own, on the Lower East Side of New York, where bathtubs were still in the kitchens, they dyed their T-shirts mauve and printed them with the words Lavender Menace. “Next day, after the T-shirts had dried, we put them on under our regular clothes and went to the Second Conference to Unite Women in Manhattan.” They had not been invited but, Broidy reasoned, “If you’re going to unite women, we’re going to be among the women you’re going to unite.”

Fortuitously, one of their number was in charge of the lights at the conference: “So we all took aisle seats and she flipped the switch and the auditorium went dark. About 20 seconds later, she flipped it back on and 20 of us stood up in the aisles and in front of the auditorium in our Lavender Menace T-shirts. We kidnapped the conference. The women there had to engage in dialogue, listen to monologues and occasionally to tirades about the place of lesbians within the women’s movement.”

Lahusen and Broidy remember people’s reaction to their activism: “Sometimes people joined us from the sidewalks,” Broidy recalls. During marches on the White House and Pentagon, and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Lahusen jotted down different responses: “One man came by with his five kids and said: ‘Hold your noses, it’s dirty here.’ A woman said, ‘I’m not gay but I admire what you are doing.’ A gay protester said: ‘I don’t like to picket but we have to, we just have to…’ Another gay person said: ‘A weight has dropped off my soul.’ And in a grocery store, a woman came up to Barbara and said: ‘Didn’t I see you on television yesterday? You made me realise you people love each other just the way my husband and I do.’”

Neither woman chooses to dwell on the future challenges for the gay community in the US posed by Trump. Besides, Broidy observes, “Trump is less frightening than Mike Pence. Pence is a true believer. Trump believes in nothing.”

On the march in Albany, 1971.
On the march in Albany, 1971. Photograph: Diana Davies

After acknowledging that times have changed dramatically for the better, Lahusen says there are still “parents who feel their gay kids are emotionally ill, and renegade psychiatrists in America who cling to the old view that homosexuality is a mental illness”.

Lahusen never swanks about her achievements, but volunteers that she was “so glad” to be able to “hope to chronicle a movement”. She wanted people to realise “we were just folks, like other people, part of the American population”.

• Love and Resistance is published by WW Norton (£17.99). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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