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Speaker 2: Nathan, obviously the events around Stonewall were incredibly important. But there had been protests before. There certainly had been police abuse before. Why 1969?

Nathan: Well I think it’s safe to say that there are a couple of different political streams that are all meeting in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s. One of them is absolutely this rising discontent with what had been really, more than a decade’s long targeting of gay spaces in the context of the Cold War, at least a generation that experienced Stonewall would likely have experienced firsthand.

Nathan: I mean, New York’s attacks on queer spaces go back to the turn of the 20th century, really. But I think it’s important too to recognize that you have the mid-1960s as a political awakening that we all recognize as being extraordinarily transformative. You have the women’s rights movement, you have the civil rights movement, and I don’t think it’s an accident that when you have these standoffs against the police in June of 1969, some of the most important elements of that moment are actually the repurposing of protest songs from the civil rights movement like We Shall Overcome or Black Power activists like the Black Panther Party riding in to support the protest against the police, or even the activists themselves using pretty charged language borrowed directly from the Black Power cadres that are making a national narrative about police brutality in really compelling ways in the period.

Nathan: And so I think it’s really a moment where you see the braiding together of different social movements in a space like New York that already has a tremendous amount of economic and ethnic diversity that also makes it fertile to reign, for the movement to really reach new heights in that period.

Speaker 2: And Nathan, I would add two additional elements from the period. I would talk about the police behavior in a series of urban rebellions, really starting in the mid-60s, continuing until the late 1960s. Almost all of which were started by some incident with the police. Lets just say treating a marginalized community inappropriately, we’ll leave it at that.

Speaker 2: But it was a well known fact documented in reports on these riots and urban rebellions, that many of them were started by the police prodding these communities and worse. And the second image which people have in their minds from the time or have read about is what was labeled a police riot at the Chicago Democratic Convention, where the police simply waded into non-violent protestors, beating them with billy clubs. A scene that when you start reading the descriptions of what happened at Stonewall sounds very familiar.

Nathan: Right, right. It’s an important aspect of this story, certainly, that you have a form of policing that is seen as being modern, seen as being really committed to law and order, in some cases at whatever costs in terms of populations that might be pushing back, whether they are communities of color, or anti-war protestors, or again, queer spaces of communion, these are all going to be flash-points or battle fronts in this debate over what modern policing is about.

Nathan: And ironically enough, even the battlefront of the press is at issue here, because when the Stonewall rebellion jumped off, it was covered as police being assaulted at a bar on a very distant back page of the New York Times, page 33. The headline is Cops Assaulted at Bar. So it becomes one way for the mainstream press to really minimize what happened at Stonewall, and really emphasize what happened to law enforcement.

Nathan: But I think you’re absolutely right that there is a way that many citizens are demanding changes to the way that law enforcement is engaging these communities, and that becomes one of the many variables in what makes Stonewall such a transformative moment, is that you’re actually raising the question of excessive policing, but along lines of sexuality as opposed to strictly along lines of race, which had already been well established.

Speaker 2: So how did this story move from page 33 of the New York Times to headlines if you will, when we think about the movements and the resistance of the late 60s and early 1970s.

Nathan: Well I think part of it is about the fact that it wasn’t just a one-off episode at a bar in Greenwich Village, that this was a multi-day protest that you had activists who eventually came to the space and really in some ways consecrated Stonewall as a sacred site in radical politics, and that the media couldn’t simply ignore this as a happening in the more conventional sense that we now understand it.

Nathan: I mean if you think about where many of the folks who might be either part of gay subculture in New York, many of them are going to be folks with professional connections, certainly people with certain kinds of skills, and of course there’s a broad swath of people who are coming at this from working class backgrounds with union membership or other kinds of political orientations with connections in the existing movement, culture around the civil rights and Black Power struggle.

Nathan: So this is a many headed struggle in the sense that you weren’t just going to have one small population represented in silence, but instead what happened was the lifting of a lid ultimately on a community that has so many diverse members that once a moment like Stonewall helped to politicize the gay rights struggle, it politicized struggles in middle class and working class corners, white and black corners, male and female corners.

Nathan: And so absent some massive suppression campaign on the part of the mainstream media, and not to say it didn’t try, or the New York Times didn’t try, there wasn’t really a way to keep a movement of that broad meaning hidden from the country much longer.

Speaker 2: You know, Nathan, I think one of the things that connects both the history and remembering the history of these varied movements is a sense of pride among the participants … a newfound sense of pride, I would say, public pride among groups previously marginalized.

Nathan: Yeah I think that’s right, I mean I just recently got back from a trip to New York, where they were celebrating Pride Week there, and this wasn’t in Greenwich Village near Stonewall, which actually I drove near. But I saw a massive poster in Penn Station celebrating Pride Week, and it was a drag queen, and this had to have been maybe a 17 by 20 foot poster there marking the history and marking the place of gay and transgender people in the city of New York.

Nathan: And we have Stonewall among other moments to think for that, the kind of politics of Stonewall, I should say, to think for that. Because it’s become now part of New York’s fabric in the most undeniable way, that the history of … and the presence, the now, of gay and bisexual and queer people is going to be part of what we understand the modern city to be, the modern country to be, and really modern notions of American is to be.

Speaker 2: Today we’ve been talking to Lillian Faderman, author of The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle. Novelist Edmund White, author of The Beautiful Room Is Empty and many other novels of gay life.

Speaker 2: Christopher Mitchell, doctoral lecturer in Gender Sexuality Studies at Hunter College, and author of the forthcoming Gay Ghetto to Free Market: Entrepreneurship and the Transformation of Queer life in New York City.

Speaker 2: And David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution.

Speaker 2: That’s going to do it for us today, but you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org. Or send an email to backstory@virginia.edu.

Speaker 2: We’re also on Facebook and Twitter at BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

Speaker 2: Special thanks this week to our friends at the podcast MakingGayHistory.org, and the John Hopkins Studios in Baltimore.

Speaker 2: Backstory’s produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the John Hopkins University, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Speaker 2: Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Speaker 2: Brian Balogh is professor of History at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond.

Speaker 2: Joanne Freeman is professor of History and American Studies at Yale University.

Speaker 2: Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University.

Speaker 2: Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia Humanities.

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A History of Stonewall Lesson Set

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In the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, police officers raided The Stonewall Inn, a well-known gay bar in New York City. These types of raids occurred regularly and without incident at other gay bars and nightclubs in the city. However, on this night, patrons of the bar stayed outside and protested the police interference into their lives. Though this moment was not well-covered by the national media, it became a turning point in the fight for equal rights in the gay community. Many historians credit this demonstration as the spark that launched many different LGBTQ groups to form and start a more coordinated movement for equality. It also represents another challenge to the social and political status quo of the 1960s.

This lesson, and the corresponding BackStory episode, focus the legacy of the uprising at Stonewall Inn. Because of the personal nature of many of the accounts presented, encourage students to focus on the events from a historical lens.