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James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin, two openly gay civil rights advocates, at a 1965 march in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein via Getty Images. 
Identity

Gay Liberation Needed the Civil Rights Movement

Two historians explain the many overlooked ways that the two movements intersected.
June 8, 2020, 5:51pm

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Fifty-one years ago, New York’s LGBTQ community engaged in a days-long rebellion against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn, sparking what’s considered the modern era of LGBTQ rights history. But prior to that stand, countless other insurrections, protests, and demonstrations had been orchestrated by Black activists taking a stand against racism and oppression. By 1969, when the Stonewall Rebellion took place, Black activists had blazed a trail with protests and so-called race riots.

One of the best known is Detroit’s 1967 uprising, considered the most destructive riot of the twentieth century, which was the result of decades of discrimination and police brutality. Like Stonewall, the days-long event may have been sparked by a bar raid, but it was a reaction to years of oppression, white hostility, and especially, notoriously unchecked police brutality. There were plenty of others in the years preceding Stonewall—including those in nearby Harlem in 1964, and Newark, New Jersey, in 1967—that likely influenced the burgeoning movement for LGBTQ people.

We asked two scholars whose work centers LGBTQ history as well as race in America about the intersections of these movements: Kevin Mumford, a professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America, and Michael Bronski, a Harvard professor and author of A Queer History of the United States. They spoke to VICE about the ways Black activism of the mid-century heavily influenced LGBTQ activism, the ways each movement split into more radical and less radical offshoots, and the evolution of hefty civil rights organizations versus smaller grassroots groups.

Their answers below were lightly edited for clarity and length.

So the early LGBTQ organizing of the 1950s and 60s was happening as the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Do we know what the early gay and lesbian groups were learning at that time from Black activists?

Kevin Mumford: My sense is that the originating generation of gay and lesbian historians in the late sixties and early seventies were, themselves, very influenced by civil rights activism. They certainly were inspired by that, but they wrote a history of the homophile movement, of the Mattachine Society, of the ECHO Conference, without thinking about its relationship to the Civil Rights Movement.

Now, I think, another generation of scholars has to go back, and if they're going to write the story—and I think they are—just look for the connections, and the ways in which the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement, the ideals, influenced everybody, especially gay and lesbian activism identity. And I think then the question that’s also really fascinating is whether there was really a call for solidarity. There wasn't a call for interracial organizing. There wasn't really a concern that I've seen, with "Our ranks are all white." So I just think it's kind of—we have to go back and understand more, both the way that civil rights inspired people, and also try to find more African-American participation. Or if there's not, try to understand what went wrong in terms of making a more inclusive movement, if that makes sense.

There just isn't that much documentation until you get after Stonewall. So then you have a lot of unsung heroes, as well as people—like in the Black Power movement, like Stokely Carmichael, or Eldridge Cleaver—that spark a lot of debate and have a big influence even if they're not marching with them, but they have a direct impact on how white gay men and lesbians are thinking about liberation. It's definitely coming out of the reaction and the absorption to Black Power. It's very clear how much African-American, Black social movements impacted LGBT.

The Stonewall Rebellion was pivotal to the LGBTQ rights movement as people took a stand against police brutality, but was preceded by other actions like ones at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles (1967) and Compton Cafeteria in San Francisco (1966). Were these actions influenced directly by the numerous Black-led protests against police brutality like throughout the 1960s?

Mumford: Yeah, because they say so. They go on record saying, "Look what's happening over in Newark. We're not going to take it any more than they do in Newark." Just 20 minutes outside of Manhattan, these huge, explosive riots two years before had made a difference in the area. It became a full-blown tactic to make your point, to make change, precisely because of African American rioting. So that's how you kind of make sense of the Stonewall quote-unquote "riots" which are bigger, and more than the Compton Struggle, or skirmish you might call it.

The thing I always point out is, in the race riots, you have multiples of 10 getting murdered. Right? And the death toll in the Stonewall riots, I think it's still zero. But even then it doesn't really do justice to how they are different. But I do think one definitely influenced the other.

Michael Bronski: In America from 1963 to 1968, every single summer there were massive amounts of urban unrest, almost all race- based. Certainly after the death of Dr. King and the death of Medgar Evers, in Plainfield, New Jersey, Newark, New Jersey, Detroit, Los Angeles, York, Pennsylvania—every single summer. In class, I tend to call the Stonewall Riots an insurrection rather than a riot because I think riot gives the impression that people are running around not knowing what they're doing. In fact, everybody at Stonewall was quite clear of the political intention of their actions, that it was against police brutality. Stonewall could not have happened the way it did without the recent history of several years of those other urban uprisings.

In the years following the end of the civil rights era, LGBTQ activism has made huge strides. What are some of the tactics that were used in the movement for Black equality that LGBTQ advocacy was able to adapt?

Mumford: People tend to talk about gay rights as everything that gay people do, but this was really about, how do we get on the books? How do we get local laws that protect us from discrimination in employment, accommodations, and housing? Because there's just so much. "You can't rent here. We don't want you to kiss in our restaurant. We're going to fire you because you're gay and you're immoral." After Stonewall, people split up in more radical and less radical directions.

In New York, they introduced a bill into the city council to get rights. They were basically just asking to be added to statutes that are already on the books [but that excluded homosexuals]. Those statutes were a product of the Northern Civil Rights Movement. So, they were already in place—like the very idea that you can't discriminate against a person at a lunch counter, or in a swimming pool; all of those ideas had to do with African-American activism.

Black liberation and LGBTQ liberation are obviously major society-shifting causes—there are plenty of people who are hostile to both, and some of the people in these groups intersect. So, how has the advocacy of these two groups worked together in recent years? Or how have they failed to work together?

Mumford: I feel like basically, I don't really know what the big African-American civil rights organizations are doing. The NAACP, which used to be so important—you could not have had the change that we've had, anywhere near it, without the NAACP—but now they're just kind of lost and sleeping. Most people would agree that the Black Lives Matter movement fills in the gaps where there used to be local branches of the NAACP, they would take complaints and they would investigate. I'm assuming that part of the reason is because we have a lot more African-American elected officials. So some of the advocacy and the association feel less necessary, because there's so many more Black council members and mayors and legislators.

Two days ago, looking out my window, everything was boarded up and there were marchers. Now people can go back to the Starbucks. A demonstration does certain things, but then what's the next step towards engaging politics? And I don't mean voting [in presidential elections], but I'm saying now, particularly I think youth could stand to take a more proactive position in terms of running for office, supporting people that you really care about, that share your values. So hopefully it won't just be like, "We did our bit for this atrocity." But rather like, "Oh, if we get more involved, there are others like us. We could make more of a difference."

Bronksi: Those early movements were really focused on the notion of power as building identity, not so much built on actually looking to change the system, to make it more equitable. Although they would not be against that particularly—I'm sure you wouldn't find any Black Panthers who would say that you shouldn't get rid of the Jim Crow laws. Of course they'd be in favor of that, but they were also in favor of empowering Black communities to be self sufficient and producing Black art that reflects Black pride in race.

To go back to your question, I think that if there's been a failure over these years it's a failure of the political imagination. In gay liberation, it was as important as the war in Vietnam and to have unfettered access to abortion as it was to make the world safe for gay people. I don't think anybody in a mainstream LGBT rights group, while they talk about racism, they don't talk about forming coalitions with groups that are only about race. So I think that the failure over the past decade has been a failure of a political imagination and an organizing imagination.