The lessons of Stonewall: 50 years on

Today is 50 years since the Stonewall riots of 28 June 1969, which marked the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement. Following other revolutionary events of the 1960s, the riots – described as the “hairpin drop heard ‘round the world” by the New York Mattachine newsletter – marked a shift amongst LGBT people away from individualised, small-scale activism and towards mass protest and demonstrations.

The years following Stonewall marked the start of the Gay Liberation Front (GFL) and the first-ever Pride parade. However, almost from its beginning, the movement was riven with internal conflicts. The Stonewall riots and what followed hold many lessons for the LGBT movement today.


As socialists, we study these events in order to draw political lessons from them, and to understand the limitations as well as the strengths of the movement. We also need to put the events in their historical context. There are two main contexts: the upswing of class struggle and other liberation struggles in the 1960s; and the historical isolation of the LGBT movement from the labour movement.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the labour movement did take up the demand to decriminalise homosexuality. In 1898, the petition put forward by Magnus Hirschfield to decriminalise homosexuality was supported in the German parliament by the Social Democratic Party, the largest socialist party in existence at the time. In 1921, Hirschfield’s organisation, the Institute for Sexual Research, launched a ‘Congress for Sexual Reform’ which was attended by a delegate from the newly formed USSR.

Although the true nature of homosexuality was not fully understood at the time, the communists were committed to doing away with all forms of oppression in bourgeois society. Hence, after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet Union decriminalised homosexuality – decades before many other countries in the West, such as Britain and the USA.

Stalin homosexuality 2 Image public domainThe Bolsheviks decriminalised homosexuality after coming to power. Stalin's recriminalisation of homosexuality set back the link between the labour movement and the struggle for gay rights for decades / Image: public domain

However, all of this was ripped away when Stalin came to power. The Stalinist bureaucracy was largely made up of the apparatchiks of Tsarism. Their professed communism was a thin mask behind which lay all the prejudices of bourgeois society.

Moreover, during the reconstruction of the industrial economy, the Stalinists based themselves on the heterosexual bourgeois family as a worker-producing economic unit, in a similar manner to capitalist primitive accumulation. As such, they reversed many of the reforms passed by the early Bolshevik government.

Most of the Communist parties of the Third International absorbed this attitude towards homosexuality, abandoning any defence of sexual minorities. This policy explains the apathy that much of the labour movement held towards LGBT rights, which would only begin to turn around after 1969.

Although much of the labour movement in the 1930s did not see this policy change on the part of Stalin as a major issue, it was felt keenly by working-class gay men. This is reflected in Harry Whyte’s letter to Stalin. As a Communist Party member and a gay man, he was clearly confused by Stalin’s reversal of all the progress made in the October Revolution. He was shocked to see that homosexuals had begun to be arrested. He wrote:

“One should recognize that there is such a thing as ineradicable homosexuality— I have yet to encounter facts that would refute this— and hence as a consequence, it seems to me, one should recognize as inevitable the existence of this minority in society, be it a capitalist or even a socialist society. In this case, one cannot find any justification for declaring these people criminally liable for their distinguishing traits, traits for whose creation they bear no measure of responsibility and which they are incapable of changing even if they wanted to.”

Next to this heartfelt appeal, Stalin wrote only a few short sentences: “Archive. An idiot and a degenerate. J. Stalin.”


The reactionary recriminalisation of homosexuality by the Stalinist bureaucracy was to isolate the emerging LGBT movement from the rest of the labour movement in the decades to come. The leaders of the social democratic parties and trade unions did nothing to remedy this either, choosing to fall in line with bourgeois morality rather than fight against prejudice and oppression, showing the limitations of the mixture of reformism and Stalinism in the leadership of the trade unions.

Under McCarthyism in the USA, homosexuals were hounded out of their jobs and homes, in a period known as the ‘lavender scare’. Gay men and lesbians were considered to be security risks, and most likely communist sympathisers. The victims of this period received no help from trade unions and the wider labour movement. Before 1969, unions largely ignored the problems which the LGBT community faced.

McCarthy Image Flickr Rupert ColleyUnder McCarthyism in the USA, homosexuals were hounded out of their jobs and homes. They were also suspected of being more prone to having communist sympathies / Image: Flickr, Rupert Colley

In this context of isolation, it is all the more astounding that the Stonewall riots kicked off a mass movement for LGBT rights. However, it is no coincidence that the events of the Stonewall riots occurred just after one of the most politically turbulent decades in the last century.

Only one year beforehand, in 1968, the world was shaken by revolutionary waves and demonstrations in several countries, including France, Pakistan and Mexico. The late 1960s also saw the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and the rise of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movement in the USA. Across the world, there was a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. As a result, class struggle was back on the agenda, and people were learning that mass movements could change things.

The revolutionary mood of the late 1960s provided an important background to the Stonewall riots. Although those at the bar may have rioted regardless, people flocked to join in the streets because they were also fed up with business as usual, turning a small street disturbance into a huge riot and demonstration.

Boiling point

Partially because of the separation of the LGBT movement from the labour movement, LGBT rights activists had moved away from politics. The ‘homophile movement’, as it was called, was intended to prove that homosexuality was no threat to the bourgeois nuclear family, nor to western capitalist society.

Nevertheless, in the context of rising radicalisation and demand for broader democratic rights by the working class globally, several major steps forward were taken for LGBT rights. In Britain for instance, homosexuality was decriminalised by a Labour government in 1967, two years before the Stonewall riots. In the US, though, homosexuality was not fully decriminalised until 2013.

However, it is also important to understand that this was a reform that capitalism was able, eventually, to concede, because it didn’t fundamentally threaten the basis of class society as such.

Stonewall Inn Image Diana DaviesThe Stonewall bar in New York was the only bar for gay men where dancing was allowed. It was frequently subject to police raids / Image: Diana Davies

The legalisation of homosexuality was an important step forward. But for anyone outside of small, privileged sections of the gay community, there were still very serious issues. The fear of losing one’s job was terrifying for those living pay-cheque to pay-cheque. Little data on the prevalence of hate crimes was collected prior to 1969, but it is easy to imagine that they were commonplace.

This is also supported by news reports. For instance, on 9 March 1969, only a few months before the Stonewall riots were to begin, a gay man called Howard Efland was beaten to death by the Los Angeles District Police. In New York at the time, it was nearly impossible to be openly gay. Same-sex dancing was banned, and bars weren’t allowed to serve alcohol to gay people. If people wore fewer than three items of clothing of their assigned gender they could be imprisoned. This, alongside constant harassment by police and members of the public, made being gay dangerous and sometimes deadly.

The Stonewall bar in New York was the only bar for gay men where dancing was allowed. Frequented by the whole spectrum of the gay community, including transgender people, drag queens, and lesbians, its core clientele was gay men. Contrary to myth, young homeless men were not the main clientele, but they would often try to get past the bouncers and were bought drinks by other bar customers. Only a few drag queens were allowed in by bouncers, but it was one of only two bars in the city where they were let in at all.

Police raids on gay bars were frequent, occurring about once a month. These raids were completely dehumanising. The lights would be turned on so that dancing couples knew to quickly separate, so as not to be caught in the illegal act of same-sex dancing. The customers would be lined up and examined to ensure they were wearing at least three of the ‘right’ items of clothing. However, at the time it was commonplace, and people rarely protested – although resentment simmered. The Stonewall riots were the extraordinary moment at which this bitterness boiled over.

What happened?

The raid on the night of the 28th was more serious than usual, perhaps because police had finally decided to shut down the bar for good due to the blackmail of wealthier customers by the bar’s mafia owners. Approximately 200 people were there, many of whom had never experienced a police raid before.

As customers were lined up, customers dressed as women refused to go with the police officers to the bathroom, where they would be stripped to verify their sex. A sense of anger and discomfort started to spread, spurred on by police who began to assault some of the lesbians at the bar that night, touching them inappropriately whilst frisking them. Men in line refused to show their identification when ordered. The police decided to begin arresting customers.

A crowd congregated outside the bar. Initially, it was just customers from the bar who had been released without arrest, but quickly grew. Pennies, and then beer bottles were thrown at a police patrol wagon. A lesbian was marched out of the bar. When she complained that her handcuffs were too tight, she was clubbed over the head. As the police tried to drag her away, she called to the bystanders: “why don’t you guys do something?” They did.

By this point, the crowd had grown to 500 or 600 people. Many of these were not gay but had been attracted to the commotion from bars up and down the street. Having participated in other demonstrations, many had a similar contempt for the police. One of these was the folk singer Dave van Ronk, who had experienced police brutality during protests against the Vietnam War. "As far as I was concerned, anybody who'd stand against the cops was all right with me, and that's why I stayed in,” he later said.

By this point, the protest had become a riot. The rest is history. Angry that they had been forced to retreat by homosexuals, people they saw as inferior and effeminate, the riot police went in hard and brutally cleared the streets. But the next day, news of the riot spread, reported on by the New York Timesthe New York Post and the Daily News.

That night, thousands of people had gathered in front of the Stonewall Inn. Fighting with police again continued until 4am. This was repeated on a third day of protests.

Militant movement

While the Stonewall riots were not the first of their kind, they were exceptional because thousands of people were involved. They lasted over six days, and sparked the formation of many new gay activist groups.

Bourgeois historians and journalists have made all sorts of claims to try to explain why such a seemingly downtrodden and compliant group of people could about-turn so suddenly and riot. They most famously linked the riots to the sadness of the gay community at Judy Garland’s death, a claim which is as stereotypical and demeaning as it is plain stupid. As one witness, Bob Kohler, put it:

"When people talk about Judy Garland's death having anything much to do with the riot, that makes me crazy... Judy Garland was the middle-aged darling of the middle-class gays. I get upset about this because it trivializes the whole thing."

Marxists know that there is a much simpler explanation. While people may be docile and compliant on the surface, continuous dehumanisation and ill treatment can only lead to a build up of immense anger which must eventually be expressed. And when this happens, its results can be volcanic.

Stonewall canada main Image public domainThe stonewall riots lasted for six days, involved thousands of participants, and encouraged thousands more to fight for their rights. It sparked the formation of many new gay activist groups / Image: Diana Davies

The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was one of the main organisations formed after the riots. Many of those who participated in the Christopher Street liberation parade were involved. But notably much of this organisation was formed of very militant young people who had participated in the riots, and had also been involved in other struggles, such as the Anti-Vietnam war movement. This organisation was much bolder than any which had come before it, explicitly using the word ‘gay’ in its name. Even the use of ‘Liberation Front’ was a reference to other groups such as the Algerian and Vietnamese National Liberation Fronts.

The rise of militancy was clear to campaigners such as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, who had been very prominent in the homophile movement. At the first GLF meeting they attended, a young militant member confronted them, demanding to know their names and what their credentials were!

The GLF broke with the tactics of appealing to bourgeois morality supported by the homophile movement. Admirably, considering the huge amounts of prejudice faced by LGBT people, the GLF made attempts to reach out to other groups such as the Black Panthers and anti-war demonstrators. They aimed to “work together to restructure American Society” – an aim that very closely reflected the revolutionary mood of the 1960s.

However, there was no clear political direction to this movement. They did not know what this ‘restructuring’ was to look like. And while most of the leadership of the GLF took a clearly anti-capitalist stance, few were committed communists or Marxists with an understanding of the roots of LGBT oppression in bourgeois society.

Without this clarity, the organisation fell apart due to infighting, disbanding four months after it was formed due to disagreements on ‘operating procedure’. However, chapters of the GLF still continued and were to make important steps forward for the LGBT community. This included organising demonstrations against electroshock therapy and getting homosexuality declassified as an illness by the American Psychiatric Association.

Identity politics

Identity politics means rejecting the idea that mass political struggle can solve the problems of different groups. It is often based on a misunderstanding of where oppression comes from – for example, arguing that it is human nature for men to oppress women. This would make it impossible for men and women to unite to struggle for political change.

As Marxists, however, we know that that is simply not the case. Before the emergence of class society there is no evidence that the oppression we see today existed. The oppression of women and LGBT people has its roots in class society.

The separatism of one group against another will not abolish oppression if there are still bosses and workers on both sides. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, these arguments became very popular, pervading social movements that lacked clear socialist ideas.

The negative impact of identity politics after Stonewall became clear. What was left of the GLF continued to splinter. Lesbian and ethnic minority groups, as well as other groups such as Lavender Menace, Gay News and the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard quickly broke off.

This was not the fault of the people who founded these smaller groups. Often splits were a response to sexism and racism within the movement, or other serious disagreements. But without a clear goal for people to fight towards, there was nothing holding the movement together.

As a result, it was not until the unifying effect of the HIV crisis that well-organised, unified groups of LGBT activists became the norm, rather than splinter groups. Much more could have been achieved in the intervening decade had it not been for the infighting based on identity and internal disagreements. That the disagreements existed were not the problem. But without political clarity, they could not be settled in any way except for more splits.

Collective power

"A black trans woman threw the first brick at Stonewall" is a common refrain in modern LGBT retellings of Stonewall’s history. In truth, nobody knows for sure who threw the first brick, although individuals such as the unnamed lesbian who was being arrested by police, as well as activists such as Marsha P. Johnson, did play an important role in the riots and the movement which followed.

However, it was the collective power of the mass demonstrations and riots that made an impact, not the identity of whichever person threw the first stone. In fact, initial rioters were joined by people from many different groups. Bourgeois historians often obscure this important fact in favour of emphasising the role of the individual.

Demonstration with Gay Liberation Front Banner Image LSE LibraryThe Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was one of the main organisations formed after the riots, and although it soon splintered, it made the case for collective, anti-capitalist struggle against gay oppression / Image: public domain

The Stonewall riots show the results that can be achieved by mass movements. This should rightly be praised as a defining moment in the struggle for LGBT rights. However, the modern movement needs to draw lessons from the splintering of the GLF.

LGBT struggle must be linked to the labour movement and have a clear, socialist political program. The role of Stalinism in separating the labour movement from the struggle for gay rights and the lack of a clear political direction meant that the movement did not achieve all that it could have.

Additionally, this was the start of a long trend of splitting the gay rights movement up into smaller groups based on identity, which often see other members of the LGBT community as enemies.

This is being replicated today in the movement, for example in the debates within the Labour Party over putting transgender women on all-women shortlists. These debates are often spearheaded by a small group of women, many of them lesbians, who base their understanding of oppression on identity politics and biological sex.

But this debate plays a reactionary role in both the LGBT struggle and the struggle for women’s liberation. The insistence of radical feminists in the labour movement to prioritise this debate over campaigning for a socialist Labour government is a waste of time. These arguments will only serve to turn away young LGBT people from the labour movement.

If the LGBT movement is to achieve its aims of ending oppression for all – and finish what the earliest pioneers of our movement started – we must have a clear political programme. Our disagreements and debates must be about our political goals, not navel-gazing identity politics. We must understand the importance of the other revolutionary struggles of the 1960s in the history of Stonewall, and that to succeed we must continue that legacy of linking up with other movements.

In the final analysis, the only way to overcome all forms of oppression is to put an end to class society and overthrow the defenders of this oppressive system – those who foster prejudice, division, and discrimination for their own interests. That means uniting all the oppressed layers as integral parts of the wider struggle of the working class to transform society.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.