The riots that erupted at the Stonewall Bar on Christopher Street on the night of June 28, 1969, like the one at San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria in 1966, signaled a real turning point in queer activism. And yet, rather than being narrated as an urgent act of resistance and rebellion against state violence, the story of the Stonewall riot has been refashioned into a homonoramative tale of the LGBT community’s first proud public proclamation of gay identity and rejection of social stigma. The Compton Cafeteria riot was all but erased from mainstream LGBT history, obscuring the fact that the individuals who fought back against the police that evening were not simply members of San Francisco’s gay community, but were also those who most often have to resist police oppression: street youth, gay and lesbian people of color, sex workers, drag queens, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people. Indeed, queer people located outside of the mainstream LGBT movement have much to contribute to an analysis of police violence, as well as to a critique of aligning with the police for “protection.”
That the social and political connections between LGBT communities and policing are so infrequently considered central to LGBT politics is all the more striking when one considers that, in one form or another, strains of LGBT political work have always addressed police violence. There is, in significant respects, nothing new about making police violence central to a queer agenda—indeed it is perhaps only relatively recently that police violence has been seen as anything other than one of the most flagrantly apparent manifestations of LGBT oppression. Before the Stonewall and Compton Cafeteria riots, in fact, even politically moderate groups such as the Mattachine Society, which was founded in 1950 in Los Angeles and later expanded with chapters in the East Coast, were heavily active around issues of police harassment. Printing “What to Do in Case of Arrest” cards and attempting to build collaborative relationships with police forces in order to promote more sensitive police conduct towards gay individuals, Mattachine organized around gay men’s vulnerability towards police violence.
Later, in the politically radical years of the early 1970s, activists of the gay liberation movement looked to the Black Panther Party in their call for an end to the “racist police force,” and prominently espoused an analysis of the police and the prison system as intrinsically oppressive of racial, sexual, and gender minorities alike. As historian Regina Kunzel documents, gay liberation activists marching to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots marched in front of New York City’s Women’s House of Detention (across the street from the Stonewall Bar), where Afeni Shakur and Joan Bird, Black Panther members, were incarcerated shouting, “Free Our Sisters! Free Ourselves!”
The latter half of 1970s and early 1980s are typically considered the time of collapse of the revolutionary historical moment surrounding the gay liberation movement, and indeed this period saw the fall of the Black Panther Party and other revolutionary groups under the FBI’s COINTELPRO (a secret FBI “counter intelligence program” targeting political groups and often using tactics that were themselves illegal). Although politically moderate groups such as the Gay Activists Alliance, which espoused a comparatively narrow, single-issue approach to gay-positive political reform, were founded in the late 1960s and active in the early 1970s, as the United States became more conservative over the ensuing decades this single-issue approach eventually came to be predominant.
However, the mid-1970s also gave birth to many of the first antiracist and queer of color organizations. Groups such as Salsa Soul Sisters (the first black lesbian organization), Black and White Gay Men Together (BWMT), the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, Dykes Against Racism Everywhere (DARE), and the black lesbian and feminist Combahee River Collective had all formed by 1980, and all included an analysis of policing issues in some capacity in their work. DARE, Salsa Soul Sisters, BWMT, and other New York City-based activists came together in the fall of 1982 to mobilize in response to the September 29th police raid on Blue’s Bar, a predominantly black gay bar on 43rd Street in Midtown. Queer activists’ response to the incident heightened the levels of attention to police brutality against LGBT people both within and beyond the gay and lesbian community. The lasting legacy of the Blue’s raid could be seen a little over a year later, when James Credle of BWMT addressed the congressional hearings on police brutality in Brooklyn specifically on the subject of the Blue’s raid and police abuse of gays and lesbians. Reminding his audience that it was not an accident that queer people of color and transvestites led the revolt at Stonewall, Credle asserted to the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice:
While we are often stereotyped as members of a single community, our roots emerge from and encompass multiple ethnic and racial identities. We have suffered, and continue to suffer, brutality as blacks, Hispanics, Asian and Native Americans, in addition to our third-class status as lesbians and gay men. All of us who have been maimed, physically and emotionally abused, unlawfully arrested—yes, even tortured and killed—have yet to receive any note of recognition or acknowledgement that we too are victims of police harassment and brutality. If we are serious about the eradication of such brutality from our community, then we must acknowledge the widespread abuses which occur daily against lesbians and gay males.
Credle presented a nuanced understanding of the police force’s systemic and pervasive oppressive relationship with LGBT communities as well as the role of intersectionality in determining who among those communities were historically the most vulnerable to police abuse. Although none of the officers involved in the Blue’s incident were criminally prosecuted, the incident became a catalyst for coalition building and promoting internal dialogue about community-based responses to police violence. The work of DARE, BWMT, Salsa, and others would eventually lead to the formation of an ad hoc Anti-Police Abuse Coalition in the summer of 1984, the goals of which included a formal apology from the NYPD, as well as to the organization of “a network capable of mobilizing at a moment’s notice to stand up to the police” and to “express […] solidarity and build alliances with other oppressed communities who are fighting police abuse.”
As the burgeoning impact of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s brought with it a resurgence of queer militancy reminiscent of post-Stonewall radicalism—most notably with the emergence of direct action-oriented groups such as ACT-UP and Queer Nation—so too continued the struggle of queer resistance against police violence. Often, however, these groups exemplified the ways in which gay “antiviolence” activism had come to be fraught with conflicting ideas about and approaches to addressing the perceived threat of antigay violence. Though they championed their confrontational style of direct action politics and radical, antiassimilationist ethos, Queer Nation, for instance, espoused an analysis of antigay violence that did not posit the threat of violence as coming from the state but rather looked to the police force, if not as a de facto ally, than certainly as a potential source of support. In this respect, Queer Nation exemplifies a trend noted by Christina Hanhardt that, in the decades following Stonewall, gay vulnerability to antigay violence came to be perceived as the “vulnerability of the crime victim.”
In this sense, Queer Nation and its spin-offs—in particular the Safe Street Patrol and the Pink Panthers—embodied a significant shift away from the critiques of state- and police-perpetrated violence espoused by gay liberationists and their allies in the new left and carried forward by antiracist queer activists in the 1980s and 1990s. This shift in emphasis became institutionalized when the national lesbian and gay organizations, like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce took up support for “hate crimes legislation” in the 1990s. These laws increase sentencing and hence can also increase the already unprecedented numbers of people incarcerated in the United States.
Throughout the long history of policing of queer communities in New York City, queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming people have creatively resisted and simultaneously survived police brutality and police violence. Through direct confrontation with the police, intervention in police violence, and concrete attempts at rethinking safety and realizing that vision, queer and trans people, particularly low-income and queer and trans people of color, have sought to change and dismantle policing and create real alternatives to the police state.
- Regina Kunzel, “Lessons in Being Gay: Queer Encounters in Gay and Lesbian Prison Activism,” Radical History Review 100 (Winter 2008): 14. [Return to text]
- “What We Want, What We Believe,” History—Early 1970s file. Lesbian Herstory Archives, New York. [Return to text]
- Kunzel 12. [Return to text]
- James Credle, “Police Brutality: The Continual Erosion of Our Most Basic Rights” Gay Community News (14 Jan. 1984): 5. [Return to text]
- “Speakout” flyer, Police file. Lesbian Herstory Archives, New York. [Return to text]
- Flyers by Queer Nation ask, “where are the cops?” and organize speak-outs at Police Plaza to demand police accountability to gay issues. Police File, Lesbian Herstory Archives, New York. [Return to text]
- Christina Hanhardt, “Butterflies, Whistles, and Fists: Gay Safe Street Patrols and the New Gay Ghetto” Radical History Review 100 (Winter 2008): 64. [Return to text]