The radical roots of Pride

| May 28, 2010

Marxism 2010: As Pride Toronto bans the term "Israeli Apartheid" from this year's march, Christine Beckermann looks back on the radical roots of the gay liberation movement, and how the rights we have today didn't come without a fight -- or without radical politics.

This summer will mark the 30th anniversary of the Pride Day celebrations in Toronto. For young people who may be heading out to their first Pride, it would be easy to think that the history of the struggle for LGBT rights has been an onward and upward advance of rational ideas over bigotry and hatred; that through reasoned argument, society and the state have come to accept the case for equal rights.

In fact, the struggle for queer rights has been a struggle with advances and setbacks, and the politics at the heart of the struggle at different periods have been critical.

While there is an early and vibrant history of people fighting for equality for homosexuals that was developed primarily in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these struggles came to an end with the rise of fascism and Stalinism in the 1930s. Even after the defeat of Nazi Germany, there was a conservative climate in many countries epitomized by McCarthyism in the U.S. This climate meant that groups that formed around gay equality in this period, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, tended to be very cautious in their outlook and focused on education and gaining respectability.

It took the social upheaval sparked by the black civil rights movement to start to break through this conservative climate and it was at the height of the student, antiwar, women's liberation and black power movements that the modern gay rights movement burst onto the scene.

There are two major events that mark the start of the modern fight for gay liberation in Canada. The riots which took place at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, on June 28, 1969 set off a radical movement for gay liberation in the U.S. which had impacts in Canada, Europe and other countries around the world. And the bathhouse raids in Toronto in February 1981 brought the fight for gay rights militantly into the streets here.

 

Stonewall

The police raid which took place at the Stonewall bar was nothing unusual. Raids were a regular feature at gay bars at the time. In the preceding three weeks, five other New York bars had been raided. These raids generally created more fear than resistance.

But what turned Stonewall into a touchstone for a new movement was the reaction of the patrons that night. Police were used to violent confrontations with students, blacks, antiwar and other protestors, but they expected gays and lesbians to just submit to the humiliation and harassment of the raids.

Instead, the patrons who were kicked out of the bar that night, many of whom were involved in the antiwar or other movements at the time, started to fight back. Rey "Sylvia Lee" Rivera, a drag queen who was at Stonewall the night of the riot described what happened:

"I don't know if it was the customers or if it was the police, but that night everything just clicked. Everybody was like, ‘Why the fuck are we doing all this for? Why should we be chastised? Why do we have to pay the Mafia all this kind of money to drink in a lousy fuckin' bar? And still be harassed by the police?' It didn't make any sense. The people at them bars, especially at the Stonewall, were all involved in other movements. And everybody was like, ‘We got to do our thing. We're gonna go for it!'

"When they ushered us out, they very nicely put us out the door. There we were standing across the street... But why? Everybody's looking at each other. Suddenly the nickels, dimes, pennies and quarters started flying. ‘You already got your payoff and here's some more!'"

Rivera described the riot as beautiful and exciting. "I'm out there being a revolutionary for everybody else, and now it's time to do it for my own people."

The police were completely caught off guard and forced to retreat back into the Stonewall bar. The Tactical Patrol Force was called in to control the mob, which was now using a parking meter as a battering ram. As the patrol force advanced, the crowd did not disperse, but instead doubled back and reformed behind the riot police. For the next several nights, the crowd would return in ever increasing numbers, handing out leaflets and rallying themselves. By the end of the weekend, the Stonewall bar was burnt out, but the modern gay liberation movement was born.

After the riots, an informal committee of people from Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society met to organize a march which drew out somewhere between 500 and 2,000 protestors. The march committee started holding meetings and decided that they needed a name for themselves. Martha Shelley, a lesbian activist who was part of the committee, isn't sure who came up with the name Gay Liberation Front, but remembers pounding her fist on the table and yelling in exultation, "That's it! We're the Gay Liberation Front!" Shelley says "GLF was it because it was like the National Liberation front of North Vietnam -- the Vietcong. They were like David fighting against Goliath, fighting for their nation and for the liberation of their people. We were all against the war, at least all of us in GLF."

The GLF was not only dedicated to gay rights, but also to the broader social ideals which dominated the 1960s, including peace, equality and economic justice. Between 1969 and 1972, the GLF was an influential force, and grew to more than 80 chapters across the United States and abroad.

The GLF in the U.K. produced a manifesto in 1971 which talked about how gay people are oppressed, beginning with the family, through schools, the church, media, employment and on and on. The first aim in the manifesto was "to rid society of the gender-role system which is at the root of our oppression." This would be done in alliance with the fight for women's liberation.

The politics of the new gay liberation movement were completely intertwined with the politics of the broader left at the time.

In Canada, the gay rights movement was very active in the decade following Stonewall, from the first gay rights march which saw 100 people rally in Ottawa in 1971, to the fight against antigay bigot Anita Bryant's visit to Toronto, to the defence of members of the Body Politic collective after they were charged under obscenity laws for printing an article called "Men Loving Boys Loving Men."

Bathhouse raids

But the key event that brought the LGBT movement in Canada massively into the streets came in February 1981 when police raided four gay bathhouses in downtown Toronto, arresting nearly 268 men and charging them under the "bawdy house" section of the criminal code. It was the largest mass arrest in Canada since the October Crisis in 1970.

People who were arrested that night described the brutality and violence of the police. People were physically assaulted and verbally abused by homophobic cops. After a group of men had been corralled into the showers in one bathhouse, a cop remarked that it was too bad that the pipes in the shower room couldn't be hooked up with gas instead of water, harking back to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. George Hislop, a leader in the gay rights movement at the time, described the behaviour of the police as "gestapo-like" and the police destruction of the establishments was so bad that one of them never reopened.

The arrests had an immediate effect, politicizing and galvanizing the gay rights movement here. The night after the arrest, over 3,000 people joined in a protest on Yonge Street which marched down to 52 Division, chanting "Fuck You 52". The march then moved on to Queen's Park to protest the Conservative government's inaction on updating the Human Rights code to include sexual orientation.

Participants in the march described the anger and intensity of the crowd. When the police tried to block protestors from turning onto Dundas Street to march to 52 Division, protestors swarmed through. And when a streetcar tried to push through the march, protestors began pushing it and rocking it, breaking a window before the driver finally decided to stay put.

Two weeks later, another march was held, this time drawing 5,000 people. And on March 6, a Gay Freedom Rally was held, effectively becoming Toronto's first pride event.

The responses to the Stonewall and bathhouse raids reflected a movement and a community that had had enough, and that was no longer willing to sit back. People's anger and frustration poured into the streets, and into a new movement which would pave the way for many of the rights which we have today.

These rights have not come easily, and this history of ordinary people who were inspired by other groups fighting against oppression, and who saw their liberation as being part of a larger struggle, should not be lost or sanitized out of Pride.

Christine Beckermann will speak about "The radical roots of Pride" on Saturday, May 29, at 11:30 a.m. at the Ryerson Student Centre, 55 Gould Street, Ryerson University, Toronto, part of the conference MARXISM 2010. A planet to save. A world to win. For more information, click here.

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