Each year since 1970, LGBT people and their allies pause to celebrate the spontaneous uprising at the Stonewall Inn the year before. Like the match struck at the beginning of Mission Impossible, the two nights of unbridled protests by society’s most marginalized on June 28 and June 29, 1969 ignited a flashpoint for the launch of the modern day LGBT movement.
But Stonewall did not happen in a political or cultural vacuum. And it was not the first gay rebellion against police raids— the 1959 Cooper Do-nuts Riot and the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot, the Feb. 11, 1967 demonstration at the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake protesting violent LAPD harassment on New Year’s Eve, for instance, brought out 200 courageous gays and lesbians who knew what to expect from the armed anti-gay police just months before the hippy Flower Power love fest known as the Summer of Love kicked in. And in August 1968, Lee Glaze, owner and manager of The Patch on Pacific Coast Highway, took the protest to the police.
Consider the context of the times. Street and college protests against the ugly Vietnam War were growing, with terrified straight and gay 18 year olds sometimes pretending to be gay to escape military service—though often potentially dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia seemed preferable to the crushing and dangerous stigma of being labeled “homosexual” at home.
The world profoundly changed in 1968 and the anti-war protests and counter-culture movement became training grounds for resistance, empowering oppressed minorities, including gays and lesbians, to refuse to bow to the daily normalized violent harassment from police and the dominant white conformist society.
These moments happened in 1968: Jan 30 – the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive exposes the lies told by President Johnson’s administration that the U.S. is winning the war. For the first time, Americans grasp that they cannot automatically trust their president. Feb. 29 – the Kerner Commission studying America’s race riots determines that the country is “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The first week in March in Los Angeles – an estimated 15,000 Latino high school students stage a walk out demanding better education. April 4 – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis by white supremacist James Earl Ray, prompting riots in over 100 cities, leaving 39 people dead, 2,600 injured and an untold number emotionally and psychologically devastated. April 23 – students protesting their university’s ties to the military industrial complex take over five buildings at prestigious Columbia University, prompting similar takeovers at colleges and universities around the country. May 6 – more than 5,000 students riot in Paris, resulting in sympathy strikes. June 4 – Democratic anti-war presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. Aug. 5-8 – Republican “law and order” presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon is nominated at the Republican National Convention.
It is against this backdrop that “The Blond Darling” Lee Glaze finally stood up to the noxious under-cover LAPD vice squad. After yet another raid and several arrests, Glaze got on his drag stage and promising to pay for legal bills, rallied his patrons into action. They marched up to a flower shop up the street, bought all the flowers (except pansies, apparently) and took their flower power to the Harbor Division Police Station, demanding bail and the release of those arrested during the raid. The Patch raid and successful protest had profound effects, including inspiring Rev. Troy Perry to found the Metropolitan Community Church—”a church for all of us who are outcasts”—after his boyfriend Tony Valdez was arrested.
One year after The Patch raid, Los Angeles reeled from the Manson murders (Aug, 9-10, 1969), more than 500,000 peace and love-seeking, sexually liberated hippies showed up at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethal, New York for three days of the rock ‘n roll Woodstock Festival (Aug. 15-18), and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago erupted in a police riot live on TV (Aug. 28) with bleeding antiwar protesters screaming: “The Whole World Is Watching!” But by the end of 1969, a Rolling Stones concert guarded by Hells Angels at Altamont Speedway in California where one man was murdered. Woodstock and the Age of Aquarius seemed over.
In the meantime, on July 20, Astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon and declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” in the Moon landing televised live around the world.
And on Nov. 15, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee, organized by then-closeted politico David Mixner and three friends, created the largest antiwar protest in U.S. history when roughly 250,000-500,00 people showed up for a non-violent civil disobedience protest in Washington, D.C. Just four months after Stonewall, a contingent of out and proud radical Gay Liberation demonstrators turned up, too, dancing in pink tutus and veils through the Key Bridge campsite’s food line on Sunday, and transforming into fierce protesters when the action got underway, as witnessed by this reporter.
Stonewall took on legendary status in 1970 after demonstrators from New York contacted well-known antiwar gay activist Morris Kight in Los Angeles to commemorate the June 28 uprising with a parade. Radical activists created the Gay Liberation Front and the less-radical, more organized Gay Activists Alliance immediately after Stonewall, with Kight, Don Kilhefner and other members of the Gay Liberation Front of Los Angeles founding such lasting projects as the LA Gay Community Services Center, the precursor to the Los Angeles LGBT Center of today.
While passionate conflicts within and between organizations sometimes ruined efforts to provide much needed services to LGBT people—“oppression sickness,” Kight called it—there is an undercurrent of connectivity, of conscious and unconscious awareness in which LGBT people are aware of each other—aware of the need for secrecy when called for, aware of the need for a hug when others declare LGBT person untouchable. LGBT people are still officially second-class citizens, an unrecognized minority that has created community across numerous boundaries, including internal roadblocks.
“It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk in the earth as though I had a right to be here,” gay author James Baldwin once wrote.
It is precisely that shared experience that LGBT people recognize within themselves and each other. That sense of community may be “a useful fiction,” as AIDS activist Michael Callen once said, but it a community that also embraces all others. Racism, sexism, xenophobia exit—Jewel Thais-Williams created Catch One Disco in response to the racism at West Hollywood’s Studio One and other discos.
But ironically, the LGBT community in many ways exemplifies the complex “peace and love” legacy of the Age of Aquarius better than other minorities. During the AIDS crisis, when government, society, and families disavowed their AIDS-infected and dying loved ones, LGBT people came out and took care of each other, often with help from soulful straight allies.
Empathy and inclusivity are at the core of LGBT unity. Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay celebrated his 80th birthday at West Hollywood’s Plummer Park in October 1992 surrounded by his beloved young community from Queer Nation, ACT UP and the Radical Faeries. Non-assimilationists, especially effeminate men, led the way in gender expression.
While ideology may yank some LGBT politicos from their community mooring, the respect for those fighting for LGBT freedom and civil rights earns respect and connection regardless of electoral politics. Jim Mangia, now president & CEO of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, providing healthcare to predominately low-income Latinos, African Americans and transgender folk in South LA, was once the unanimously elected national Secretary of the Reform Party in 1997, with a proven record of working to establish a third party in California and the nation. In 2000, he publically fought anti-LGBT Patrick Buchanan for control of the party. Mangia is also an admirer of early gay Democratic Party icon Jose Sarria, founder of the Imperial Court System and the first openly gay candidate who sought public office when in 1961, he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Perhaps one of the best examples of LGBT unity and connectivity occurred after the LA Riots in 1992. As Los Angeles burned, much of the attention was on the perceived warfare between the Black and Asian communities. But Rev. Carl Bean called a community meeting at his Unity Fellowship Church in South LA and invited one of LGBT nation’s best known Asian leaders, Paul Kawata, executive director of the National Minority AIDS Council, to demonstrate the unity within the LGBT community. After the meeting, the attendees helped clean up the charred streets of Los Angeles.
And prime example of LGBT connectivity and unity is the quieter, constant behind the scenes action of Transsexual Menace Shirley Bushnell who fiercely advocated for transgender rights before the Trans Lives Matter movement. Bushnell, with backing from ally lawyers and activists, badgered the LAPD and the LA Sheriff’s Department for better treatment and respect. Her constant activism paved the way for trans activists such as Karina Samala and Mason Davis to secure actual policy changes in law enforcement.
It’s 2019 and America is under attack from within. That is our historical context today. LGBT people and other minorities are facing equality rollbacks and brazen injustices that feel as if the pursuit of freedom hasn’t progressed much in the 50 years since Stonewall. But it has, including in the quiet and loud collective insistence on unity whenever the LGBT tribe is attacked. White supremacy will never tear asunder that shared bond of pain and the beautiful connection of an outsider’s love for each other.