Sotheby’s Magazine

Let It Roar: How Stonewall Sparked a Gay Rights Revolution

By Charles Kaiser
Demonstrations outside City Hall in 1971, when a bill guaranteeing equal job opportunities for gay people stalled in New York City Council. Photograph by Grey Villet / Contributor.
As Sotheby’s celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots with its BENT. auction, Charles Kaiser looks back on how the uprising ignited the gay rights movement.

F ifty years after its birth, one thing is clear: no other movement has changed the world’s attitude towards any minority more quickly than the gay liberation movement. Very early on the morning of 28 June, 1969 – a few hours after Judy Garland’s funeral three miles further uptown in Manhattan – a routine police raid on a seedy gay bar in Greenwich Village uncorked centuries of bottled up anger and pain.

“The cop hit me, and I hit him back,” remembered Stormé Delarverie, a cross-dressing lesbian. This had never happened before. Stormé’s fury was magnificently contagious. It flowed out into the streets of Manhattan, then across the country, and then right around the world.

What quickly became known as the Stonewall riots sparked an immediate surge of organisational activity.

“Do you think homosexuals are revolting?” asked the headline on a pamphlet passed out in Manhattan by the newly formed Gay Liberation Front (GLF). “You bet your sweet ass we are!”

andy-warhol-helen-harry-morales.jpg
Andy Warhol, Helen/Harry Morales (from Ladies and Gentlemen), 1974. Estimate $2,000–3,000.

“It was like a prairie fire,” remembered Jim Fouratt, a founder of the GLF. “Let it roar… People were ready.” Fouratt joined a team that travelled across the country to create new GLFs everywhere: 40 new chapters, mostly on college campuses, including one on Notre Dame’s campus in South Bend, Indiana.

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Bent poster for Martin Sherman’s 1979 play starring Ian McKellen. Estimate $500–700.

In 1967, two years before Stonewall, the Student Homophile League at Columbia University in New York City was the first and only gay campus organisation in America – and its creation was front page news in The New York Times. (The Columbia Daily Spectator thought at first that it was a prank for April Fool’s Day.) In 1969, there were just two gay organisations with anything close to a public profile nationally – the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. But just four years later, the national committee of the Gay Activists Alliance counted 1,100 different gay groups across the country.

If you are a sexual nonconformist of any persuasion who was born after 1980, I’m sure you faced many hostile hazards growing up, as millions still do. But it may be impossible for you to imagine just how despised homosexuals had been for centuries – even millennia – before you came along. Even straight members of my own generation are often shocked when I remind them of a detail from the dark years, before the words “gay” and “liberation” had ever appeared together.

Gay sensibilities, of course, were visual for centuries before they became politicised. Since ancient times, all those who disguised their same-sex desires still had gay images to admire – from the sides of Greek vases, to the multiple depictions of Antinous, the boy Emperor Hadrian was besotted with, to some of the paintings of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, including one depicting a knight looking beyond a beautiful maiden to focus longingly at a male angel. In the 20th century, gay collectors were drawn to the photographs of George Platt Lynes and the magnificent drawings and paintings of Paul Cadmus.

“A routine police raid on a seedy gay bar in Greenwich Village uncorked centuries of bottled up anger and pain.”
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Jeffrey Halpin, He, She, Me. Estimate $2,000–3,000.

Continuing the tradition which had animated the black civil rights movement in the 1960s, culture and politics in the last four decades of the 20th century worked together to transform the status of sexual outsiders. In 1961, the British movie Victim was the very first film in which a man said “I love you” to another man – a scene insisted upon by its closeted gay star, Dirk Bogarde. The message of this melodrama about the blackmail of British homosexuals quickly rippled through English society. Six years later, parliament decriminalised gay acts between consenting adults – the most significant reform since they had been criminalised by the Buggery Act of 1533.

“Do you think homosexuals are revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are!”

In 1971, British cinema pushed across another Rubicon when John Schlesinger directed Glenda Jackson, Peter Finch and Murray Head in Sunday Bloody Sunday. Head played a pretty boy who shared his affections with both Jackson and Finch. His first full-on-the-lips kiss with Finch was another historic moment, producing gasps from part of the audience, and silent joy from the newly liberated.

The same year as Sunday Bloody Sunday, the novelist Merle Miller caused a different kind of sensation when he came out in a cover story in The New York Times Magazine entitled "What It Means to Be a Homosexual." No one had ever done that before in the Times – and before Miller, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg and Gore Vidal were practically the only well-known more-or-less-openly-gay writers in America.

For people in their 20s, the 1970s was the decade of wild sexual abandon. When the lights went out in Manhattan in the second great New York blackout of 1977, the pitch dark turned blocks and blocks of Greenwich Village into one huge outdoor Bacchanalia. We considered our in-your-face promiscuousness proof of our liberation. And then the party came to a fearful halt, a year or two after The New York Times reported the first cases of what would eventually be named AIDS.

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Catherine Opie, DYKE, 1993. Estimate $20,000–30,000.

The new disease brought fear, loathing and the deaths of half a generation of gay men in the big cities of the United States. But with the foresight of a handful of visionaries like Larry Kramer, who helped to found both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and later ACT UP, it also produced a new generation of fierce freedom fighters. These tireless men and women went to war against a passive Federal government, transformed the way experimental drugs were introduced to the public, and eventually collaborated so successfully with scientists that by 1996 a new class of drugs was well on their way to making AIDS as manageable as diabetes.

In 1992, Bill Clinton became the first person to be elected president after actively seeking LGBT support. It turned out the political climate had not changed enough to make it possible for him to keep his campaign promise to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. And in 1996, in the middle of his re-election campaign, Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act to ban the Federal recognition of same-sex marriages, because he thought that was necessary to ensure his second term.

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Georgy Gurianov, Gay Games Amsterdam, 1998. Estimate $50,000–70,000.

It wasn’t until the 21st century, and the election of the first African-American President, that most of the biggest political goals of the gay movement were accomplished. By then gay culture was everywhere from the little screen (Will & Grace, 1998, Modern Family, 2009) to the big screen (Brokeback Mountain, 2005, Moonlight, 2016). In 2010, Congress finally passed a law which allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. In 2015, the four members of the Supreme Court appointed by Clinton and Barack Obama joined with one appointee of Ronald Reagan – Anthony Kennedy – to make marriage equality the law of the land.

The crowd outside the Supreme Court chanted “Love has won!” and President Obama celebrated the decision with an appearance in the Rose Garden. “Progress on this journey often comes in small increments,” the president said. “Sometimes two steps forward, one step back, propelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens. And then sometimes, there are days like this when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”

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PAJAMA (Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret French), Selected Images, 1930s–40s. Estimate $15,000–25,000.

That evening his staff marked the moment with an image for the ages: the White House lit up in the rainbow colours of the gay flag. Michelle Obama decided she had to experience the moment from outdoors, and she cajoled her eldest daughter into joining her. At the edge of the White House lawn, a few steps from where the very first gay picket line had formed in 1965, Michelle snuggled up against her child to marvel at the radiant edifice. “Malia and I leaned into each other,” the First Lady recalled, “happy to have found our way there.”

Charles Kaiser is the author of The Gay Metropolis, republished this month (June 2019) by Grove in a new updated edition for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

BENT. will be on view in New York from 19–26 June. Auction: 27 June. Enquiries: bent@sothebys.com.

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