Why did the Stonewall events happen when they did? How did the initial actions of fewer than 200 people lead to both a wider protest and then the birth of Gay Liberation?
In his 1983 book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, the historian John D’Emilio has revealed the pre-history of Stonewall. The author shows how the process of industrialization and urbanization, and the movement of workers from plantations and family farms to wage labor in the cities, made it easier for Americans with same-sex desires to explore their sexuality. By the 1920s, a homosexual subculture had crystallized in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, the French quarter of New Orleans, and New York’s Harlem and Greenwich Villages.
People with same-sex desires have existed throughout history. What has varied is the way society has viewed them, and how the people we now describe as LGBT regarded themselves at different stages.
The significance of the social change described above, and the emergence of a subculture, for the development of a gay rights movement is that an increasing number of individuals with same-sex desires were able to break out of isolation in small and rural communities. However discreetly, they learned of the existence of large numbers of other gay people and started to feel part of a wider gay community.
In society at large, the penalties for homosexuality were severe. State laws across the country criminalized same-sex acts, while simple affectionate acts in public such as two men or women holding hands could lead to arrest. Even declaring oneself as a gay man or lesbian could result in admission to a mental institution without a hearing.
Within the embryonic subculture, there were fewer places for lesbians than gay men because women generally had less economic independence, and it was therefore harder for a woman to break free from social norms and pursue same-sex interests. During the Second World War, all this changed. With the set routines of peacetime broken, gays and lesbians found more opportunities for freer sexual expression.
Women entered both the civilian workforce and the armed services in large numbers, and also had new-found spending power with which to explore their sexuality. In the documentary film Before Stonewall, a lesbian ex-servicewoman called Johnnie Phelps relates how she was called in with another female NCO to see the general-in-command of her battalion – which she estimated was “97% lesbian.”
General Eisenhower told her he wanted to “ferret out” the lesbians from the battalion, and instructed her to draw up a list to that end. Both Phelps and the other woman politely informed the General that they would be pleased to make such a list, provided he was prepared to replace all the file clerks, drivers, commanders, etc. and that their own names would be at the top of the list! Eisenhower rescinded the order. A few years later as U.S. president, however, Eisenhower would get lists aplenty during the McCarthy witch-hunts that were unleashed against thousands of both suspected Communists and “sexual perverts.”