Sociopolitical Antecedents to Stonewall: Analysis of the Origins of the Gay Rights Movement in the United States

By Poindexter, Cynthia Cannon | Social Work, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Sociopolitical Antecedents to Stonewall: Analysis of the Origins of the Gay Rights Movement in the United States


Poindexter, Cynthia Cannon, Social Work


Key words: gay rights; organization theory; social action

On Friday, June 27, 1969, shortly before midnight, New York City detectives raided the Stonewall Inn, a small gay bar in Greenwich Village. As part of his platform for re-election during the mayoral campaign, Mayor John Lindsay had agreed to another police crackdown on gay bars. At that time, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn tended to be young men of color; many were also transvestites or runaways. This routine raid did not go smoothly because the crowd did not behave in the usual passive manner (D'Emilio, 1983). Rather, the patrons of the bar erupted in violence. Rioting continued into the next three nights. Crowds gathered constantly to watch and participate. The anger was evidently not just about that night or that arrest because cries of "Gay Power" were frequently heard. Word of the disruption spread quickly through the mainstream media and gay press, and the modern gay rights movement in the United States was born (Duberman, 1993).

What made it possible for this social movement to spring from this particular event? Scholars from various fields have attempted to understand the timing, antecedents, and expression of social action and collective protest against oppression. For example, in his analysis of the resurgence of American Indian power in the 1960s, Cornell (1988) asked why the political uprising of American Indians occurred at that time, rather than in earlier decades or centuries. Oppression, violence, and discrimination were certainly not new to these groups, so why did American Indian communities react strongly in the 1960s? Morris (1984) posed a similar question about the southern black civil rights movement, and D'Emilio (1983) did so in relation to the modern gay civil rights movement (a term used throughout to denote the actions of both gay men and lesbians).

With regard to the birth of the modern gay rights movement in 1969, perhaps the most appropriate question to consider is not "Why then?" but "How then?" As Humphreys (1972) argued, to ask why they remained unorganized for so long is to participate in a form of victim blaming, implying that gay men and lesbians are responsible in some way for their own oppression. Following Humphreys's focus on strengths rather than blame, I contend that it is important for social workers to study specific instances of successful resistance to societal discrimination to understand the genesis of social change. It is illuminating to concentrate on the processes through which the gay community mobilized power at a particular time and circumstance in the face of pervasive homophobia, stigma, and pressure.

According to both the Council on Social Work Education (1995) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 1994), the profession's purpose includes political action, empowerment of groups at risk, organizational advocacy, and the pursuit of social and economic justice. Community organizing to counter oppression is a central concern of social work because this method of intervention is congruent with the profession's code of ethics (Biklen, 1983; NASW, 1994). However, social workers learn little in formal professional education about how to "assist or participate in social protest that may relate to their field of work" (Biklen, 1983, p. 103) and may be more concerned about therapy as a mode of practice than about social change (Garvin & Cox, 1995). Fisher (1995) lamented that social action occurs most frequently outside the profession. In a survey of 353 practitioners in Washington State, Ezell (1994) found that fewer than I percent were full-time advocates, and only a fourth of those advocates participated in class advocacy. Therefore, social workers need to understand more fully the importance and role of social action as a method of empowering constituents.

Garvin and Cox (1995) described the place of social work community organizing in a long history of community organizing against oppression in the United States since the Civil War.

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