From Stonewall to Antifa: A Half Century of Bashing Back

Above: the White Night riots, San Francisco, 1979

We have been lined up in front of a firing squad and it is called AIDS. We must riot!
Larry Kramer, “Call to Riot”, 1990

Just a few weeks after the election of Donald Trump, Fabian Braithwaite of Out magazine made a call for a “Queer militant movement” to resist the president and his homophobic allies. While Braithwaite mentioned the nonviolent civil disobedience of ACTUP! as inspiration, this wasn’t his primary model—Instead the editor saw the more forceful and anarchistic Bash Back! movement as a lodestar for queer uprising. Braithwaite acknowledged that Bash Back’s program of “ultra-violence” and ruthless revolt was far removed from the discourse of loving martyrdom which the LGBT movement had cultivated in the Obama years; But the editor also noted that this placid and paternalistic image exacted costs on people’s dignity.

Being constantly referred to as ‘vulnerable’ leaves one feeling helpless and like a victim,” he wrote, “It’s important to remember that queer people have had a long history of fighting.” Literally, physically, fighting.

Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil rights movement”, Ta-Nehesi Coates once noted. That dynamic extended into the gay liberation struggle as well. We’ve all heard of the Stonewall riots of 1969, but how many of us recognize the kind of chaos they unleashed? In the early morning of June 28, the New York City Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn, one of the most popular gay bars in the city, and one of the few to admit transgender people. Numerous patrons and employees were arrested under indecency laws, and onlookers in the gay community gathered to jeer at police officers. Arrestees began to scuffle with police and the crowd began to throw bottles and other objects. After being incited by a lesbian arrestee, Storme’ DeLaverie, the crowd exploded into a full-scale riot. Most of the police retreated inside the Stonewall, and the crowd responded by setting it on fire and trying to drive the police out. When NYPD reinforcements arrived, fighting spread throughout Greenwich Village and cars were overturned by rioters to block off Christopher Street. Street battles and arsons continued for four more nights.[1]

The combativeness of Stonewall set the tone for the movement, whose primary slogan was “Gay power.” Previously gay rights had been advocated in a moderate style by groups such as the Mattachine Society. After the riots, Mattachine activist Dick Leitsch acknowledged that that “perhaps confrontation politics can win the reforms traditional politics could not for us…If reforms are not made, it could be a long hot summer.” * Mattachine’s attempt to organize the Stonewall veterans fell apart because organizers refused to concede to the street kids’ demand to declare solidarity with the Black Panther Party, fearing that the move would alienate liberal politicians. The young militants broke with Mattachine decisively and formed the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). According to historian David Eisenbach, GLF “accommodated nineteen cells, twelve-consciousness raising groups…and a rifle club.” [2]

This militancy paralleled the development of “gay pride”, a determination to obtain respect—but not necessarily acceptance—from the heterosexual community. On the eve of the first Pride march, GLF organizer Bob Kohler declared to the mainstream press, “you can scream fag all you want, and we’ll say ‘fuck you.’ Because we don’t care anymore. We don’t want anybody’s acceptance. We’ve begun to stand up by ourselves.” The march attracted thousands of participants, whereas as earlier Mattachine demonstrations in New York had only attracted dozens.[3]

Even in subsequent years, threatening confrontations continued to play a role in advancing LGBT rights. The Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) was conceived by Morty Manford and other activists as a less radical alternative to the GLF, but its tactics were sometimes just as militant. In the course of his 1971 campaign to establish a gay student lounge at Columbia University, Manford led scuffles with security guards and a dean. The dean negotiated with Manford because he “feared that campus radicals might suddenly rally to the gay rights cause and storm the building…in spring of 1968, students had held him hostage in that same office.” Columbia’s recognition of gays marked the first time a major American institution officially acknowledged that homosexuals were a legitimate minority group.[4]

In 1972, GAA raided the Inner Circle theatre festival in order to protest homophobic editorials in The New York Daily News—editors of which helped organized the elite event. This provoked fistfights with police and firefighters that resulted in the severe beating of Morty Manford. The incident brought major media attention to the issue of homophobia, and prompted Manford’s mother Joanne to found the original chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). According to David Eisenbach, GAA’s reputation for bringing violence and negative publicity to events gave them leverage in negotiating with the Association for the Advancement of Behavioral Therapy, which had previously refused to contemplate the harmful effects of conversion therapy for gays and lesbians, and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which had classified homosexuality as a pathology until it reversed itself in 1974.[5] Forceful disruption continued to be part of GAA’s repertoire up through its dissolution in 1978.

The decline of street organizations like GAA came largely as a response to queers being absorbed into the political establishment. The epitome of that trend was Harvey Milk, the charismatic San Francisco politician; when Milk’s assassination and the 1979 acquital of his murderer Dan White seemed to signal a betrayal by the establishment, the movement returned to its militant roots without hesitation. The priority for San Francisco queers in the face of White’s impunity wasn’t a legal or electoral challenge, it was ferocious direct action. The White Night riots were the largest LGBT uprising since Stonewall, and actually surpassed June of ‘69 in the chaos unleashed. Beginning as a vigil, the rage of the gay community quickly escalated into an arson attack on City Hall. By the time it was over, 61 police officers and 100 civilians were hospitalized. Much as in the aftermath of Stonewall, moderate queers stood by the rioters. When Dianne Feinstein pressured gays to apologize, Harry Britt, Milk’s replacement on the City Council, replied:

Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for. Now society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with the Dan Whites anymore.

Some conservative gays feared that such defiance would backfire. They were greatly mistaken– Instead, Feinstein ran on a gay rights platform and her administration proceeded to reign in some of the more severe police abuses against the queer community. The first national gay march on Washington took place that summer, with a turnout of nearly 100,000.

***

The new phase is terrorism . . . I don’t know whether it means burning buildings, or killing people or setting fire to yourselves. . .
Larry Kramer, quoted in The Los Angeles Times, June 20, 1990

Just a few weeks after Out magazine made its call for a revival of Bash Back!, the great Antifa controversy of 2017 began. Besides the massive J20 disruptions of Trump’s inauguration, that winter saw forceful obstructions of transphobic Alt-righter Milo Yiannoupolous’ tour of state colleges. Conservatives cried “left-wing fascism”, and Trump threatened to defund universities. More surprisingly, liberal leaders chose to ingratiate and imitate the reactionaries rather than defy them. Even liberal queers denounced the tactics used against Milo and the Alt-Right, failing to recognize that these same methods were used to carve out the freedoms which they now take for granted. This amnesia led to some embarrassing ironies: one of the loudest Bay Area critics of the Milo disruption, artist-academic Bob Ostertag, had made his name with a sound-collage celebration of a 1991 LGBT riot which had used almost identical tactics. Anti-fascist youth demonstrations were often dominated by queer blocs, yet the solidarity and backbone of Harry Britt and Dick Leitsch were completely absent from the new queer establishment. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the federal government is now emboldened to dismantle LGBT legal protections.

Liberal critics of queer rebellion and anti-fascism believe they can point to recent years as a case of liberation without force. Instead, they say, it was the martyrdom of AIDS and the new respectability politics that advanced gay rights.[6] But we can be sure that veteran politicians and elite decision-makers have never forgotten the queer insurrections of the 70s, particularly when groups like Bash Back! have been there to remind them.

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  1. David Eisenbach, Gay Power: An American Revolution (Da Capo Press, 2007), p. 117-119
  2. Eisenbach, Gay Power, p. 127
  3. Eisenbach, Gay Power, p. 109-111
  4. Eisenbach, Gay Power, p. 215-219
  5. Eisenbach, Gay Power, p. 183-201
  6. Bash Back! themselves were contemptuous of same-sex marriage (regarding it as “statist” and “homonormative“), but that distinction was lost on most of the non-LGBT world, particularly when Bash Back! often targeted groups which were campaigning against gay marriage. Sociologists have documented that the threatening posture of the Nation of Islam and other Black nationalists in the 1960s functioned as a “radical flank” to spur racial integration efforts, even though the nationalists themselves were explicitly opposed to integration. Similarly, the Bash Back! movement, whatever its intentions, most likely functioned as the radical flank of the gay marriage campaigns.