Volume 91, Issue 30

Wednesday, October 22, 1997

Suzuki side kick


Stonewall began a gay trend

By John Intini
Gazette Staff

On a cool New York night in 1969, years of torment, bottled-up by prejudice and discrimination against the gay community, exploded into an event that would initiate and revolutionize the gay rights movement, as well as the public perception of homosexuality in North America and around the world.

During the last week of June in '69, police and members of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board entered Stonewall, a lower-Manhattan gay bar, to allegedly look for violations of the alcohol control laws. The police had a warrant and since Stonewall was without a license to serve alcohol they were told to shut down the bar. Upon entering the bar the officers made a number of crude stereotypical comments and proceeded to systematically throw each of the patrons out of the bar. The difference between this event from other acts of discrimination against homosexuals during the '60s, was that in this instance, the gay community fought back.

"There had been bar raids before, but at this time other social forces converged on it," James Miller, professor of English and Modern Languages at Western, says. "Although it had local origins the event had a far greater impact."

The symbolic stand against discrimination quickly got violent as many of the angry patrons uprooted parking meters and barricaded the front door of the bar. A fire was set and the chant of gay power could be heard for blocks.

"Most of the rioters were Latino drag queens," Miller says. "They even led a parody of the riot line by forming a kick line. They proclaimed 'we are the girls of Stonewall' and turned the macho-police image that faced them into something hilarious."

Many people often attribute Stonewall as being the catalyst for all the events that followed in the '70s. In 1970, five Gay Liberation Fronts sprang up in New York as well as in other major cities in the United States. Gays decided that it was time to stand up for their rights and proceeded to have annual marches to celebrate the anniversary of the historic event.

"It was a symbolic movement and served to ignite the personal and collective resistance," Miller explains. "It was a sign that homosexuals in the communities were no longer putting up with the oppression."

Barry Adam, a sociology professor at the University of Windsor, as well as the author of a book on the gay rights political movement, says in many instances Stonewall caused a huge campus up-rising across Canada and the U.S., citing the emergence of campus groups in Toronto and Windsor in the early '70s.

"It was a whole change in common philosophy," Adam says. "A wave of militant and spirited student-based groups were sprouting up everywhere."

Adam also feels it is very important to understand the time in which the event occurred in order to fully comprehend the context of the event.

"It is important to understand the period of history were looking at," he stresses. "Students had already cut their teeth with the civil rights movement and were just getting into feminism which was at its early stages at the time. It was certainly a time of change."

Change was on many Torontonians' minds in 1980 when police raided three Toronto-area bath houses, arresting over 100 men. According to Adam, bath houses, which are notoriously known in the gay communities as places for men to meet other men, are set up like a country club with pools and exercise equipment – but they have a very different agenda.

"There are rooms in these houses for men to meet and have sex," Adam explains. "The country-club image is not exactly the main idea for these houses."

Historically, the name 'bath house' comes from the Turkish bath houses which, according to experts, were public places to bathe – even a place for men to meet each other in the Greco-Roman era.

The Toronto-area raids experienced a lot of heat since many felt it was a way for the conservative government in Ontario to get the votes of some of the electorate since it was nearing election time.

Adam feels the 'Toronto Bath Raids' were a smaller, but still very influential part of the gay rights movement stating the raids provided society with another chance to realize gay people are out there and deserve to be heard.

"The raids were certainly pre-Stonewall," Adam said. "Their importance was not in initiating the movement in Canada, but re-establishing the revolution which had become common-place and complacent."

According to Miller, the initial event in New York was simply a way of breaking out of a stereotype as a quiet docile group.

To Contact The Features Department: gazfeat@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997