Stonewall anniversary: Rainbow capitalism or LGBTQ liberation?
Left: Gay Liberation Front members marching on Times Square, Fall 1969. | Diana Davies / NYPL. Right: The illuminated Stonewall Inn sign. | Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on June 28, 2019 the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.

The rainbow-emblazoned corporate swag has been ordered, the gay and lesbian employees dispatched to New York. The floats are all designed and constructed, ready to roll down Fifth Avenue—colorful billboards advertising just how LGBT friendly T-Mobile, MasterCard, TD Bank, Delta Air Lines, and other sponsors are these days.

Muscle boys, drag queen celebrities, and “unconventional” families will fill the streets while up to four million people cheer them along. Politicians will be on hand, proving their progressive credentials. And the New York Police Department promises to keep everyone safe and ensure a good time is had by all.

Fifty years ago, on June 28, 1969, when a bar named the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village became ground zero for the modern gay rights movement, there were, of course, no corporate sponsors. No political allies in positions of power. And rather than keeping people safe, police officers were beating and harassing them.

That’s the night that a band of fed-up queers stood up, fought back, and launched a liberation struggle that transformed the world. With Black and Latina trans sex workers and drag queens in the vanguard, the patrons of the Stonewall—and much of the Christopher Street neighborhood—declared they’d no longer submit to the genital inspections, arrests, and assaults that were regularly meted out by the “Public Morals Squad” of the mafia-corrupted NYPD.

The confrontation that started in the bar spilled onto the streets, with battles raging for several nights. The first pride was, quite literally, a riot.

Gay Liberation

There had been bursts of gay activism before Stonewall, but what set it apart was the sustained and politically conscious mobilization that came in its wake. A militant movement arose out of what appeared to be a purely spontaneous uprising. But in many ways, the time was simply right for a gay liberation struggle.

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Revolution of the African-American people was scoring major victories, women were demanding equality, anti-colonial struggles were sweeping the world, and the small country of Vietnam was fighting for survival against the world’s biggest imperialist power. Oppressed peoples were in motion everywhere—the Stonewall Inn was where gays joined the fight.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, leaders during the Stonewall rebellion.

In the days immediately following the Stonewall riots, the Gay Liberation Front appeared on the scene, its name a deliberate tribute to the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front. The new GLF did not restrict itself to fighting only homophobia and discrimination—it targeted the whole capitalist and imperialist system, along with all of its enforced sexual and gender norms. Its goal was nothing less than the creation of a new society. The activists of the GLF declared:

“We are a revolutionary homosexual group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished. We reject society’s attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature. We are stepping outside these roles and simplistic myths. We are going to be who we are. At the same time, we are creating new social forms and relations, that is relations based upon brotherhood, cooperation, human love, and uninhibited sexuality…. We identify ourselves with all the oppressed: the Vietnamese struggle, the third world, the Blacks, the workers…all those oppressed by this rotten, dirty, vile, fucked-up capitalist conspiracy.”

The fire and fierceness of their call for solidarity recalled the words of Marxist revolutionary V.I. Lenin, who had said that “working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected.”

The parallels between the GLF’s statement and Marxist theory are understandable when you look at its pre-history. The first gay rights group in the U.S., the Mattachine Society, had been founded by activists who got their political and ideological training in the Communist Party USA in the 1930s and ’40s. They were led by Harry Hay, a California CP member forced out of the party during the McCarthy Red Scare days of blackmail and suppression.

By the time of Stonewall, Mattachine had become a suits-and-ties prototype for middle-class homosexual respectability. The revolutionary outlook of Hay and the early Communist-linked Mattachine members was revived in the GLF and other organizations, however, and injected with a huge dose of youthful militancy.

Dozens of GLF chapters popped up in the U.S. and other countries. Campaigns were launched against anti-gay media outlets, with protests outside the offices of many major newspapers. Annual protests commemorating Stonewall were organized to demand the social and sexual transformation of society; they eventually became the Pride Parades we know today.  The biggest victory of the period was the campaign pushing the American Psychiatric Association to reverse its designation of homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973.

Links were forged with other radical groups, including the Black Panther Party, as well as members from socialist and left-labor formations. Maoists, Trotskyists, social democrats, and others—almost always without the blessings of their parties—took on leading roles in GLF. The CPUSA, although it had been the incubator of the earliest gay liberationists, stood aloof during this time, unwilling to back away from its stance that gay liberation was a “diversion” from real struggles, a “psychological problem…based on the bourgeois concept of manhood.” It was another 30 years before the party came out fully in support of LGBTQ rights and equality.

“Gays Against the War” contingent in a protest during the Vietnam War, 1971. | Diana Davies / New York Public Library

But the long-buried history of early 20th-century socialist homosexual activism was recovered. Sherry Wolf’s 2009 book Sexuality and Socialism documents this moment of awakening and bourgeoning socialist consciousness. The movement became aware of not only its roots but also developed a structural understanding of oppression. Friedrich Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State was widely studied.

The family as it exists in capitalist society came to be understood not as some natural and timeless phenomenon, but rather as a social institution that developed at a particular moment in the history of the earliest class struggles—it was the first sign of oppression and class division.

The Chicago chapter of GLF declared:

“Our particular struggle is for sexual self-determination, the abolition of sex-role stereotypes and the human right to the use of one’s body without interference from the legal and social institutions of the state. Many of us have understood that our struggle cannot succeed without a fundamental change in society which will put the source of power (means of production) in the hands of the people who at present have nothing…. As our struggle grows, it will be made clear by the changing objective conditions that our liberation is inextricably bound to the liberation of all oppressed people.”

Revolution gives way to assimilation

Liberationists saw the oppression of sexual minorities as inevitably bound up with the political and socio-economic superstructure of capitalism. Gaining recognition by heterosexual society or integrating into its sexual and relationship norms—assimilation—was not high on the list of their concerns.

With the onset of the prolonged economic crisis in the late 1970s, however, many movements born in the social upsurges of the post-war years entered a time of retrenchment. Conservative political forces were on the ascent, and neoliberal economics eclipsed the period of social reform. Resurgent capitalist power put a check on all freedom movements—whether of the labor, national, racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual variety.

For gays and lesbians, the 1980s brought a focus on relationship recognition and equality under the law. The AIDS crisis forced issues like hospital visitation rights, decision-making authority for medical treatments, funerals, inheritance, and other issues to the top of the agenda.

Quite understandably in hindsight, the general thrust of the gay freedom movement (just like many others) began to shift. The growing backlash of Christian and other conservative organizations against gay and lesbian visibility reinforced the turn of activist energies toward legal recognition and a liberal rights discourse.

An assimilationist agenda came to overshadow the liberationist thrust that had characterized the earlier gay and lesbian movement. Radical organizations still existed, and at times asserted themselves forcefully, such as Queer Nation and Act Up. But by the late 1990s, queer theorist Michael Warner was lamenting the “normalizing” effect that the search for respectability and public acceptance was having on queer politics. (The term “gay,” which had at first been understood to mean men and women, had been increasingly widening over the years to encompass more diversity within the community—lesbian and gay, GLBT, LGBTQ, queer, and other broader acronyms and terms.)

Marriage rights and an end to discrimination became the dominant demands of the movement. Social revolution was traded in for a form of “rainbow capitalism” that could accommodate many demands for equality but stopped short of questioning the fundamentals of the socioeconomic system.

Post-liberation, post-assimilation?

Returning to the pride parade and advertising campaigns happening this weekend, having corporations show off their acceptance of LGBTQ employees plays some positive role, to be sure. A new survey shows around half of LGBTQ Americans are still not out at work, so anything that changes an atmosphere that forces people to hide in the closet is a positive in at least some respects (the corporate hunt for “pink dollars” notwithstanding).

But developments suggest many LGBTQ people and their allies are looking for something more. LGBTQ politics today are in a transitional period. Many victories have been won—like marriage equality and others—but there is a sense among many activists that the fight for LGBTQ freedom has to again look beyond legal rights and regulations.

The Queer Liberation March will take place at the same time as the main corporate-sponsored Pride Parade in NYC. | Reclaim Pride Coalition

Taking up a materialist analysis, we find U.S. society once more in a period of rapid social change. The Great Recession that started in 2008 has upset the dynamics of capitalism. The technological and communications revolution is rapidly altering the way we work and live. Climate change and nuclear war have put existential questions on the table.

And that is reflected in activism, too. From Black Lives Matter to the Women’s Marches to the rising interest in socialism, people are once more hoping to achieve more than just tinkering with the status quo.

The same is true for LGBTQ politics. Alongside the pride parade, another march is taking place in Manhattan this weekend—one which recalls the goals of the Stonewall activists.

The Reclaim Pride Coalition is organizing the Queer Liberation March, “a people’s political march” rather than a parade. They will be marching “against neoliberalism and the ascendance of the far right, against poverty and economic inequality, against U.S. military aggression, and against climate change”—goals that are much bigger than a rainbow logo hanging from their bank’s front window.

The world, as Engels said, “is a complex of processes, in which things apparently stable…go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away, in which in spite of all seeming accidentality and of all temporary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself in the end.”

The ideas of Stonewall live again, in a new and updated form, and the struggle for liberation keeps marching forward.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.