Before Stonewall, decades of West Coast queer activism helped build a movement

From The San Francisco Chronicle:  https://datebook.sfchronicle.com/art-exhibits/before-stonewall-decades-of-queer-west-coast-activism-helped-build-a-movement

Ryan Kost
June 25, 2019

This is how we tell the story: On a warm summer night, 50 years ago, almost to the day, a Greenwich Village bar rowdy with hustlers and queens and queer people of all sorts got rowdier still when police came to raid the place. A crowd gathered outside. There were 100 people, and then 200, and then 500 or 600, each new person adding to the tension. A woman in handcuffs shouted at them all. Why don’t you guys do something? And so they did. Bricks went flying, or maybe it was shot glasses, and riots raged at the Stonewall Inn for two nights.

This, we say, is how the modern gay-rights movement began. And now this year, we celebrate the riot’s 50th anniversary as we celebrate Pride.

But that’s not really how history works, all nice and neat with clear-cut beginnings and endings. Stonewall was not the first riot like it, and neither were the organizations that grew from it the first of their kind. Stonewall was more like “the crest of the wave, rather than the beginning of a wave,” as historian Susan Stryker put it. The movement had been gathering itself up for decades before that.

A couple of weeks ago, queer historians made their way to San Francisco for a queer history conference. Historian Marc Stein spoke at the event. He’s written much about Stonewall, and for this occasion, he hoped to tie that event to California, in part, by contextualizing what came before it. The Berkeley Barb, an underground newspaper, wrote about Stonewall not long after it happened, he said. They congratulated New York City on “joining the revolution.”

“You know every year at Pride, we hear the narrative that everything began with Stonewall,” Stein said later over the phone. So it’s been an annual ritual for historians, at least as far back as the ’70s, he said, to push back on that. To talk about a movement that began in the ’50s, and one that could also trace its roots to Europe decades before that.

“Social movements are complicated, right?” he said. “And understanding the longer history of LGBT resistance and activism, I think helps us appreciate that the struggle is a long one, and it’s one that takes many shapes and forms over a long period of time.”

Before Stonewall, there were protests at the Black Cat Tavern on Sunset Boulevard (’67); and before them a riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, an all-night diner in San Francisco’s Tenderloin (’66), and before that a protest outside a restaurant called Dewey’s in Philadelphia (’65); and before that a riot at Cooper Do-nuts in downtown Los Angeles (’59).

Each of these is a piece of a “bigger more complicated story. We can’t sew things up neatly,” says Stryker, the historian who is credited with rediscovering the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. “I’m also weary of ‘Stonewall wasn’t the first, it was actually Compton’s. Oh no, it wasn’t Compton’s it was Dewey’s. Oh no it was Cooper Do-Nut, oh it wasn’t Cooper Do-Nut, it was this thing we never heard of.’

“So firsts are not significant for me. For me what we’re seeing in the post-World War II years is this really different way relating identity to bodies politic to rights and citizenship, there’s new ways of thinking about the kind of person you can be.”

Much of that thinking began in San Francisco.

Continue reading at:  https://datebook.sfchronicle.com/art-exhibits/before-stonewall-decades-of-queer-west-coast-activism-helped-build-a-movement

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