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Posted By Subaltern Queer

Police Attack at Stonewall

Today marks the fifty-first anniversary of the beginning of the Stonewall 'event' in Greenwich Village that lasted until the 3rd of July 1969. Almost a week's worth of protests. On the 4th of July 1969, American Independence Day, the Mattachine Society held its 'Annual Reminder' of the oppression against what we now call the LGBTQ+ community in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

The term 'riot' is often used to describe Stonewall, though one could term it an 'uprising' or a 'rebellion'. Note how even the terminology makes it sound like these folks were 'criminals'. In most people's minds, they were criminals. Their criminality is the focus of today's post. I will be writing about a different aspect of Stonewall each day through July 4th.

Simply the way in which the Stonewall Inn operated tells you quite a bit about how the LGBTQ+ community was viewed by society. The bar was owned by the mafia and had no liquor license, which meant that each week a police officer picked up an envelope of cash (called 'gayola' rather than payola) as a bribe. At the door, there was a peephole through which the bouncer examined everyone entering. You needed either to be a regular or 'look gay'. The goal was not to keep out the 'straights'; the goal was to watch out for the police.

You might wonder: was the place run by the mafia because no one else would have been willing to take on the perpetual danger of running a bar for gays that included dancing (which, to turn the old Evangelical joke around, might lead to sex)? Or did the bar operate without a license because, well, who was going to give a liquor license to a gay bar? Deep philosophical questions. 

Despite the gayola, police raids on Stonewall happened about once a month. They were such a regular thing that there was an established signal--turning on all of the lights--to warn that the police were there. Dancing and any kind of 'touching' were immediately to cease. As it turns out, there had already been a raid on Stonewall only four days before the one that turned into something famous.

The whole bit about the peephole makes it sound like a speakeasy. Except that Prohibition ended in 1933. In 1969, it was quite legal for people 18 and over to drink alcohol. However, it was quite illegal--in all but one of the states--for gay people of any age to have sex. So much for the 'Land of the Free'.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Paragraph 175 was used by the Nazis to send thousands of gay men to the camps. But those men, once 'liberated' by American and Russian soliders, were often sent back to prison since homosexual acts of virtually any kind were still criminal. Just looking at someone in a way that suggested sexual attraction was a crime. You didn't need to perform an actual sex 'act' to count as a 'criminal'. Just the desire made you criminal enough.

The draconian additions to Paragraph 175 were removed by the East Germans in 1950 and homosexuality was decrimininalized in 1957. Meanwhile, in 'free' West Germany, those Nazi prohibitions remained in full force. About 50,000 men were sent to prison between 1945 and 1969, when Paragraph 175 was severely limited (though not removed). Only the re-unification of Germany resulted in its full removal in 1994.

In case you're thinking--"at least we're not like the Germans"--it should be pointed out that Oscar Wilde did two years of hard labor for his homosexual crimes. You might say "oh, but that was the 19th century! We're modern now." You'll have to excuse me for mentioning Alan Turing, who was prosecuted in 1952 for his homosexuality. The Brits used a bonafide Nazi technique to 'cure' him: castration. Turing died in 1954 of cyanide poisoning, which may have been accidental but the official ruling was suicide. You can hardly blame Turing.

It's hard to believe that Turing, who was so brilliant and influential in helping end WWII, could have been treated so badly. But one must not forget that he was 'just a criminal' and so he could be treated any way 'society' dictated that criminals should be treated. Fortunately, the Brits did to their senses and officially 'pardoned' the approximately 50,000 men who had been prosecuted in the UK for homosexual crimes. But that was only in 2017.

The situation was hardly any better in the United States. Prior to 1962, sodomy was a felony in all fifty states. For those not familiar with such American criminal terminology, the maximum prison sentence for a 'misdemeanor' is a year, whereas a felony can put you away for a lifetime. It was the pioneering state of Illinois (where Wheaton College is located) that first did away with laws against 'consensual sodomy' (gotta love that terminology--I'm sure they do at Wheaton).

That meant that it was still illegal in forty-nine states and remained so for about a decade. Slowly, state-by-state, that began to change. In 2003, the Supreme Court struck down the sodomy law in Texas and thus in the remaining states (quite a significant segment of American society). In passing, it's worth mentioning that Virginia only made sex among unmarried people legal in 2005. Just think of all those fornicators who weren't just immoral but criminal.

One might think that the 2003 ruling would have been the end of criminalizing homosexuality. But one would be wrong. The list of the various states that slowly made changes to their laws in accord with that 2003 ruling would be far too long to include here. Yet the fact that Maryland only appealed its sodomy laws in May 2020 tells you something. By the way, that repeal doesn't take effect until October 2020. Only a few months to go!

In my posts to follow, I will be considering the intersection between the LGBTQ+ community's fight not merely to be accepted but no longer to be considered to be as criminals with the current Black Lives Matter struggles. While there is always a danger in equating things that are not exactly the same, it is often helpful to see similarities.

I remember trying to explain to wealthy, mainly white and suburban college students that one of the reasons why so few students at wealthy, white, suburban high schools were caught possessing drugs was that there were few, if any, police officers present to catch them. In contrast, students at poor, black, inner-city high schools are often highly policed and monitored.

Heavy police presence at inner-city schools is an important part of the current move to 'defund the police'. But consider simply how the supposedly neutral 'comparison' sets things up. The adjective 'inner-city' is code for 'predominantly black'.

Few white people would answer affirmatively a survey question that bold-facedly asked: "do you think that word 'black' implies 'criminal'?" But the connection in their mind is likely not that far from the connections between the words 'homosexual' and 'criminal' back in 1969.


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