The Stonewall Riots weren’t the beginning of the gay civil rights movement — they weren’t even the first gay riots in the United States. And when the plainclothes police officers walked in the Stonewall Inn at 2 a.m. and shut down the bar, it was the second time they’d raided the bar that week.
For many of the rioters — who, when the police tried to arrest the drag queens and butch lesbians in the bar, showered them with coins, then cobblestones, then one uprooted parking meter — the night was a reaction, not a revolution. “We were being denied a place to dance together,” wrote Thomas Lanigan-Smith, a veteran of the riots. “Nobody thought of it as history.” But for the gay civil rights organizers of the 1950s and 1960s — who for two decades staged sit-ins and marched on picket lines of only five or 10 or 15 people, because that’s how many gay men and lesbians were willing to be publicly gay on the entire East Coast — the riot was a flashpoint.
“What made Stonewall possible was the decades of political organizing before it,” says Jason Baumann, coordinator of LGBT Collections at the New York Public Library. He’s spent the last three years curating the library’s current exhibit, Love & Resistance — a collection of photography, flyers, and political ephemera from the first three decades of the gay civil rights movement. The NYPL’s Gay and Lesbian Collection is the largest of its kind — home to the archives of two of the first out lesbian photojournalists, Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies, as well as many of the country’s largest gay rights organizations. Pulling exclusively from that collection, the exhibit pieces together the patchwork of protests, night clubs, magazines, and personal acts of resistance that defined the first thirty years of the gay civil rights movement.
He hopes the exhibit helps to place the Stonewall Riots (also called the Stonewall Uprising) in the decades-long arc of gay civil rights activism. By the time the riots erupted, homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis had been picketing employment offices, holding panel discussions, distributing newsletters and building grassroots networks for almost 20 years. “They sacrificed everything to be political people,” Baumann says, and because of that groundwork, “that moment [Stonewall] was able to be caught, and turned into a major political event.” Documenting activism when simply being out was a radical act, he hopes visitors walk away with a greater understanding of how one relatively ordinary Friday night became the pivotal moment for a civil rights movement.
The exhibit runs until July 13th on the third floor of the Bryant Park Library in New York City.