OPINION: The 50 years before Stonewall were decades of violence

by James Polchin | New York University
Monday, 15 July 2019 08:19 GMT

A participant wears a Stonewall inn shirt during in the 2019 World Pride NYC and Stonewall 50th LGBTQ Pride parade in New York, U.S., June 30, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Before the Stonewall riots, gay and bisexual men who were attacked rarely reported the crimes to the police for fear of being arrested themselves

James Polchin is a writer, cultural historian and a professor at New York University. He is the author of “Indecent Advances: The Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising when gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender patrons at a Greenwich Village bar in New York City pushed back against the violence of a police raid.

It has become a pivotal moment in the political and social movement for LGBT+ rights. But as we celebrate this milestone, we are reminded almost daily how gay, bi and trans citizens continue to navigate prejudice and discrimination.

A report by the FBI shows a 17% increase in hate crimes directed against LGBT+ citizens in the U.S. in 2017 – the most recent year for which statistics are available. Similarly in Britain, one in five LGBT+ people experienced some form of hate crime in 2017.

The recent attack of two women on a London bus – the photograph of the bloody aftermath quickly went viral – was just one visible moment that gives these statistics a dramatic reality.

While many are looking at the 50 years since Stonewall, I have been researching crime stories of queer men assaulted and murdered in the 50 years before that historical event.

These stories, sometimes sensationalised on the front pages of the morning papers, sometimes as smaller, coded articles that only hinted at the queer subtext, were not uncommon in the U.S. press.

As so often is the case with stories of crime in the media, these stories were shaped, and amplified, by larger concerns of the era from immigration and civil rights, to the nature of masculinity and, most acutely in the Cold War years, fears of communists and socialists on the home front.

We witness in these stories accounts of brutal violence in which the victim was targeted for robbery – usually lured back to his apartment or hotel room only to be beaten or strangled to death. One man was found with a fractured jaw and skull. Another had been battered with a sharp object. Many were tied to their beds and torture and beaten to death.

The details are shockingly similar.

In the decades before Stonewall, sodomy was a felony in every state in the U.S., often punishable with lengthy prison terms.

Gay and bisexual men who were attacked rarely reported the crimes to the police for fear of being arrested themselves, as even the intention of committing sodomy was enough to bring charges. The perpetrators of more deadly violence often claimed self-defence in court, arguing that they were protecting themselves against an “indecent advance” of the victim – a euphemism the press often used that had salacious sexual and criminal connotations.  

These crime stories, many of which have never been read since they were first published, open a small window into an otherwise forgotten history about the dangers and the prejudices that LGBT+ citizens faced on the streets and in the justice system.

They also show us how violence and prejudice can take hold when you criminalise a group of people, harness the expertise of the medical and legal professions, and circulate these ideas through the press.

As I write, plans for straight Pride parades and rallies are in the works in cities across the United States.

It’s a ridiculous idea, and a sad symptom of our current political moment when nationalist rhetoric attempts to eradicate the historical realities of minority groups. 

Pride celebrations are meant to highlight how far we have come in our fight for equal rights since 1969. But they should also remind us how dangerous life was for LGBT+ citizens in the years before protest and outrage transformed the laws and public attitudes toward them.

This history is especially important as LGBT+ people are once again targets for all manner of attacks – on the street, in social media and by politicians. While the rhetoric and tactics may be different today, efforts to marginalise and criminalise gay, lesbian, bi and trans people have not disappeared.