As some U.S. lawmakers seek to ban books and censor U.S. history, a team of researchers are working to preserve the annals of more than 600 forgotten LGBTQ2S+ protests.
Marc Stein is a history professor at San Francisco State University and the lead researcher of a new study that’s providing a comprehensive analysis of LGBTQ2S+ demonstrations, marches, protests, rallies, riots and sit-ins during what many historians consider to be the most influential period of queer and trans activism in the United States.
Stein—who is the author of five books and has been collecting information about the LGBTQ2S+ civil rights movement since completing his PhD in 1994—says he expected to find a few dozen protests in a handful of states with big cities, like New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. But after he and his team scoured more than 1,800 old media reports, they were able to identify at least 646 direct-action events between 1965 and 1973 in 20 different states throughout the U.S.
“The sheer number of protests and the geographic spread were a big surprise to me,” Stein tells Xtra. “I don’t think I expected to find that many.”
According to the study, which was published jointly by the digital platforms OutHistory and Queer Pasts earlier this month, during that nine-year period, more than 200,000 people participated in direct action demonstrations across the country, and nearly 200 were arrested.
“We found that the most common target for protests were businesses. And maybe that’s not surprising, since we all know about Stonewall and LGBT bars,” Stein explains. “[People protested] a combination of businesses that discriminated against LGBT people in terms of customers and patronage, but then also businesses that practised employment discrimination.”
Misrepresentations of the Stonewall uprising include the common myth that Stonewall birthed the gay rights movement. Despite the sometimes distorted history, Stonewall is widely considered a watershed moment that transformed the fight for LGBTQ2S+ civil rights. But some historians, like Stein, suggest that giving Stonewall too much credit dismisses the hundreds of protests that took place in the years leading up to Stonewall.
“We keep going back to the same several-dozen protests, rather than expanding our understanding of the much broader, geographically broader, and chronologically broader, protests that occurred throughout the ’60s and ’70s,” Stein explains.
Some of these lesser-known protests include an October 1967 demonstration involving 25 people who protested Los Angeles’ gender-impersonation law, known as Rule No. 9. The legislation made it illegal for performers to “impersonate the opposite sex” without a special permit issued by the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners.
During the fall of 1967, police began to crack down on performers like Sir Lady Java, a Black trans woman from Louisiana who was a mainstay at the Redd Foxx Club. Police threatened to arrest the club’s owner if Java continued performing, which prompted a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a protest outside the nightclub.
At the rally, Java was photographed distributing picket signs and told a reporter for The Los Angeles Advocate, “The law is depriving me of my livelihood. I feel it’s unconstitutional.”
Unfortunately, the club’s owner, comedian Redd Foxx, was unwilling to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which meant that the case could not proceed, but Rule No. 9 was eventually struck down a year later by the California Supreme Court.
According to Stein, the frequency of these demonstrations and protests increased significantly in the months leading up to Stonewall.
“There started to be a younger generation and a more radical group of gay liberationists, many of whom were also connected to Black Power and antiwar activism who began protesting in new ways,” he explains.
One critical moment of community resistance was displayed at a 1969 demonstration organized by two activist organizations: the Mattachine Society of New York and the Daughters of Bilitis, against antigay vigilantism at a park in Kew Gardens, Queens.
About a week before Stonewall, historians say that more than 26 trees were mysteriously cut down after local residents complained that the park had become a hot spot for “rendezvous” between men.
A New York Times report from July 1, 1969, indicates that none of the residents would say who cut down the trees, but they did admit that a “vigilante committee” had been set up to “harass the homosexuals.”
The Times reported that throughout the summer, a group of 30 to 40 men, some of whom were from as far away as Pennsylvania and Connecticut, would come to the park with bright flashlights and harass the men who cruised the park for sex. This led to a demonstration on August 10, 1969, where approximately 50 to 100 people invaded the small park with lavender armbands and signs that declared “Homosexuals Have Rights—and So Do Trees.”
According to Stein, less than 50 of these protests have been studied in-depth by historians. Instead, he suggests that academics and the media have chosen to return to the same handful of protests rather than investigate others.
Stein has pledged to continue his research and is in the process of expanding the project to document protests from 1974 to 1976.
“We need more research on LGBTQ+ protests against hostile television programs and religious institutions, more studies of queer demonstrations against racism and sexism in gay bars, more investigations of activism that targeted prisons and schools, and more examinations of marches and rallies in smaller cities and towns,” Stein says. “The Stonewall riots were important, but so were hundreds of other protests.”