Reflections on the ripple effect of the Stonewall Rebellion and the ongoing fight for liberation

Images courtesy of Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies

This year marks the 50th anniversary of not only the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City, but also the founding of the Minnesota-based gay liberation group Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (F.R.E.E.). As we reflect on these episodes of activism at this important milestone, one of the greatest justices we can do for those who paved the way for us—and for ourselves—is to strive toward a generous and nuanced understanding of these queer and trans histories, and reflect on how they shape queer and trans liberation today.

Prior to the Stonewall Rebellion, groups of homosexuals had organized for over a decade within homophile groups like the Mattachine Society (founded in 1950 for men) and Daughters of Bilitis (founded in 1955 by and for women). These groups catalyzed a collective consciousness that homosexuals were “oppressed minorities” and they could lobby for collective acceptance from mainstream society and find community.

Taking a note from the enduring Civil Rights Movement around them, gays and lesbians began showing up on the picket lines protesting against employment discrimination in the mid-1960s. Simultaneously, bars frequented by gays were consistently subject to raids, leaving patrons vulnerable to police harassment, brutality, and arrest. Although homophile organizations emulated movements led by people of color, the social spaces they provided and their general goals of seeking acceptance into straight society often did not benefit those who were not white and middle-class.

Queer people in the Twin Cities also faced discrimination. Bars were raided and gay people were beaten or killed with little or no protection provided by straight society, including the police. On May 18, 1969, Koreen Phelps and Stephen Ihrig began teaching a class through the Free University, a series of informal community-led courses developed by radical University of Minnesota students in 1968, hosted at the Coffeehouse Extempore in the hippie West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis near the University of Minnesota. With approximately 100 in attendance, Phelps and Ihrig sparked a movement in Minneapolis. Ihrig described the class attendees as a mix of the crowd who visited Sutton’s, a popular gay bar downtown, some hippies and street kids, and university students. Phelps remembered people were afraid to come out; some disagreed on how acceptance from straight society could be won. 

An early flyer for F.R.E.E. // via the Tretter Collection

Phelps’ philosophy was molded by her time in San Francisco interacting with the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) and Committee for Homosexual Freedom (CHF). Both of these organizations called on gay people to come out publicly, assuring them that, with support, straight men and women would eventually get to know them and develop compassion and acceptance. CHF provided legal help and pickets for those who were discriminated against for coming out. Homophile organizations spread from the West to the East, thanks to similar efforts by people like Randy Wicker, Barbara Gittings, and Kay Tobin, who were homophile activists on the East Coast. Wicker was one of many gay men and women who asserted gay people were like straight people and should be accepted into straight middle-class society, though this goal was unachievable and even undesirable for many queer and trans people.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were both considered gender transgressors and, as people of color and trans people, were excluded from the agenda of homophile organizations. Johnson was a sex worker and used drugs, as did Rivera, who also struggled with homelessness. Both experienced police harassment and brutality—as did many people who did not dress the way straight society assumed they should (including butch women, trans men, feminine men, and various other expressions of gender nonconformity). 

The evidence something more needed to be done came on the night of June 28, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn for the second night in a row. That night, the police did not get the monetary payoff they expected from patrons; in response, they harassed and arrested those individuals who were “cross-dressing.” Fed up, patrons outside the bar, including Rivera and Johnson, began throwing various forms of debris at the police, including coins as their “payoff.” They were joined by other queer and trans people in Greenwich Village, both that night and the following days as the rebellion continued.

Film strip from an early F.R.E.E. meeting in St. Paul // via the Tretter Collection

For Koreen Phelps in Minnesota, the news of the rebellion became legend almost immediately. Phelps, Ihrig, and the other gay people who were attending “The Homosexual Revolution” class started F.R.E.E., with the objectives to provide a community for gay people, to educate straight society about gay people, and to fight discrimination through direct action and legislative measures. 

Back in New York City, in the wake of the Stonewall Rebellion, Johnson and Rivera led the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to uplift trans people who were struggling in poverty. Rivera and other trans people in the coming years would be admonished by cisgender gays and lesbians who claimed “cross-dressing” was harming the movement and was anti-feminist. Meanwhile, trans people and impoverished gays and lesbians were being left behind in the progress that followed the Stonewall Rebellion. In New York, Minneapolis, and across the country, debates over tactics and “radicalism” in the movement left activists divided. F.R.E.E. would split into other groups by 1971, two years after its founding, due to such debates.

Pride Day March June 28, 1975 // via the Tretter Collection

A little over a decade after the founding of F.R.E.E. and the Stonewall Rebellion, the AIDS crisis ravaged LGBTQ+ people, people of color, sex workers, and intravenous drug users. As the government and medical industry ignored mass deaths, activists in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Treatment Action Group (TAG) had no choice but to put aside differences and work together to mobilize through legislative lobbying, scientific experimentation, caregiving and spiritual healing, and direct action. After collective efforts, the most privileged were able to access treatment and turned their sights on marriage equality. Yet many groups were left behind, still struggling in the wake.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and F.R.E.E., the fight for collective liberation is still continuing. It is a present-day battle for many, and those who feel fully liberated by this movement should remember that they are privileged to feel so. 

Consider that LGBTQ+ immigrants face deportation; transgender women of color are murdered at an alarming rate with little action from straight society or cisgender gays and lesbians; queer and transgender people of color face police brutality in Minneapolis and countrywide; sex workers are increasingly unsafe under new oppressive legislation; homelessness for queer youth is ever prevalent; and incarcerated queer and transgender people face violence, humiliation, and neglect while in prison. Is there Pride in ignoring or marginalizing these struggles?

Pride recalls a rebellion against the orderly, against the establishment, and is led by the least privileged among us. Pride still belongs to those willing to fight for it.

Noah Barth is the producer and director of FREE You: Minnesota’s Fight for Gay Liberation.