It’s a hot, early summer night in New York City. The date: June 28th, 1969. The air outside is thick in that way only NYC humidity can make it. Inside the Stonewall Inn, it’s a similar kind of humidity, this time not coming from weather but from bodies. There aren’t many places in New York City for people of a certain kind to gather and dance, but the Stonewall is one. Those certain kind of people? Gay men, lesbians, transgender people and other marginalized folks.
As we know, the events of that night in June at the Stonewall Inn changed history. And there’s a new podcast series that explains the history behind that night.
Because of how we tell the story, some people believe that the riot at the Stonewall that night was the start of the fight for LGBTQ equality. But as the episodes of Wondery’s American History Tellers show us, Stonewall was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. To understand what happened that night, you have to go back. There are easily 20 years’ worth of history before that night in 1969 that you need to understand.
In the first episode of the Stonewall series, entitled “Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary,” we learn more about the pre-1960s life of the LGBTQ community. The show’s host, Lindsay Graham (not that one) opens the episode by setting the scene with a second person POV story. It’s the night of the first Stonewall riot. And after the police come in to raid the bar, Graham then flips the script, taking us further back in time to illustrate how we got to that night.
As the podcast explains, life for members of the LGBTQ community before Stonewall happened behind closed doors. Back then, there weren’t many bars where people could be themselves. Meaning, people couldn’t live their lives out in the open because they could lose everything. But inside of that small building on Christopher Street, being who you are was more than okay. You could be with people just like you without fear of judgment. When the outside world actively hates you, having a relatively safe space to exist is life saving.
But why did they have to live in secret? In post-World War II America, gay people, especially men, lived on the fringe of society. Being gay was more dangerous than it is now, if you can believe it. Being gay was criminalized indirectly through things like sodomy laws. In New York, if you weren’t wearing three pieces of clothing that matched your legal gender, you could be arrested. Even consensual sex between two men could lead to arrest and imprisonment.
Arrests at bars like Stonewall led to papers printing names. Printing names could lead to job loss or even worse. Because they could lose everything, fear of being outed forced gay men underground. In 1950, a man named Harry Hay formed the Mattachine Society. It wasn’t just for gay men, though much of the group were white gay men in their 30s and younger. To avoid outing the group’s members, they chose the name Mattachine after the Société Mattachine, a medieval French masked group. The masked group was a group that openly spoke against social issues, as did the original Mattachine Society. The name was ambiguous enough that the group could exist with minimal red flags.
Mattachine wasn’t just an activism group. It was also a social group where gay men and lesbians could be around other people like them in a safe space. Even within the safety of the group, anonymity was paramount. “Because Hay and the other members still feared being publicly ‘outed’ as gay, they stayed anonymous at Mattachine gatherings,” Graham explains. “No one knew whose house they were at, and except for a chosen few, no members even knew who was in charge.”
“Society meetings were a cross between a fraternal order and a support group. Discussions focused on members coming to terms with their own sexuality, and about how best to spread awareness through the straight community. Early goals included job placement and legal help, retirement homes for elderly gay people and centers for gay street kids.”
A couple years after the formation of Mattachine, two lesbians in San Francisco formed a similar group for women, Daughters of Bilitis. Much like Mattachine their name was purposely obscure. Originating from a book of poetry “Song of Bilitis,” written by a lover of Sappho, the DOB was founded by Del Martin and her partner Phyllis Lyon.
“Women needed privacy, not only from the watchful eye of the police, but from gaping tourists in the bars and from inquisitive parents and families,” Martin and Lyon asserted. They understood that women needed their own space away from men to congregate with other women. Places like Stonewall offered a place to dance; however, safety was always the issue. One of their main reasons for meeting was simply to dance, as same sex dancing in public was illegal. But of course, it eventually became more than that.
Throughout the episode, Graham delves further into how the country at large–but mainly the field of psychology’s views of homosexuality–really shape perceptions. “Doctors used electric shock, emotional manipulation, and in many cases, lobotomies on thousands of patients,” Graham says. He goes on to explain that Edmund Bergler, who was one of the most famous and influential psychoanalysts of the 1950s, was one of the firmest believers that homosexuality was deviant. Even though Alfred Kinsey’s “Kinsey Report” showed that gay people weren’t diseased, Bergler was able to use his power to rail against Kinsey’s findings.
As Graham points out with this first episode, Stonewall didn’t happen in a vacuum. The unwillingness to be pushed around that the patrons showed that night was the flame, not the flicker. We’re seeing a group of people who had already been fighting for 20 years finally break. And what American History Tellers is doing so masterfully is showing the buildup. Nothing ever comes out of nowhere. And carefully peeling back the layers of history helps us how we got to where we are. But also shows us how history certainly does repeat itself.