Queer Rage: Police Violence and the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969

June 3, 2019
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The San Francisco-based Society for Individual Rights demonstrated at the Berkeley Police Department on 25 April 1969 to protest the killing of Frank Bartley, who was shot by police on 17 April and died on 22 April. Vector, June 1969, p. 5.

This summer, millions of people around the world will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, when thousands of people—gay, lesbian, bi, trans, queer, and straight–rioted in the streets of New York to protest an aggressive police raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar. The Stonewall uprising was a turning point in gender and sexual activism, setting in motion a wave of demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins that changed the country and the world. But contrary to what many people believe, the rebellion was not unprecedented and it was not the first time that LGBT people fought back. Historians have now documented more than thirty direct action protests in which LGBT activists challenged their mistreatment in the years leading up to the New York riots. And this spring, we have the opportunity to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of a series of violent episodes that contributed to the anger that fueled the summer explosion.

Anniversary commemorations of the Stonewall Riots often highlight the police raid that triggered the uprising, but they rarely reference the wave of violence against LGBT people in the months leading up to the rebellion. Reports of anti-queer police violence in particular spread via major urban newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, alternative periodicals such as the Berkeley Barb, Berkeley Tribe, and Los Angeles Free Press, and LGBT newsletters, newspapers, and magazines, including the Committee for Homosexual Freedom Newsletter, The Ladder, the Los Angeles Advocate, the Mattachine Society of New York Newsletter, and Vector. Some of these accounts suggested that police forces around the country felt newly emboldened by the inauguration of President Richard Nixon in January 1969. The self-proclaimed leader of the “silent majority” had campaigned on a “law and order” platform and a promise to crush the radicalizing political movements that threatened the existing social order. LGBT people and people perceived to be queer suffered greatly in this context.

On March 9, for example, Los Angeles police attacked and killed Howard Efland, a 37-year-old nurse also known as Jack McCann, during an antigay vice raid on the Dover Hotel, which was popular with men who had sex with men. Multiple eyewitnesses risked public exposure and state retribution by courageously testifying about the police brutality that took Efland’s life, but a local jury ruled in April that the killing was “excusable homicide” because, according to the police, the victim had resisted arrest.

On April 3, New York police discovered the body of a man, estimated to be 20-25 years of age, who apparently had been strangled to death in March. His corpse was found in the Hudson River near the Christopher Street docks, a popular gay cruising spot not far from the Stonewall Inn.

On April 17, an undercover police officer in Berkeley shot 33-year-old Frank Bartley, a local chef, when the latter tried to flee Aquatic Park, a well-known cruising area where the officer had engaged in the common police practice of sexual entrapment. Bartley died five days later. Local authorities declined to pursue charges against the killer or his partner.

On June 21, vice squad officers in Oakland, California, attacked Philip Caplan, a professor visiting family in the area, after they accused him of loitering and lewd behavior in a public toilet near Lake Merritt. Caplan, a married father who was on medication for prostate problems and sometimes needed to urinate frequently, died several days later. Local authorities again declined to pursue charges against the police. The death of Caplan, presumptively straight, exemplified the ways in which all people could be vulnerable to anti-queer violence.

We do not know whether the Stonewall rioters knew about all of these incidents, but politically organized LGBT people in New York, some of whom participated in the rebellion, were definitely concerned about police violence. Several weeks before the uprising the Mattachine Society of New York Newsletter reported on the first three of these killings, informing hundreds if not thousands of local subscribers about the “grim reapings.” The same newsletter reported in April 1969 that a policeman who had shot and killed two gay men on the Christopher Street docks in September 1968 was absolved of wrongdoing by a grand jury.

All of these violent episodes and countless others likely contributed to the growing sense of LGBT anger and frustration that can be found in multiple first-person accounts and oral histories of the uprising. This may help explain why the Stonewall rioters responded as they did when the police invaded their space. And the violence did not end with Stonewall. On March 8, 1970, for example, more than two hundred protesters gathered in Los Angeles to mark the anniversary of Efland’s death. The crowd, estimated to include more than fifty African Americans, was horrified to learn about the latest victim of state violence: local police had killed Larry Laverne Turner, a twenty-year-old African American trans sex worker, earlier that day.

In the coming months, the anniversary of Stonewall will be celebrated with parties and parades. Many of us will mark and marvel over the progress that has occurred over the last fifty years. The ongoing devaluation of LGBT lives, loves, and lusts, however, should give us pause, and our collective ignorance about these other moments in our shared history is cause for shame rather than pride.

Marc Stein is the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State University and the author of The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History (NYU Press, 2019). An online supplementary bibliography references multiple sources for further research on the topics addressed in this essay.

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