LGBT Health Forum Discusses Stonewall Riots

Journalists, activists and authors talked about the impact the 1969 Stonewall riots had on the progress of LGBTQ rights.

July 15, 2019

LGBT Health Forum

Panelists and attendees at a GW discussion, "Getting the Word Out: Stonewall, the Power of Information and LGBTQ Health.” (Harrison Jones/GW Today)

By B.L. Wilson

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City when gay people and police clashed outside a bar in what is viewed as a historic moment in the gay rights movement in the United States.

At George Washington University’s Seventh Annual LGBT Health Forum, writers, activists and journalists focused on the dissemination of the ideas and information that contributed to gains in LGBTQ health and rights in a discussion titled  “Getting the Word Out: Stonewall, the Power of Information and LGBTQ Health.”

Panel moderator Stephen Forssell, a psychology professor in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the founder of the GW LGBT Health Policy and Practice Graduate Certificate Program, was introduced by his friend of 14 years, U.S. Rep. Phil Sharp, D-Ind., a member of the program's advisory board. “Whenever the issue turned to teaching, to his students, to his program,” Mr. Sharp said, “there was always a thoughtfulness and a seriousness that is virtually obvious to everybody who knows him.”

Dr. Forssell started the discussion by noting that it was not until 1973 in the years after Stonewall that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder.

“What would our community look like… would we still be technically mentally ill if it were not for Stonewall?” Dr. Forssell asked the audience. “What would our response to the AIDS crisis have looked like? How did literature, art and culture change?”

Charles Silverstein, a psychologist and activist who led the fight in APA to change the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, said to audience laughter that the more popular Stonewall has become, the more people claimed to be there. Most gay people, he pointed out, were like him, “in the closet at the time.”

Writer Michael Denneny said he was in Chicago when clashes at Stonewall occurred and promptly moved to New York City to work in publishing where there were large numbers of gays and lesbians. “But it was totally don’t ask, don’t tell,” he said.

He recalled signing a contract for a book that was originally titled “Homosexuals: Who and What We Are” for which he was fired. But the publisher couldn’t legally back out of the contract with the author. So Mr. Denneny said he was rehired since none of the other editors wanted to present the book at sales meetings.

He worked for several publishing houses, founded the popular gay-oriented Christopher Street Magazine, and signed numerous authors who wrote books that chronicled the lives of gay people, among them Larry Kramer, Edmund White and Paul Monette.

Like most of the panel members, Esther Newton, a cultural anthropologist best known for her ethnography studies of lesbian and gay communities, explained that she did not come out as lesbian until several years after Stonewall for fear of losing her job. She said it wasn’t that long after the McCarthy era when thousands were accused of communist subversion and hundreds of gays and lesbians lost jobs for being homosexual or accused of homosexuality. 

She said one of the most important events that “sprang from Stonewall that had a profound effect on the politics and well-being of lesbians and bisexual women,” was the disruption of a meeting of feminists in the 1970s, which excluded lesbians.

“[Their success] gave birth to another movement called lesbian feminism, which led to a decade of cultural achievements like bookstores, presses, battered women shelters,” said Ms. Newton.

“Reading and writing books, essays and scripts in which we can see ourselves,” she said, “[has played] a vital role in [LGBTQ] community building and mental health,” she said.

For many years, Lou Chibbaro, a senior writer for The Washington Blade, wrote under a pseudonym as a freelancer. Gay people, he explained, were not visible in the media.

“It was an issue where you saw or knew people to be gay, sometimes they were famous people, sometimes they were local people who had gotten into trouble or passed away for whatever reason, and this was long before AIDS,” he said. “The media would never report that they were a member of the LGBT community, even when they were in the word we use now – ‘out.’”

As the youngest member of the panel, Joshua Johnson, the host of WAMU talk show “1A,” has worked as an openly gay journalist who has not shied away from LGBTQ topics, whether discussing transgender issues, drag queens, HIV/AIDS treatments, “a little bit of everything.”

The stories, he said, have to deal with conflict. “If I don’t know what you’ve overcome I can’t relate to you. Stonewall didn’t happen because a bunch of gay men said, ‘I’m a homosexual, and I’m OK,’” Mr. Johnson said. “Stonewall happened because rent boys, leather men, drag queens and people who couldn’t go home, punched police officers in the throat.”

In the Q & A that followed the panel discussion, Ms. Newton said that gay activism can be traced back to the time of abolitionists, which gave way to the suffragette movement and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

“I know people who became active in the gay movement, who had been on freedom rides,” Ms. Newton said. “I think the most important thing that came out of that was the idea of ‘I was born this way’ to justify why I’m gay, lesbian, trans, any of those things to make it line up with the civil rights struggle.”

For young people who asked how to continue the struggle for rights, Mr. Silverstein said, “Someone has got to take the first step. If you are not willing to do that nothing is going to happen.”