New study documents over 600 early LGBTQ protests in US

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday March 1, 2023
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San Francisco State University professor Marc Stein. Photo: Courtesy Marc Stein
San Francisco State University professor Marc Stein. Photo: Courtesy Marc Stein

A new study released Wednesday shines a light on the hundreds of protests led by LGBTQ people in the United States from 1965 to 1973.

The study, published jointly by OutHistory and Queer Pasts, documents more than 600 LGBTQ+ direct actions, stated Marc Stein, a gay man who's a history professor at San Francisco State University and the study's lead researcher. Stein is the new director of OutHistory and the co-editor of Queer Pasts.

"The project, completed with the support of student researchers at San Francisco State University, can be understood as a survey of more than 600 events that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his allies want to cancel, censor, and closet when we teach U.S. history," Stein stated in a news release, referring to the Republican leader of the Sunshine State and potential 2024 presidential candidate.

For the nine years studied, Stein and his research team identified 646 direct action events, averaging 72 per year. The study cites more than 1,800 media sources from the 1960s and 1970s, the release noted. According to these sources, more than 200,000 people participated in these protests and nearly 200 were arrested.

Stein noted that protests during the period took place in 20 states and the District of Columbia, "challenging the notion that these only occurred in New York, California, and a few other states," he explained. The frequency of protests increased significantly in April 1969, two months before the well-known Stonewall rebellion in New York City, which is considered the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

Stein told the Bay Area Reporter that he and his team were unable to find the exact date of the August 1966 Compton's Cafeteria riot in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. The date has been lost to history, and other academic researchers over the years have also not been able to identify just when the sit-in by transgender people took place.

Last October, the California State Historical Resources Commission voted 6-0 to nominate the site of the 1966's Compton's Cafeteria riots for addition to the federal registry, as the B.A.R. previously reported. A month later, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved local landmark status for the Turk and Taylor intersection, which is near the long-closed cafeteria, as the B.A.R. noted at the time. The riots were one of the early uprisings by queer people against police harassment.

Stein said that he was able to find the date for a Compton's demonstration, and that it took place July 18, 1966, about a month before the riots, according to an inventory of the documented protests that are part of the study. The inventory listed the demonstration as being reported on in the late Herb Caen's San Francisco Chronicle column, the Berkeley Barb newspaper, and Cruise News and World Report, among other sources.

The federal office that oversees the National Register of Historic Places has yet to announce if it will approve adding 101-102 Taylor Street, where Compton's Cafeteria was located, to the list. While it has not responded to an inquiry on the status of the listing, the California Office of Historic Preservation told the B.A.R. it has not been rejected.

Jay Correia, a supervisor in the state office's cultural resources programs, registration and project review units, told the B.A.R. that since the Compton's site is being nominated at the national level of significance, rather than just the local or state level, it requires greater scrutiny in order to be approved. It is likely why the approval process is taking longer than the normal 45 days for most listings, he wrote in an emailed reply Monday.

"This is, in effect, stating that the history of this place is not significant to just San Francisco or California, but to the entire nation! National level of significance is a very high bar to achieve, and the nomination is going through several levels of review at the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.," wrote Correia.

Gathering source material

Dylan Weir, a bi man, worked on the LGBTQ protests project with Stein during his time in graduate school from January 2021 to December 2022, he wrote in an email. He helped Stein gather primary source documents from a variety of outlets, including many LGBTQ publications such as the B.A.R., the Advocate, Daughters of Bilitis newsletters, and others.

"Finding these sources was fascinating work, and it taught me a lot about San Francisco history as well as the dynamic of social movements," Weir wrote. "I was especially interested in the constant debates within the movement over the efficacy of radical direct action versus more mainstream political advocacy, debates that played out pretty dramatically in the pages of these publications post-Stonewall."

Weir added that the most challenging aspect of the project was producing data analytics on the list that would be included in the introduction. "This process involved collecting data from the list of almost 650 actions and using that data to build an Excel spreadsheet table."

Weir added that once that was completed, he also produced analytics that showed the activity during months/years — 1970 was busiest, he noted — and those with the highest participation numbers.

The report includes lists of the cities, states, and months that featured the largest number of LGBTQ direct actions, along with the protests that featured the largest number of participants, the largest number of arrests, and the longest sustained actions during the period studied. The 20 largest actions involved more than 1,000 participants, the release stated.

Not surprisingly, San Francisco is at the top of the list, with 148 documented protests during the nine-year period, according to the study. It's followed closely by New York City (142), Los Angeles (93), Washington, D.C. (43), and Chicago (40). Berkeley ranks seventh with 21. Other California cities on the list are: Kern River (near Bakersfield), with 13, and Sacramento (3). Two actions each were documented in Burbank, Fullerton, and Vacaville. Single protests were each documented for Anaheim, Hayward, Oakland, and San Jose.

Stein stated that the study reveals that the most common targets of protests were businesses, government policies, and police policies. Other common targets were LGBTQ organizations and businesses; elected officials and political candidates; the military, militarism, and war; media; arts and culture; educational institutions; science and medicine; prisons and jails; and religious institutions and policies.

One of the reasons for the study was to make the public aware of more than the usual protests that have been studied. Stein noted that fewer than 50 of the actions documented have been studied in-depth, as researchers return to them again and again.

"We need more research on LGBTQ+ protest 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," he stated. "The Stonewall riots were important, but so were hundreds of other protests."

Stein himself edited "The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History," which was published in May 2019 ahead of the 50th anniversary of the uprising.

The research team next plans to document protests for the 1974-76 period.

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