Life & Culture

Rainbow warriors: the Jews who fought for LGBT + rights

On the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, we celebrate the Jews who fought for LGBT+ rights in the USA


Just after midnight on 28 June 1969, Seymour Pine, the commander of the New York Police Department’s vice squad for Lower Manhattan, led eight officers into the Stonewall Inn.

It was a hot summer evening and, as Mr Pine later admitted, raiding gay bars wasn’t difficult work and helped to bump up arrest numbers. “They were easy arrests. They never gave you any trouble,” he suggested.

But constant police harassment has pushed the gay residents of the Greenwich Village to the edge. When Pine ordered the 200 patrons of the Stonewall Inn to present their identification, they refused. As news of the raid spread, hundreds more people began to gather in the street. Rubbish bins, beer bottles and an uprooted parking meter were hurled at the officers, who retreated back into the bar.

Police reinforcements were called and the battle to regain control of the area took several hours. Three nights of unprecedented rioting were to follow. “I’ve been in combat situations,” Mr Pine said recalling his World War II service in Italy and France, “and there was never any time that I felt more scared than I did that night.”

As historian David Carter has argued, the events of 50 years ago this week were a turning point in the struggle for gay rights in America. “It is to the gay movement what the fall of the Bastille is to the unleashing of the French Revolution.”

The son of Jewish Polish immigrants, Mr Pine would later say he was simply obeying orders and disrupting a Mafia-run business. “We were on the side of right,” he argued. But he was clearly conflicted. Yes, the young people “out for a good time” were breaking the law, he said on another occasion, “but what kind of law was that?” Asked to apologise for the raid at a public event, he duly did, later confessing to a historian: “If what I did helped gay people, then I’m glad.”

While Mr Pine may have played a decidedly ambiguous role in the gay rights movement, there was nothing equivocal about the part played by many other American Jews.

Pivotal though Stonewall was, the struggle for equality neither began nor ended that night.

Frank Kameny – “our Rosa Parks”, according to one gay rights activist – was an early pioneer. Fired from his job with the Army Map Service in 1957 under the terms of President Eisenhower’s executive order making “sexual perversion” grounds for dismissal for federal government employees, Mr Kameny refused to slip away quietly. Instead he attempted to sue the government. While the Supreme Court refused to hear his case, his appeal (which, despite his lack of legal training, he wrote himself) represented the first time a civil rights case based on sexual orientation had been pursued in the US courts. The government’s discrimination against gays, he argued in his brief, represented “an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age”. The Constitution demanded equal treatment for all.

Mr Kameny devoted the rest of his life to activism, later recalling that the first years were “extremely difficult” as he subsisted for a time on 20 cents worth of food a day. He co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, an early gay rights group, and, dressed in suit and tie, picketed the State Department, White House and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. In 1971, Kameny unsuccessfully ran for Congress – the first openly gay man to do so. Two years later, his campaigning led the American Psychiatric Association to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder (“we were cured en masse by the psychiatrists,” he later joked). Over the years, other victories followed, but none perhaps so sweet as the moment, six months after Barack Obama took office, when the openly gay director of the Office of Personnel Management formally apologised on behalf of the federal government to Mr Kameny for his dismissal and awarded him the department's most prestigious award.


But, as Mr Carter has suggested, it was Stonewall that turned “a small movement … into a mass movement”. Few have greater claim to have helped foster that mass movement than Brenda Howard, the so-called “Mother of Pride”. A bisexual Jewish nurse who was involved in both the burgeoning feminist movement and the fight against the Vietnam war, Ms Howard became a leading light in the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance which were formed in the aftermath of the riots. She coordinated a rally a month after the police raid, and then, a year later, was the driving force behind the Christopher Street Liberation Day march, the precursor of the Pride parades which are today seen across the globe. Ms Howard was the brains behind the notion that the march should be accompanied by a week-long series of events and, together with two other LGBT activists, is credited with naming the events “Pride”.

One of the early participants in the New York City Gay Pride march was a Jewish teacher from Queens, Jeanne Manford. In April 1972, her young son, Monty, had been assaulted when handing out flyers for gay rights at a dinner attended by the city’s top politicians and journalists. The police declined to charge his assailant – a local union leader – so Ms Manford wrote to the New York Post to highlight the case. “I have a homosexual son and I love him,” her letter stated. Walking alongside her son at the Pride march, she carried a sign “Parents of Gays Unite in Support for Our Children”. The enthusiastic reception she received led Ms Manford and her husband to found PFLAG, Parents Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays, which today has more than 200,000 members and 400 branches across the US. 


Another early straight Jewish ally of the LGBT cause was the popular newspaper columnist and radio host Pauline Phillips. Under the pen name Abigail van Buren, her “Dear Abby” advice column was syndicated to 1400 newspapers and had millions of readers. One of the few celebrities openly sympathetic to them, she became a hero to many gay Americans. At times gentle – a concerned parent with a gay child was simply told “love him, love him, love him” – at other she could be cutting. In response to a reader who sought Abby’s advice about an “odd couple” of men who had moved into their “once-respectable” neighbourhood, she offered a three word reply: “You could move”.


But it is the name of Harvey Milk – America’s first openly gay elected politician, who was assassinated in 1978 – which is perhaps most synonymous with the cause of gay rights. Although from a secular home, Mr Milk learned from his mother the Jewish obligation of “tikkun olam”; helping to repair the world. As the historian Lilliam Faderman suggests in her recent biography of him, the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising – which occurred days before his bar mitzvah – shaped Mr Milk’s lifelong belief that evil should be resisted even when the odds seem hopeless.

After three unsuccessful runs for office, Mr Milk was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in November 1977, arriving at City Hall for his swearing in arm in arm with his then boyfriend. He scored an early legislative victory when the city passed his civil rights bill – the “most stringent” in the nation, according to the New York Times – which barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. His energetic campaigning against a state referendum which would have seen the sacking of all gay teachers and those who supported them – “If it were true that children mimicked their teachers, you'd sure have a helluva lot more nuns running around,” he joked in one debate – helped lead to its landslide defeat.


Other gay Jewish politicians have followed the trail which Mr Milk blazed. In 1986, Barney Frank became the first member of Congress to come out. “I’m sorry to hear it, I thought you might be the first Jewish Speaker,” the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, told Frank on hearing the news. Last November, Jared Polis became the first openly gay man to be elected as a governor (also becoming Colorado’s first Jewish governor).


It is, though, probably culturally where Mr Milk’s impact was greatest. Fearing that his election would end in murder, the self-styled Mayor of Castro Street’s secretly recorded a message that was to be played “in the event of my death by assassination”. “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door,” he concluded. In his most famous speech, delivered before a crowd of thousands on San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day, he urged the crowd to “end the conspiracy of silence”. “Come out to your parents, your relatives,” he implored gay men and women. His final plea – that gay Americans should descend on Washington the following year – was answered in the autumn of 1979 when the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights attracted 100,000 people. The third such march in 1993 saw ten times that number in the US capital.


A decade earlier, a young Harvard Law student, Evan Wolfson, wrote his thesis on the legal basis for gay marriage. As the height of the Reagan years, it cannot have seemed much more than an academic exercise. But Wolfson didn’t give up the cause. Twenty years later, he formed Freedom To Marry at the very moment that George W Bush was using opposition to same-sex marriage to bolster his support among evangelicals as he ran for re-election. Wolfson’s message – “Marriage is not defined by who is excluded by it” – helped to reshape the debate.

On 26 June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the federal bar on same-sex marriage. At the centre of the landmark case were a Jewish couple - Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer - and their suit was pursued by a Jewish lawyer, Robbie Kaplan. Two years later, and two days before the 46th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage throughout the United States. In both cases, the three Jewish justices – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan – were critical in delivering the 5-4 rulings.

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