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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12.3 (2006) 441-464

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Gay Power circa 1970

Visual Strategies for Sexual Revolution

You know, the guys there were so beautiful—they've lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.
—Allen Ginsberg, cited in "Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square"

This essay explores the role of visual images and the rhetoric of visibility within gay liberation, the last great protest movement of the 1960s and the one most often written out of cultural and historical accounts of the New Left.1 In doing so, it responds to a double historiographical dilemma. The scholarship on radical gay politics to date has almost entirely ignored questions of visual representation, while art historians have narrated the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s without reference to gay politics. What, then, might art history and gay history have to teach or tell each other? And what might this dialogue reveal about the relation between visual culture and radical politics more broadly conceived?

The Stonewall riots of late June 1969 are commonly taken to mark the birth of the gay liberation movement. The story of the riots, in which patrons of a Greenwich Village gay bar spontaneously resisted arrest during a police raid and sparked three days of public uprisings, has been rehearsed in almost every account of queer history. There is little agreement, however, on precisely what happened at the Stonewall Inn, how many people were involved, how long the riots lasted, how many members of the tactical police force were called to the scene, and so forth.2 Adding to the event's unstable status within the historical record is the fact that virtually no photographic images of the riots exist.

The pictures printed at the time (and often reproduced in the years since) were by Fred W. McDarrah, then chief photographer and picture editor at the Village Voice. With two front-page stories (one reporting on the "view from inside" the bar during the riots, the other on the "view from outside"), the Voice carried the [End Page 441] most detailed news coverage of Stonewall and was virtually the only publication to include photographic images.3

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Figure 1
Fred W. McDarrah, "In Front of the Stonewall," originally printed on the front page of the Village Voice, July 3, 1969. Photograph © Fred W. McDarrah

McDarrah's photographs, several of which feature a multiracial group of queer street kids posing, laughing, and kissing each other outside the Stonewall bar, were taken just after the riots had ended (figs. 1, 2).4 The graffiti on the exterior of the now-boarded-up bar marks one response to the violence of the preceding nights.5 McDarrah's photographs of the bar's interior likewise suggest a sense of slight belatedness. The pictures do not show patrons taunting, resisting, or violently confronting police but rather the aftermath of those encounters: the remains of a battered bar stool, jukebox, and cigarette vending machine along with some trash cans (fig. 3). The photographs occur, in other words, after the clean-up process has begun.

Given the spontaneity of the Stonewall riots, it may not seem surprising that no photographers were on hand to capture the scene. But if, as was reported at the time and reiterated by historians since, the riots spilled out onto Sheridan Square and ultimately involved hundreds, even thousands, of people over a three-day period, then the absence of photographic documentation becomes rather more striking.6 This absence registered and seems to have been regretted by gay and lesbian activists at the time, at least to judge from a "plea to the community" printed in the January 10, 1970, edition of Come Out, the self-published newspaper of the New York City chapter of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), a radical activist group founded in the weeks just after the riots.7 Printed beside the newspaper's masthead, the plea reads, "Anyone owning or having access to photographs...


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