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Historian Marc Stein Launches Database Project to Identify LGBTQ Direct Action and Protest

Social movements have long engaged in direct action protests, including demonstrations, marches, parades, pickets, riots, and sit-ins. These are spectacular and embodied events, often drawing extensive public attention, serving expressive and strategic purposes, and contributing to social and political change. In 1965, influenced most directly by the African American civil rights movement, U.S. LGBT activists began a sustained period of direct action that lasted for more than a decade. Highly creative, emotionally powerful, and politically inspiring, LGBT direct action protests challenged anti-LGBT policies and practices while also breaching boundaries between the private and public, the invisible and visible, and the silent and spoken. Scholars have produced in-depth studies of a small number of these actions, including the Dewey’s sit-in (1965), the Annual Reminders at Independence Hall (1965-69), the Compton’s Cafeteria riot (1966), the Stonewall riots (1969), the Congress to Unite Women protest (1970), and the first “gay pride” marches (1970). The vast majority of LGBT direct action protests, however, have not been researched extensively or fully analyzed. This bibliography, chronology, and inventory, covering more than 600 unique events from 1965 to 1973, is meant to encourage further research on the broad and diverse history of LGBT direct action.

The LGBT Direct Action Bibliography, Chronology, and Inventory builds on the work I completed for two of my recent books: The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History (NYU Press, 2019) and Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement, 2nd edition (Routledge, 2023). Several research assistants, including Mario Burrus and Adam Joseph Nichols, worked on this project under my supervision; Dylan Weir helped compile, quantify, and analyze the results. Work is underway to extend this project to cover 1974-76. This is a work in progress and I would welcome additions and corrections, which can be sent to me at marcs@sfsu.edu.

For the nine years covered in this inventory, we have identified 646 direct action events (averaging 72 per year), though the number falls to 409 if protests lasting for more than a single day and coordinated protests that occurred in multiple locations are each counted once. Only direct action protests documented in mainstream, alternative, or LGBT print media are included here; we cite more than 1,800 media sources. Media outlets routinely disagree when quantifying the number of participants in direct action protests, but the minimum numbers used by the sources listed here total more than 228,000 participants; the number would be lower if individuals who participated in more than one protest were each counted only once. LGBT direct action protests in this period had an average of 353 participants and occurred, on average, every five days. The sources listed here indicate that at least 195 protesters were arrested; again, the number would be lower if individuals arrested more than once were each counted only once.

The inventory both reinforces and challenges popular beliefs about the chronology and geography of LGBT direct action in the United States. For the nine-year period, we have documented protests in 20 states and the District of Columbia, challenging the notion that these only occurred in New York, California, and a few other states. For 1965 through May 1969, we have identified 91 direct action protests (averaging 1 every 17 days) in four states and the District of Columbia; these involved 995-1,696 participants. Beginning in April 1969 in San Francisco (not June in New York, as is commonly believed), the number and frequency of LGBT direct action protests increased dramatically. From August 1968 through March 1969, there were none, but there were 64 in April, May, and June 1969. The number rose from 6 in 1968 (averaging 1 every 61 days) to 116 in 1969 (averaging 1 every 3 days) and 174 in 1970 (averaging 1 every 2.1 days). After Stonewall, LGBT direct action also expanded in terms of participant numbers and geographic scope––for 1970, our sources count 11,935-61,733 participants in 12 cities across 7 states and Washington, D.C.


The targets of LGBT direct action were diverse, but we have identified several noteworthy patterns. Using fourteen categories and counting each protest more than once if more than one category was applicable, our sources indicate that businesses were the most common targets of LGBT direct action. These included bars, restaurants, department stores, and public utilities, which were criticized for employment discrimination, denials of service, mistreatment of patrons, sexual censorship, and discriminatory practices affecting women, people of color, and trans people in particular. The number of business targets would have been even greater if we had counted many of the media targets as businesses, which they were. The second most frequent targets of LGBT direct action were national, state, and local government policies; the third most frequent were police policies and practices. Pride events, marches, parades, and protests were fourth. LGBT targets, including businesses and political organizations, were fifth. 

Read entire article at OutHistory