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April 2017

The Stonewall Narrative: Authority of Oppression

My objective in creating stonewallhistory.us has been to collect a range of documents, images, texts and testimony about the controversial and crucial Stonewall rebellion. Presenting these items in an online digital database provides an entry point into the complex, tangled, web of stories and memories that construct the Stonewall narrative. Through this engagement with the past, the audience can determine for themselves if answers to the many questions that remain are possible - or even desirable. The accepted Stonewall narrative is that the riots are the spark that ignited the LGBT rights movement.  For the most part the community has embraced this view.  The collective understanding that Stonewall is significant is not debated, however on most other aspects agreement is hard to find: Which segment of the community led the way organizing protest? Did gay male social networks have a profound effect on organizing in the gay rights movement? Was the early homophile movement influential, or even considered by the more radical movement that emerged post-Stonewall?  Were trans individuals influential in gay liberation?  Were people of color invited to participate in activism?  Who was really there that night in June of 1969?  Who started the rebellion?

The facts and details of the rebellion are open for interpretation and in my opinion should remain so, for as this project hopes to demonstrate, Stonewall and the resulting birth of the “gay revolution” was very much spontaneous and creative. Barbie Zelizer writes in Remembering to Forget “…we allow collective memories to fabricate, rearrange, elaborate and omit details about the past, pushing aside accuracy and authenticity so as to accommodate broader issues of identity formation, power and authority, and political affiliation.”[1]Zelizer’s thesis, which could also be considered a warning, helped me to recognize that even the stories that emanate from those with the least power, who exist on the margins of society, are impacted by political and social influences. In the case of the Stonewall narrative the broader social movements of the time, the militant protest culture, the youth oriented counterculture and consciousness raising all converged to help leaders of the nascent gay rights movement form a concept of identity, affiliation and authority for the community. In this case the authority that was exerted was the concept of oppression.  Prior to Stonewall, many gays and lesbians existed quietly in the closet but enjoyed a moderate level of comfort and stability within their social lives and to a degree in society at large as long as they were reserved and respectable. The new authority, exercised by the liberation movement was one that asked for more than tolerance and required acceptance.

I decided early on that recording oral histories would be a crucial part of this public history project.  Alessandro Portelli’s examination of the history of the labor movement in Italy through oral histories was an inspiration for this decision.  I found some similarities in the blurring of facts and chronology between the story of Stonewall and the narrative he chronicles in “Death of Luigi Trastulli.” Nan Alamilla-Boyd notes that when writing his book, Gay New York George Chauncey states, “early in my research it became clear that oral histories would be the single most important source of evidence concerning the internal workings of the gay world.”[2]  In my interviews I too became keenly aware of the hierarchies present within gay social circles. The power of listening to the recorded voices of my informants, elder members of the community, provides a uniquely accessible point of entry for those who may not be familiar with the events described. The crucial component now that the site is built, the data collected and content written, is to disseminate it. Hearing the voices of elder members of the community is something that can draw a listener in to the rich history of the liberation movement. Alamilla-Boyd talks about the voices heard in oral histories as texts “…open to interpretation and their disclosures should be understood as part of a larger process of reiteration.” She questions whether factual details matter or whether a more romantic story is told through oral history.[3]  Certainly the Stonewall story is romanticized as any other “battle” or “revolution” has been throughout history. But for some it was perceived as a tool in a broader series of actions and reactions. The activist community in New York was clearly media savvy and therefore capitalized on the attention the unrest attracted, even the most disparaging. If it were not for the media coverage and the ensuing controversies, the commemorative potential of Stonewall may not have been realized.

The individual interpretations of participants, witnesses, activists and authors also provide the means to shape the factors that contributed to Stonewall’s “success” as a catalyst and create a narrative that resonates beyond simple facts and a linear sequence of events. The development of this schematic narrative is echoed in the testimony of those I interviewed and also in the earliest written accounts such as the Rat Subterranean News coverage of the incident: “Soon pandemonium broke loose. Cans, bottles, rocks, trash cans, finally a parking meter crashed the windows and door,” the Rat reporter, known only as “Tom” writes.  He concludes, “What was and should have always been theirs, what should have been the free control of the people was dramatized, shown up for what it really was: an instrument of power and exploitation.  It was theater, totally spontaneous. There was no bullshit.”[4]

The development of this story into the schematic narrative of Stonewall, is set in motion by the grass roots organizing that develops almost immediately after the first night of the rebellion. A schematic narrative represents the theme of stories emanating from a particular culture. In this case it is the protest movement culture of the late sixties.  The narrative that develops is tied to notions of identity that envelop the specific narrative (individual components that are arranged and interpreted schematically). [5] Craig Rodwell, Jim Fouratt, Martha Shelley as well as Sylvia Rivera can be seen as shaping this narrative of Stonewall Rebellion, while Dick Leitsch, Vito Russo and others authorize its re-telling. Despite the fact that this was by no means the first violent protest against police harassment, the event is instilled with the significance of the activist’s interpretation within the context of broader social movements of the time. 

I hope to continue building the collection of stories, images and documents contained on Stonewallhistory.us with the goal of bringing in as many voices and interpretations of the past as possible.  Contributions of digitized archival material or written testimony and comments are welcome and can be submitted through the “contribute an item” tab on the home page.


[1] Barbie Zelizer, Remebering to Forget, University of Chicago Press; 1998

[2] Nan Alamilla-Boyd. 2008. "Who is the Subject? Queer Theory Meets Oral History." Journal of the History of Sexuality (2): 177

[3] Ibid.

[4] Unknown, “The Rat, July 9-23, 1969, pg 6.,” Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity, accessed April 7, 2017, https://stonewallhistory.omeka.net/items/show/56.

[5] Knut Lundby. 2008. Digital Storytelling, Mediatized Stories: Self-Representations in New Media, Peter Lang.

February 2017

Motivation and Inspiration:

One of the first documents I encountered that sparked my interest in developing this project as my thesis was a 2009 opinion piece published in the New York Times, by Lucian Truscott IV.  Truscott is the Village Voice reporter who wrote the initial account of the riots from the perspective of an eyewitness on the street that first night. Howard Smith's account from inside the Stonewall with the police conducting the bar raid also was published in the same issue of the Voice in 1969.  Links to these reports are found here and Truscott's opinion piece on the 40th anniversary of Stonewall here.

The other newsworthy topic at the time I became interested in what I refer to as the Stonewall "legacy," is the controversy over Roland Emmerich's Stonewall movie, which had just been released in summer of 2015. I had read parts of David Carter's Stonewall tome and never really considered it to be anything but fair and unbiased.  However, after learning of the backlash surrounding the Emmerich film's depiction of Stonewall, the accusation of "whitewashing" and the debate over who was really there, I became troubled by the idea that the narrative was being obscured and subverted from what mattered most. For me, Stonewall has always been about fighting back against the oppressive tendencies of society at large; especially "law and order."  While the laws and regulations of 1969 targeted the places LGBT people congregated as well as what they did there and outright discriminated against individuals for their gender expression (wearing more than three items of clothing of the opposite sex was illegal in NYC) we continue to face similar discrimination on different levels to this day. Although the most blatant anti-LGBT laws have been repealed others, such as "religious freedom" laws, have taken their place in an effort to inhibit and control LGBT people. I realized that the overarching theme of Carter's book which includes the conclusion that,”if we wish to name the group most responsible for the success of the riots, it is the young, homeless, homosexuals...most (who) were Caucasian..." really undermines years of ideology within the LGBT community to promote inclusiveness. I saw an immediate correlation between Emmerich's decision to cast a white male lead in his film and Carter's conclusion. While evidence Carter presents supports his beleif, he himself offers other evidence that non-white, non gender conforming indviduals were present and involved. I don't believe Carter intended to exclude anyone. He presents a fair and balanced assessment of facts and admits that much is ambiguous and complex. But his conclusion enables one group's perspective; that of the white, educated, gay male to prevail.

Truscott's opinion piece linked above also favors a certain perspective despite collective memory on the subject. In this brief text, apparently solicited by the New York Times on the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, it is clear that Mr. Truscott continues to view the LGBT community in much the same way as his reporting on the riots forty years ago. His original account is rife with disparaging comments and stereotypical depictions of the gay community. It seems that forty years later Truscott still does not acknowledge his position as outsider looking in. He sees himself as an obejctive reporter and he remains confident that his decades old interpretation of events still stands. Truscott makes an interesting point about what constitutes the 'gay community" in 1969.  He determines that the young people most regard as standing up and fighting back during Stonewall were somehow not part of the community and that the "established" gays were off on Fire Island for the weekend. Truscott surmises that therefore, "decades of oppression" could not have been the catalyst for unrest. His assumption is that young people could not have experienced as much oppression, so they didn't understand oppression. Regardless of how much oppression young people had experienced I think it is clear that the oppression of gays is learned and appreciated by LGBT people at a very early age. Mark Segal (a Stonewall "veteran") states in his interview for this project that as soon as Marty Robinson (a gay activist) introduced him to the idea of gay liberation it resonated with him, even as an 18 year old "it rang a bell." Mark did not want to pursue the future he saw older gay men had accepted.  He, like so many others that night and afterward, wanted more than the closet. That to me represents the birth of a true community based on something more than social status. The burgeoning gay community was built on solidarity in the cause of being "out".  I would argue that the established elder gay community in 1969 did more to hinder that solidarity than support it by imposing the respectability and restriction of the "closet" on a movement that hoped to defy those norms. Mark Segal talks about diversity and inclusion being the hallmarks of the Gay Liberation Front's agenda.  That is the truly revolutionary part about that short lived activist organization that literally began the militant grass roots movement.  The hope of forging an identity based on shared experience and solidarity was central to the gay liberation movement. Its clear that Truscott  oversimplifies a very complex series of events in both his original article and his op-ed.  In the 2009 article he states that it would take years after Stonewall for laws to change, implying that the liberation movement hardened a backlash. But I think its hard to deny that the gay liberation movement did more to secure equal rights for the LGBT community in a short period than the closeted "establishment" gays in previous decades.

As I began soliciting oral histories in the summer of 2016 it was clear that for a multitude of reasons, the prospects for my interviews were going to be predominantly gay, white men. One of the main reasons for this is a dwindling number of survivors from the Stonewall rebellion era. The most marginalized voices often met an untimely end and the ravages of the AIDS epidemic have taken their toll. Indeed, I had to look outside of those who were present that night to secure interviews.  Therefore, much of the information and images on this site are archival.  Through the images, texts and printed ephemera collected here I hope to provide at least a glimpse into the past.  I hope to show what the response to the rebellion was like and how gay activists took hold of the legacy of Stonewall and created a movement. I apologize in advance for any oversight or omission I may have perpetrated, however I welcome any contribution of information, explanation or evidence that highlights different perspectives. Any contribution made will be added to the collection.

So the question remains, as a community, how do we achieve the mutual respect that we never shared?  I think the first step would be to acknowledge that the legacy of Stonewall is not contingent upon corroboration by the media, by eyewitnesses or by historians. The legacy of Stonewall is not going to change whether we use the term uprising, rebellion or riot, LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA or drag queen, Trans, Trans- Woman or Transgender to describe the event and those that participated in it. What matters the most is the collective memory that permeates the Stonewall narrative: that those who were the most marginalized of the marginalized, who had the least to lose yet risked real physical harm, stood up and fought back.