Pride 2019: Book offers many layers to the Stonewall story

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday June 25, 2019
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Then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, center, appeared at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, the site of the 1969 riots that helped launch the modern gay rights movement, in 2014 to announce a National Park Service Theme Study to interpret and commemorate sites related to LGBT history. Photo: via Facebook
Then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, center, appeared at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, the site of the 1969 riots that helped launch the modern gay rights movement, in 2014 to announce a National Park Service Theme Study to interpret and commemorate sites related to LGBT history. Photo: via Facebook

As the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion approaches, long considered the birth of the modern gay rights movement, people may think that they know what transpired and why it was so important.

However, Marc Stein, professor of history at San Francisco State University, is convinced there is not one paradigm, but many conflicting experiences with multiple interpretations that color our understanding of this LGBTQ origin story. Attempting to reclaim the Stonewall story for queer people on their own terms, Stein, a gay man, has collected 200 documents (many not easy to access) drawing from both primary and secondary sources that include mainstream, alternative, and LGBTQ media, covering the period 1965 to 1973, in his new book, "The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History" (NYU Press).

Stein asks readers to view these sources critically and come to their own conclusions about what and what didn't occur at Stonewall. Stein, 55, answered questions from the Bay Area Reporter via email.

Stein said there were several reasons he timed his book with Stonewall's golden anniversary year.

"There were multiple inspirations. I continue to be inspired by LGBT activism in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the decades before I came out and became an activist myself in the 1980s," he wrote. "I wanted to encourage others to be similarly inspired, without losing sight of the importance of constructive criticism. I also knew that the 50th anniversary celebrations would create teachable moments — opportunities to revisit the Stonewall era and reconsider the developments that preceded and followed the riots."

He said that he also wanted a new resource that students and others would find useful for learning more about LGBT history in general and Stonewall in particular.

"By introducing and reprinting 200 documents from 1965 to 1973, I hope my book will encourage new interpretations and new appreciation for the complexities of history," he wrote.

Stein had at his disposal more than 1,000 documents. Because mainstream media stories are prohibitively expensive to reprint, he relied more on less commonly accessed LGBT materials, focusing on the four years preceding and following the rebellion, concentrating on the largest metropolitan regions that had distinct importance for LGBT history (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.). He excluded fiction works and post-1973 autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories, which are filtered through the lens of subsequent developments, making them problematic as primary sources, he said.

"I began by prioritizing materials directly related to the Stonewall Inn and Stonewall riots — my fourth and fifth chapters reprint approximately 40 competing and complementary documents, including mainstream, alternative, and LGBT media accounts, gay bar guide listings, and descriptions of the Stonewall Inn from the pre-riots era," he wrote. "For the other six chapters, I looked for a diverse set of documents that would highlight bars and policing, activist agendas and visions, direct action protests, and pride marches and parades."

He added that he prioritized documents that highlighted lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and people of color."

Yet, for Stein, knowing exactly what happened at Stonewall is impossible to answer.

"Nothing about the past is objectively knowable," he wrote. "For Stonewall, participants and observers at the time would have disagreed about what happened. As I say in my introduction, perspective and viewpoint would have been influenced by factors like race, class, sexual orientation; they would have been affected by abilities and disabilities; and they would have been shaped by social roles (as police officer, bartender, patron, etc.)."

He explained that primary sources from the time are inconsistent and incomplete, as are later oral histories.

"For me, what's fascinating about history is dealing with the multiplicity of views and viewpoints," he wrote. "If we're responsible historians, we don't just make things up, but interpretation and analysis involve much more than just 'sticking to the facts.'"

Author Marc Stein holds a copy of his new book, "The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History." Photo: Brian Bromberger  

Explaining Stonewall
One of the most popular interpretations is that the gay movement began at Stonewall, viewing the rebellion as unprecedented, some even claiming that the riots were the first time that LGBT people fought back against oppression, which most historians, including Stein, reject.

"I think LGBT historians collectively find it frustrating and irritating every time we hear that the movement began with Stonewall. Decades of outstanding work by academic and public historians have established that the movement began two decades earlier," he wrote.

His book addresses LGBT activism in the second half of the 1960s — Stonewall occurred in June 1969 — focusing in particular on dozens of direct action protests that occurred in the country's largest cities.

"Homophile organizations, such as the Mattachine Society and ONE Incorporated, lobbied and litigated for reform, supported research and education and achieved important successes in the pre-Stonewall era, including a 1958 U.S. Supreme Court victory that established the constitutional rights of these groups to publish their periodicals," Stein wrote.

He explained that the radicalizing local LGBT groups of 1965-69, which were more assertive about LGBT rights and freedoms, more oriented to direct action and sexual liberation, and more supportive of "gay power" and the "gay revolution," were responsible for a wave of more than 30 pre-Stonewall demonstrations, sit-ins, and riots, such as the one at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco in August 1966.

"However, critics of this framework note that these actions were composed of older, whiter, more middle class, less politically radical, less countercultural, and less gender-transgressive than Stonewall and after," Stein wrote.

Besides the two decades of political organizing by the homophile movement, Stein stated that historians have generally used two other frameworks as explanations as to why Stonewall occurred.

"A second framework highlights the long tradition of bar-based resistance, identifying the Stonewall riots as growing out of that tradition," he wrote. "The very act of going to a bar was a form of resistance, as was escaping, running, and hiding during raids, defending themselves and criticizing the police, coming together to provide mutual assistance and support, challenging the charges they faced in court, and fighting back with words and other weapons."

Also, one could include the famous 1966 Sip-In civil disobedience action that occurred at the Julius Bar in Greenwich Village, where two Mattachine Society members, Dick Leitsch and Randy Wicker, taking inspiration from the civil rights sit-ins that integrated so many lunch counters in restaurants, declared they were gay, ordered a drink, waited to be served or turned away, and then sued.

A third framework points to the impact of other radicalizing social movements — including black power, the anti-war movement, and countercultural activism — on LGBT communities. The significance is perhaps most obvious in the case of black power — the influence was ideological and strategic, but also embodied in the people of color who played important roles in Stonewall.

"All these explanations are powerful and persuasive, but I put forward a fourth theory, one that was first introduced by gay journalist Don Jackson several months after the riots occurred," Stein wrote. "Invoking the work of sociologist James Davies, who had argued that revolutions are most likely to occur when a long period of improving conditions is followed by quick reversals, Jackson wrote that this exactly described the situation in New York City at the time of Stonewall."

Stein concisely sums up in his book how all these frameworks help people understand why the Stonewall riots occurred when and where they did.

"The homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s and its radicalization in the second half of the 1960s created the preconditions for revolt. The long history of bar-based resistance practices created a repertoire of rebellious responses," Stein wrote. "Other social movements provided revolutionary inspiration and influence. And the combination of heightened expectations and dashed hopes that many felt as the country transitioned from a period of liberal reform to one of conservative backlash — and that LGBT people experienced in the context of a new wave of police raids, violent killings, and local vigilantism — created an explosive situation that erupted on June 28."

Stein added that it was not the riots themselves that led to major social change; it was the political mobilization and cultural transformations that occurred after the rebellion.

"For complicated reasons, the scale of political organizing grew tremendously after Stonewall and the character of political activism changed," he wrote.

Major reforms of the post-Stonewall era include declassifying homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder, lesbian and gay inclusion in the military, decriminalization of sodomy, and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

"However, critics respond that progress has not been linear; reforms have been partial, limited, qualified, and incomplete; the changes that have occurred shouldn't necessarily be characterized as progress; and the goals that have been achieved are not universally celebrated," Stein wrote.

In fact, he added, radicals see decline rather than progress.

Documentary evidence
Another set of discussions about the riots concerns who frequented the Stonewall Inn, started the rebellion, participated in the uprising, mobilized afterward, and commemorated the uprising in Pride parades and protests. These questions began in the rebellion's immediate aftermath, emphasizing the participation of gay men, roles played by trans resisters and genderqueers, whether lesbians were among the first to fight back, as well as intense debates about the presence, participation, and prominence of two trans individuals: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and butch lesbian Storm´┐Ż DeLarverie.

"One of the reasons I think it's helpful to revisit the documentary evidence of the Stonewall era is that it can cast new light on the questions that people are asking about who patronized the Stonewall, who was there on the night of the police raid, and who participated in the riots, which should be treated as distinct questions," Stein wrote.

"I hope we don't replace problematic narratives that privilege the roles of white and cisgender gay men with problematic narratives that ignore the messiness of the historical evidence. For example, we should acknowledge, and then question, why the mainstream newspapers generally referred to "homosexuals" and did not mention trans people, people of color, or white people in their coverage. We should take note of the ways in which the newsletter of the Mattachine Society of New York highlighted the courage and leadership of trans people during the riots as well as the fact that some of the leading trans periodicals of 1969 did not cover the riots.

"We should think about why some alternative newspapers mentioned Puerto Ricans but not African Americans and why some referenced lesbians but most did not," Stein added. "We should think carefully about why several key participants in the riots referred to themselves as "gay transvestites" without feeling the need to choose between those identities. We should wrestle with the fact that some of the key individuals associated with the riots offered inconsistent accounts that changed over time. We should also look carefully at Stonewall photographs and compare those to media sources, oral histories, and police records."

Stein wrote that his sense of the event is that trans people, people of color, and street people played important roles in the riots.

"But this doesn't mean that they were a majority of the patrons or a majority of the rioters," he added. "In general, our debates today about representation in Stonewall narratives may say much more about us than they say about the riots themselves."

In his book Stein makes a joke that "if every person who claims to have participated in the riots was actually there, Manhattan would have sunk, " which seems to speak to the mythology surrounding Stonewall that anybody around at that time wants to be associated with the power of that myth.

Stein wrote that while he believes in the importance of oral histories, he didn't use any for this book.

"I meant my joke to serve as a reminder that oral histories are valuable but problematic," he wrote. "Documentary sources are problematic as well, but I think readers are more prepared to challenge documentary sources than they are to challenge oral histories. After all, if a living person tells you that something happened in a particular way, what does it mean to challenge their account? At the same time, if we look at all of the oral histories that have been done about Stonewall, many of the accounts are incomplete and inconsistent. Sometimes the same person will say one thing in one oral history interview and something quite different in another."

Stein doesn't think the riots themselves changed the world.

"People are sometimes surprised to find that they weren't even considered front page news in New York and they barely were covered in the mainstream media in other cities," Stein wrote. "National magazines like Time, Newsweek, and Esquire didn't cover the riots for months. In many respects, it was the mobilizing and organizing that occurred afterward that turned Stonewall into 'Stonewall.'"

He noted that the decision to mark the anniversary the following year with Pride parades and protests helped ensure the centrality of Stonewall for future generations.

"As for radical revolutionaries today, I think many are still inspired by Stonewall, but some justifiably question whether more mainstream parts of the LGBT movement today are living up to the legacy of Stonewall," Stein wrote. "For me, the riots are usefully remembered as a direct action protest that challenged state policing, capitalist exploitation, and the politics of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. And some of the instigators and leaders of the riot were those who too often have been marginalized by our community and by society more generally — people of color, trans people, poor people, and others."

Former President Barack Obama referenced Stonewall in his second inaugural address (2013) and announced the establishment of the Stonewall National Monument in front of the bar in 2016.

"I see the Stonewall riots as an important moment in LGBT history, U.S. history, and world history," Stein wrote. "On the one hand, I think it's great that Stonewall is increasingly recognized as important for more than just LGBT people to know, and Obama, in particular, treated it as an important moment in larger struggles for equal rights and social justice.

"On the other hand, if this is done only to incorporate LGBT people into mainstream society or mainstream history, without fundamentally challenging that society or that history, then I'm less enthusiastic," he added. "If mainstream society does this as a way to congratulate itself for its tolerance and acceptance, without asking hard questions about ongoing evidence of oppression, exploitation, inequality, and injustice, then I'm less optimistic. If Stonewall's history is appropriated to serve the interests of U.S. nationalism and global capitalism, then it might be time for new riots."