Sunday, September 30, 2007

Demythifying Stonewall

The 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn hold a thoroughly mythic place in the popular conception of GLBT history. Many timelines and web pages covering the gay rights movement start at 1969 or mark the riots as the beginning of any GLBT movement. This version of the Stonewall story, while convenient as a “starting point,” gives the impression that before the event, there was no gay activism, no gay community, and gay people were either nonexistent or in the closet. And while the image of a bunch of queer folks popping up out of nowhere and beating up cops may be the subject of only my most wonderful dreams, it doesn't do justice to the reality of GLBT life up to the riots.

Where Duberman’s “Stonewall” goes right is in its contextualizing of Stonewall. We see gay life in the 60’s, the multitude of ideas and attitudes towards queer life and the advancement of GLBT equality and rights. We see the influence of other 60s social movements, as well as the significant ways in which the categories and dichotomies of 60s movements got confused when applied to the GLBT community—after all, clean-cut Foster’s conception of coming out as a political means toward an end was vanguardist in ways that Abbie Hoffman acolyte Jim would never dream of. We see Craig, relentlessly assertive of his own rights, working with the famously assimilationist Mattachine. More than anything else, we see a cast of characters struggling to find their place in both a movement and in society, and achieving variant levels of success. There are those who find it easy to be on the “inside” of the homophile movement, like Foster, and, to a lesser extent, Craig, and then those who exist outside of the movement, like Yvonne and Jim. There is no sense of waiting, no sense of a looming event bound to happen and to change all of their lives together. In fact, it was not Stonewall itself that changed GLBT life forever, as it is thought to have—rather, it is how the members of the community related to the event, and that the decision was made to commemorate it one year later in what is now the most emblematic yearly event of queer communities worldwide, the Pride Parade.

Side note: why on earth did the discourse of “liberation” have to go out of style after the 70s (excepting for radical environmental groups like ALF and ELF)? Seriously, names like the Human Rights Campaign make me want to fall asleep. National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is a little bit better (and named earlier, surprise surprise) just because the Task Force bit makes it sound like it could be a paramilitary organization. But come on, I would’ve loved to join the Gay Liberation Front. Who doesn’t want to be liberated?

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