The Unbearable Whiteness of Stonewall

Can the queer community’s origin story be redeemed?

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Protester and police at Stonewall. Photo: Bettye Lane, First Run Features.

A few nights ago, I was woken at 3:30 a.m. by the sound of a bookshelf giving way, spilling a couple dozen LGBTQ+ history books onto the floor of my home office. Some date from the earliest years of the gay and lesbian rights movement. Others are more recent, but treasured, works that have profoundly shaped my thinking over the years. Groggily viewing the floor strewn with these books, I was both irritated and sad. It’s not my preferred way to wake from a deep sleep and I hoped none had been damaged in their ‘graceless concession to gravity.’

The noisy descent of my history books is an apt metaphor for all those inaccurate social media posts I’ve been seeing about Stonewall, the first Pride parades, and the origins of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. This is the time of year I have to repress the urge to correct every Tweet and Facebook post having some variation of “Marsha P. Johnson ‘threw the first brick’ at Stonewall.” Or, “Sylvia Rivera lead the Stonewall riots.” Or, the entirety of the modern LGBTQ rights movement is owed to Black and Brown trans people. A sample from the last few days on Twitter:

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I hold three degrees in a historical discipline with an emphasis on gender and sexuality in U.S. history. I strongly believe history matters. If the recent removal of statues and monuments to slave owners and the Confederacy is any indication, a lot of others agree. The stories we tell about our past matter and the facts we choose to remember (and forget) are important. Why else would we be fighting over them?

For LGBTQ people, history is particularly important. For too long our existence has been denied and erased. The stories we tell about our past justify and legitimate our existence in the present. It’s why unearthing and reclaiming our history was one of the highest priorities of the gay and lesbian rights movement in the 1970s.

So, when I started seeing inaccurate or hyperbolic social media posts last year, on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, I dug into my history books (the very ones now littering my office floor) and gathered what we know about Stonewall into a short primer. You can read it here:

Tl;dr: the Stonewall Uprising was instigated and promulgated by a pretty diverse group of marginalized people: overlapping groups of homeless street youths, gender transgressive people (butch lesbians, effeminate men, those we would now call transgender), gay men, sex workers, and people of color. These facts are supported by a number of photographs, first-hand accounts, and oral histories.

There’s no question gender-transgressive people of color lead the uprising at key moments. At other points, it’s clear they didn’t. Marsha P. Johnson was a major force during the riots but it’s not clear Sylvia Rivera was ever there. (She changed her story frequently.) But there’s just not a lot of historical evidence to support the claim that Stonewall was led solely by Black and Brown transgender people or that, without their actions, there would be no LGBTQ+ rights movement or Pride month in 2020.

But who gets to decide this?

Several years ago, when I was soliciting proposals for Living Out Loud, an LGBTQ+ studies textbook I edited (see below), I received an intriguing proposal from an advanced graduate student and scholar of color for a chapter on LGBTQ+ political activism. It centered people/political movements of color but it didn’t cover the fundamentals I was looking for in an introductory chapter on LGBTQ+ politics.

I was torn. One of the major goals of the project was better coverage and integration of topics and themes about transgender people and people of color. But college textbooks that innovate faster than the faculty who teach the subject matter don’t get assigned to college students. An unread textbook benefits no one.

I consulted with my publisher and we agreed: as the first narrative textbook of its kind, we probably needed to err on the side of caution. We’d need to hew pretty closely to what’s already being taught if we wanted the book to be adopted by instructors. So, I offered to allow the proposal’s author to address some of these innovative topics in a page-long focus box, which she refused — a choice I respect.

This was not my first or last lesson in the limits of my power as a textbook’s editor and the way market economics can determine the content and appearance of academic textbooks. For a different book project, I’d have jumped at the chance to include an innovative chapter on LGBTQ+ politics that centered people and movements of color. But it wasn’t a good fit for the book I was contracted to edit.

My point here is to suggest there is no inevitable LGBTQ+ narrative or history, and the stories we tell about our community are always political and contested. Not everyone has the same access to the tools of ‘story-telling’ or ‘history-making,’ or the power to amplify their preferred story if they do. And those abilities are going to be influenced by various factors, such as racial, ethnic, economic, and gender inequality.

Similarly, the history we tell about the Stonewall Uprising is more than a matter of known and knowable facts and dates. It’s political and contested, as recent Tweets suggest. It’s a function of power, access, and means. In light of this, we might ask, “Whose interests are served by the prevailing history of Stonewall?” And, “Who gets to decide Stonewall will be the origin story for the LGBTQ+ community?”

In their 2006 article “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth,” sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Suzanna M. Crage argue that numerous features of the Stonewall Uprising allowed it to be commemorated despite several other prior instances of violent LGBTQ+ resistance to police repression:

The Stonewall riots were remembered because they were the first to meet two conditions: activists considered the event commemorable and had the mnemonic capacity to create a commemorative vehicle. That this conjuncture occurred in New York in 1969, and not earlier or elsewhere, was a result of complex political developments that converged in this time and place. The success of the national commemorative ritual planned by New York activists depended on its resonance, not only in New York but also in other U.S. cities. Gay community members found Stonewall commemorable and the proposed parade an appealing form for commemoration. The parade was amenable to institutionalization, leading it to survive over time and spread around the world.

Their careful analysis of the development of the “Stonewall myth” reveals it to be “an achievement of gay liberation rather than an account of its origins.”

But an achievement by whom?

The dominant story — The Stonewall Myth — constructed about those violent nights in late June 1969 is that repressed gay men in New York City spontaneously burst out of their ‘closets,’ heroically and violently resisted police harassment, and launched a global movement for gay rights. Missing here is the fact that The Stonewall Myth was promulgated largely by middle-class White gay men with the privilege and means to construct a particular (and partial) narrative about ‘their’ movement’s origins. Not coincidentally, 1960s New York was the center of the country’s advertising, marketing, and media industries. The middle-class White gay men who worked in those industries used their professional skills to syndicate The Stonewall Myth nationwide.

In The Stonewall Myth, gender-variant people and people of color are minimized or absent entirely. The geographic breadth of mid-century transgender and homosexual resistance gets narrowed to a story about how New York City’s gay community “sparked” a global social justice movement following a singular moment of resistance in 1969. And the political demands of some of the earliest activists get moderated or silenced. The radical militancy of “Gay Liberation” morphs into the ‘respectable’ liberalism of “Gay Pride,” which in turn is co-opted by rainbow capitalism.

If transgender people had a similar social status and economic means, we might be celebrating the birth of the modern TLGBQ+ rights movement in August, the month in 1966 when a diverse group of transgender sex workers pushed back against police harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco. The building that housed the cafeteria would now be preserved as a national historic landmark and offer a site for TLGBQ+ reverence and pilgrimage.

If Black LGBTQ+ people enjoyed the same status and means as middle-class White gay men, we might locate the origins of the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when many bisexual, homosexual, and gender-expansive artists, musicians, and authors of color rose to national prominence. And figures like Gladys Bentley, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Ma Rainey, and Alain Locke would be central to any story about the origins of the LGBTQ+ community, movement, and activism.

But they aren’t. And that’s an “achievement” of The Stonewall Myth.

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Meme image circulated on Twitter (June 2020).

One of the frustrating aspects of Stonewall is also one of its beneficial features: because the riots took place over several nights, across a number of different spaces, and involved so many different types of people, the uprising can be claimed by almost anyone. Stonewall is capacious. (It’s like Woodstock for queer people — everyone was there!)

Yes, there are the constraints of the surviving evidence but who’s to say for certain that Marsha P. Johnson didn’t “throw the first brick”? Or that Sylvia Rivera wasn’t there at all? No one had a panoramic view of the uprising in its spatial and temporal entirety.

But the capacity of Stonewall to support multiple stories is not the same as the capacity to produce and amplify a specific story. Even as we recognize the role gender-variant and/or people of color played at key moments in LGBTQ+ history, we must also acknowledge that not everyone has had the same power to decide which are the central figures and key moments.

The Stonewall Myth is fundamentally a story created and syndicated by middle-class White gay men to serve middle-class White gay men’s interests. It’s served those interests well, offering a narrative platform for progress on issues like marriage equality, military service, employment non-discrimination, healthcare access, and the ability to live open, authentic lives.

That doesn’t mean The Stonewall Myth is evil or malicious, only that it’s partial and self-serving, as are most stories about the past (aka “history”). But, as an origin story, The Stonewall Myth might not serve so well to advance the interests of transgender people or LGBTQ+ people of color, even if their part in the Stonewall Uprising is now better known and recognized.

Their roots might lie elsewhere and else-when. And require a different origin story — one that’s not yet been written; one that doesn’t place Stonewall at its center. And that might require upsetting more than a few shelves of LGBTQ+ history books.

Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.

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Associate Professor — Gender & Sexuality Studies (U. Ill. Springfield)

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