Books

The Many Stories of Stonewall

Attempting to complicate dominant narratives, The Stonewall Reader offers a broader, but not always balanced, range of accounts.

The Stonewall Reader, edited by The New York Public Library, (New York: Penguin Books, 2019). (image courtesy Penguin Random House)

We’ve all heard the thing about history being written by the victors. But what does it mean to try to piece together a history where victories are not clear, narratives have been appropriated, viewpoints vary, and facts are scattered somewhere in the mix?

This June’s 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, or Riots, or Uprising (as you prefer), has given rise to countless exhibits (here are just a few: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and articles reflecting on a poorly reported and much revisited moment in LGBTQ history, a moment that is credited as a pivotal turning point in the fight for LGBTQ rights in the United States. A particularly noteworthy addition to these commemorations is the new book, The Stonewall Reader, edited by Jason Baumann, the Susan and Douglas Dillon Assistant Director for Collection Development and Coordinator of Humanities and LGBT Collections at the New York Public Library. It’s noteworthy precisely because it tries to capture the manifold nature of history, giving space to over 40 different individuals who offer perspectives on those fateful nights in Greenwich Village.

To talk about the book, it’s necessary to lay out some basic facts about those late June nights in New York City. The evening of Friday, June 27, 1969, was a night like many others at the mafia-controlled Stonewall Inn, a bar that served a mixed clientele who, at the time, identified as drag queens, transvestites, gay men, and lesbians — a number of whom were also sex workers — as well as individuals who did not publicly identify as any of the above. The proportion of different identity groups within the bar is often debated (a point the book addresses) but some number of each of those groups was present within the bar on a regular basis. As the evening wore on and the clock turned from late Friday to the wee morning hours of Saturday, June 28, police entered the bar in yet another raid, but this time they didn’t follow the usual script (police often raided gay bars simply to keep up appearances and get their regular payoffs from the mob). Violence erupted, instigated by some of the patrons inside the bar, and it is generally agreed today (despite many past attempts to paint a different picture) that it was people of color who defied gender norms — specifically trans women, drag queens, and butch lesbians — who were among the primary instigators of the violent resistance. The usual power dynamics switched, and fast. Overpowered and afraid, the police barricaded themselves inside the bar, and crowds joined those on the streets surrounding the bar, and thus, the Stonewall Rebellion was born. And it didn’t end that night; crowds of resistors and police were on the streets again later that Saturday night, as well as on Sunday night.

Another set of basic facts that is important to understand when it comes to Stonewall is that this was not the first time queer people revolted against police violence. Police violence was a fact of life then — as it continues to be today — for those who could not or would not assimilate into the larger society, for those whose class, race, gender presentation, sexuality, or means of earning money did not adhere to social norms or punitive laws and the entrenched racism that underpinned them. Some of the more prominent antecedents to Stonewall include the 1959 trans and sex worker-led riot at Cooper’s Do-nuts in Los Angeles; the 1965 civil rights-inspired sit-in and protests led by gender non-conforming teenagers at Dewey’s Lunch Counter in Philadelphia; and the trans and sex worker-led riot of 1966 at San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria.

In today’s world, where we’ve grown used to Google searches, pithy articles, and online videos that offer quick answers to our questions about history, it’s difficult to understand why Stonewall’s history is contested at all. It’s easy to think there should just be an article to read or a video to watch that will lay it all out in 10 minutes or less. But the reality is that no major national papers covered Stonewall when it was happening. And there was virtually no press coverage — even in independent or local papers — of the three preceding events mentioned above. It wasn’t just that cultural gatekeepers didn’t find the events noteworthy, but also that violence against queer people — particularly poor and gender non-conforming queer people — was a fact of life, and many of the most hidebound members of society felt they deserved it. People didn’t care.

Because of this dearth of comprehensive recorded history it became easy for people to claim they had the real story of what happened those nights. Consequently, it was the people who had more access to publishers and publications in the days and years that followed — specifically cis white men — who ended up crafting many of the first and most lasting narratives of Stonewall. While it is not wrong for white cis men to write elements of our history, what is wrong is that their stories are often given more weight, more publication opportunities, and, in turn, more legitimacy. This has been the case with Stonewall, as with so many other instances throughout history.

Enter The Stonewall Reader. With this book, Baumann works to complicate dominant narratives, inserting the voices of queer people of color, trans women, and lesbians, voices that often directly contradict images splashed across movies screens or tired old saws about Judy Garland’s death setting off the violence. These firsthand accounts offer a fuller picture of queer life before, during, and after those pivotal nights in New York. Capturing every angle of historical events like Stonewall is an impossible task, and it’s hard not to see the instances where the book inevitably falls short, but its efforts remind readers of the complexity buried underneath dominant narratives.

I couldn’t put the book down. I read it cover-to-cover in just a couple of days, and if it weren’t for having to earn a living and sleeping, I probably would’ve read it in a single day. Split into three sections that cover the years before Stonewall, the events of those three nights, and the years immediately following (up until the the end of the 1970s), the book offers a wider context to the stories of that evening, and presents a much clearer picture of the tensions that existed across communities.

There are so many great voices included that it’s difficult to choose highlights. Perspectives from Audre Lorde, Samuel Delaney, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson are included alongside those of individuals less well known at the national level, such as Jay Toole, a formerly homeless activist who is still fighting for homeless queers in New York City, and Kiyoshi Kuromiya, one of the founders of Philadelphia’s Gay Liberation Front.

The collected testimonies offer not just insights into moments of queer history, but also demonstrate the wildly different ways people of varied backgrounds responded to oppression and lived in spite of it — from the stolid appeals for “fair, unbiased consideration by our government,” written to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson by Franklin Kameny, a member of Washington, DC’s Mattachine Society, to the account of Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who recalled her attempts to get knocked unconscious as quickly as possible by the police on that first night because “if they don’t knock you out, they will continue to beat your ass till they break bones in your body.”

The book also offers moments of deep discomfort. In many instances, it’s clear how much the anti-war and civil rights struggles were informing and inspiring some of the early activists featured, but there are also numerous instances in the book where white writers or speakers compare the plight of homosexuals to that of Black Americans in ways that are deeply problematic. In Kameny’s 1961 letter to President Kennedy, for example, he argues that homosexuals are more deserving of the government’s protection than Black Americans — a needless assertion that is painful to read and highlights the ways in which some early white-led homophile organizations did not embrace or even see the full humanity of Black Americans who were also queer. While some might not want such reminders included, the reality is that a history of the time would be less complete without them.

There are some choices Baumann makes that I didn’t agree with. For instance, in a book focused on a moment of radical resistance, opening with a foreword by Edmund White — whose narrative of the time is as concerned with making it to cocktail parties and therapy appointments as with the more pressing topic at handfeels out of touch with the spirit of the book and a bit callous, especially since White’s name is the only one to appear on the front cover. Similarly ill-considered is the interview excerpt included in the section about the events of Stonewall that features Marsha P. Johnson. It features so little of Johnson — one of the primary figures in the Stonewall Rebellion — and so much commentary from Randy Wicker, a man who wasn’t in the bar that first night and didn’t think any of it was a good idea. These and other choices I questioned while reading the book were frustrating precisely because they foreground voices and perspectives that have already been heard quite a bit, leaving less space for those whose words haven’t reached wide audiences.

Despite my disagreements, the book stands as a worthy attempt at capturing the impossible and resisting singular claims upon history. For those interested in learning more about a critical turning point in American history, this is a reader that will not provide easy answers for an event that should not be considered easily.

The Stonewall Reader (2019), published by Penguin Books, is now available in print.

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