Movements & Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth

Photo courtesy of www.cbsnews.com

Photo courtesy of http://www.cbsnews.com

Armstrong, Elizabeth A. & Suzanna M. Crage.  “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth” in American Sociological Review, Vol. 71, No. 5 (Oct., 2006):  724-751

Subject:  The authors seek to explain why the Stonewall riots secured such a dominant place in the collective memory of gay rights activism while other similar events prior to Stonewall did not.

Main Points:  The authors lay out a sociological approach to the study of creating and maintaining collective memories through public commemoration.  Because the authors are sociologists, this article reads more like a lab report than it does the typical narrative of historical articles.  But they do provide some helpful ways of thinking about how collective memory works.  The main point of this article is to help explain why the 1969 events at the Stonewall Inn acquired such significance while previous similar events did not.

Even though their argument is more nuanced, it can be summed up as follows:  Stonewall is remembered because it is marked by an international commemorative ritual: an annual gay pride parade.  Moreover, the commemoration of Stonewall riots was able to be successful because of a confluence of historically specific conditions:  It was the first commemorable event to occur at a time and place in which homosexuals had enough capacity to produce a commemorative vehicle like an annual parade event.  While other events may have been seen as worthy of being commemorated, activists did not have the exposure or capability to produce a lasting commemorative event (or “vehicle” as the authors call it).  In this sense, context (time and place) was the decisive factor.

In an introductory section, the authors explain the concepts they feel are necessary for successful collective memory formation:  1) Commemorabilty (something worth being commemorated); 2) Mnemonic capacity (skills, network, and resources needed to create commemorative vehicles such as annual parades); 3) Resonance (this includes a receptive audience as well as the institutionalization of the commemoration event so that it has duration over space and time).

The authors study five different events that had the potential to be the spark that ignited a national movement, but because they lacked some of the necessary factors listed above, were not commemorated, and as such, were eclipsed by the myth of the Stonewall Riots.  The first was the police raid on a gay New Year’s party in San Francisco, January 1965 (commemorable, but lacking mnemonic capacity).  Second was the San Francisco Compton’s Cafeteria Disturbance of August 1966 (mnemonic capacity, but lack of commemorability). Third:  Black Cat bar raid, LA in January 1967 (mnemonic capacity, but lack of commemorability).  Fourth was the Stonewall Riots in NYC, June 1969 (commemorable and activists had mnemonic capacity, able to create resonance).  Lastly, the Snake Pit bar raid in NYC in March 1970 (not commemorable because it was not “the first” – even though there was mnemonic capacity).

Why was Stonewall so commemorable?  Because those at the Stonewall Inn broke the “script” of normal police/homosexual interaction.  This time, Stonewall patrons fought back, spilling the incident onto the street where it gathered momentum and lasted for days.  A gay liberation mindset led activists to see the political possibilities of the developing situation (737).  The riots happened late in the 1960s, after homophile movements and, later, radical activists had pushed for the rights and visibility of homosexuals for years.  So, by 1969, radical gay liberation activists (especially in New York) had the necessary “capital” (exposure and connections) to turn this riot into a symbol for their cause.  “Without a radical political approach, activists would not have responded by escalating the conflict.  They would not have created or circulated grand narratives of its importance, nor would they have planned commemorative rituals” (744).  The authors show that while there were riots in other cities, many of the liberal (or, according to gay liberationists, ‘conservative’) activists who sought to fight for rights within the socio-political system did not see a violent riot as something worth commemorating, and did not want to be tied to the radicals of the New Left (733).  The authors argue that this also helps explain why San Francisco (a ‘headquarters’ for homophile movements) did not participate in gay pride/Stonewall commemoration for two years.

The authors contribute the success of the “Stonewall Myth” in LGBT history’s collective memory to the fact that, while Stonewall was not the first riot, Stonewall activists were the first to claim to be first (725).  Prior riots were intentionally glossed over while later riots weren’t as important because they weren’t first.  Already in July 1970 pamphlets passed out as a summary of the first commemoration of Stonewall, stated that the 1969 Stonewall Riots “marked the first time that large numbers of gay people stood up against repression” (743).  This ‘unique’ place in history granted the Stonewall riots with the most commemorability, and has thus built the “wildfire narrative” in which Stonewall/NYC was the “spark” that “ignited” the gay rights movement all across the nation.

Despite scholarship demonstrating that Stonewall was not the first instance of gay resistance, the myth has continued to hold its ground because simpler narratives (collective memories) are more useful and easier to transfer than messier, more complicated ones.

Armstrong & Crage’s article also demonstrates the complexity of myths – their formation and longevity.  It clearly shows us that myths are more than fairy-tales, and that they shouldn’t be simply dismissed for containing factual inaccuracies.  Myths, anecdotes, and histories combine to inform our collective memories of the past, and thus, myths are as important to understanding our views of the past as scholarship is.

 

For more books on LGBT history and the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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