Avila-Saavedra, Guillermo. “The Construction of Queer Memory: Media Coverage of Stonewall 25.” Unpublished paper delivered at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference, San Francisco, August 2006. Accessible here.
Subject: An examination of the role of media in the shaping of the role of the Stonewall riots in the gay collective memory.
Main Points: The author studies the media attention given to “Stonewall 25,” the 1994 celebration of the 25th anniversary of the NYC Stonewall riots. It’s an interesting paper that deals with collective memory, collective identity, and heritage building. So, he spends some time spelling out his theoretical approach/understanding of the concepts of memory and identity formation. He then specifically focuses on the media’s role in shaping a specific Stonewall narrative. He argues that “the media are complicit in shaping a memory of Stonewall that reflects the political goals of the American queer movement in the 1990s.”
This narrative portrayed by Stonewall 25 organizers and the media was one that portrayed the gay community as a diverse, but ultimately singular or united community. In this sense, the “unity through diversity” discourse was forced back onto the 1969 riots themselves. In none of the New York Times articles or Stonewall documentaries that appeared for the 25th anniversary was it mentioned that the Stonewall Inn was primarily a hangout for drag queens, transvestites, and gays and lesbians of color; in other words, it was a place for individuals who did not fit into the white, middle class, male gay culture that was dominant at the time. But as Avila-Saavedra demonstrates, all of the media for the 1994 anniversary rewrote history and portrayed the Stonewall Riots as a coming together of diverse peoples, gays and lesbians of all walks of life united in their ‘gayness.’
Even the reporting of the Stonewall 25 events themselves were portrayed in a particular way. Reporters focused on the celebration of diversity and unity of queer America, overlooking the fact that a large fissure had emerged during the planning of the parade and events. The Stonewall Veterans Association, members of NY ACT UP, and other more radical activists protested that the radical and revolutionary origins of the gay liberation movement (and the Riots themselves) were being purposefully ignored, in place of a “Eurocentric,” assimilationist, middle class definition of “gay.” One newspaper did report that the radical groups had been left out of Stonewall 25, and that “the spirit of the riots had been lost on a celebration of middle-class assimilation dream with its patriarchal and racial components intact” (7). Few media outlets reported that these protesters decided to have their own parade, or when it was reported, the media focused instead on the fact that, at the end, the two parades merged together in a display of harmony. Therefore, Avila-Saavedra claims that the media reports of Stonewall 25 not only commemorated the Stonewall riots, but helped turn them into a myth as well, a myth that was useful for the LGBT politics of the 1990s (coming out, lobbying for rights like marriage, etc.).
To back up such claims, Avila-Saavedra looks at several media outlets. The New York Times, he shows, ran completely uncritical accounts of the Stonewall riots, displaying them in a Whiggish, progressive account of triumph, leaving out all of the people who did not fit into this coherent story. The Village Voice, an alternative newsweekly published from NYC’s Greenwich Village, on the other hand, gave more attention to the radicals’ protests of the Stonewall 25 celebrations. Moreover, the Village Voice published interviews with witnesses of the Stonewall riot that challenged the neat and tidy narrative being told by gay rights leaders. Therefore, “the coverage in the Village Voice is less concerned with consensus.” The Advocate focused not on the significance of Stonewall riots, the meaning of which was taken for granted, but instead focused on the forms of celebration by questioning whether parades and concerts can adequately commemorate such momentous events. The Advocate article “fails to voice dissenting memories and interpretations of the riots and implicitly endorses their mythical significance” (8). He then analyzes how Stonewall was portrayed on TV through the PBS special “Out Rage 69,” the official Stonewall 25 documentary “Stonewall 25: The Future is Ours,” and ends with a description of the Stonewall movie, produced by Nigel Finch. All of these, Avila-Saavedra shows, present an uncritical reproduction of the Stonewall Myth that has been circulated and then commemorated by the celebrations of 1994.
My Comments: This is a really fascinating paper, and it deals with a lot of the same themes that my own research will. I like its focus on the media in forming collective memories. In particular, the paper reveals the legitimizing nature of the American media. “This obsession with media attention is exemplary of the queer movement’s search for legitimization through one of the most ubiquitous institutions in American culture. It did not happen if it was not on TV.” So, these types of events are a part of what David Lowenthal would call heritage formation – fashioning a past that is useful for the present. But, like this paper shows, such endeavors – especially ones that focus on unity and singular narratives – often leave people out.
For more books on the history of gay rights, sexuality, and gender, see my full list of book reviews.