Posts Tagged With: memory studies

The Construction of Queer Memory: Media Coverage of Stonewall 25

Stonewall 25

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  Unpublished paper delivered at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference, San Francisco, August 2006.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

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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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Shattered Past

Jarausch & Geyer

Jarausch, Konrad J. and Michael Geyer.  Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

In this book, Jarausch and Geyer have attempted to set the new direction for writing twentieth century German history.  Gone is the Sonderweg thesis; gone is national history; gone are master narratives of any kind.  What the authors offer as replacement is a collage of German histories that come closer to truly representing what happened in Germany during the last century.  Shattered Past offers new analytical and interpretive frameworks that the authors hope will help explain how Germany went from the devastating Third Reich to the prosperous Federal Republic of Germany.

At the heart of this book lies the contention that there are no master narratives that are adequate to explain Germany’s turbulent past.  The title phrase “shattered past,” refers to the fact that Germany’s past is fractured politically, socially, and even geographically.  The narrative of national history lost credibility when it was used for legitimizing mass violence by the Nazis.  And while Marxist history sought to create an “emancipatory history” (61), it ultimately became nothing but the mouthpiece of the SED dictatorship in East Germany.  Lastly, the authors assert that a liberal, progressive narrative – even one that ‘admits’ that the Great War, the Third Reich, and socialist East Germany were ‘detours’ – is not a satisfying narrative.  Instead of seeing 1918, 1933, 1945, and 1989 as aberrations of a teleological German history, the authors ultimately conclude that “uncertainty might be the principle of twentieth century history rather than an abnormality to be explained away” (350).

While Jarausch and Geyer are leery of single master narratives, they do suggest a historical approach that they feel is most able to create these new, alternate German histories.  By using the methodologies and approaches of cultural history, we may be able to rewrite German histories “from the margins to decenter received conceptions of what it meant to be German at a given time” (83).  In this light, Jarausch and Geyer are interested in German identities.  “Cultural history explores the ways and means by which individual and social bodies constitute themselves, how they interact with each other, and how they rip themselves apart” (15).

The book lays out seven themes that should act as “guideposts in deciphering the shifting map of territories and people that make up the twentieth century German past” (18).  These themes include: war and genocide, the contested nature of German governance, the decline of German power in Europe, migration of German peoples, the struggle over German identity, competing visions of German womanhood, and lastly, the rise of consumerism.

By viewing Germany’s twentieth century past through these seven themes, we may gain a more complex, and thus accurate understanding of the shattered past.  More focus would then be given to peoples that previous master narratives had marginalized, like women and homosexuals.

Women’s history would no longer be a separate “critical counternarrative,” but would be central to understanding the gendered nature of power and identity (247, 268).  Part of these German histories would be the fact that national boundaries would no longer be as important, and people who still claimed a German identity but who did not live within Germany’s geographic borders (emigrants and refugees, for example) could still have an important place in their histories.

The book also has an interesting chapter on individual and collective memory in which the authors demonstrate that just as there are no adequate master narratives for historians, there is a vast array of personal narratives competing to make sense of Germany’s shattered past.

For more books on Modern German History, see my full list of book reviews here

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Divided Memory

Herf

Herf, Jeffrey.  Divided Memory: the Nazi Past in the Two Germanys.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Herf has written an in interesting and important study of the formation of official memories of the National Socialist regime in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR).  Because it is a study of ‘official’ memory, Herf looks at letters, memos, and other documents written by political leaders in both West Germany (FRG) and East Germany (GDR).  In the fifteen years since this book’s publication, the two official memories adopted by the two nations have become well known to scholars: the East downplayed or completely ignored any non-Communist suffering, while politicians in the West debated the place for differing memories of Nazism in the new democracy.  I think that Herf’s greatest contribution is in showing why these “divided memories” emerged.

In order to demonstrate “the significance of political memories for the construction of democracy and dictatorship in post-1945 German history,” Herf brings politics back into the discussion of memory, a topic that is often studied at the individual or “grass roots” level (2).  That is why he seeks to “illustrate the importance of politics for shaping the way a society thinks about its past while at the same timed drawing attention to the autonomous weight that traditions and interpretive frameworks exert on political life” (9).

Herf demonstrates that in East Germany, the main interpretive framework that the reigning Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) offered to its citizens regarding its Nazi past was one in which communists and socialists had fought against the fascist dictatorship.  Communists were at the center of this narrative in every way: as the leaders of the resistance, as the main victims, and eventually as the liberators (via the Soviet Union).  That is why when Communist Party leader Paul Merker returned from exile in Mexico after the war and began speaking about the persecution of Europe’s Jews, it didn’t sit well with the SED leadership.  Merker’s alternative memory, as well as his assertions that the DDR should make restitution payments to victims of Nazi crimes, directly challenged the official memories that the SED offered to the East Germans.  To acknowledge Jews as the prime target of Hitler’s Holocaust would undermine the SED’s official memory, which was the basis for legitimating the SED’s authority.    By 1950, Merker was pushed out of the Party and later convicted and imprisoned, and this symbolizes the “ascendancy of the universalizing and monopolistic rationality over the particularism, in this instance, of stubborn Jewish otherness” (95).

In West Germany, on the other hand, “multiple restorations” of older German traditions of opposition to Nazism arose after 1945.  Allied pressure (via the Nuremberg trials and de-Nazification processes) allowed for the emergence of different ways of establishing memories of the Nazi past.  Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of the CDU, though he established the Restitution Treaty with Israel, saw the establishment of a stabile democracy as more important than hunting out every single ex-Nazi and establishing an official memory of the “Final Solution.”  Others, like the first President Theodor Heuss and SPD leader Kurt Schumacher, wanted to more directly confront the Holocaust and the “frightful tragedy of the Jews” (273).

Ultimately, Herf shows that while the German populace (at least in the West) didn’t begin a larger public discussion of their Nazi past until the 1960s and 1970s, German officials on both sides of the divide established official memories early on.  In fact, East and West German officials saw the establishment of an official memory of the Nazi era as vital to the foundation of their respective states.  Moreover, they didn’t start from scratch; they pulled from their older traditions to help establish these new memories.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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