Posts Tagged With: stonewall riots

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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Rethinking the Gay & Lesbian Movement

Marc Stein

Stein, Marc.  Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement.  New York: Routledge, 2012. 

 

Subject:  A compact synthesis of the American gay and lesbian movement from 1950 to the early 1990s.

Main Points:  This is a slim book, but one packed full of information.  In a great introduction, Stein highlights the development of gay and lesbian scholarship, as well as the newer fields of queer theory and the history of sexuality.  He points out that there have been many great monographs dealing with a vast variety of topics, but asserts that it has been decades since someone has produced a synthesis account of the gay and lesbian movement in all of the United States.  This book is meant to fill that gap.  Scholars of gay & lesbian studies/queer theory/history of sexuality won’t really learn much new information from the book, but he does succeed in bringing together the latest research into one place and presenting it in a clear, understandable way.  It’s an insightful and academically serious book while also avoiding scholarly jargon and prose so that it’s open to readers who are just stepping into the field.  In that respect, this is meant to be more than just a textbook that tells what happened.

In the intro, Stein introduces readers to the idea of the socially constructed nature of gender, biological sex, and sexuality, though he never uses the term ‘socially constructed.’  He explains that when talking about different periods, one has to use different labels, since it’s inaccurate to speak about “queer activists” in the 1920s or “LGBT individuals” in the 1940s, for example.  Instead, he speaks about the homophile movement of the 1940s-1960s.  He then shows the development of gay liberation and lesbian feminism from 1969-1973, and the subsequent gay and lesbian activism that extended to 1990.  After that, he explains, it’s more appropriate to speak of LGBT and queer activism.

Early on Stein makes it clear that this book is not meant to be a history of all people who have sex with people of the same sex.  Instead, it is meant to chronicle the important developments of those men and women who identified as gays and lesbians (he pays less attention to bi and trans individuals) and who were politically and social active during this time period.  “As defined in this book, the gay and lesbian movement has been a small but influential component of a much larger gay and lesbian world, which in turn has been a small but influential component of a much larger universe of people who engage in same-sex sex.  Most people who engage in same-sex sex do not think of themselves as gay or lesbian and most gay and lesbian people are not activists” (9).  He then defines a “movement” as having four components:  a movement is an (1) organized, (2) collective, and (3) sustained (4) effort to produce, prevent, or reverse social changes.  Based on this definition, the gay and lesbian movement did not start in American until the 1950s.

In the first chapter, he provides a very brief overview of same-sex sex in North America between 1500 and 1940.  The content is oversimplified, but his point (which he makes clearly) is that understandings of sexuality have changed over time.  He provides many examples of how the history of gender variance is intertwined with the history of sexual variance, but these are not necessarily the same histories.  The second chapter deals with homophile activism (1940-1969) and shows how thousands of people who engaged in same-sex sex did not think of themselves as gay or lesbian – and did not become political activists, but who pushed for homosexual rights nonetheless.  He reveals that, in the years between 1950-1953, these groups had leftist political leanings, while between 1953-1961, homosexual rights advocates were predominantly liberal.  The years between 1961 and 1969 saw a diversification and radicalization of homophile organizations.  The main contribution of this chapter is to historicize the Stonewall riots and show that while these homophile organizations remained small in comparison to later movements and did not achieve the mass mobilization that occurred with post-Stonewall activists, they did have achievements and laid the foundation for the movement’s future successes and failures (41).  In this respect, this chapter reminded me of The Lavender Scare (D. Johnson, 2004) and The Straight State (Canaday, 2009) in that it points out that “the politicization of people who engaged in same-sex sex occurred in part because of the unjust policies and practices they experienced and witnessed in the context and aftermath of the [second world] war” (42).

In the third chapter (1969-1973), our attention is turned away from groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.  He shows that the Stonewall riots of 1969 (set in a larger socio-political context of revolution and reform) acted as a rallying point for men and women who came to identify themselves as gay and lesbians.  Radical gay liberation and radical lesbian feminism dominated the beginning of this period and called for a complete sexual revolution and overthrow of social norms.  By the end of this period, more liberal gay and lesbian reformist controlled the movement.  These reformers called for gay and lesbians to come out and fight for rights, but did not call for a complete overhaul of US society; they sought to reform the system through political lobbying.

Chapter four deals with the era of conservative backlash between 1973 and 1981.  While gay and lesbian reformers won a victory in 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a mental disorder, soon the New Right and new Christian Right began mobilizing to fight the “gay agenda.”  This forced the gay and lesbian activists to become more politicized, reforming their self-image into a minority group that deserved political protection (as opposed to the expression of a sexual way of being that potentially all could express).  While the gay liberationists had rebuked politics, the media, and the medical establishment, the gay liberals were forced to rely on these establishments for aid against the New Right.

The fifth chapter deals with the age of AIDS (1981-1990) and Stein meticulously charts out how the AIDS epidemic helped to mobilize more gay and lesbian individuals while also bolstering the Christian Right’s attacks against the immorality of homosexuality.  He shows how hundreds of new gay and AIDS organizations sprang up across the nation, and how the failure of the Republican-led government to efficiently react to the epidemic led to the radicalization of these new gay/AIDS groups (like ACT UP).

In the last chapter (beyond 1990), Stein looks at the emergence of the LGBT and queer movements.  He sees this development as coming out of the identity crisis that AIDS forced on the gay and lesbian communities.  AIDS activists had re-radicalized the movement, claiming that the gay and lesbian movement since the mid 1970s had grown complacent and assimilationist.  Many threw off the identities of “gay” and “lesbian” because they were seen as embodying the white, middle class bias of the movement.  Instead, the acronym LGBT was adopted, purposefully putting the movement’s diversity front-and-center.  Still other political and cultural activists chose to fight identity politics altogether and thought of themselves as ‘queer’ – or simply non-conformist.  Therefore, queer could include people who had opposite-sex sex (non conformist straight folks) while also rejecting those who had same-sex sex (gays and lesbians) who were part of the monogamous, marriage regime.  However, Stein questions whether queer is really a non-identity or if it has simply become a new identity in itself.

My Comments:  This is a dense book.  It’s full of useful information and would be perfect as a textbook for an intro-level class (grad or undergrad).  I think I’m going to have to purchase a copy so that I can keep some of the chronology straight;  he highlights essentially all of the important groups, actors, events, and legislation.

One of the book’s greatest strengths, besides all of the factual information, is that he takes great pains to show that not everyone who had/has same-sex sex identified as gay or lesbian, and thus did not feel the need to be a part of this movement.  Moreover, he shows that this was not a single, united movement; there was tons of strife, especially since people of color pointed out that they were being left out of both the lesbian and gay organizations.  Therefore, Stein does a great job of showing “the movement’s” successes and failures (as defined by their own self-professed goals).

As a last note, the book has a great, extensive list suggested further reading.  The list is 15 pages long and is broken down thematically, with everything from “general studies” to “Native Americans and Native Alaskans” to “studies of pre-Stonewall trans activism.”  This is a really great resource.

 

For more books on the gay rights movement and the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews. 

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