Stonewall and the Politics of Memory

tags: gay history, Stonewall, LGBT

Timothy Stewart-Winter is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark and the author of Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics, which will be published in January 2016 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. He was interviewed about Stonewall on NPR’s All Things Considered in September. Follow him on Twitter @timothysw. Thumbnail Image - "Stonewall Inn 1969" by Diana Davies, copyright owned by New York Public Library - Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

In the summer of 1969, the word “homosexual” appeared once on the front page of the New York Times: sometime during the last weekend in June, vigilantes in Queens chopped down several dozen trees in a wooded area because they were upset men were cruising there at night. That same weekend, people rioted outside a Greenwich Village gay bar after a police raid—a story the Times covered in a much shorter item on an interior page. Days later, in a digest for the most important gay newsletter between the coasts, Chicago’s William B. Kelley gave the two events equal space: “Riot, Tree-Cutting Mark NYC Gay Scene.”

No one knew, on the first night of the Stonewall rebellion, that one month later activists would lead a peaceful march on the NYPD’s Sixth Police Precinct, or that the one-year anniversary would see marchers in four U.S. cities proclaiming “gay liberation.” TV networks routinely flew motion-picture footage across the ocean from Vietnam for domestic broadcast, but they sent no cameras downtown to cover Stonewall—not even on the sixth night. No video has surfaced.

But in Roland Emmerich’s movie Stonewall, when a glowing, gauzy dawn breaks after the first night of rioting, a new era in gay history has already begun. The movie fast-forwards to the one-year anniversary. As a result we see almost nothing of the year in which Stonewall in fact became important.

For historians, too much happened later. An unexpected clash between bar patrons and policemen—patrons managed to barricade cops inside the bar—was a political opportunity. New York gay activists grabbed it and ran with it.

Emmerich’s movie about the 1969 uprising against police harassment, the first theatrically-released dramatization in twenty years, is not like “Kinsey” or “Milk”—flawed Hollywood fictionalizations that I can still imagine teaching with. The strangest thing is that much of it takes place in Indiana. As the movie begins, Danny has been admitted to Columbia University with a scholarship for the fall 1969 semester, but, caught giving the quarterback a blowjob, flees his small-town Midwestern high school mid-spring. While fighting to hold onto his scholarship, he falls in with a gang of homeless but lovable queer youths, led by effeminate Puerto Rican Ray. Danny gets a job at an Italian grocery—to Christopher Street what Mr. Hooper’s store is to Sesame Street—yet faces a moral dilemma when his new friends want him to steal things for them.  ...

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