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Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity

BY ON April 24, 2017

My objective in creating stonewallhistory.us has been to collect a range of documents, images, texts and testimony about the controversial and crucial Stonewall rebellion. Presenting these items in an online digital database provides an entry point into the complex, tangled, web of stories and memories that construct the Stonewall narrative. Through this engagement with the past, the audience can determine for themselves if answers to the many questions that remain are possible – or even desirable. The accepted Stonewall narrative is that the riots are the spark that ignited the LGBT rights movement.  For the most part, the community has embraced this view.  Although the collective understanding that Stonewall is significant is not debated, on most other aspects agreement is hard to find: Which segment of the community led the way organizing protest? Did gay male social networks have a profound effect on organizing in the gay rights movement? Was the early homophile movement influential, or even considered by the more radical movement that emerged post-Stonewall?  Were trans individuals influential in gay liberation?  Were people of color invited to participate in activism?  Who was really there that night in June of 1969?  Who started the rebellion?

The facts and details of the rebellion are open for interpretation and in my opinion should remain so, for as this project hopes to demonstrate, Stonewall and the resulting birth of the “gay revolution” were very much spontaneous and creative. Barbie Zelizer writes in Remembering to Forget  (a study of the impact of images of the Holocaust on collective memory) “…we allow collective memories to fabricate, rearrange, elaborate and omit details about the past, pushing aside accuracy and authenticity so as to accommodate broader issues of identity formation, power and authority, and political affiliation.”[1] Zelizer’s thesis, which could also be considered a warning, helped me to recognize that even the stories that emanate from those with the least power, who exist on the margins of society, are impacted by political and social influences. In the case of the Stonewall narrative the broader social movements of the time, the militant protest culture, the youth-oriented counterculture and consciousness raising all converged to help leaders of the nascent gay rights movement form a concept of identity, affiliation, and authority for the community. In this case, the authority that was exerted was the concept of oppression.  Prior to Stonewall, many gays and lesbians existed quietly in the closet but enjoyed a moderate level of comfort and stability within their social lives and to a degree in society at large as long as they were reserved and respectable. The new authority, exercised by the liberation movement, was one that asked for more than tolerance and required acceptance.

Come Out! newspaper of Gay Liberation Front, 1970

I decided early on that recording oral histories would be a crucial part of this public history project.  Alessandro Portelli’s examination of the history of the labor movement in Italy through oral histories was an inspiration for this decision.  I found some similarities in the blurring of facts and chronology between the story of Stonewall and the narrative he chronicles in The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories. Nan Alamilla-Boyd notes that when writing his book, Gay New York George Chauncey states, “early in my research it became clear that oral histories would be the single most important source of evidence concerning the internal workings of the gay world.”[2]  In my interviews I too became keenly aware of the hierarchies present within gay social circles. The power of listening to the recorded voices of my informants, elder members of the community, provides a uniquely accessible point of entry for those who may not be familiar with the events described. The crucial next step now that the site is built, the data collected and content written, is to disseminate it. Hearing the voices of older members of the community is something that can draw a listener into the rich history of the liberation movement. Alamilla-Boyd talks about the voices heard in oral histories as texts “…open to interpretation and their disclosures should be understood as part of a larger process of reiteration.” She questions whether factual details matter or whether a more romantic story is told through oral history.[3]  Certainly the Stonewall story is romanticized as any other “battle” or “revolution” has been throughout history. But for some, it was perceived as a tool in a broader series of actions and reactions. The activist community in New York was clearly media savvy and therefore capitalized on the attention the unrest attracted, even the most disparaging. If it were not for the media coverage and the ensuing controversies, the commemorative potential of Stonewall may not have been realized.

The individual interpretations of participants, witnesses, activists, and authors also provide the means to shape the factors that contributed to Stonewall’s “success” as a catalyst and create a narrative that resonates beyond simple facts and a linear sequence of events. The development of this schematic narrative is echoed in the testimony of those I interviewed and also in the earliest written accounts such as the Rat Subterranean News coverage of the incident: “Soon pandemonium broke loose. Cans, bottles, rocks, trash cans, finally a parking meter crashed the windows and door,” the Rat reporter, known only as “Tom” writes.  He concludes, “What was and should have always been theirs, what should have been the free control of the people was dramatized, shown up for what it really was: an instrument of power and exploitation.  It was theater, totally spontaneous. There was no bullshit.”[4]

Come Out! newspaper of Gay Liberation Front, 1970

The development of this story into the schematic narrative of Stonewall is set in motion by the grassroots organizing that develops almost immediately after the first night of the rebellion. The narrative that develops represents elements that are derived from the protest movement culture of the late sixties and is tied to notions of identity that envelop the specific narrative (individual components that are arranged and interpreted schematically). [5] Craig Rodwell, Jim Fouratt, Martha Shelley as well as Sylvia Rivera can be seen as shaping this narrative of Stonewall Rebellion, while Dick Leitsch, Vito Russo and others authorize its re-telling. Despite the fact that this was by no means the first violent protest against police harassment, the event is instilled with the significance of the activist’s interpretation within the context of broader social movements of the time.

I hope to continue building the collection of stories, images, and documents contained on Stonewallhistory.us with the goal of bringing in as many voices and interpretations of the past as possible. Contributions of digitized archival material or written testimony and comments are welcome and can be submitted through the “contribute an item” tab on the home page.


[1] Barbie Zelizer, Remebering to Forget, University of Chicago Press; 1998

[2] Nan Alamilla-Boyd. 2008. “Who is the Subject? Queer Theory Meets Oral History.” Journal of the History of Sexuality (2): 177

[3] Ibid.

[4] Unknown, “The Rat, July 9-23, 1969, pg 6.,” Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity, accessed April 7, 2017, https://stonewallhistory.omeka.net/items/show/56.

[5] Knut Lundby. 2008. Digital Storytelling, Mediatized Stories: Self-Representations in New Media Peter Lang.


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