The Stonewall Reader Edited by the New York Public Library 336 pp. Penguin Classics
There are already a great many books on the subject of the Stonewall uprising. Perhaps the best-known and most widely-read are those by Martin Duberman and David Carter, but many others have been published in recent years. With 2019 marking the 50th anniversary of the events, it was inevitable that even more would flood the market. But Penguin Classics’ The Stonewall Reader, compiled and edited by Jason Baumann of the New York Public Library, is a very welcome and invaluable addition. Instead of the usual (and frankly, impossible) attempt at creating a “straight” narrative of what exactly happened, Baumann has instead given us access to what may be the richest, most diverse and inclusive anthology of pre- and post-Stonewall-related writings and interviews ever assembled.
In the first section, “Before Stonewall,” we are granted an inside view of the formation of some of the earliest American groups and organizations seeking gay and lesbian liberation. (Acknowledgment of, and words describing, other sexual and gender minorities would not come for many years.) If you are not familiar with pre-Stonewall groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughter of Billitis, or with key figures like Audre Lorde, Barbara Gittings, and Frank Kameny, this and the following sections will give you a good introduction.
The shortest of the book’s three sections is the one devoted to the riot(s)/uprising itself (“During Stonewall”), and that was a wise choice on Baumann’s part. All of these eyewitness accounts conflict with one another to some degree, and that is not at all surprising given the chaos. But these contradictions are still being argued – heatedly – to this day. Who threw the first brick? (No, wait, it wasn’t a brick, it was a glass. No! It was a Molotov cocktail…It was a drag queen. No! It was a transgender woman. No! It was a butch lesbian. It was because Judy Garland had just died. No, that wasn’t that at all…etc.)
In the aftermath, and for decades to come, the most-ignored voices from Stonewall were those of trans women, gender-nonconforming folks, and people of color. In 1992, a set of (literally white) statues that depicted two cisgender men and two cisgender women were installed across the street from Stonewall Inn. It wasn’t until April of this year that statues of two trans women of color (Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, both of whom actively resisted police at Stonewall) were erected nearby. Better late than never.
Nevertheless, some readers might be surprised by what both women said about what happened, since it has become common lately to hear that either Johnson or Rivera were singularly responsible for starting the rebellion. Johnson herself, however, said that she wasn’t there at the start of the riots: “I was Uptown, and I didn’t get downtown until about two o’clock, because when I got downtown the place was already on fire.” And at a 2001 meeting of the Latino Gay Men of New York, Rivera said (somewhat blithely): “I have been given the credit for throwing the first Molotov cocktail by many historians, but I always like to correct it; I threw the second one.”
There are also contradictions between Rivera and Johnson’s description of the Stonewall Inn’s clientele. Johnson describes the crowd as “eclectic.” Rivera states: “The Stonewall wasn’t a bar for drag queens. Everybody keeps saying it was…If you were a drag queen, you could get into the Stonewall if they knew you. And there were only a certain number of drag queens that were allowed into the Stonewall at that time. This is where I get into arguments with people. They say, ‘Oh, no, it was a drag queen bar, it was a black bar.’ No, Washington Square Bar was the drag queen bar.” Ironically, the account by Edmund White (a white gay novelist, memoirist, and essayist who also wrote this collection’s Foreword) is much more insistent that “it wasn’t all those crewnecked white boys in the Hamptons and the Pines who changed things, but the black kids and Puerto Rican transvestites who came down to the Village on the subway…”
I don’t quote any of these as an argument, one way or another, for who was responsible for initiating the Stonewall uprising. What seems most clear, even with all of the contradictory statements, is that Stonewall was that rarest of events in the LGBT+ community: a group effort. It was accomplished by the people who were there initially, and by those who showed up in the subsequent hours and days. From an interview with Jay London Toole: “[T]hose that were arrested did not make that riot, did not make that rebellion, did not make that uproar. It was every fucking person that showed up in the thousands that made it…It was everybody as a community coming together and saying that’s enough…I’d seen every shade, every color, every body image there that night. It was all of us together, you know? And don’t let any history book tell you different.”
But Miss Major Griffin-Gracy probably said it most succinctly: “I don’t know what happened! All I know is, a fight ensued. And we were kickin’ their ass.”
In the final section of the book (“After Stonewall”), Baumann includes a wide range of accounts to describe events like the first Pride marches. Who knew that “Homosexuals for Ronald Reagan” marched just a few groups away from the most radical gay groups in the first Los Angeles pride march? The Rev. Troy Perry (founder of the Metropolitan Community Church) did.
Other notable entries include writings by Audre Lorde, Harry Hay, Craig Dodwell, Martha Shelley, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Mark Segal, Penny Arcade, John E. Fryer, Mario Martino, and Jonathan Ned Katz, and interviews with Ernestine Eckstein, Kiyoshi Kuromiya, and Martin Boyce.
If there is a pattern in this collection, it is that of shifts in tension. First the struggle for self-acceptance, then the quest for tolerance from mainstream Americans, followed by the group schisms between the relatively conservative members and those who would not settle for mere assimilation and conformity. Other than the monumental changes in public opinion and law, some things haven’t really changed so very much, and the most glaring divisions among LGBT+ people in the past are still with us today.
But at least we now have some access to our documented history. The sooner you can learn about it for yourself, the better, and The Stonewall Reader is an excellent place to start.