Forty Years After Stonewall

Historian Tim McCarthy sees pros and cons to using the riots as a point of origin for the gay rights movement.
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TRANSCRIPT

Tim McCarthy: The most important thing about the Stonewall riots or rebellion depending on which terminology you use is that it creates an origin myth. It gives gay people, LGBT people, an origin myth and all social movements need to understand and to acknowledge and identify their point of origin and so for us it’s Stonewall.

One of the things that I think this does is it gives us a kind of collective sense of identity that we all come from where the spirit of rebellion emerged in this place that we can identify. It’s tangible. We can see it. We visited it. We visited it over the weekend here on the 40th anniversary and so it’s a place that we all know even if we weren’t all there. But the other flip side of that - the problem with that- is that it then makes it seem as if history is divided into everything that happened before Stonewall and everything that happened afterwards as if history is kind of neatly divided according to this sort of point of origin. I think that one of the things that that’s done frankly in the public imagination and in the LGBT community as it understands its history is that it diminishes the efforts, often quiet, often invisible, often full of real struggle of what really did happen before this explosive origin of the modern gay rights movement or gay liberation.

There were decades, if not centuries, of struggles that LGBT people even if they weren’t called lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender at that time but they went through to establish and live lives of dignity against forces of great oppression and discrimination. In particular the couple of decades before the late ‘60s, the ‘40s and ‘50s and early 60’s was a period of great mobilization, a great organizing of the establishment of our first newspapers and our print culture, the establishment of founding offers as far as our political organizations, the first even public protest, the republic protest against discrimination  in federal employment and in federal agencies and in the military long before the folks rose up at Stonewall in June of 1969.

So one of the things that I seek to do as a historian, and there are many historians who had written about this -  ohn D'Amelio and George Chauncey, Estelle Freedman, many, many historians and scholars who have written about this history but it has not taken hold yet I don’t think in the broad public imagination not even within the LGBT community and certainly beyond it. This history is not known. One of the things that I’ve been talking about recently to my students and to my colleagues is that, you know, before the all of the media attention around the 40th anniversary of Stonewall that has gotten some political attention too recently with Obama inviting activists and leaders to the White House is that you know you would ask 6 months ago if you’ve taken a public opinion poll of certainly young LGBT folks. I’m not sure what the percentage would be of those who would have known Stonewall, what Stonewall was, when it happened, and that there was an anniversary and I think that that’s a troubling reality, who knows.

We haven’t done that opinion poll but my sense would be that you know not a considerable majority would have even known what that history is and if you compare that say to African-American young folks right, my black students at Harvard who all of them know what the Montgomery boy… bus boycott was. All of them know what Brown versus Board of Education was, right? And they also know Plessy versus Ferguson and which Brown versus Board of Education overturned.  So they know their history. In fact, it would be hard for us to find any student at Harvard University who doesn’t know what the Montgomery bus boycott was or the Brown versus Board of Education decision and the impact that it had and the origin that it created or established for the civil rights movement and I think the LGBT movement and its scholars and it’s intellectuals and it’s activists need to do a better job of establishing that history and to…and integrating it into the broad public imagination. Moments like the anniversary of Stonewall give us that opportunity.

 

Recorded on: July 1, 2009