A Documentary History of Stonewall: An Interview with Marc Stein

Interviewed by Katie Uva

The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History  Edited by Marc Stein NYU Press, 2019 352 pages

The Stonewall Riots:
A Documentary History

Edited by Marc Stein
NYU Press, 2019
352 pages

Today on the blog, we talk to Marc Stein about his new book, The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History. In it, he compiles 200 documents that shed light on the years immediately preceding and after the events at Stonewall.

Why is a sourcebook like this a helpful tool for understanding the Stonewall Riots?

When I began working on this project, there were two excellent narrative histories of the Stonewall Riots, one by academic historian Martin Duberman and one by public historian David Carter. For the fiftieth anniversary I wanted to do something different and it occurred to me that a primary source reader could encourage renewed attention to the documentary sources that most historians use when developing their interpretations. My book begins with an introductory essay, but then I present 200 documents along with a set of maps and photographs. Most of the book’s primary sources are media stories, but I also include some demonstration fliers, court decisions, song lyrics, and gay bar guide listings.

As a university-based historian, I often assign primary source readers in my classes. I love putting in the hands of my students the raw materials from which historical interpretations can be developed; it allows me to work with my students on the craft of researching and writing history. This type of primary source collection also allows readers to experience the messiness of history. There are gaps, inconsistencies, and conflicts in the accounts. If we’re paying attention, it’s easy to see the importance of perspective, standpoint, and viewpoint. If we’re sensitive to language, we can be challenged by the complexities of translation, since the words, concepts, and categories of the past are not necessarily the words, concepts, and categories of today.

With respect to Stonewall more specifically, I think it’s fascinating to compare mainstream, alternative, and LGBT media sources; to look at media stories, photographs, first-person accounts, letters, and demonstration fliers alongside one another; and to explore the dissemination, evolution, and transformation of stories about the riots. I hope my readers will be in a stronger position to criticize historical myths and misconceptions and to develop new and original interpretations.

How did you decide on the geographic and temporal parameters for these documents?

With respect to geography, I wanted to broaden out beyond Greenwich Village, Manhattan, and New York City, without losing a sense of the importance, impact, and influence of developments in “the city” (I grew up in the New York suburbs and my grandparents lived in the Bronx and Queens, so of course New York will always be “the city” to me, even though I’ve lived most of my adult life in Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, and San Francisco). I think the more national approach I adopted actually helps underscore the broader influences on and impacts of developments in New York. I was tempted to adopt a more global approach, but I worried about the superficiality that might result — like the tourist who wants to visit everything but ends up seeing nothing. My book favors six cities — New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I know I’ve opened myself up to criticisms about not sufficiently covering other parts of the country, but there are as many reasons to be concerned about anti-urban bias as there are to be concerned about urban bias. In the end, I made choices about geography based on impact and influence and I’ve certainly included documents that cover other places, including Dallas, Honolulu, Miami, Minneapolis, and New Orleans.

As for chronology, I wanted to broaden out beyond the summer of 1969, but not attempt to capture the entire history of the universe. I also was committed to covering the same number of years before and after the riots; I thought this would help situate the rebellion in historical time. I settled on the years from 1965 to 1973 for several reasons. For a long time I’ve believed that the second half of the 1960s, when the LGBT movement began to mobilize, radicalize, and diversify, has not received as much attention as it should; most accounts of the homophile movement seem stuck in the 1950s. By starting in 1965, I thought I could highlight the national upsurge in LGBT direct action that began in that year and the influence of other radicalizing social movements, including black power. By ending in 1973, I could cover the first four years of pride marches, address one of the great achievements of the movement in this period (the American Psychiatric Association’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness), and capture some of the changes in LGBT politics that occurred as the energies unleashed by Stonewall began to dissipate.

Does your book tell us anything new about the history of New York?

I hope so! My introduction situates the riots within the larger history of New York City, including the reforms achieved by the LGBT movement in the second half of the 1960s, when John Lindsay was mayor; the police violence and state repression that seemed to be growing in 1968 and 1969; the implications of having a Republican mayor, governor, and president in the first half of 1969 (the first time in decades that this was the case for New Yorkers); and the Republican primary election defeat of Lindsay by a more conservative candidate just days before the riots began. Lindsay, perceived by many as a friend to the gay community, ended up winning the general election on a third party ticket, but the Stonewall rioters could not have known that this was going to happen. I present all of this as consistent with a theory that says that revolutions are most likely to happen when a long period of improvement in social conditions is followed by rapid reversals.

Beyond the riots themselves, I think the post-Stonewall chapters will bring new attention to the history of LGBT activism in New York in the final months of 1969 and the early years of the 1970s.

Many historians and activists have debunked the claim that Stonewall began the LGBT rights movement, but what do you think were key impacts of this specific event? What were major continuities pre and post-Stonewall?

Most queer historians, I think, are irritated and annoyed by the notion that the LGBT movement began with Stonewall; there’s been a pretty clear scholarly consensus now for more than thirty years that the movement in the United States began about twenty years before Stonewall (and even earlier in Europe). Historians have now documented more than thirty pre-Stonewall LGBT protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, and riots, so even on that score there’s little basis for the claim that Stonewall was “first.” That said, I don’t agree with those who would diminish the influence and impact of the riots. I see three primary impacts: mass mobilization, political radicalization, and social diversification. As important as the riots themselves were, developments after the riots were key in what happened next. And it was really a year later, when the first pride marches took place, that Stonewall’s place in our collective imaginings of our history really strengthened.

Why do you think it is that Stonewall looms so much larger in popular memory than other LGBT protests that happened in that era?

Compared to earlier protests, the Stonewall rebellion involved more people; it lasted longer; and there was more violence. It also occurred in New York, which often has an advantage when it comes to recognition and remembrance. And it happened at a critical historical moment, in the aftermath of 1968, an international year of rebellion, revolution, reaction, and repression. All of that said, I think Stonewall looms so large in popular memory today because of the annual commemorations that first occurred in the spring and summer of 1970 and the history of those commemorations over the next several decades.

Part 2 juxtaposes several varying press accounts of what happened during the Stonewall Riots. What are the biggest distinctions between these different contemporary accounts?

Yes, my book reprints about thirty different media accounts from the mainstream, alternative, and LGBT press. I see one set of differences across these three categories and another set of differences as the accounts changed over time. I think we can ask many interesting questions about this. For example, what does it mean that the first set of mainstream media reports, published in the New York Times, New York Post, and New York Daily News, described the rioters as young “homosexuals” or young “homosexual men,” but a week later the Postand Daily News also began depicting them as “gays,” “fags,” “fems,” “nellies,” and “queens?” What does it mean that alternative papers such as the Village Voice used most of the same terms, but also referenced “fairies,” “swishes,” “dykes,” “queers,” and “sex changes.” Interestingly, the Voice was the first to report on the key role played by a “dyke,” and shortly thereafter another alternative paper, the Berkeley Barb, provided a similar account with a reference to a “chick.”

Many readers might be surprised to discover that two significant American trans periodicals of 1969, the Erickson Educational Foundation Newsletter and Transvestia, did not cover the riots, while the gay-oriented Mattachine Society of New York Newsletter, which provided the most extensive coverage, consistently highlighted the presence and prominence of sissies, swishes, drags, and queens. Adding to the complications of interpretation is the fact that the words and concepts of today are not the words and concepts of 1969. Fifty years ago, for example, it was common to refer to “gay transvestites.” Many genderqueer people referred to themselves as gay in 1969, but this is not necessarily how we think, speak, or write today. Unless we want to insist on the superiority of today’s categories and concepts, which is a condescending way to approach the past, we need to address the challenges of translation. If we do not, we are setting a dangerous precedent for future interpreters of our categories and concepts, who will almost inevitably question our ways of thinking, speaking, and writing.

With respect to race, what does it mean that most of the mainstream, alternative, and LGBT media reports said nothing about race, at a time when it was common for journalists to describe urban rioters as black and brown? In an important exception, Mattachine’s first report briefly mentioned a Puerto Rican queen, but otherwise did not reference race until the article’s conclusion, which quoted a policeman who indicated that he preferred black riots to fairy riots because “you can’t hit a sick man.” Unless we want to believe that the cop’s compassion extended to African American fairies, his formulation implied that he did not view the Stonewall rioters as predominantly black. In two other exceptional references to race, the author of a first-person account in the East Village Other described himself as white and another alternative media account in the newspaper Rat made a passing reference to a “hip spade,” meaning an African American man. In general, however, there were few references to race in media stories about Stonewall. When I say this I do not mean to imply that the rioters were necessarily white; in fact there were few references to whites, blacks, or others in media stories about the rebellion. There may be reasons that the media did not highlight the presence and prominence of people of color in the uprising, but surely we cannot ignore the documentary evidence, including media stories, photographic images, and police reports, if we are interested in race and the riots.

In recent years there has been increasing mainstream emphasis on the presence of trans and gender nonconforming people as the key actors and leaders in the Stonewall Uprising, particularly Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P Johnson, and Storme DeLarverie. Does your research confirm or challenge their respective roles in the events at Stonewall?

I’ll be very interested to see what my readers do with this issue. With respect to both gender and race, I’ve been talking with friends and colleagues about the importance of key qualifying words, including “some,” “many,” “a significant number,” a “substantial number,” “primarily,” “predominantly,” and “most.” I see credible and trustworthy accounts that emphasize the presence and prominence of trans and gender-queer people in the Stonewall riots. That’s not the same as saying that most of the rioters were. And as I noted above, trans and gender-queer people may also have thought of themselves as gay. Just because we define these words and police these boundaries in certain ways today doesn’t mean that we should define these words and police these boundaries in the same ways when we think about the past.

The documentary sources in my chapter about the riots don’t single out or rule out Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P Johnson, or Storme DeLarverie. It’s important to acknowledge that they themselves presented conflicting accounts about whether they were there when the riots began. It can be condescending and patronizing to insist that they were, just as it can be problematic to insist that they played no role in the riots. My post-Stonewall chapters include documents by and about Rivera and Johnson. And the mantra of my book is that “there’s always more to the story.”

You note your choice to focus on LGBT press, mainstream press, and organizing ephemera, and to exclude oral histories and interviews. If someone did want to seek out firsthand accounts after reading the sources in this book, where should they start?

First, let me note that I very much believe in the importance of oral histories and I’ve done and used many oral histories in my previous work. In many cases, it can be greatly beneficial to read oral histories and documentary sources alongside one another; that’s the approach I’ve often taken. This book does include firsthand accounts, but not oral histories; that’s an important distinction. I think there are now hundreds of oral histories of the Stonewall Riots. I think it would be fascinating to focus on the ones that were done in the months and years immediately following the riots, since those were done closer in time to the events they discussed and were less influenced by subsequent developments. Another set of oral histories that I would recommend were the ones done by Eric Marcus, Martin Duberman, and David Carter. Now that more and more LGBT periodicals from the 1970s and 1980s have been digitized, it could be fruitful to search for additional firsthand accounts that haven’t received attention.

Implicit in your sources are questions of language — how people describe themselves often differs from how they are described by others, and there are also major changes in the language of identity over time. Additionally, there's been growing debate about referring to this event as the Stonewall Riots vs. the Stonewall Rebellion or Uprising. Why do you feel the term "Stonewall Riots" is apt?

Yes, this is a familiar issue from debates and discussions about the Watts Riots or Rebellion. From what I understand, some people argue against using the term “riots” because the word carries implications of rage, anger, fury, nihilism, and purposelessness. Perhaps because I came of age politically during the first decade of the AIDS crisis and participated in AIDS activism, I appreciate and do not want to deny the emotional dimensions of activism. I think there was every reason for LGBT people to feel rage, anger, and fury when the police raided the Stonewall. Riots also can be intentional, purposeful, and political. And of course people at the time referred to the Stonewall “riots.” In my book, I refer to the Stonewall riots, rebellion, and uprising. I’ll confess it’s also a stylistic choice; it can be boring to use the same word over and over again, especially if it’s one of your key words!

As you note, the Obama Administration was a turning point in the mainstream embracing of Stonewall as key to the nation's history and the long national struggle for rights and justice. What do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of widespread recognition and memorialization of Stonewall?

I raise some questions about this in my book and I hope my readers will as well. And it’s a question for people beyond the United States as well, since Stonewall can be memorialized in ways that contribute to American colonialism, imperialism, and nationalism. At their worst, commemorations of Stonewall promote U.S. nationalism, corporate capitalism, white supremacy, gender conservatism, and sexual normativity. At their best, they teach us about gender and sexual injustice, intersectional oppression, state violence, capitalist exploitation, queer and trans resistance, coalition politics, and the importance of embodied direct action in the history of social change.

Marc Stein is the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State University.