- The Lessons of Stonewall Fifty Years Later
For much of my academic career, spanning almost thirty years now, the Stonewall riots have been under a kind of revisionist attack. We were taught that Stonewall was a possible historical turning point, a convenient marker in time if you will, but not that it sparked a gay revolution. The popular images were of a spontaneous uprising, of patrons discovering resistance against police in a bar raid, of a subterranean homosexual network transformed into a radical gay community. It is interesting that it was the Stonewall generation itself—the men and women who came of age in graduate school or first academic jobs at the time—that debunked the mythology of a Stonewall revolution. Perhaps no scholar invested more heavily in this perspective than John D'Emilio, one of the looming figures in gay and lesbian historiography. In his dissertation, quickly turned into the monumental book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority, D'Emilio is pushing up against what one might assume was a kind of rampant triumphalism at the time when gay activists possessed little historical appreciation for anything or anyone that came before Stonewall and gay liberation.1 They had made a revolution, discovered sexual solidarity, and paved the way for a new generation to come out into a world of unprecedented personal freedoms.
Since that evening when the riots began, June 28, 1969, until a number of recent books, a significant number of historians have understood Stonewall as the ultimate watershed event. To quote David Carter, a professional but not academic historian, "Stonewall Riots are the critical turning point in the movement for the rights of gay men and lesbians as well as for bisexual and transgendered people."2 Though he published his book in 2004, the argument resurrected a long-standing view of gay history as bifurcated between a past of darkness where [End Page 85] gay men and lesbians hovered in the shadows of repression and a here and now of almost instant mobilization and vibrant community life. Martin Duberman's 1993 study, Stonewall, presented an academic and biographical portrait cast in much the same light and contours of change.3 He did not question the centrality of the moment or its historical shifting, but rather—at least from my perspective at the time whilst reading it, just after finishing my doctorate—he sought to emphasize the diversity of those involved and the ongoing implications for building an inclusive movement. Men and women, black and white (though not yet transgender) were movingly portrayed and obviously admired. Who could be against Stonewall, after all?
I would like to introduce a little-known, rarely cited book by Scott Bravmann, Queer Fictions of the Past: History, Culture, and Difference, published in 1997 by Cambridge University Press. A slim volume in a now defunct series, Cambridge Cultural Social Studies, this text, originally his dissertation, drew from Bravmann's abiding interest in interrogating historiography as an embedded social practice that was always seeking to conceal both its methodology and pretensions to empirical truth. It was based on his years of studies in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that Hayden White, among others, oversaw and advised. A key chapter was "Queer Fictions of Stonewall" in which the Bravmann located the moment in "shared public rituals that literally through annual public celebrations . . . representations of Stonewall help to assert the queer nation of the late-twentieth century." And this current celebration of the fiftieth anniversary repeats the exercise, of course, seeking to distill and deploy a singular meaning of the events and to command a unified vision of our post-Stonewall future once again, forging bonds of consent and conformity from and for us. But Bravmann not only exposes the coercive aspects of this publicity, but he also asks whose us? He therefore pioneers the analysis of the racial problems engendered by both the Stonewall school and the narratives of the formative heroic homophiles. The moment enacts a centripetal force pulling us together, he points out, but also admits to a centrifugal force of racial matters that silently tug the collective apart...