Martin Duberman’s Stonewall: A Present-Day Reflection

It took me almost a year to finish the 1993 book Stonewall, by Martin Duberman, but this had more to do with my own busy life than the quality of his work. Now in his nineties, Duberman is known as one of the pioneering chroniclers of LGBTQ+ history, who hasn’t shied from documenting various conflicts and controversies within the community. In that vein, his treatment of the Stonewall rebellion takes an interesting, I would even say unconventional, approach. Recognizing the limited and subjective nature of human memory, Duberman opts to tell the story by tracing the lives of six individuals, representing different backgrounds and identities, who played a role in events surrounding the riots that became a galvanizing moment for LGBTQ+ activism.

Fascinatingly, only three of Duberman’s six central characters – Sylvia Rivera, Craig Rodwell, and Jim Fouratt – had any direct involvement with Stonewall itself. His notes mention the diaries of Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans activist who has subsequently been associated with the uprising’s origins. Consistent with other accounts, Duberman notes that she did play an influential role during the three nights of fighting with the NYPD, but Johnson herself acknowledged that she arrived late to the scene on that first night, after hostilities had already begun. Still, Johnson was undeniably a force during the skirmish, and her subsequent years of activism rightfully deserve the re-consideration and celebration they’ve recently received, especially given how she, along with Sylvia Rivera and others, faced persistent racism, transphobia, and exclusion from a number of gay and lesbian activists in subsequent years.

Characters Driving Context

At first, I questioned how Duberman could reconstruct those three nights from only a few eyewitnesses. The book in its entirety, however, makes an important contribution for understanding Stonewall’s antecedents and enduring legacy. To be clear, it was not the first altercation between an establishment’s LGBTQ+ clientele and police raiders (see the history of Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco as one example). However, the uprising occurred at a key moment, when nascent, self-styled “homophile” organizations across North America were laying the groundwork for a larger movement to change the dominant view – as well as laws and policies – toward sexual minorities.

Unlike previous incidents, Stonewall benefitted from the networking and sharing of information that was already underway, including national and regional conferences, pamphlets, and newsletters. It is because of that fledgling infrastructure, and the role it played in propelling the movement post-Stonewall, that Duberman’s inclusion of three others – Foster Gunnison, Jr., Karla Jay, and Yvonne Flowers – becomes so important. While the idea of holding a commemorative march the next year was popular in some circles, certain activists – especially older, more establishment-leaning figures – were less enthusiastic. However, even a conservative like Foster Gunnison seemed to take interest in the ideas of Jim Fouratt, Craig Rodwell, and other young radicals, as incongruous as Foster must have seemed with his cigars, crewcut, and Brooks Brothers suits.

The philosophies and ideologies which spurred the transformation of “homophile” into “gay,” and the gradual expansion to explicitly recognize lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other identities, are evident when reading Duberman’s account with the benefit of hindsight, as many of the old tensions and arguments between grassroots activists and establishment leaders have never gone away completely. From Duberman’s sources, we get a sense of how young gays and lesbians were inspired by the anti-Vietnam and civil rights movements, yet they bristled at the chauvinism of many White, straight male leftist leaders. Meanwhile, within feminist organizations, anti-lesbian attitudes led to a number of disputes, yet Black and Latina lesbians often experienced their own marginalization and erasure in groups dominated by their White lesbian sisters.

Trans women, especially Black and Latina, similarly experienced hostility from cisgender gays and lesbians, even as they worked to take care of their own, as evidenced by the short-lived organization STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). As early as 1970, some activists were even advocating for the kind of separatism seen later in the decade, due to the ways that cisgender White gay men often dominated meetings, dances, and demonstrations. However, many of these identity-based splinter groups never survived on their own.

Friends of Stonewall Uprising Veterans in New York City's Pride Parade, June 2000.
Friends of Stonewall Veterans at New York Pride, June 2000

Melees, Myths, and Marketing Campaigns

For me, Duberman’s book succeeds because he so clearly sets, and works within, a set of limitations that help him to effectively tell a well-researched story. He never claims to depict the “definitive” history of Stonewall, if such a feat is even possible, but leaves ample space for others to subsequently add their own discoveries to the conversation. In the nearly thirty years since his book was published, Stonewall has taken on a cultural significance far beyond what he, or his sources, could have imagined. Other accounts have since appeared in the form of nonfiction books, children’s books, a fictionalized movie drama, and a documentary film. Out of these works, a general acceptance of the uprising’s significance now exists, while certain fuzzier elements – the exact role of Sylvia Rivera that night, the “first brick” that Marsha P. Johnson is said to have thrown, and the disputed reports of a butch lesbian allegedly putting up a fight against several male cops – have indelibly captured the imaginations of younger queer generations.

For anyone who wants to understand how we went from Stonewall to Pride, Duberman helps fill in a number of crucial details. Countless LGBTQ+ organizing efforts have occurred over the years, but most have not endured. Yet, the festivities first held in late June 1970 – now encompassing an entire month in cities big and small – have become a global tradition. Given how organizers of the first march feared that no one would show up, it’s staggering to imagine that Pride today might not even exist, if their efforts had collapsed like so many others.

One also has to pause and wonder how Duberman’s primary sources – only two of whom are still alive – would view today’s widespread commercialism of Stonewall and Pride, as global corporations and the media have come around to embrace the profitability of rainbow-adorned marketing, merchandise, and entertainment. To see the art of drag ascend to peak pop culture stardom would certainly elicit a comment from Sylvia Rivera, given the abuse and exclusion she endured from straights, gay men and women, and the police.

Veterans of the Stonewall Uprising marching in New York City's Pride Parade, June 2000.
Stonewall Veterans at New York Pride, June 2000

Revolution and Renewal

In the summer of 2000, I attended my first New York City Pride march. Recalling that day still makes me emotional, because at the front of the parade was a delegation of Stonewall veterans, defiant and proud as they accepted long, loud ovations from an enormous crowd of bystanders. Seventeen years later, a return visit to New York Pride brought me another major epiphany, which I wrote about in a subsequent blog post.

In the present day, having just witnessed a Pride month marked by political opportunists spouting anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, as well as explicit acts of terror and intimidation against certain communities, I take a measure of comfort in Duberman’s historical account. No one who celebrates Pride should enjoy the thought of returning to pre-Stonewall norms, let alone the potential for a violent, regressive erasure of queer culture akin to what happened in 1930s Germany. But should our worst nightmares come true, then the efforts of past generations will need to be revisited, revived, and re-deployed.  

The work of LGBTQ+ historians, of which Duberman has been a pioneer, provides a vital blueprint for the kinds of organizing and community care needed to preserve and sustain our visibility and political power, which these courageous forebears risked their lives to obtain. Given the astonishing gains we’ve made in just a few short generations, no wonder the most virulent opponents of queer identity and culture seem hellbent on criminalizing supporters, banning books, and silencing public discourse.

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