Friday, 28 June 2019

Stonewall 50: Reclaiming Our History

The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is being commemorated across the USA this weekend. Pride of place is going to the Stonewall Inn itself and New York Pride which this year has been appointed World Pride.

Even though the Stonewall Riots were a significant event in the history of the lgbt community in the USA it wasn’t the first and only event to make a difference, and here in the UK it made little difference at all, not directly. On both sides of the Atlantic there were gay rights groups already in existence. Stonewall sparked a movement that became the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), and it was the publicity and militant action of the GLF that inspired a worldwide movement. It is the GLF who kept the Stonewall Riots in the minds of campaigners and the public, to the virtual exclusion of the other riots and homophobic attacks that had occurred before and after 1969. Thanks to the efforts of the GLF the legacy of Stonewall has dominated lgbt rights since 1969.

The biggest legacy of the GLF was the Pride march, a version of the many other protest marches that have been around for centuries.

If I’ve learnt anything by researching history it’s not to believe everything people tell you. As a schoolboy in the years around 1969 I was taught the standard Victorian view of British history. I was taught that Kings Richard the Lionheart and Henry VIII were good kings. I was taught that Florence Nightingale was a pioneer in nursing. I was taught that the British Empire was the most beneficial empire the world had ever seen (not unlike Trump’s distorted view of his USA). None of it was strictly true.

The Stonewall Riots have become a sacred event with only one interpretation that is deemed acceptable. That is not how history should be written, however much we dislike the facts. It is a fact that one section of the lgbt community was NOT more responsible for the events of 28th June 1969 than any other, despite the insistence of some that they were so. The phrase “who threw the first brick” is often claimed to have originated from the events of Stonewall, yet the phrase had been in use in the UK since long before the Suffragette movements of a century ago. And Stonewall wasn’t the big news that sent a shockwave across the world or America. It gained little attention outside the east coast of America. It is only the actions of the GLF that promoted the riots over those that had occurred many times before across the nation.

Social media and the internet is a curse as much as a blessing when it comes to informing people of their heritage. In the 50 years since the Stonewall Riots a lot of misinformation and urban myths have built up around them, some based on misinterpretation of media reports or on the personal testimony of one person who was present that only gives one perspective. Even the word Riots is been challenged by people who were there. If the lgbt community expects some respect then it should not falsify its history to score points against homophobia. Can we even trust ourselves if we lie?

In the past couple of years historians have been looking afain at Stonewall and have been trying to sift through every scrap of information to come up with a more complete picture of the events and immediate impact of 28th June 1969 and the few nights that followed.

On this 50th anniversary I believe we must begin to put more emphasis on the facts, implications and legacy of the Stonewall Riots instead of concentrating on one aspect or person. We need to get to the root of the myths and weed out the ones that have no basis. There is always a place for urban myth in society – it illustrates the attitudes, fears and perspectives of different groups in any society at a given period. But society has to be aware what is urban myth and what isn’t. So, now is the time to start to establish a definitive narrative of the Stonewall Riots before it is swamped in those myths.

Several weeks ago, as I was fact-checking the final draft of this article, I came across a YouTube video produced by the New York Times which covered exactly the same points as I had written. It put across my point about being true to our heritage far more eloquently than I did. In the end I decided that the video was much more suited to today than my intended article, so the video is shown below.

One point to correct in the video is the fact that the first march to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots were held in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles on 28th June 1970. This is not true. As I have proved in my article “Pride Cities” the first was held in Chicago the day before on 27th June. Chicago was also the first city to use the word “Pride” for their march – New York didn’t use it until 1971. This is an example of the way an urban myth can begin, with someone making a claim that isn’t backed up by fact which becomes accepted as such.

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