Annual Meeting Preview: "Stonewall at 50"
This session takes place on Saturday, April 6, at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and is solicited by the OAH Committee on the Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Historians and Histories
Chair: Cookie Woolner, University of Memphis
• John D'Emilio, Emeritus Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
• Kevin Mumford, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
• Tristan Cabello, Johns Hopkins University
• Chad Lord, National Parks Conservation Association
Stonewall at 50
This panel celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 and interrogates its contested place in queer history as well as its contemporary relevance. On June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village bar that served a predominantly queer clientele. The raid sparked a rebellion among bar patrons and neighborhood residents as police roughly hauled employees and patrons out of the bar, leading to six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement outside the bar on Christopher Street, in neighboring streets, and in nearby Christopher Park. The Stonewall uprising has since held a central place as a historical marker for the emergence of the modern LGBTQ rights movement in the United States and around the world. While this was not the first time that queer patrons fought back against the police and asserted their right to gather in public, the event instigated a flurry of LGBTQ activism and community building in its wake. June, 28, 1970 was celebrated as Christopher Street Liberation Day, which later became an annual celebration of LGBTQ Pride, nationally as well as internationally.
A book that interested OAH attendees might enjoy reading to understand the changing meanings of Stonewall over time is Scott Bravmann’s Queer Fictions of the Past: History, Culture, and Difference (Cambridge, 1997). Bravmann looks at how queer people have used history to define themselves as social, cultural, and political subjects. He notes that the first accounts of Stonewall did not mention the involvement of drag queens or people of color, but these groups began to be written into later accounts starting in the 1980s to re-center the conversation and claim their place in beginning the rebellion. Similarly, Bravmann points out that lesbians were not mentioned as involved in the rebellion until 1979, when they began aligning with gay men as well as feminists for political gain.
Despite attempts to make the history of this event more accurate in its diversity, mainstream narrative films such as director Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall (2015) have presented the story of the rebellion as one led primarily by white cisgender gay men. In response to this “whitewashing,” internet memes often credit African American trans woman Marsha P. Johnson as the central actor in the uprising, arguing she threw the first brick at the police as an everyday act of resistance against the repressive forces of the state. However, a recent article in the queer online publication Them argues that because Stonewall was a form of collective resistance enacted by the queer community, debating “who threw the first brick” is not a productive conversation. This issue of collective historical memory and the changing meanings of Stonewall will be discussed in our panel from the perspective of both queer historians as well as conservationists. Come join us for what will be a significant and lively discussion over this important landmark in LGBTQ history.
Cookie Woolner, University of Memphis