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The Construction of Queer Memory:
Media Coverage of Stonewall 25
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Through discourse analysis of the media coverage of the Stonewall 25
celebrations in1994, this paper examines the role of memory in
shaping a collective queer identity and constructing a founding
mythology for the queer social movement. This paper examines media
uses of memory and considers their cultural consequences. It argues
that the media are complicit in shaping a memory of Stonewall that
reflects the political goals of the American queer movement in the 1990s.
The Construction of Queer Memory:
Media Coverage of Stonewall 25
Focusing on the media coverage of the celebration of the 25th
anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 1994, this paper examines the
role of the memory of Stonewall in shaping a collective identity of
"being queer" and constructing a founding mythology for the American
queer social movement. The 1994-1995 period was particularly
productive for the memory of Stonewall with the 25th anniversary
celebration in New York City, followed by the release of
documentaries, commemorative books, public exhibitions, and the
release of the film version of the Stonewall events. Through
discourse analysis of the journalistic coverage of Stonewall's 25th
anniversary celebrations and related media depictions, this paper
examines their uses of memory and considers the cultural and
political consequences on the shared memory and collective identity
of the queer social movement.
This study examines how different forms of media coverage explain
the significance of the Stonewall riots in light of the anniversary
celebrations in 1994. It argues that, with few exceptions, the media
are complicit in shaping a memory of Stonewall that reflects the
composition and political goals of the American queer movement in the
1990s. The paper starts with a historical background of the Stonewall
events as well as a review of conflicting perspectives about their
memory and significance. Notions of myth, memory, counter memory and
collective identity inform this analysis of media coverage.
Understanding how the memory of Stonewall is shaped across media and
over time provides insight into the influence of social memory on the
formation of collective identities. Additionally, examining the
significance of the memory of Stonewall in the mid 1990s advances our
understanding of the present and future of the American queer social movement.
The Stonewall Inn was a mafia-owned gay bar in Greenwich Village in
New York City that the police used to constantly raid while harassing
its costumers and demanding bribes from the management. On the night
of June 27, 1969, a routine raid did not go as smoothly as usual. For
the first time police officers encountered resistance both from the
customers inside the bar, a great number of whom were drag queens and
people of color, and from a growing crowd of residents of Christopher
street outside the bar. Several customers resisted arrest while
people attacked police officers with stones forcing them to retreat
inside the bar. The actions escalated into violent confrontations
with anti-riot police forces sent to the street. The crowd responded
angrily and the chant "Gay Power" was heard for the first time. The
riots continued for two additional nights and the events at the
Stonewall Inn are believed to have marked the birth of the modern gay
and lesbian rights movement in America.
Although the sequence of events as described above is
generally accepted, there is a good deal of controversy around the
main and memorable actors of that night. Stonewall's significance as
the birth of the modern gay movement and its ability to symbolize the
diversity of American homosexuals is contested as well. Duberman
(1993) provides the first historical account of the Stonewall riots,
their antecedents and aftermath. Duberman constructs a narrative
based on the testimonies of six people, only one of whom was inside
the bar the night of the riots: Hispanic transvestite Sylvia (Ray)
Rivera. The other five represent a diversity of gay men and lesbians,
black and white, who were active in the early homophile movements.
Most of them had little connection to the actual events. However,
they all became involved in the gay movements formed after Stonewall
such as the Gay Liberation Front. Although Duberman acknowledges that
the portraits of six people cannot represent the entirety of the
homosexual experience in the late 1960s, his narrative effectively
connects a diverse population (white middle-class gay men, lesbians,
transvestites) to the events that took place in a bar that was
frequented mostly by drag queens and people of color. Implicitly,
Duberman validates the symbolic meaning of Stonewall as the event
that brought all queers together under a common cause.
Carter (2004) claims that the Stonewall Inn's clientele included a
good number of white gay men and lesbians. He contests Duberman's
(1993) claim that the riots originated as a collective response and
based on interviews with eyewitnesses he identifies one character, a
"butch lesbian" whose violent resistance to arrest sparked the angry
response from the crowd. This person has never been identified, yet
the image of a lesbian as responsible for the riots reinforces the
idea of Stonewall as a gay Mecca rather than an obscure joint for
people who were considered deviants within homosexual circles. Carter
is clear in his belief that the events at Stonewall brought about a
transformation of gay collective consciousness, evidenced by the new
radicalism of the gay movements born in the aftermath.
The notion of Stonewall as "the beginning of it all" is well spread.
Rutledge (1992) starts his review of the most significant people and
events in gay American history precisely in June 1969. On the other
hand, several scholars argue that Stonewall was just a significant
moment in a long struggle made possible by decades of previous
efforts. In his account of gay life in New York from 1890 to 1940,
Chauncey (1994) argues that a vibrant gay community linked to the
economic and cultural development of New York City existed well
before 1969. Chauncey examines how self-identified homosexuals lived
in pre-Stonewall New York City without provoking harassment or
hostility and constructed communities based not only on sexual
orientation but also on ethnicity and class.
Poindexter (1999) identifies four important social forces that made
Stonewall and its aftermath possible: The American homophile
movement, the mistreatment of gays and lesbians in the military,
increased public awareness of discrimination and persecution of gays
and lesbians, and the social activism of the 1960s. She notes that
Stonewall "should be appreciated in its full meaning, it was not
actually the beginning of the modern gay rights movement; rather, it
was a defining moment in a long, hard struggle" (p. 614). The most
visible homophile group in the 1950s and 1960s was the Mattachine
Society, founded in San Francisco the 1950s by Harry Hay. In his
biography of Hay, Timmons (1990) notes Hay's dismissal of Stonewall
because it eclipsed earlier movements and radical organizations
already present in the West coast. However he recognizes Stonewall's
significance as the first "gay media event" and its galvanizing
power: suddenly "the individual gay identity we had first postulated
in Mattachine in 1950 had become a collective gay identity; the gay
movement had moved from 'I' to 'we'" (p. 228). Stonewall starts
articulating the notion of visibility as fundamental to queer identity.
Stonewall 25 as Commemoration
Commemoration of the Stonewall riots started immediately with the
first gay pride march in New York in 1970 eclipsing gay rights
protests previously held in Philadelphia. Ever since, Stonewall has
proved to be a powerful force of collective memory as well as a
symbol with multiple interpretations. The 25th anniversary
celebration in June 1994 was organized by a committee formed by
hundreds of international groups represented by the International
Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA). Stonewall 25 was criticized for
shifting the focus of the celebration toward a more universal ideal
of gay rights as human rights and for marginalizing so-called radical
groups and organizations, such as the AIDS-oriented ACT-UP and the
very survivors of the Stonewall riots.
The Stonewall Veterans Association (SVA) is a group formed by
participants in the events they call the "Stonewall Rebellion." Many
of them, as middle-aged transvestites, see themselves as excluded
from the official American gay movement. The SVA claims to have been
barred from the organization of Stonewall 25. In fact, the SVA took
part in an alternative march and took the stage of the official
Stonewall 25 "unannounced" despite the resistance of the organizers
(SVA, 2004). This omission from the part of the organizers of
Stonewall 25 is emblematic of official activism's disregard for
minority queers that fail to adhere to the movement's narrow
definition of queerness. For example, Manalansan (1994) criticizes
Stonewall 25's "Eurocentric model of liberation" (p. 431) that
emphasizes visibility and coming out. He discusses how this model is
of little use for immigrant gay communities in New York City for whom
the closet is "a racial and class position shaped by the exclusion
and boundaries of immigrant experience" (p. 435). These often ignored
interpretations of Stonewall represent a challenge to the officially
endorsed memory and mythology of the events.
Myth, Memory and Counter memory
Bawer (1994) discusses how Stonewall 25 not only commemorates
Stonewall but also mythologizes it, noting how several gay men and
lesbian women "recite the name 'Stonewall' itself with the same
reverence that American politicians reserve for the names of
Washington and Lincoln" transforming Stonewall into "an icon of gay
identity" (p. 1). According to Slotkin (1992) "myths are stories
drawn from a society's history that have acquired through persistent
usage the power of symbolizing the society's ideology and of
dramatizing its moral consciousness" (p. 5). Over time and use the
original story is reduced to a particular set of symbols, icons and
heroes that in turn becomes the source of personal and social memory.
Slotkin explains that myths are formulated in narrative structures
because they are least susceptible to critical analysis. He argues
that myths serve the purposes of a whole culture but a smaller
population does the actual work of transmitting myths. Therefore,
myths are also representative of structures of class and social
differences present in a culture. In our modern society the mass
media are best able to perform this function.
Lipsitz (1990) argues that myth performs a conciliatory function,
legitimizing the social order as it is and allowing people to act in
the present by explaining the past "only by accepting the
inevitability of the status quo" (p. 217). He claims that it is
history, and not myth, that provides a space to challenge social
structures. Myths, because they are "eternal and cyclical," appeal
more for reconciliation. According to Lipsitz, counter memories, as
opposed to myths that deal with the collective, deal with the
personal and the local. Counter memories look back at the past for
what has been left out of mythical constructions and focus on
personal and "localized experiences with oppression" (p. 213).
According to Misztal (2003), memory serves the purpose of
legitimizing social identities because their meaning is supported by
the act of remembering. A shared memory of a particular vision of the
group's past can provide the group with an ideological identity and a
sense of history and being. Groups that base their identity on
previously private notions like social orientation compete for public
recognition and legitimization based on claims of a collective memory
of exclusion or oppression. However, Misztal notes that the source of
dignity and identity is more about the act of remembering than the
memories themselves. This is a shift from memory to heritage that is
consistent with Kammen's (1991) observations about "disremembering
the past" in search of the appropriate heritage. Misztal argues that
in the process some aspects of the group's memories, and therefore
identity, will be emphasized over others, resulting in
"sentimentalized and romanticized sources of identity" (p. 135).
Gay Collective Memory and Identity
Nealon (2001) draws attention to the analogy between race and
sexuality in the formation of a self-conscious group identity in the
gay community. He argues that a particular yearning for history, what
he calls a "foundling relationship to history," predates the
contemporary notion of a gay collective identity as an ethnicity.
Nealon notes that urbanization and economic changes in the 1940s made
possible the formation of gay communities in cities and gave birth to
an ethnic approach of gay collectivity. However, through analysis of
literary texts from the first half of the 20th century, such as
lesbian pulp fiction and male physique magazines, he argues that the
notion of gay collective identity is based on much earlier yearnings
for "historicity" and "peoplehood" (p. 1). Nealon validates the
existence of a gay identity, not as an artificial construction
evidenced in the contemporary ethnicity approach, but as a legitimate
endeavor decades in the making.
In a different approach, Jensen (2002) discusses gay collective
memory and identity as responding to particular circumstances. She
explores the emergence of a collective memory of Nazi gay persecution
and the pink triangle as a symbol during the 1970s, made possible by
the social movements of the 1960s and increased visibility, as a part
of a movement to reclaim gay history that has provided referents and
narratives for the consciousness of a gay and lesbian community.
Jensen notes that a sense of shared history allows a very diverse gay
population to come together for political action (p. 322). She
provides evidence in the American gay press of the 1970s which
fostered a memory of Nazi gay persecution and the adoption in the
1980s by ACT UP of the pink triangle as a symbol against the
persecution of people with AIDS.
Gamson (1999) sees a gay collective identity as being constantly
negotiated and constructed by individuals but mediated and heavily
influenced by organizational efforts. Gamson discusses the
difficulties of legitimizing a gay organization without a commitment
to racial diversity. The organizational response of extending the
racial diversity of the homosexual experience is seen as a political
strategy to maintain the unity of the collective. However, race is
not the only issue threatening the stability of a gay collective
identity. Sinfield (2004) examines the consequences for the myth of
Stonewall and its visibility discourse in terms of the conflict
between gender identity (desired to be) and sexual identity (desire
for). Stonewall's myth of liberation falls apart by the fact that its
main actors were drag queens, for them visibility is not a choice;
they are always visible (p. 268). Sinfield argues that in the modern
gay movement, sexual identity has taken prominence and issues of
gender identity have been marginalized and excluded. Gay collective
identity and the myth of Stonewall are not stable notions. They are
continually influenced and mediated by organizational efforts.
According to Jensen "collective memory does not reside in the minds
of people but the resources they share" (p. 321). The notions of
collective memory and social identity explored above inform the
analysis of the journalistic coverage and media representation of
Stonewall and its 25th anniversary celebration.
The purpose of this paper is to analyze mediated representation of
the memory of the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the media coverage of
the Stonewall 25 celebrations of 1994. Discourse analysis is used in
order to consider the political and cultural consequences of shaping
collective memories and identities. Discourse analysis is useful
because it emphasizes not the meaning of the text but the social
construction of meaning through the text (Acosta-Alzuru &
Lester-Roushanzamir, 2000). The emphasis of the study is to
understand the media portrayal of what it meant and what it means to
be queer in America.
This study considers every story about Stonewall or the
anniversary celebrations published in 1994 in three print news
sources. The New York Times is the most respected national newspaper
and is included for its attention to marginalized cultures in
America, The Advocate is included as representative of the gay press
and The Village Voice is considered as an alternative publication
with a strong connection to the New York city neighborhood were the
events took place. A combination of Lexis-Nexis and library searches
provided the material subject of analysis. In addition, the study
considers the following media productions: the documentary Out rage'
69 (1995) the first of four installments in the PBS The question of
equality series, Stonewall 25: Global voices of pride and protest
(1994) by WNYC-TV, Stonewall 25: The future is ours! (1994) by the
Stonewall 25 organization committee, and Nigel Finch's film Stonewall
(1995) produced by BBC and Arena Films.
Stonewall and the New York Times
The 25th anniversary celebration of the Stonewall riots and all
related events like athletic competitions, art exhibits, plays,
performances and a variety of social and academic gatherings received
extensive coverage in the New York Times in 1994. It is significant
that a major American newspaper devoted a considerable amount of
attention to the event and it represents evidence of the interest it
generated as well as of the perceived importance of gay right issues
in the early 1990s. Overall, the New York Times uses a knowing tone
about queer culture and across editorials and news coverage casts a
positive light on the events.
During the weeks before the events, from April to late June 1994,
the New York Times gives extensive coverage to the controversies
surrounding the organization of Stonewall 25. The newspaper voices
complaints from ACT UP and the Stonewall Veterans Association about
the conservative tone of the march and their announcement of an
alternative march. However, these testimonies are always contrasted
with "official" sources, like the historian Martin Duberman and
Stonewall 25 organizer Susan Jester, implicitly validating the
official status of Stonewall 25 and undermining the position of its
challengers. The spirit of Stonewall 25 is portrayed as a collective
ideal and the arguments of the "insurrection" as individualistic
whims. For example, a Stonewall survivor is quoted comparing the
celebration to an IKEA commercial while little attention is paid to
the fact that the organization ignored the survivors. By contrast,
the New York Times explicitly endorses Stonewall 25's focus on AIDS
awareness, political advancements and gay rights as a global human
rights concern. It is evident that the New York Times bought into the
In general terms, most of the New York Times coverage includes a
brief historical background of the riots that is consistent with the
official version. Holden (1994) says: "At a time when few people were
willing to be publicly identified as homosexual, a routine police
action spawned a spontaneous insurrection that became a shot heard
round the world. In those early morning hours, the gay liberation
movement was born." This statement is representative of the newspaper
celebratory tone and its validation of the visibility discourse and
the global significance of Stonewall, with minimal criticism of the
event's mythical dimension.
The tone of the New York Times is a celebration of the diversity and
unity of queer America. According to the narrative in the newspaper,
the most remarkable aspect of the competing alternative march is not
that it happened but how it was seamlessly integrated: "when the two
parades met at 5th Avenue and 57th Street, the authorized marchers
halted respectfully to allow the rebel contingent to join" and how "a
remarkable aspect of the day was the loose cohesion that seemed to
occur, bringing together gay Republicans and drag queens and all the
diverse elements of the gay-rights movement" (Scott, 1994). The New
York Times indeed offers a diverse but unified picture of Stonewall
25 through the testimonies of drag queens, gay police officers,
parents of AIDS victims, and lesbians from the Midwest among others,
all summarized by the statement "We are a nation of joiners"
(Mansnerus, 1994). Additionally, the New York Times makes a point of
situating Stonewall 25 within events of broader significance to the
nation's history and identity, like when it highlights the presence
of people who "had never marched before, not against the Vietnam war,
not even on Memorial day" (McKinley, 1994) and when it voices the
organizers' hopes to attract a crowd that "could rival the crowds
that gathered in and around New York for the Bicentennial in 1976 and
Liberty Weekend in 1986" (McFadden, 1994). The narrative of Stonewall
25 as covered in the New York Times is all about inclusion and
assimilation and very little about rebellion.
Stonewall and The Village Voice
According to its own website, the Village Voice is the nation's
first and largest alternative newsweekly and the "authoritative
source on all that New York has to offer" (The Village Voice, 2004).
Founded in 1955 in the very neighborhood where the Stonewall riots
took place, it is safe to assume that the Village Voice has a
particular perspective about Stonewall 25 and the people and events
it was meant to commemorate.
The Village Voice provides a more critical, more nuanced examination
of the celebration and the state of queer activism than the New York
Times. According to the Village Voice, the paradox of Stonewall 25 is
that is an initiative born out of a conservative agenda. The
radicalism of queer activism is lost to the promise of assimilation:
"the middle-class face we present enables the right to organize where
it's never been welcome before: among Hispanics and African
Americans" (Goldstein, 1994, p. 25). Although the Village Voice
endorses the definition of visibility as a form of liberation, the
narrative is critical of the manipulation of the term by a queer
activism that is mostly male and mostly white. The newspaper argues
it is not possible to isolate Stonewall from the common ground of
gender and racial civil rights activism: "The Stonewall riot was a
significant event because society as a whole was ready for the change
those queens ushered us in…visibility may seem like the signature of
gay liberation, but it's merely a product of the larger social
critique that emerged from Stonewall" (Goldstein, 1994, p. 27). The
Village Voice validates the arguments of the "radical" groups left
out of Stonewall 25, that the spirit of the riots had been lost on a
celebration of a middle-class assimilation dream with its patriarchal
and racial components intact. The newspaper, as an authorized voice
of its community, calls for Stonewall 25 "to be a testament to this
power…let it be a fierce party, a clamorous protest, and a vast
singing of the body electric" (Goldstein, 1994, p. 29).
As expected, the Village Voice provides more coverage of the
alternative march and other "unofficial" events than other newspaper.
The tone of the coverage is less politically correct and more playful
as well. The newspaper quotes a Stonewall survivor, Steve Quester,
describing the organizers of Stonewall 25 as "muscle queens with
summer shares in the Pines…service men and women who just happen to
be lesbian and gay…and high-powered party promoters" and wondering
"why didn't the Stonewall 25 committee see fit to have the march go
by Stonewall and celebrate the dykes and drags who started this whole
thing in the first place?" (Trebay, 1994, p. 22). The Village Voice
describes the alternative march as a big event that united, among
others, Stonewall veterans, Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists
Alliance, gay Asians, and gay people of color. The scale of this
competing event is definitely underplayed in other media. The
integration of the two marches is described in less pleasant terms
than in the New York Times; Stonewall veteran Ivan Revera is quoted
"they want us to go onstage with them…we're the court, those
Stonewall 25 queens took it over and they want to push us aside…we
kicked butt once 25 years ago, and if we had to we'd do it all again"
(Trebay, 1994, p. 23). Overall, the coverage in the Village Voice is
less concerned with consensus.
One aspect of the Village Voice's coverage that is similar to the
gay press analyzed below has to do with the concern with mainstream
media attention. An essay by Martin Duberman (1994) explain the
significance of the Stonewall riots in terms of the amount of media
attention that queer people received, something unprecedented in
1969. Duberman highlights the coverage by the New York Times, the
Daily News, the New York Post and Time magazine. Goldstein (1994), on
the other hand, reflects upon the coverage of the Stonewall 25
celebrations in the same publications. These reports are indication
of the legitimizing power of mass media in America.
Stonewall and The Advocate
The Advocate also gives extensive coverage to Stonewall 25 during
1994 through a special series called New York 1994. One of the first
cover stories focuses on eyewitnesses of the Stonewall riots and
underlines how "the gay men and women who fought back in 1969 hold
memories that can't be—and some say don't want to be—memorialized
with a parade" (Pela, 1994). Despite giving attention to these
dissenting voices, The Advocate balances its perspective with more
traditional and predictable testimonies. Survivor Janine Hakim is
quoted saying "I'll always be thankful to those faces from the
Stonewall riots, watching these people demand equal rights was like a
door opening for me; by continuing my community activist work, I can
memorialize those people" (p. 53). The focus of The Advocate's
editorial is not about the meaning or significance of Stonewall,
which is taken for granted, but about the forms of the celebration by
questioning whether parades and concerts can appropriately
commemorate the event. Even if on the surface The Advocate examines
and questions the organization of Stonewall 25, it fails to voice
dissenting memories and interpretations of the riots and implicitly
endorses their mythical significance.
The Advocates pays only marginal attention to the financial
difficulties of Stonewall 25 and its difficulties to raise the
necessary funds (Gallagher, 1994). Far more emphasis is put on the
positive aspects with an evident concern about the alleged connection
between the success of the celebration and the fate of the gay
political movement. The tension between the official march and the
alternative march is underplayed as well: "The combination of the two
marches—which organizers estimated attracted 1.1 million
people—provided a brief moment of harmony in what had been a
fractious weekend of infighting" (p. 16). The controversies and
divisions are always approached from the perspective of the great
significance of the event. For example, Martin Duberman is quoted
stating that "Stonewall has become the international symbol of gay
resistance, and everyone wants a piece of the action" (p. 17). The
coverage of Stonewall 25 in The Advocate, both in writing and
visually, is an optimistic narrative about the unifying power of
queer activism across age, gender, class and race.
An interesting aspect of The Advocate's coverage has to do with its
concern about mainstream media attention. One story provides a
detailed account of the coverage of the event by all major mainstream
publications and television networks. The reporter regrets the fact
that the O.J. Simpson story took the stories on Stonewall 25 off
front-pages where they belonged. However, the story concludes that
"most of the media coverage of Gay Games IV and the Stonewall
commemoration focused on the progress gays and lesbians have made in
the past 25 years" (The Advocate, July 26, 1994, p. 29). This
obsession with media attention is exemplary of the queer movement's
search for legitimization through one of the most ubiquitous
institutions in American culture. It did not happen if it was not on TV.
HIV and AIDS are recurring features in The Advocate throughout 1994.
Although they are not directly linked to Stonewall 25, it is
interesting to examine the sudden urge for commemoration and activism
evidenced in the same period. A May 31 cover story discusses how
"AIDS prevention measures are failing a new generation of gay men"
and warns about a "second wave" of HIV infections among young men
(Bull & Gallagher, 1994). A possible explanation is that AIDS
awareness, which had solidly unified the gay community in the 1980s,
had lost momentum in the early 1990s. Stonewall 25 and all the media
representations that coincided between 1994 and 1995 can be
understood as well as an effort to bring attention back to the issue
of AIDS and to galvanize a community whose ties had become loose.
This concern with AIDS is also found in other media portrayals of
Stonewall and Stonewall 25.
Stonewall and the Television Screen
"Out rage '69" is the first part of the four-part series "The
question of equality" produced by Arthur Dong and originally
broadcast on PBS in November 1995 and now available for purchase and
in libraries around the country. Only the first part has been
included in this analysis because it deals directly with the
Stonewall riots. This documentary is structured by interviews with
Stonewall eyewitnesses, members of the early homophile movements, and
members of the later radical organizations such as the Gay Activist
Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front. The interviews are edited
together with flashing images, black and white news footage of the
early 1960s and sound effects. When the interviewees describe the
events of June 27 1969 their testimonies are juxtaposed with black
and white footage of riots, police brutality and bar raids. However,
actual footage of the Stonewall riots or even the inside of the bar
does not exist. This production technique of "dramatizing" the events
attempts to legitimize and increase the credibility of the
testimonies in similar fashion to most historical documentaries.
The production is candid in its depiction of the divisiveness
of the gay movement during the aftermath of Stonewall and the
exclusion of drag queens, people of color, and lesbians. Several
testimonies describe the so-called radical organizations as formed by
"young, white, middle-class men" except perhaps for one or two "token
lesbians." On the other hand, the documentary is clearly a call for
unity. The last segments describe how by the 1970s a sense of freedom
had been achieved until the infamous Anita Bryant started her
anti-gay campaign, an event that finally galvanized gays, of all
colors and genders, together in quite the same way that the AIDS
crisis did in the 1980s. The message is that as members of a gay
community, we must remain united and vigilant.
"Stonewall 25: Global voices of pride and protest" is a
compilation of news coverage of Stonewall 25, the Gay Games and other
related events originally broadcast by WNYC-TV in June 1994 and now
available for sale as a documentary. Coverage of the different events
are interjected with short segments. One is called "Stonewall
Profiles," short vignettes presenting an accomplished gay personality
such as Martina Nabratilova or Harvey Feinstein, people who had
nothing to do with the original Stonewall but are somehow covered by
the discursive umbrella of Stonewall 25. Another segment is called
"Since Stonewall" in which a number of celebrities (Joan Rivers,
Stockard Channing, etc.) present a series of gay achievements with a
particular emphasis on media and entertainment: award winning actors
for gay roles, gay characters on television shows, gay shows on Broadway, etc.
All along the recurring message is about visibility and coming
out, not only for resisting discrimination but also for achieving
consensus among the diversity of the gay community. This is evident
in the testimonies of organizers, celebrities, participants in the
march and athletes in the Gay Games. However, the hosts of "Stonewall
25: Global voices of pride and protest," reporting from the original
Stonewall Inn, best summarize the message in the closing segment:
The Stonewall 25 story played on TV is one of enormous crowds filling
up the stadiums, theatres, parks and avenues of Manhattan. But the
story behind the image is one of individuals, from widely different
backgrounds, coming from all over the world to claim a common
history. Those individuals have different ideas of what it means to
be gay, or even what a gay rights movement is about, but for one
historic week in June they shared a powerful feeling of being part of
a much larger community, and that feeling of community is perhaps the
greatest legacy of Stonewall.
"Stonewall 25: The future is ours!" is the official
documentary of the Stonewall 25 organizing committee, released as
part of the fundraising efforts. This production measures the success
of the event in rather quantitative terms: "72 nations, all 50
states, 50,000 flags, 1.2 million marchers, and 6,500 police
officers." The documentary also gives prominence to celebrities
rather than to anonymous participants. If this is to become a
document on Stonewall 25 for future generations, its success will not
be measured by the gay men and women on the street but by the parade
of celebrities, gay and straight, on the stage: Amanda Bearse, Ian
McKellan, Kathy Najimi, RuPaul, Judith Light, Liza Minnelli among others.
The official narrative takes the myth of Stonewall one step
further and transforms it as emblematic of "global" gay liberation.
To that end, the documentary portrays brief glimpses of delegations
from around the world. The recurring narrative again is about
visibility "the closet is a killer…our ability to overcome the closet
is tied to our ability to celebrate." This emphasis on coming out is
what Manalansan (1994) criticizes as the Euro-centric model of gay liberation.
AIDS is also a recurring theme in the official account of
Stonewall 25, similar to The Advocate's concern with younger
generations of gay men. Kathy Najimi warns the crowd in Central Park:
"If you're bored of hearing about AIDS, get up, go visit an asylum
and remember." Also, unity among diversity is encouraged and several
characters representative of differences in terms of race, class, and
gender are brought to the stage to repeat the same mantra, including
a delegation from Nebraska that greets the crowd with "hello from the
heartland." In the end, we are all encouraged to "take Stonewall home with us."
Stonewall and Film
A production of the BBC and Arena Films released in 1995, Nigel
Finch's film is loosely based on Martin Duberman's book and it is so
far the only fictional representation of the Stonewall riots.
Although all the characters in the movie are fictional, they
represent the mosaic of people portrayed in Duberman's work: a Puerto
Rican drag queen, a young radical activist from the Midwest, and men
and women from the more conservative homophile movements. The big
difference in Finch's narrative is how these characters interact with
each other and with the Stonewall Inn. In the movie, a romantic
relationship between La Miranda, the drag queen, and Matty Dean, the
young straight-looking activist, develops. A parallel love story,
between a drag queen and the Stonewall Inn's mafia manager, further
structures the film as a conventional narrative. The decision to
narrate the Stonewall riots within the boundaries of a love story
favors an assimilationist rather than radical discourse. Furthermore,
through the optimistic portrayal of happy interactions among gay
white men, butch lesbians, and minority transsexuals, the movie
reinforces the myth of Stonewall as an intersection of all gays. The
film is a claim for legitimacy and inclusion. In the final scene La
Miranda states this clearly when she declares that drag queens are
"as American as apple pie."
Contrary to documentary accounts of Stonewall that usually explore
the aftermath of new gay organizations, the film concludes with the
riots. Bravmann (1996) notes that this particular narrative closure
provides the riots "an unwarranted degree of autonomy, perhaps even
suggesting the self-evidence of its historical importance by
extracting the riot's meanings from the subsequent histories in which
they have been developed" (p. 494). Interviewed by the Village Voice
about the film, Finch asserts that what interests him is "how history
is fictionalized through memory" (Taubin, 1994, p. 62). By closing
the narrative with the riots, the film contributes to the
fictionalization of history and obscures dissenting memories. The
film not only overemphasizes the historical relevance of Stonewall
but also fails to address the tensions and conflicts that it mythical
construction has generated in terms of representation and political
views among the larger queer community.
It is possible to locate the social and cultural processes built
around the memory of Stonewall in a broader social context. In his
analysis of the 1994-1995 period, Kammen (1991) discusses how the
cultural, industrial and economic conditions present after World War
II gave rise to a "heritage syndrome" evidenced by the efforts of
ethnic Americans to pay more attention to their backgrounds (p. 537).
Considering that a lot of gay Americans identify themselves strongly
by their sexual orientation, it is also possible to argue that as a
community they experience this need for heritage. The rise of
Stonewall as a mythical and iconic place also seems to coincide with
what Kemmen describes as the sudden popularity of meaningful places
from the American past. However, it would be too simple to examine
these media depictions ten years later and completely dismiss them as
naïve mythical constructions. Indeed, one can admire the courage of
activists who stated their political views when it was not fashionable.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the uses of memory in
shaping social memory and a collective identity of what it means to
be queer in America, by a sudden stream of media attention on
Stonewall built around the 25th anniversary celebration in 1994-1995.
It also attempts to understand the role of these commemoration
initiatives in the larger social and political environment of America
at the time. The Clinton administration had taken office in 1993 with
the full support of gay organizations. It was a time when anything
seemed possible, even the hope for federal protection against
discrimination seemed attainable. The gay community was particularly
energized. At the same time, the unifying effect of the AIDS crisis
had been losing strength. A whole new generation of gay men and
lesbian women needed to be reminded of the need of political
activism. All these elements coincided in the mid 1990s. If police
brutality in the 1960s, Anita Bryant and her discriminatory agenda in
the 1970s, and HIV in the 1980s had proven to be effective
galvanizing tools; by the 1990s the history of the gay struggle was
long enough to start building itself around myths. Analyzing media
coverage and media representations of queer commemoration and
activism in the mid 1990s provides a window into the social debates
at the time.
Arguably, the celebrations of Stonewall 25 would have happened
whether the media covered them or not. However, it matters that the
media did cover the events. According to Bodnar, public memory is an
"intersection of official and vernacular cultural expressions" (1992,
p. 13). In that sense, the journalistic coverage, the parade of
celebrities, the movies, all contribute to make "it" official, not
only Stonewall but the ideals of gay activism and collectivity as
well. In America, the media perform a legitimizing function. The
journalistic and media representations of the Stonewall riots and
Stonewall 25 also assist in the transformation of what was a
rebellion into a symbol of inclusion. It is easy to imagine that many
women left the Stonewall 25 celebrations with the clear conviction
that lesbians actively participated in the rebellion.
The myth of Stonewall presents other challenges at well. Was it
really the birth of the gay liberation movement for both men and
women? Was it really a historical interjection for drag queens and
gay men, for whites and blacks? Tilchen (1997) criticizes Stonewall
as a mythology that carries women along in what really was a minor
event in lesbian history. Bravmann (1997) discusses Stonewall as a
myth of gender and racial unity that homosexuals are being thought to
replicate in the present, and calls this vision of Stonewall "a case
of historical wishful thinking" (p. 77). According to Lipsitz, myths
serve a conciliatory function. This is particularly interesting for
the Stonewall myth: a riot that has become a symbol of inclusiveness
and pride. The myth of Stonewall speaks less about rebellion and more
about inclusion in the existing social order. In the narrower context
of the gay community, it also means that the myth of Stonewall serves
to legitimize a particular understanding of gay politics to the
exclusion of challengers such as transgender people or feminist
lesbians. The media have assisted in the construction and
preservation of the myth. However, the challenge of providing a
unified identity to a diverse collective is still present. The need
is stronger now with the perceived political shift to conservative
values and the on-going battle about gay marriage. It is
indispensable to examine and question the foundations that make the
American queer collective in order to develop a more honest, more
inclusive project towards social, cultural and political victories.
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