Stonewall by Martin Duberman is one of my favourite books to read. It tells the events that led to the Stonewall Riots and those that came after in such a narratively interesting and captivating way that I find ingenious. Since I had surgery at the start of the month, I decided to reread it and critique it for my website, a simple and enjoyable task while I was still recovering.
Stonewall as a history book takes a very different approach to telling the events of the 27 June 1969. Instead of a simple chronological retelling of history, it focuses on six individuals who were involved in early gay communities. Each of these people have a unique story to tell about their experiences in the years prior to Stonewall.
“The Cast” as the book describes them includes; Craig Rodwell, a member of the Mattachine Society in New York who would go on to found the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, Yvonne Flowers, an African-American party-lover and future founder of the Salsa Soul Sisters, Karla Jay, a Feminist lesbian that would become a prominent academic, Sylvia Rivera, a Latina street queen and future trans icon, Jim Fourrett, actor and prominent member of the Yippie movement with Abie Hoffman, and Foster Gunnison Jr., son of a wealthy businessman that would devote much of his to the homophile movement in its last years. While the experiences of each of them are different, they would frequently overlap, revealing the interconnectivity of the early gay communities in New York City.
Each chapter represents a different period of time in their lives, from childhood and adolescence before going into different parts of the 1960s. Within each chapter are subchapters that switch to the different people to explore what their lives were like in, say, the mid-Sixties. When these intertwined, the subchapter would include both names that were involved. What is fascinating about this method of storytelling is the efficiency that Duberman is able to explore the breadth of life at the time through just these individuals. Of particular note is how the politics and machinations of the homophile groups, like the Mattachine Society or NACHO/ERCHO, are revealed through the eyes of Foster Gunnison Jr. We are able to understand the nuances of these earlier groups, now tossed aside by the radical forces that were birthed at Stonewall, and the ways that they too were radical in their own ways. Beyond that, we read about the struggles for power that took place in these groups and how different leaders led their organizations. These six people and their histories do a fantastic job of highlighting and revealing the multiplicity of the gay world in the years before Stonewall.
And then, on page 223, the subchapter title reads “Stonewall”. This breaks the conventions that the book had been using up to this point. Reading it, it feels foreboding. This section sets up the Stonewall Inn’s history as a Mafia run bar and the people who worked there; it becomes a character of the story. We learn about how it came to be and by whom, the bouncer and barhands, the layout of the inside. The next subsection is likewise written differently to create a tension unlike any other I have found in a history book. Whereas most chapters and subchapters are told over years, this next section is hours. Additionally, it gives around a page to Sylvia, Jim, and Craig to show their perspectives as witnesses to the riot. Each of these read quickly, the tension is clearly in the air and the short time given to each of them reflects that. The reader knows what is coming, and it is written to heighten that unease. Then it kicks off and it feels like chaos.
What follows after the riots is an exploration of the ways that Stonewall changed the landscape for gay life and activism. The formerly timid nature of gays, the kind who would just acquiesce to previous raids on gay bars, suddenly turned militant. They were unsatisfied with the more conservative homophile groups, instead finding their politics in the liberationist movements coming out of the Third World at the time. This was not true for all gays right away of course, with many of the conservative and wealthy gays viewing the riots as either unfortunate or regrettable, hoping to distance themselves from the more radical gays. The book would conclude a year after the riots with the planning and operation of the Christopher Street Liberation Day March. This march would go on to become the Pride Parades that are celebrated every year around the last weekend of June.
For as much as I enjoy reading Stonewall, there are some drawbacks to it. My first issue is the minimal exploration of transgender life being living on the street in the 1960s. There is Sylvia Rivera’s perspective as a street queen, but I feel like this sometimes gets muddy. There is one mention of her going on hormones for a period, but it does not bother discussing what that process might have been like in the mid to late 1960s. It would not have been out of place to talk briefly about the doctors that were prescribing to street queens, but the book does not.
Additionally, the lack of any mention to the philanthropic work of Reed Erickson is somewhat surprising. This could be a result of the focus on New York and Erickson’s philanthropy could have been more located on the West Coast (he purchased the building for ONE Inc during this time period) but the lack of any reference to him is startling when it has been claimed he had funded so much of early LGBT movement.
The final critique I have is around Yvonne Flowers, and this might not even be a critique at this point. On first glance, Yvonne feels out of place from the rest of the “cast”. Her story does not overlap nearly as much as some of the others’, and it stands out for that reason. Even today, there is still a lot of racism in the LGBT community, and it was only much larger in the 1960s, so it is not surprising that she did not move in the same circles as the rest of the book. But this feels at odds with the storytelling method that Duberman has chosen. Thinking on it some more, I realized that metatextually, it represents the ostracism that Yvonne would have experienced in the largely white gay community of New York City. When viewed from this perspective, it allows the reader to feel that separation between Yvonne and the other people in the book that she herself would have felt.
To conclude, Martin Duberman’s Stonewall is phenomenal. It takes a defining moment in queer history and tells it in a fascinating and exploratory way that reveals so much more detail than one would expect normally. There is a reason this has become the definitive book on the Stonewall Riots. While it is not without its faults, it still stands up well, even after the 28 years since it was initially published.
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.