As Pride Month draws to a close, the re-mything of Stonewall is ubiquitious. Some are trying to replace a false narrative with something more akin to the truth. As much as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are part of the story, rewriting their roles in an exercise of historical revisionism robs those who first rose up to fight back of their rightful place in history. But there are no statues, street names, children’s books or Google search page doodles for Marty Robinson and Morty Manford.
Historian Eric Marcus, writing in 1999:
The story of what really happened at Stonewall has yet to be distorted and embellished beyond the point of recognition, but it’s well on its way. The myth gets a boost every time someone writes about how “heroic drag queens started a riot at the Stonewall Inn, which marked the beginning of the gay rights movement.”
Now, of course, the gay-male drag queens have been transformed into transwomen. Gay guys, apparently, played only a secondary role in their own liberation, or so the narrative tells us.
Added, and recommended:
If Johnson and Rivera are to have a statue, contextualizing it in relation to Stonewall is clearly wrong, and the rush to turn the pair into trans rights icons seems to be doing the exact opposite of what the New York Times suggested – it’s erasing a pivotal event for gay men by making the dominant narrative transgenderism.
Much has been said lately about the problems of wantonly tearing down statues to erase history, but the ideology behind erecting statues to invented historical narratives might be even more alarming.
4 Comments for “Historical Matters”
posted by Tom Scharbach on
But being on the right side of history—as so many activists in the intersectional social justice space believe they are—doesn’t give you license to rewrite it. In the end, the facts matter, even when they are slightly less convenient for your narrative.
Two quiet observations: (1) Historical facts become largely irrelevant when an event becomes a powerful symbol, a story with a meaning, power and life of its own that supplants and overshadows whatever the historical facts might be [FN-1], and (2) it is a natural human tendency for people/cultures shaped, moved and influenced by a symbol/story to write themselves into the story, shaping the story to give meaning to their own lives [FN-2].
I think that is what has happened with Stonewall.
The raid and resistance itself didn’t amount to much by any reasonable standard. Similar events had taken place in other areas of the country in preceding years, as Paul Varnell and others familiar with LGBT history have pointed out.
What was different about Stonewall is that Stonewall took on a life of its own as symbol/story over the course of months and years subsequent to the event itself, being cast as the “uprising where pride began” in the popular imagination. We now talk about the struggle for LGBT equality in terms of “pre-Stonewall” and “post-Stonewall”, as if the Stonewall riots were a clear, bright-line turning point in LGBT history, and as if the “gay rights” movement originated in and emanated outward from New York to the rest of the country.
That just isn’t so in terms of historical fact. But that is the story/myth that has shaped the LGBT rights movement for close to a half century.
Whatever the actual “who, what, where, when and why” of the events surrounding Stonewall might have been, we have seen continued retelling and recasting of the Stonewall story/symbol as the LGBT movement has evolved over time, and we have seen different takes on the story/symbol as each constituency of the adopted it as its own.
Stonewall is really three historical stories that need to be uncovered, digested and told. The first story is an account of the actual events. The second story is an account of how the story took on a life of its own as symbol, recast as needed to fit the needs of the times. The third story is an account of how various competing communities within the LGBT movement have recast the events to fit the needs of the community retelling the story. The three stories are related, but distinct, and it is in the second and third stories that Stonewall takes on its historical significance as a culture-shaping event. The first story has been largely rendered irrelevant by the second and third, but all three deserve careful attention by historians.
[FN 1] An analogy with which most of you will be familiar is the recasting of the historical figure of Jesus over the course of the 50-100 years following his death, during the period in which the letters of Paul and the Gospels were written by various Christian communities. The canon depicts very different visions of Jesus (Mark’s Jesus can hardly be reconciled with John’s Jesus, for example). By the time that the last Gospel was written, the transformation of the “historical Jesus” had more or less been subsumed by “Jesus the Christ”, no longer recoverable despite the efforts of Biblical scholars who have embarked on a variety of failed quests for the “historical Jesus” over the last century.
[FN 2] I compare the reality and symbol of Stonewall to reality and symbol of Jesus for a reason, and the reason was not to offend Christians, who believe that Jesus was God incarnate. The reason was to draw your attention to the way in which Jesus has been used as symbol of the various expressions of Christianity over the years, as each age recreated Jesus in its own image, deploying the Christological symbols of Jesus to explain the age. Jasilov Pelikan wrote a splendid book about this aspect of Christian history, “Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture“, in 1999, and it is a lucid and compelling resource for anyone attempting to understand how different Christian communities can hold such different visions of “Jesus the Christ”.
posted by Jorge on
The whole “rewriting history” narrative mostly resonates with me this year in light of what I consider a revolutionary attempt to reshape the image of this country by BLM, Antifa, academia, and the media. Part of that is an attempt to dismantle this country’s founding heroes.
It is also true that the logical side of me could never understand the special significance of Paul Revere’s ride in the Revolutionary War (and I wrote a paper on the Battle of Lexington and Concord once). It is incredibly difficult for me to understand just how the Revolutionary War began in 1775 and not 1776. Part of me thinks I’d need to be literally be back in high school reading the textbook to put it all together.
So… “Benjamin Franklin smote the ground, and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified them with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them – Franklin, Washington, and the horse – conducted the entire Revolution all by themselves.”–John Adams
posted by Tom Scharbach on
It is also true that the logical side of me could never understand the special significance of Paul Revere’s ride in the Revolutionary War (and I wrote a paper on the Battle of Lexington and Concord once).
The “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” is an excellent example of the morphing of reality into story/symbol, and you can largely thank Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for Revere’s place in popular history. Paul Revere was one of three riders (Revere, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott) who left Boston that night to warn local militias of the British intent. Revere and Dawes were captured outside of Lexington, and it was left to Prescott, together with runners/riders from local militias, to spread the alarm to the local militias who attacked the British troops on the way back to Boston.
But Longfellow’s poem, written decades after the event, immortalized Revere (“So through the night rode Paul Revere; And so through the night went his cry of alarm, To every Middlesex village and farm, A cry of defiance, and not of fear, A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door, And a word that shall echo forevermore!“). In my day, boys were taught the poem and thrilled at Revere’s adventures. But, as is the case with the myth of Stonewall as “the origin of the gay rights movement”, there is but a grain of truth in the story/symbol of Paul Revere.
It is incredibly difficult for me to understand just how the Revolutionary War began in 1775 and not 1776. Part of me thinks I’d need to be literally be back in high school reading the textbook to put it all together.
The long and short of it is that the fighting started before the rationale was articulated in the Declaration of Independence, consisting primarily of local actions fought by local militias for the most part until the Continental Army began to coordinate efforts in the various Colonies well into the war. The struggle for American independence was a messy endeavor not easily retold in the 5,000-10,000 words granted the subject in most high school textbooks. So I doubt that high school textbooks will help much in sorting out the confusion.
The whole “rewriting history” narrative mostly resonates with me this year in light of what I consider a revolutionary attempt to reshape the image of this country by BLM, Antifa, academia, and the media.
The retelling of history changes over time. When I was in school, American history was told entirely through the lens of American Exceptionalism and told through the lives of white men. I don’t have problem with adding the history of Native Americans, African-Americans and other “people of color” to the history that I learned. Nor do I have a problem with including the story of government repression of rights and liberties along with the story of government advancement of rights and liberties. How can we function as a democratic republic unless we understand our history, both the good and the bad? To me, that effort isn’t so much “revolutionary” as it is “long since time”.
Part of that is an attempt to dismantle this country’s founding heroes.
I don’t have a problem with learning about and understanding the dark sides of the heroes of our history.
I have long had an affinity for Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, FDR and Robert Kennedy, for example, and I have spent many, many hours studying the lives and writings/thoughts of each of them. All were deeply flawed men who achieved much and inspired men of the their time to greater heights. You won’t find that featured in the cartoon version of these men, but I think that I’m much better off having a sense of both the light and the darkness in each of them, because the darkness accentuates the light. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I’m reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:11 in this regard.
Like most Americans, I have mixed feelings about attempts to eradicate men like Robert E. Lee from our history. It seems to me that a statue of Robert E. Lee could serve as an educational opportunity, an object lesson in how the evils of slavery led to treason by one of the best soldiers to serve in the United States Army, as well as a reminder that the statues of Lee and other Confederate “heroes” were erected during the “Lost Cause” period of Southern history, when segregationists tried to rewrite history to glorify slavery days. On the other hand, I have no problem with removing General Lee’s name from my husband’s Texas high school, because his memory is offensive to many of the students who now attend that school, school segregation having passed into history even in Texas.
When it comes to military bases, I trained in or was stationed at Fort Benning, Fort Bragg and Fort Hood, among others. At the time, I paid little attention, but I do wonder in my old age if it wouldn’t make sense to rename those military installations after authentic heroes, Medal of Honor recipients, for example. It seems to me that naming military installations after men who betrayed our nation makes as much sense as naming Los Alamos for the Rosenbergs.
posted by Jorge on
Your response was interesting to read. Thank you for it.