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The Stonewall riot based on false history
Monday August 3, 2009 (Robin Evans, New York, New York) - Forty years
ago on June 27 a young reporter for the Village Voice penned a snarky article
declaring that a riot outside the Stonewall Inn in Sheridan Square represented
an outbreak of what the headline to his story called “Gay Power”. That same
reporter, Lucien V. Truscott IV, now writes in a New York Times op-ed that the
myth of Stonewall
is based on a false history. But Truscott’s his own published report from
four decades ago tells a slightly different history.
A myth develops from a history, but they’re distinct. Myth adds layers to history,
turning it into something other than the simple record of an event or person.
What we commemorate in June is the myth of Stonewall. We commemorate the great
notion that somehow in a time long ago and at a place most of us have never
been something happened that affects us and moves us even now.
“A prominent Stonewall myth holds that the riots were an uprising by the gay
community against decades of oppression.” Truscott says it his current reflection
on those hot nights four decades ago in Greenwich Village.
That’s the myth we celebrate each June.
He says now that the myth would be historical and “true” only “if the ‘gay
community’ consisted of Stonewall patrons.” But that’s not who rioted, he says:
“The bar’s regulars, though, were mostly teenagers from Queens, Long Island,
and New Jersey, with a few young drag queens and homeless youths who squatted
in abandoned tenements on the Lower East Side.”
Based on a good deal of contrary historical evidence, one could set Truscott’s
recollection aside except for one thing: The man who is recalling that history
is the same guy who wrote the most comprehensive contemporary press account
of the riots. Truscott’s article, published by the Village Voice in its July
3, 1969 issue, was given the headline “Gay
Power Comes to Sheridan Square”. The issue hit the streets while the uprisings
continued each night outside the bar (and just down the street from the Voice
offices at the time).
Truscott’s current recollections are included in a New York Times op-ed, “The
Real Mob at Stonewall”. Queery summarized it with the headline, “The
Stonewall Riot Was Not, In Fact, the Gay Community's Uprising”.
The great LGBT history website OutHistory.org
features a collection of primary documents about an event whose name is among
the best known among LGBT folks: Stonewall. The name is known, but anything
more than the vague outlines of the actual events that happened 40 years ago
at the bar named “Stonewall” have become mythic, often mentioned in loudly amplified
but little listened-to speeches at rallies this time of year. In each speech,
the events of those nights in June are colored with a slightly different hue.
In each speech, the events of that night are used – as myths usually are – to
amplify whatever lesson the speaker is trying to teach.
But OutHistory offers a raw look at those hot nights 40 years ago, including
a fascinating letter that author and essayist Edmund White sent to two friends
on July 8, 1969. White is the author of A Boy's Own Story (1982) and The Farewell
Symphony (1997) along with numerous essays and short stories. His letter was
written to two friends, and demonstrates the same kind of elegant precision
of language that characterizes his essays.