The third "S": The President's Stonewall reference
"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”
- President Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address, January 21, 2013
“Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” The Rule of 3. Rhetoric 101. Alliterative. Natural.
Makes you wonder which “S” got put in there first, which one the speechwriter (whoever he was) thought of first as shorthand for civil rights and struggle, before the other two fell into or were put into place. Makes you consider the timeline: uneven, gawkily chronological - 117 years from Seneca Falls to Selma; 4 years from Selma to Stonewall; 44 years from Stonewall to now. Makes you imagine the history behind it: the images, the sounds, the smells.
It’s a very strange thing, a new thing- the idea of a natural progression from one into the other, the idea of a common heritage to all three, an acceptance of the still-controversial third as part of the widely accepted first and second. They have been taken for granted for as long as I’ve been alive. We’ve become used to a national history, to an image of ourselves that is replete with suffragettes, with Susan B. Anthony, with Martin Luther King, with “Civil Rights”. They’re in our classrooms, inscribed in our history books, stamped on our currency, marked on our calendars.
Stonewall is many things, but it isn’t at that point in the American mainstream, at least not yet. That’s what perhaps made the President’s mention of it feel so shocking, so bold: it was one of those rare moments in a political speech in which you could sense real originality, something new and fresh rather than the reflection of the same old tropes (although, certainly, the “all of us created equal” line falls into the latter category). Watching and hearing it, my throat did tighten, and I did feel - yet again - a sense of gratitude to a president who has indisputably done more than all of his predecessors combined to advance the cause of LGBTQ equality.
The Stonewall reference, despite the obvious courage and value behind it, still seems - in other ways - problematic. The same brevity, matter of factness, and assumption of its belonging to a lineage of civil rights movements that makes the President’s mention of Stonewall seem so important and uplifting also begs an obvious question: “What Stonewall is he really talking about?”
For me, that Stonewall is the Stonewall that I learned in those first, teenage “gay rights” conversations, in undergrad LGBT Studies, in readings of David Carter’s book, in half a dozen other documentaries and accounts. It's something I learned about in the history that the movement created about and for itself, that the people who comprised it created about and for themselves. You assume that those who write LGBTQ history must be LGBTQ. You assume that the people who read LGBTQ history must be LGBTQ.
You seek out that history as a kind of proof that it exists. I remember when I was 19, still in the closet, going to New York for the first time as an adult with my straight best friend for his 21st birthday, and insisting that we get off the subway at Christopher Street. I don't remember what lie I told him to justify the stop. In any case, we wandered around for a bit, until I caught a glimpse of what I’d come for: historical proof. Brick and mortar.
The event we call Stonewall was and is radical, controversial, “other”. It happened in a seedy, unwholesome, dirty dive-bar run by the mafia. It was a place romantic only in contrast to the other, truly dismal, soul-crushing places- abandoned shipping containers, restrooms, parks- where you could meet potential partners for sex, for love, for both, or for neither. It was kind of place you’d never willingly frequent except in the absence of any other available alternative.
The riot (or uprising or insurrection or whatever you want to call it) was driven primarily by homeless and poor transgender youth and homeless and poor gay youth in drag. Also in the crowd were other gays, lesbians, and straight people. It was violent. It was fought with fists and bricks and beer bottles and garbage and fire and camp humor (a Rockettes kick line, for example), and the target was the New York City policemen who, nightly, broke up and beat up and brutalized and terrorized groups of LGBTQ people. The crowd wounded several of those cops, would have probably killed a few had it had the chance.
In the end, it got pinpointed as the beginning. In its wake, LGBTQ (at that time, mostly gay and lesbian) groups and newspapers and organizations and marches spread around the country. In the end, though, it was just one of many, many nights, over many, many decades, when angry, tired, frustrated LGBTQ people brought the fight to the status quo or had the fight brought to them or beaten into them, sometimes winning and rejoicing, often losing and bleeding and dying. And those nights and decades are not done yet.
If this is indeed the Stonewall that the President has in mind, if this is indeed the Stonewall that will survive being assimilated into the “mainstream” of American consciousness, then perhaps the country has undergone an even more radical shift in its values than we thought. I wonder, though, if Stonewall has yet to undergo the usual process of being manicured, winnowed, reshaped to fit the narrative. I wonder, if and when it does, if what we’ll remember will be cleaner, safer, whiter, more middle class. I wonder whether what we’ll remember will be less violent, less frustrated, less desperate, and, most importantly, less trans. After all, the President did follow up the mention of Stonewall with a mention of “our gay brothers and sisters,” excising the main, driving force behind the event that was Stonewall: our transgender brothers and sisters.
As we celebrate what acceptance has come and give support to the President where it is due, then, let’s not forget to remain critical and questioning, ready to protect the truth of LGBTQ history, ready to protect the truth of Stonewall, and ready to honor those who gave it the power that it has today.