When President Obama evoked the memory of the struggles against oppression and hatred in American history by naming Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall in his second inaugural Address, he weaved together the libratory and transgressive threads that pervade our history. By name-checking Stonewall, in particular, alongside other foundational civil rights moments in the American consciousness, his intention, perhaps, was to upgrade Stonewall's "minor-league" status. Gay and lesbian people got a political "shout-out" like never before and I, for one, admit that my big gay heart skipped a beat when the president uttered this alliterative and inspiring phrase.
But in thinking about the speech in the days afterward, I've been left reflecting on Stonewall and its legacy. And if Stonewall is in the midst of being hoisted out of the queer historical consciousness to be reimagined as a banner moment illustrative of the collective American toil for freedom, justice, and liberty for all, then let us, before it is too late, remember what took place on that heated June night back in 1969.
Stonewall, first and foremost, was a bar. A place populated by inverts, fairies, butches, crossdressers, and dykes. Serving booze to a "homosexuals" in New York City in the 1960s could be grounds for losing one's liquor license. Stonewall was one of the few places to grab a drink and someone to dance with knowing, all-too-well, the bar could be busted at any moment. Police raids of known gay bars were almost nightly experiences at this time, photos of the arrestees being led away in handcuffs sometimes splashed across the next day's paper.
But on June 28, 1969 when the NYPD tried to routinely invade Stonewall, something went awry. For me, the queer beauty of this historical event is that there is no "official" transcript; there is not one accepted narrative for how it all transpired. There are tales of a butch throwing the first punch at a cop, a projectile high-heeled shoe being lobbed across the crowd, among others, all of which have been said to have ignited the crowd to resist arrest. But regardless of which catalytic moment you want to believe, something snapped.
For let us remember who was there, fighting (yes, fighting), at Stonewall. It was not just the patrons from inside the bar who need to be remembered and honored, but the crowds that had gathered outside. Crowds that included trans people, young people, people of color, street kids, the list goes on and on. Together, they were fighting against rampant police brutality of queer and trans people and specific discriminatory targeting sponsored by city officials. Stonewall was not pretty, it was violent and dangerous. Its heroes were folks who had been deemed outcasts, for various reasons, and who went hand for hand with the police on the streets of New York City. Those are the people our president evoked when Stonewall went echoing down the National Mall on Inauguration Day.
Going back to Obama's "Three S's", its important to note that he only mentioned the names of these civil rights moments, but not how these events have been packaged in the American memory. Seneca Falls is remembered as a convention, Selma a march, but Stonewall, let us never forget, was a riot. Just as I fear Stonewall's riotous qualities being washed away as it gets typed into American history textbooks, I ask us to consider how this same process has already altered how Seneca Falls and Selma are remembered.
So, thank you President Obama for including Stonewall in your inaugural address. Do you care to join us for some more riots?
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