The Stonewall Myth


The salience of the drag queen revolt in the West Village in June 1969 is not in any historical dispute. It was a cultural and psychological breakthrough - an empowering moment that clearly shifted something deep in gay America's psyche. But the notion that before this, there was no gay rights movement, that those amazing drag queens were the first gay Americans ever to stand up for their rights in public, is as preposterous as it is now deemed indisputable. Take this quote from Eric Marcus in the NYT today:

“Before Stonewall there was no such thing as coming out or being out,” says Eric Marcus, the author of “Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian & Gay Equal Rights.” “People talk about being in and out now; there was no out, there was just in.”

Has Eric Marcus heard of Frank Kameny? Many Dish readers have. But for those who haven't, here's his Wiki intro:

Dr. Franklin E. "Frank" Kameny (born May 21, 1925 in New York City) is "one of the most significant figures" in the American gay rights movement. In 1957, Kameny was dismissed from his position as an astronomer in the Army Map Service in Washington, D.C. because of his homosexuality, leading him to begin "a Herculean struggle with the American establishment that would transform the homophile movement" and "spearhead a new period of militancy in the homosexual rights movement of the early 1960s". Kameny protested his firing by the U.S. Civil Service Commission due to his homosexuality, and argued this case to the United States Supreme Court.

Although the court denied his petition, it is notable as the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation. Later that year he and Jack Nichols co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, an organization that pressed aggressively for gay and lesbian civil rights; in 1963 the group was the subject of Congressional hearings initiated by Congressman John Dowdy over its right to solicit funds.

There was "out" before Stonewall. It was a different kind of out. But I'd argue that the courage of a civil servant in a suit and tie marching outside the White House in 1963 deserves just as much respect and focus as Village bar patrons six years later. Kameny also coined the phrase "gay is good" a year before Stonewall, and had helped build the infrastructure for the entire gay movement before that. His tireless work in Washington DC over the decades didn't just end the sodomy law but has brought a predominantly African-American city to embrace full marriage rights - rights that are still unavailable in the city where Stonewall erupted.

He was a soldier, a patriot, and a ferociously brave intellectual and activist. His was not a politics of performance art, but of constant interaction, discussion, reason, argument, candor. And the concerted attempt to erase the history of this older, more centrist (and therefore more radical) gay politics is itself a political move - to co-opt the gay rights movement for the New Left, rather than seeing it as a much more complex and diverse movement, that often used radicalism and revolt, but also deployed argument and logic in the long and winding road to equal dignity. In fact, this fusion of proud and openly gay engagement with American society with sporadic revolt against it has been the key to the movement's astonishingly swift success.

The best essay on this aspect of the shaping of history remains Bruce Bawer's "The Stonewall Myth". Re-reading it more than fifteen years later, I am struck by how much has changed. The marriage question and the fight for military service did indeed transform gay politics and culture into something much more than counter-cultural revolt. You can see more clearly now the line that connects the gay rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s with the gay rights movement that emerged in the 1990s and since. The counter-cultural and the integrationist wings together gave the movement flight.

Yet only one wing is truly celebrated in the gay community. That really should end. Even if Frank remains far too modest to say so.