February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Takin’ It to the Streets | Ann Bausum on “Stonewall”

Listen to Ann Bausum reveal the story behind Stonewall, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net


On a sweltering night in June 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s West Village. The Stonewall was dark and grimy and served watered-down drinks, but it provided members of the LGBTQ community with a place to hang out and dance with relatively little community or official interference at a time when serving alcohol to homosexuals was considered illegal. It wasn’t the first time the bar was raided, but that night the scene erupted into a riot. The legacy of that event and those that followed is explored in Ann Bausum’s stunning new book, Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights (Viking, May, 2015; Gr 8 Up).


stonewallAs a writer you’ve covered social justice issues from women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement. Was it a natural progression to follow with gay rights, or did something in particular spur you to write Stonewall?

I had some sort of epiphany in the early 2000s that many of us were overlooking an entire segment of our society by ignoring the history of the fight for equality regardless of gender identity. I remember feeling embarrassed, actually, that I hadn’t perceived this national blind spot sooner. It just seemed so obvious after I’d thought of it. Naturally, as someone drawn to social justice topics even then, I began to hope that the deficit could be addressed.

It took me longer to see myself as a person who should undertake this work. I had felt comfortable writing about women’s voting rights because I was female and because, years earlier, I had met the historical figure Alice Paul. I had anchored my interest in the civil rights movement to my connections as a white woman who had grown up in the segregated South.

Over time, and when no one else seized the topic, I began to find my entry point to the history of the gay rights movement. Friends gay and straight encouraged me to write about it. Memories of a college friend who had died from AIDS inspired me. But I really found my fit after the death of Tyler Clementi in 2010. I identified so strongly with his situation and with his family, for I, too, had recently sent sons to college and could imagine how devastating it would be to lose someone you’d nurtured and loved and expected to know for the rest of your life. It was that perspective, as a parent, that empowered me to become a caretaker for this history.

I learned so much reading Stonewall, including the state laws interpreted by local police to mean that members of the gay community could not legally be served alcohol because they were “inevitably disorderly” and another, aimed primarily at cross-dressers, that required three gender-appropriate items of clothing to “be worn at all times.” Were these laws news to you when you began your research?

I start the research for each new project with an inevitable knowledge gap, but I found the learning curve for Stonewall to be particularly steep. Aspects of gay life and the struggles for gay rights just have not been integrated into our national consciousness the way we have, over time, assimilated collective knowledge about such conditions as slavery, or the treatment of Native Americans, or the evolution of voting rights. I knew I would find surprises, but what startled me most was the frequency with which my jaw dropped, as with your examples or, here’s another one: the extremes to which parents went—including disfiguring their gay sons—in an attempt to suppress their children’s sexual identity.

In telling the story of the Stonewall Inn riots you set the stage describing: discriminatory laws aimed at the gay community; the 1960’s protests (Vietnam) and pushback (1968 Democratic Convention); the earlier raids on the Stonewall Inn; and the heat of that particular weekend night in June 1969. You note that Stonewall was a “tinderbox,” an event waiting to happen. If the riots didn’t begin that night, were they bound to have occurred soon?

These counter-factual ruminations are alternately so fascinating and so frustrating because, of course, we are only guessing. My gut reaction is that we should not assume something similar would have happened. There had already been police-inspired riots on the West Coast outside gay-friendly establishments by 1969, but those outbursts had not sparked a gay rights revolution. Many specifics from the Stonewall riots were unique to this particular time and place—even down to the incredibly hot weather.

Would there have been a continued push for gay rights? Undoubtedly. But would it have taken off so explosively and would there have been a comparable anchoring event? Perhaps not. I’m not even sure it would have happened on a comparable time line. By the end of the 1960s, some of the decade’s momentum for social change was faltering. The civil rights movement was splintering. The women’s movement was encountering roadblocks. Conservative forces were ascendant. It’s possible that the quest for gay rights would have had an entirely different trajectory and timing but for the uprising at the Stonewall Inn.

Once the police were forced to retreat into and barricade themselves inside the Stonewall Inn, protesters continued to throw things at the building including small handmade firebombs. Given the tenor of the times and their treatment of the LGBTQ community, were the police really oblivious to the fact that there might come a time when they would experience some pushback?

I do think members of the police in that era had a blind spot when it came to the gay community. The mentality of those times allowed people—and not just the police, but people in general—to dehumanize anyone whom they could dismiss as a sexual deviant, as a lesser member of society. By dehumanizing them, they could justify their repression with laws that kept them segregated and through the use of force. Furthermore police and others might project judgments of weakness on gay men, believing that being gay made these men less manly and thus easier to subjugate. Finally, power plays can become self-perpetuating because a stigmatized group may begin to own the judgments being passed on it by authority figures.

Has an explanation ever been offered as to why no additional police backup came for 45 minutes—leaving those inside the Stonewall Inn fighting off a crowd estimated to be 2000 people?

To my knowledge, this gap in response time has never been fully explained. Some of it may be accounted for by the failures of technology, such as the police radio transmitter, but, in my opinion, it seems quite plausible that police politics contributed to the delay, as well.

Seymour Pine, the inspector from the NYPD public morals section who led the raid, didn’t just invade a gay bar during the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. He didn’t just invade a Mafia-owned gay bar. He invaded the home turf of the Sixth Precinct, unannounced. Regardless of whether or not some of the precinct’s officers received kickbacks from the Stonewall’s owners, his unexpected raid might have rankled members of the neighborhood force, thus taking some of the urgency out of their response to the situation.

And, we must remember, the crowd’s fury escalated during this period of isolation, after the initial precinct officers had departed with arrested patrons and employees. It might have been hard for folks at the precinct headquarters to imagine how truly grave the situation at the Stonewall could become in their absence.

One Village Voice reporter ended up inside the Stonewall Inn with the police, and another outside with the crowd. The one outside wrote a somewhat shocking, vitriolic account of the event and the LGBTQ community—nearly sparking another riot. I take it that the Voice hasn’t always been the supporter of gay rights as it is today.

Taken within the context of the era, one could argue that the Village Voice actually was on the vanguard by covering the Stonewall riots at all. Most mainstream media ignored the riots or else presented them with coverage that lacked journalistic respect. I’m thinking of a New York Sunday News piece that was headlined: “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.”

The depth of coverage offered by the Voice was unprecedented; unfortunately the account you mention intermingled comparable condescending humor with its eyewitness reporting. It was the insensitivity of the tone from one of the two Voice pieces that landed so poorly. Again, in the context of the times, one could marvel over the fact that the other account in the Voice employed such a balanced tone.

There are so many great quotes and firsthand accounts in the book. Were there quotes, interviews, or people who suddenly made this history come alive for you, or was it a cumulative, immersive effect?

More cumulative and immersive, I think. I’d already made that “all in” leap of faith when I’d committed to explore this history. For me, it already was alive. Every bit of digging and exploring that I did reinforced that perception.

One of the most transformational things I did during my research process was to comb through the papers of gay activist Craig Rodwell, which are housed in the archives of the New York Public Library. Rodwell had had a Forrest Gump–like view of the gay rights movement, including literally happening upon the first night of the Stonewall riots on his way home. And he was a saver. Thanks to the curatorial work of library archivists, I could survey 20-plus years of gay rights history through the lens of one participant. Following the story through Rodwell’s eyes and actions made it possible for me to bring the history alive for readers.

One of my favorite quotes in the book was that by Charles Burch who remembered “years and years of all the resentments and humiliations” and suddenly during the riots “experiencing liberation and radicalization and everything—bang! right then and there.” Others made similar comments, but you also state that many of the older gay men in the neighborhood didn’t have the same reaction.

That’s right. This older generation had generally lived a life of concealment, accommodation, and shame. Many individuals had undergone years of therapy as treatment for behavior that was then categorized as a mental illness. Younger people found it easier to adjust their mind-sets; after all, they were part of a generation that was tweaking the status quo on many levels. It’s understandable that older members of the gay community might take longer to believe that the times—and beliefs—really were changing. In 1973 the American Medical Association stopped categorizing homosexuality as a mental illness. Such actions helped release some of the community from feelings of self-condemnation.

Then, later, just when the gay rights movement was gaining real momentum, came AIDS.

Yes, or at least AIDS arrived when the gay community was increasingly feeling comfortable with itself, even if that comfort often came with isolation. Being out and being gay might require living in relatively segregated neighborhoods of certain cities—and even then remaining closeted at work. Plenty of discrimination remained.

And, in fact, by the early 1980s, the movement for gay rights was losing momentum. Inertia played a part, but so did the rise of the radical right. For those who remained politically active, efforts to enact nondiscrimination policies—at work and in housing, for example—proved frustratingly difficult.

The devastating nature of AIDS spurred the gay community to mobilize once again in pursuit of equal rights, some of which—such as universal access to health care—have benefited the nation’s full citizenry. We may forget the links, but the pursuit of marriage equality stretches back to the early years of AIDS when partners found themselves at times excluded from medical settings and estate settlements because they lacked the legal standing of a spouse.

You comment in your book that the quest for equal rights for the LGBTQ community has been a long one, galvanized and radicalized by the Stonewall riots. But you state that the annual commemorative marches have even been more transformative. In what way?

We can all recall a moment of history and find inspiration in it, but the sense of community that coalesced on the streets of New York on that hot night in 1969 lives on through these annual parades. Every year, people can join that camaraderie anew. Just participating in the parades creates an opportunity for coming out, for embracing one’s individuality and self-worth, for celebrating one’s place in a continuum of human expression.

The fact that the parades have become an international phenomenon makes that power reverberate all the more. Craig Rodwell really did help to create a gay holiday, as he’d intended. This commemoration keeps the spirit of Stonewall alive.

You end your book noting that while the world today is much more tolerant than that of the 1960s, for many young people the promise of the “It Gets Better” campaign “may seem like a distant possibility offered by people who’ve already grown up and crossed into safer territory.” What can we offer those kids?

We can offer them greater access to information. We can affirm the worth of their heritage by embracing it as an American story, not just a story to be cherished in the LGBTQ community. We can, as a society, endorse the rights of equal access and protection in the workplace, in our living environments, and in the courts, regardless of gender identity.

Perhaps uniquely, all of us may share an extra responsibility to be advocates for young people when it comes to gender expression. Many individuals who are subjected to discrimination or bullying may be guided by parents who have navigated those paths before them, say because of skin color, or ethnicity, or cultural heritage. But children who find themselves aligning with the LGBTQ community may have to travel this learning curve alone.

Those of us who intersect with these young people—as parents, as educators, as authors, as librarians, and so on—have an opportunity to affirm and reassure them that their lives have worth now and that we support the journeys they are undertaking to find their fit in the world.


TB-imageListen to Ann Bausum reveal the story behind Stonewall, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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