February 18, 2020

The Pre-History of Stonewall

“Nobody knows who threw the first brick at Stonewall. It might not even have been a brick. Legend has it a woman in the crowd yelled, “Aren’t you going to do something?” as she was dragged away by cops. We don’t know who she was.

In a smart, hilarious video for The New York Times, journalist Shane O’Neill encapsulates the only consensus about the uprising: “The Stonewall You Know Is a Myth. And That’s O.K.” The facts come from oral histories, tales told by people who where there—or said they were there, or think they were there. In O’Neill’s words, “Fifty years after Stonewall, we’re still arguing about what happened on that night. And that’s kind of the point: Stonewall was, at its core, about people reclaiming their narratives from a society that told them they were sick or pitiful or didn’t even exist.” One lesson of Stonewall is that the line between fantasy and fact is blurry. Stonewall isn’t simply history—it’s mythology.

But at least it’s our mythology. One of the things that happened after Stonewall was that queer people claimed the authority to build our own mythologies; Stonewall gave us the power to turn Stonewall into a symbol and a myth. Before Stonewall, as James Polchin outlines in his new book, Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall, these mythologies were imposed on us from the outside. Polchin’s deep dive into the history leading up to the riots underscores the difficulty of telling a story that’s so bound up in myth—and the importance of doing it anyway. “

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