30 April 2011
The PBS show American Experience covered The Stonewall Riots last Monday--and of course I missed it. Stonewall is often cited as the beginning of the gay rights movement. In reality, gay rights were an underground concern well before these incidents, and in another way, the formalized movement didn't gain serious momentum for another decade. The significance of Stonewall is instead what we have made of it after-the-fact. Myth-making is always a retrospective activity; we make sense of things only after they have happened, sometimes well after. Let me give two examples. The meaning of Jesus of Nazereth's death was not readily apparent to his students. Most of them spent the remainder of their lives making sense of it. American history is similar. The early independence movement was very pragmatic. It wasn't until years later that a young nation started to retroactively make sense of what had "really" happened during the Revolutionary War. In the same way, we look back for a creation story for the LBGTQ community, and Stonewall is a convenient historical moment with which to work. None of that should diminish Stonewall in particular or the power of myth in general. Symbols are essential. We need them.