The Unruly, Mythologized Pre-History of Stonewall

The challenges of untangling the legendary riot and the forces that made it necessary

The Stonewall Inn today. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust

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. 

Here’s one of the facts we do know about Stonewall and the unrest leading up to it: Gay men were murdered, brutally, in huge numbers during the first several decades of the 20th century—murders that were largely neglected, their lives clouded with shame, stuffed in archives, forgotten.

As with Stonewall itself, we know the outline of this history of violence, but we don’t always know the facts involved. Polchin pulls the lives out of the archives with relentless precision in his book. The particularity of Polchin’s accounts restores some honor to the memory of the men whose brutal stories tell. But it also makes it clear that the press turned the facts of these murders into mythology almost immediately. 

The press turned the facts of these murders into mythology almost immediately. 

Polchin outlines a pattern to the reporting, dating from at least the 1920s. A man somewhere between 30 and 50-something meets a younger one in public—on a sidewalk, in a park, in a bar. The younger man is generally under 30. Sometimes it’s two or three younger men. They drink, eventually ending up in a private hotel room or apartment. The older man is found dead, often brutally beaten. 

The press reports the crime with a perplexed fixation on just how these men ended up at the scene. Eventually the younger men tells a story: the older man made “indecent advances”; the younger was only defending himself. He would often describe a blinding panic—echoing the clinical term “homosexual panic,” often used as a defense in court. As one defense attorney argued, “when a beast attacks you, you are justified in killing him.” Sometimes the assailant would be acquitted on such grounds; more often he’d be found guilty of a lesser charge and receive a reduced sentence. 

The law was not on the side of these murdered gay men, or any other queer people. Polchin documents the abundant neglect and abuse of gay men by the legal system throughout the 20th century. In the press and the courts, gay men were blamed for their own deaths. In addition, queer people were subject to constant police harassment. 

The story—and Polchin makes is chillingly clear that it was a single story, repeated way too often—was possible because of a widespread belief that “any ‘normal’ man would be outraged by another man’s sexual attraction.” The story is predictable and exclusive. If you were affluent white, and murdered after making “indecent advances” to a younger, poorer man, the press would mythologize you. Your story would become a sensation, before fading from public consciousness. Your legacy would be documented in archives. If you were anybody else, it’s unlikely your story would be documented. 

By contrast, the Stonewall mythology is unruly and inclusive. It refuses convention. But the unprecedented size and collectivity of the event is undeniable. The people who hung out at Stonewall in 1969 are often described as “street kids.” In truth, they were an intersectional crowd—people of varied races, classes, ages, gender identities, styles, and affiliations. Drag queens shared space with buttoned-up members of the respectable Mattachine Society, seasoned New York dykes with bewildered boys new to the city. Similar rebellions had already happened in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but they didn’t become iconic. They weren’t mythologized. They didn’t become history. 

Stonewall has proliferated mythology and history since that first night, as a spate of histories make clear, including new anniversary editions of Martin Duberman’s Before Stonewall and The New York Public Library’s The Stonewall Reader, alongside David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, Mark Stein’s The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History, and in a more oblique way, Darryl W. Bullock’s David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music. It’s not possible, or necessary, to trace a linear trajectory of events that made Stonewall possible. Instead, these books offer a rich pre-history of Stonewall, often through disconnected facts, events, documents, and stories that give a truer, pre-mythology account of the real lives affected—lives whose variety and differences won’t be contained by a singular story. 

These books offer a rich pre-history of Stonewall, often through disconnected facts, events, documents, and stories.

The precursors to Stonewall are legion: the establishment of the Mattachine Society in 1950, with its campaign to make homosexuality respectable in the public imagination; the publication of Barbara Gitting’s The Gay Crusaders, her autobiographical story of cross-dressing, gay bar life, and underground activism; the night in 1968 when an L.A. gay bar called The Patch was raided, and manager Lee Glaze taunted the police and announced the bar would place bail for anybody arrested; the sexual innuendo and unbridled lesbian flirtation in the performances of Bessie Smith and Marlene Dietrich; the coded lyrics of songs by Cole Porter and Noel Coward; the monthly publication of the lesbian activist magazine The Ladder between 1956 and 1970; that fact that straight police officers had no idea nellies, swishes, and sissies—in the language of the New York Times—were a powerful bunch, having spent lifetimes dealing with bigotry and bullying. And murder. 

Stonewall’s pre-history contains no shortage of resistance. Polchin’s book documents the necessity of this resistance: rampant violence and victimization. The crimes he documents became headlines, the visceral available to the general public. At the time, LGBTQ culture was burgeoning, a movement was building, but the culture didn’t know it yet. Lurid crimes dominated the public imagination when it came to homosexuality. There’s a case to be made that the violence suffered by the people occluded in these headlines played a significant role in making those nights in Stonewall possible.

Polchin observes that violence against queer people was reported in coded euphemisms. As in the music of Cole Porter or Noel Coward, the queer story was there, if you knew how to decode it. To describe same-sex desire outright was a violation of decorum few would even consider risking. The paradox of the lurid and the euphemistic obscured the humanity—the lives and deaths—of the murdered men. 

As people around the world prepare to celebrate Stonewall, Polchin’s subtitle suggests a difficult necessity. Stonewall is an American story. It raises questions about our past, present, and future. Rather than asking why a bunch of queers fought back over the course of six summer nights in 1969, we might ask how commemorating their resistance builds on their fierce insistence on a different future, one those alive now are free to celebrate triumphantly—publicly? What kind of party do we need to revel in all that, honor the past, and fight a living history of violence and neglect that’s still too routine for many Americans? 

What kind of party do we need to honor the past, and fight a living history of violence and neglect?

The party has already started. As the Stonewall anniversary approaches, the celebrations are well underway. New York will host Global Pride, a rally commemorating the uprising. Oklahoma City, Boston, Tapei, Amsterdam, Sidney, South Bend, and Niagara Falls are hosting sister events. NYC’s Pier 97 will deliver Pride Island, a two-day music and arts festival headlined by Grace Jones. Symphony Space is producing a musical performance of Songs from the Stonewall Jukebox. The Stonewall Inn—the place itself, now a historical monument, is hosting events every day in June. The stories Polchin tells are a reminder that these celebrations perform a cultural duty.

Stonewall is sometimes called an uprising and sometimes a series of riots. The distinction is often politicized. A riot is unruly, an uprising triumphant; rioting is criminal, rising up historical. The truth is it was both. Queer history contains multitudes. It’s got room to be unruly, criminal, triumphant, and respectable. Mythology, as commemoration, makes that possible. Polchin’s book performs a similar commemoration, revives dozens of dead men reduced to sordid true crime tales in the press—to pay them retrospective respect. 

Stonewall changed the world. No question. In 1970, the first Pride marches claimed the streets of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—the streets news reports about all those gay murders were so interested in. Stonewall didn’t eradicate homophobia, racism, sexism, or transphobia, but over time it did a lot to change public attitudes. When Dan White murdered Harvey Milk, his lawyers mounted a curious cousin of the homosexual panic defense. “The Twinkie defense” held that too much sugary foods had made White unstable. His sentence was five years. But when the attorney for Matthew Shepard’s murderers attempted a homosexual panic defense as recently as the late 1990s, he failed. Both assailants were sentenced to life in prison. While gay panic has subsided as a defense, “trans panic” is alive and well in our courts, with the exception of California, where it is banned. Meanwhile, our country is being torn apart by the fact that white police—and ordinary citizens—are routinely acquitted for the murder of African Americans. 

Before Stonewall, fact conspired with fantasy to reverse the roles of murderer and victim. After Stonewall, men like the ones whose stories Polchin tells are likely to be commemorated with respect—less likely to be murdered for desiring sex with another man. But the story in those press reports is persistent. We haven’t exorcised it. We’ve shuffled it on to other people. The story haunts the lives of African Americans, trans people, immigrants. After Stonewall, stories that once went undocumented are reported through a blend of fact and fantasy nearly identical to the patterns and conventions Polchin identifies in his book. 

Polchin’s book reads like a roll call of the many dead men who haunt Stonewall.

Stonewall is a place, a bar. You can go there, walk in, experience the room where history was made. There’s a good reason Stonewall has come to represent the massive progress around LGBTQ justice. It’s inevitable that some of the murdered men Polchin writes about would have spent time there. In that sense, Polchin’s book reads like a roll call of the many dead men who haunt that history of queer resistance Stonewall symbolizes.

As we celebrate, we’re honoring the ghosts of men for whom justice was a distant fable. We’re making history visible. After all, my mom has never heard of Stonewall; many Americans have no idea what that week in June meant. We’re mourning lives of African Americans and trans people murdered more recently—people like Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Muhlasia Booker, Brandon Teena, Trayvon Martin, and many, many more. 

We’re connecting the legacy of 20th-century injustices to those we live with and fight against today. We’re reminding ourselves that change will happen. While we can’t predict future history, we can, like those street kids and their compatriots at Stonewall, play a fierce role in its trajectory. 

You never know when an event may come along to change the world. There’s a good chance you won’t recognize its historic power right away. There’s a better chance that it’s one of many events—some tiny, some massive, some noticed by hardly anybody—that prepare the world to change that day. That’s the story with Stonewall. It will be the story with whatever finally shakes us out of the moment we’re living through. 

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