Does it really matter if Marsha P. Johnson was at the Stonewall Uprising when it started?

marsha p johnson
Marsha P. Johnson

This year marks the 55th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, which galvanized the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. In commemoration, queer historian Eric Marcus is re-releasing the fifth season of his podcast Making Gay History, which looks inside the 1969 uprising with interviews from the people who were actually there.

I spoke with Marcus over email about why Stonewall still matters amid right-wing attempts to erase LGBTQ+ people, whether we should be rioting in the streets for queer rights today, and whether it really matters who threw the first brick at the historic uprising.

LGBTQ NATION: Why did you re-release Season 5 of your podcast for Pride Month this year? As a historian, what do you make of Republican attempts to remove LGBTQ+ content from public schools and libraries?

ERIC MARCUS: I’ll address the second one first: Republican efforts to remove LGBTQ+ content from schools and libraries are nothing new. The first attempt to ban one of my books, the innocuously titled Male Couple’s Guide to Living Together, was the target of a book ban effort in Iowa in 1988. Thank goodness for the fierce librarians because they beat back that effort then and they’ve been on the front lines today in the battle against the Republican book police.  

Republicans at all levels of government have used us for political gain for decades, going back to the 1950s. We make a mistake when we assume that because we’ve had successes, we can relax and assume they’re for keeps. The haters and opportunists will use us as a wedge issue for as long as they think it’s useful. Notice how they’re not explicitly targeting adult gay men and lesbians or marriage equality because that no longer works, but are instead focusing on the most vulnerable among us, trans kids. And they’re using the excuse of protecting children in their efforts to ban books and LGBTQ content from schools. 

As bad as things are at the moment, I see a silver lining and hope on the horizon. Every time that the haters lead an anti-LGBTQ campaign, it brings out more LGBTQ people to fight back and that’s happening.  And we’re already seeing a backlash to the backlash, as well as limited wins in local elections for pro-gay candidates and the defeat of hateful legislation.

Now, your first question. The Stonewall uprising is one of the most pivotal and inspirational events in the history of the U.S. LGBTQ civil rights movement. But it’s surrounded by a long list of myths that often obscure what actually happened. And what happened is important if we’re to understand how change is made. Just one example: All too often, I read articles that state that Stonewall was the birthplace of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. It wasn’t. The first gay rights organization that survived beyond a short time, the Mattachine Society, was founded in 1950 in Los Angeles. An organization for lesbians, the Daughters of Bilitis, was founded in 1955 in San Francisco. In the years after their founding, chapters of both organizations sprang up across the country. 

Photo captures some of the first Pride Parades
Rare footage of Christopher St. Gay Liberation Day in New York City, June 28, 1970 — one year after the historic Stonewall riots.

So, at the time of the Stonewall uprising, the framework for a national movement was already in place, with somewhere between 40 and 60 pre-Stonewall organizations. And it was very intense organizing in the aftermath of the uprising that led to the explosion of new organizations that drew in thousands of young activists who came with experience from the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Black civil rights movement, and the women’s movement.

So, to help our listeners understand the context of the Stonewall uprising, to separate fact from fiction, and to set the stage for what was to come, we first produced a three-part documentary to mark Stonewall’s 50th anniversary. That’s five years ago and we’ve added many thousands of new listeners since, who may never have heard this series. And for those who have, I think a refresher is always in order, given how important Stonewall is to our movement. I listen every year to refresh my own memory and to honor and celebrate the people who helped change the course of our history.

Many first-person accounts and subsequent depictions of the Stonewall riots have differed: Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film Stonewall had a white man throwing the first brick, and one Stonewall veteran once told me that Marsha P. Johnson wasn’t even there but that she was added to the story to help empower contemporary trans people of color. Does the truth of these details really matter or does the symbolic power of these various retellings matter more?

I never discount the symbolic power of Stonewall to inspire. That was reinforced for me when my friend Ken Lustbader and I spent a couple of hours a few weeks ago talking to visitors to Christopher Park, which is the heart of the Stonewall National Monument in Greenwich Village. Ken is the co-director of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project and was one of the key people who lobbied successfully for President Obama to declare the Stonewall National Monument in 2016.

Ken and I asked visitors, who came from across the spectrum of humanity and geography, why they had come to Christopher Park, what Stonewall meant to them, and also asked what they knew about the history of Stonewall. We recorded those conversations for a new Making Gay History episode that will reintroduce our original Stonewall season. I was impressed and moved by what people had to say, whether or not they got the facts straight or repeated some of the myths that drive me up a wall.  

That said, I do think that the facts matter and that we don’t do anyone — or our movement — any favors by knowingly promoting stories that we know are not true. But it’s easy, even for us at Making Gay History, to accidentally perpetuate myths that we thought were facts. For example, in the second episode of our Stonewall season, we included trans activist Sylvia Rivera’s eyewitness account of the first night of the uprising — an account that has since been disputed by several independent sources who determined that Sylvia wasn’t actually there. But after years of oppression, of sacrifice to advance the cause, and of marginalization within the movement itself, it’s easy to see why Sylvia might have felt she had earned the right to claim some of that Stonewall history as her own. 

A controversial scene from Roland Emmerich's 2015 film <em>Stonewall</em> has a white cis gay teen throwing the first brick at the uprising.
YouTube screenshot A controversial scene from Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film Stonewall has a white cis gay teen throwing the first brick at the uprising.

In Season 5 of your podcast, one interviewee talks about “the camaraderie of the streets” when queers in New York City would get together and kiki about their experiences navigating social life and responding to challenging situations in the city. Numerous social psychologists have said that low-wage work culture, the ever-shrinking public square, and the advent of social media have reduced the number of “third spaces” and isolated us from one another in the modern age. Do you think queers still have this kind of everyday camaraderie in the modern age or is it on the verge of disappearing?

You’re asking a 65-year-old gay man who has been in a relationship for 30 years about contemporary life for queer people? But I will say that what I have heard most frequently from the young LGBTQ I know is the isolation they’ve experienced living their dating lives online and how they wish they had come of age when people met face to face. 

It wasn’t always so great in the olden days. I remember going to Charlie’s East for the first time in 1976, a gay bar on Third Avenue near 36th Street (or a little south). The place was filled with smoke, it was dark, the music was loud, and mostly people stared at each other. That’s not to say there weren’t fun places to dance and meet people, like the Ice Palace on West 57th Street, or Deja Vu, a disco in Highland, New York, across the Hudson River from where I went to college. That’s where I met my first boyfriend. But where I found community back then was at Front Runners, the gay running club. 

For young people today, there are so many opportunities, at least in cities, to gather with other LGBTQ people in person in a variety of special interest groups. But you have to seek out those opportunities. And there are still bars (I often pass one in my neighborhood in Chelsea), if you like that kind of gathering spot.

The Stonewall Inn, in September 1969, after the June riots. The sign in the window: "We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village.—Mattachine."
Diana Davies / New York Public Library The Stonewall Inn, in September 1969, after the June riots. The sign in the window: “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village.—Mattachine.”

You’ve said that the Stonewall riots might have been forgotten if not for the intense organizing that happened after the fact. If that’s true, what does it teach us about the nature of activism and rioting? Do you think riots would ever be permissible or helpful for queers today?

You make it sound like riots are organized things. They’re not. They’re spontaneous and they’re in response to specific events and/or a history of intolerable oppression. I don’t see the level of oppression, at least at the moment, building to a fever pitch where there are riots in response. Demonstrations, yes. And certainly counterdemonstrations are important and effective—as when the anti-gay fascists show up in force to disrupt drag queen story hours, to give a contemporary and dire example.  

The Stonewall uprising occurred at a specific moment in history, a pivotal moment in U.S. history when multiple civil rights and anti-war battles were being fought. And it was a time when police routinely harassed, beat, arrested, and otherwise tortured LGBTQ people, who had no legal protections. None. It has to be viewed in that context and viewed, as well, within the framework of the history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement or we mistakenly view it as a viable and reliable tool for fighting for our rights, which it is not.

I’ve heard it said that the trans rights movement is 15 to 20 years behind the gay rights movement. Do you think that’s true? As a historian, what things do you think will need to happen to move that movement forward?

I don’t know about the timeline. A lot depends on how things go in November. But it seems clear that what was key to the gay rights movement is also key in the fight for trans rights—and the fight against the tidal wave of anti-trans legislation. And that’s visibility. 

As long as most gay men and lesbians were closeted (by necessity), it was easy to demonize us, criminalize us, and discriminate against us. Until fairly recently, most people didn’t know anyone who they knew was trans, so it’s been easy for the radical right activists and politicians to exploit public ignorance and demonize trans people for political benefit (think Anita Bryant in the late 1970s and the success of her “Save Our Children” anti-gay campaign). It’s a bigger battle for trans people because they are a far smaller minority than gay folks. But we’re already beginning to see a backlash to the backlash as more trans people come out and their families and friends step up to fight for them and alongside them.

Some people say that queer media is largely inconsequential these days because it merely “preaches to the choir” and doesn’t really challenge the mainstream gay-cis orthodoxies of access to “money, matrimony, and military.” Do you agree with this assessment?

Are you expecting me to say that I think it’s essential and that I read LGBTQ Nation’s daily email? Because that’s the truth! Definitely essential, because mainstream media only covers the headlines, if that. We’re a niche market and I don’t expect much more than the mainstream media already delivers. No question the mainstream media can do a lot better when covering trans issues, a lot better. But I’ve set the bar pretty low. I’d just be glad if I didn’t read in the NY Times, as I did recently, that “many people consider Stonewall to be the birthplace of the LGBTQ movement.” Tell that to the founders of the Mattachine Society (1950) or the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis (1955).

As far as the LGBTQ media, it’s a challenging time for all journalism, but especially journalism for niche markets. I miss many of the publications that used to be my go-to sources for gay news. And that’s why a news service like LGBTQ Nation is essential.

Making Gay History, Eric Marcus

What books, films, podcasts, or videocasts on queer history should we be viewing?

There are SO MANY choices!  I’ve got a stack of recently published books in my office on LGBTQ history ranging from June Thomas’s A Place of Our Own: Six Spaces That Shaped Queer Women’s Culture to Michael Waters’s The Other Olympians: Fascism, Queerness, and the Making of Modern Sports. I also recommend any book written by Lillian Faderman. 

As far as films go, I recommend a New York Times mini-doc I had the pleasure of working on with director Cheryl Furjanic about the Stonewall National Monument called Stonewall: The Making of a Monument. Also, Paragraph 175, about the persecution of gay people during the Nazi era, Vito, about the pioneering film historian and activist Vito Russo, and Common Threads, about the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

My favorite short video piece, which was produced and hosted by my friend Shane O’Neill, is about Stonewall myths. It’s called “Who Threw the First Brick at Stonewall: Let’s Argue About It.” And I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend my own book, which has served as the basis for the Making Gay History podcast, called Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights (the original 1992 edition was called Making History).

As far as podcasts, one of my favorites is the British series The Log Books, which is drawn from the actual log books that were kept in the 1970s through the 1990s by volunteers who answered the phones at Switchboard, the London helpline for LGBTQ people. I also like LGBTQ&A and the newly released But We Loved, which explores LGBTQ history through interviews with our elders (for the purposes of full disclosure, Jordan Gonsalves asked me to interview him for his introductory episode).  And I just listened to a totally engaging interview with British author Peter Parker (not Spiderman) about his new book, Some Men In London: Queer Life 1945-1959, on Historical Homos.

Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn’t?

Yes, you should ask: Who threw the first brick? Answer: There was no brick. It may have been a punch. Someone definitely threw a rock that broke a second-floor window (Morty Manford, who co-founded PFLAG with his mom, describes that moment in the second episode of our Stonewall season). I’ve been known to say that my mother threw the first cocktail glass. Who’s to say she didn’t?

While Making Gay History began as a small educational project to make brief clips from the over 100 interviews Marcus conducted in the late 1980s for his book of the same name, the show has since produced 13 seasons with over 100 episodes that have been downloaded more than six million times in 200 countries and territories worldwide. Making Gay History is also an independent nonprofit education organization working with the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the U.S., to create lessons for middle and high school teachers anchored by the podcast’s episodes. The podcast’s creators are currently working on a 10-part series about the experience of LGBTQ+ people during the Nazi regime and Holocaust.

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