What Stonewall 1969 can Teach Us About Activism

Photo by Diana Davies depicts the Gay Liberation Front marches in Times Square 1969, accessed via The Guardian.

Understanding the historical construction of LGBTQ+ movements is imperative to furthering current activism. A prime example of this is the creation of the ‘Stonewall Myth’, as the Stonewall riots are now revered as the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement in the US. Given the current situation in the US it seems more important than ever to understand how protests shape the historical narrative. Understanding how activists construct social memory around particular events enables us to further the gains of the current LGBTQ+ movement as many grapple with how to further the rights of, and protect the more marginalized members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The Stonewall riots were started by African American transgender woman Marsha P. Johnson. A series of riots began on June 27th 1969 after police raided a homosexual bar in New York (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 724), they are now remembered as a catalyst for the gay civil rights movement in the US. However, sociologists Armstrong & Crage note that there were similar instances of activism prior to this such as the 1965 New Year’s Ball raid in San Francisco (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 730), which were not committed to the collective social memory. They use these instances to highlight the two conditions that are essential for an event to permeate the collective memory, which are that ‘activists considered the event commemorable and had the mnemonic capacity to create a commemorative vehicle’ (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 730). Unlike previous raids in other parts of the country, Stonewall was able to achieve these criteria. Activists used the raid as the basis for commemorative marches which became the first gay pride and has since solidified the event in US social memory. The significance of Stonewall also highlights the extent to which the movement grew between 1969 and the Black Cat raids a few years earlier (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 736). Events that fit into existing genres are generally seen as more commemorable. Much like how the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd in the US demonstrate a maturation of the black lives matter movement, Stonewall showed a maturation of the gay civil rights movement, which meant that the Gay Liberation Front was better financially equipped to create mnemonic resonance.

Achieving ‘mnemonic capacity’ with regard to an event is all the more difficult now as the growth of social media makes it harder to corral attention around specific events for extended periods of time. As we have seen with the recent protests in both Hong Kong and the US, social media can be an immensely powerful tool to bring people together, even when communication is limited within society. But in order to make sure these movements are remembered and create lasting change we can take lessons from Stonewall activists in how they used repetitive action to make their message permeate the collective memory and achieve long term progress in civil rights. Zeynep Tufekci argues that modern social movements fail to ‘sustain over the long term and exert leverage over the system, which leads to frustrated protesters dropping out, and even more corrupt politics.’ Social media is a powerful tool to raise awareness of how our rights may be under threat, as we saw with the Government’s recent proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act which could have devastating impacts on the trans community. However, in order to transform this awareness into significant political power we can take inspiration from Stonewall, which showed how repetitive, radical action is necessary to make sure that the wider public take notice of movements for justice.

Alicia Bickerstaff


Bibliography

Armstrong, E.A & Crage, S.N, 2006, ‘Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth’, American Sociological Review, Vol.71, No. 5 pp. 724-751, Viewed 7th June 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25472425

Loong, L.L.H, 2012, ‘Deconstructing the silences: Gay Social Memory’, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol.59, No.5, pp.675-688, DOI: 10.1080/00918369.2012.673903

Mitchell Reyes, G & Schulz, David. P & Hovland, Zoe, 2018, ‘When Memory and Sexuality Collide: The Homosentimental Style of Gay Liberation’, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 1 April 2018, Vol.21, No.1, pp.39-74, Viewed 7th June 2020, https://muse-jhu-edu.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/journal/171

Tufekci, Z, 2014, Online Social Change: Easy To Organize, Hard To Win, online video, Viewed 7th June, https://www.ted.com/…/zeynep_tufekci_how_the_internet_has_m…

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