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A Documentary History of Stonewall: An Interview with Marc Stein

Why is a sourcebook like this a helpful tool for understanding the Stonewall Riots?

​When I began working on this project, there were two excellent narrative histories of the Stonewall Riots, one by academic historian Martin Duberman and one by public historian David Carter. For the fiftieth anniversary I wanted to do something different and it occurred to me that a primary source reader could encourage renewed attention to the documentary sources that most historians use when developing their interpretations. My book begins with an introductory essay, but then I present 200 documents along with a set of maps and photographs. Most of the book’s primary sources are media stories, but I also include some demonstration fliers, court decisions, song lyrics, and gay bar guide listings.

As a university-based historian, I often assign primary source readers in my classes. I love putting in the hands of my students the raw materials from which historical interpretations can be developed; it allows me to work with my students on the craft of researching and writing history. This type of primary source collection also allows readers to experience the messiness of history. There are gaps, inconsistencies, and conflicts in the accounts. If we’re paying attention, it’s easy to see the importance of perspective, standpoint, and viewpoint. If we’re sensitive to language, we can be challenged by the complexities of translation, since the words, concepts, and categories of the past are not necessarily the words, concepts, and categories of today.

With respect to Stonewall more specifically, I think it’s fascinating to compare mainstream, alternative, and LGBT media sources; to look at media stories, photographs, first-person accounts, letters, and demonstration fliers alongside one another; and to explore the dissemination, evolution, and transformation of stories about the riots. I hope my readers will be in a stronger position to criticize historical myths and misconceptions and to develop new and original interpretations.
How did you decide on the geographic and temporal parameters for these documents?
With respect to geography, I wanted to broaden out beyond Greenwich Village, Manhattan, and New York City, without losing a sense of the importance, impact, and influence of developments in “the city” (I grew up in the New York suburbs and my grandparents lived in the Bronx and Queens, so of course New York will always be “the city” to me, even though I’ve lived most of my adult life in Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, and San Francisco). I think the more national approach I adopted actually helps underscore the broader influences on and impacts of developments in New York. I was tempted to adopt a more global approach, but I worried about the superficiality that might result — like the tourist who wants to visit everything but ends up seeing nothing. My book favors six cities — New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I know I’ve opened myself up to criticisms about not sufficiently covering other parts of the country, but there are as many reasons to be concerned about anti-urban bias as there are to be concerned about urban bias. In the end, I made choices about geography based on impact and influence and I’ve certainly included documents that cover other places, including Dallas, Honolulu, Miami, Minneapolis, and New Orleans.

As for chronology, I wanted to broaden out beyond the summer of 1969, but not attempt to capture the entire history of the universe. I also was committed to covering the same number of years before and after the riots; I thought this would help situate the rebellion in historical time. I settled on the years from 1965 to 1973 for several reasons. For a long time I’ve believed that the second half of the 1960s, when the LGBT movement began to mobilize, radicalize, and diversify, has not received as much attention as it should; most accounts of the homophile movement seem stuck in the 1950s. By starting in 1965, I thought I could highlight the national upsurge in LGBT direct action that began in that year and the influence of other radicalizing social movements, including black power. By ending in 1973, I could cover the first four years of pride marches, address one of the great achievements of the movement in this period (the American Psychiatric Association’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness), and capture some of the changes in LGBT politics that occurred as the energies unleashed by Stonewall began to dissipate.

Read entire article at The Gotham Center for New York History