Stonewall | Martin Duberman

Summary of: Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising That Changed America
By: Martin Duberman


Take a compelling journey through the history of the LGBTQ rights uprising in the United States with ‘Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising That Changed America’ by Martin Duberman. The book a collection of diverse and powerful stories, from Craig’s sexual exploration in a home for troubled boys to Yvonne’s defiant proclamation of her lesbian identity at the dinner table. Beyond these intensely personal narratives, Duberman delves into the larger cultural and political landscape of the time, highlighting the significance of World War II, the emergence of the ‘homophile movement,’ and the key role lesbian and gay bars played in fostering a sense of community. Finally, witness the iconic Stonewall riots and the birth of the Gay Liberation Front, marking a turning point in the fight for LGBTQ rights.

Childhood Trauma Shapes Sexual Identity

Craig, Yvonne, Karla, Jim, Ray, and Foster share their childhood experiences that molded their sexual identities. Craig’s time in a home for troubled boys introduced him to erotic friendships between males, while Yvonne’s strong Black mother influenced her refusal to be baptized and announcement of her homosexuality. Karla’s unconventional aunt inspired her rejection of traditional gender roles. Jim’s stint in politics prompted him to trade sexual favors for hitchhiking rides. Ray’s grandmother’s neighbors teased him for his effeminacy, and a teacher performed sex acts with him. Lastly, Foster’s internalized self-doubt and confusion about sex led to his celibacy and eventual zealous contribution to organizing the gay movement.

Diverse Lives of Gay People in Early 1960s New York

Yvonne, Craig, Karla, Foster, Jim, and Ray lead different lives exploring their sexuality as gay people in early 1960s New York.

In early 1960s New York, Yvonne embraced the jazz scene and underground lesbian bars in Harlem as a retreat from the racist Village gay scene. Despite strict roles enforced in lesbian bar culture, she was comfortable with her butch preferences. Craig, on the other hand, found adventure in the gay cruising scene in Chicago. A chance encounter led him to a magazine, the Mattachine Review, which introduced Craig to the idea of gay people organizing and promoting their rights. He eventually left for New York, the epicenter of gay America. Karla’s education at an all-girls school made her realize her sexuality. Books about lesbians left her demoralized with the potential negative consequences of her lifestyle.

Foster graduated from Columbia in 1949 and struggled with insecurities. Instead of getting therapy, he chose to work for his father’s prefab housing business in Florida. He eventually worked for a nonprofit, awaiting a worthwhile cause for his remarkable talent and dedication. Jim was committed to becoming an actor in the avant-garde theater after his aborted attempt to become a priest. He cruised for hookups in all-night coffee shops or public baths, subway station men’s rooms, and the YMCA since there were only a few gay bars in the Village in the early 1960s.

Gay hustling has been in Times Square since the 1940s. Ray started hustling there at 11 years old and loved it. He made enough money to live with another street hustler he had fallen in love with and made fast friends who became his family. Marsha officiated Sylvia’s (formerly Ray) renaming ceremony in someone’s uptown apartment. Marsha taught Sylvia to stand up for herself and not to care about what others think.

These six people led diverse lives, but as gay individuals living in early 1960s New York, they shared a common struggle. They sought acceptance and a safe space, which sparked the gradual emergence of a gay-hip scene. The message that it was okay to be gay filtered out to the broader New York hipster scene, paving the way for the gay rights movement.

Gay Liberation Movement

Oppressed by society, gay men and lesbians developed their language of resistance, religion, and music to express their experiences. This collective consciousness gained momentum during World War II, and after the war, subcultural enclaves led to the proliferation of bars, which became critical social institutions for the gay community. The Mattachine Society, a left-wing organization, was formed in Los Angeles in 1950, leading to increased advocacy for political and legal rights. However, the organization lost its radical voice, promoting respectability instead of revolution. Despite this, the gay Village scene in New York City was thriving in the early 1960s, offering a place for young, Black, and gay individuals to be themselves, party, and organize against the war in Vietnam. While facing society’s homophobia, these individuals embraced their truth and found explosive possibility in their experiences.

The Rise of LGBTQ Activism

The article published by the New York Times in 1963 marked the beginning of the end of public silence on homosexuality. While the homophile movement made small strides compared to the civil rights marches, organizations like Mattachine represented a general assault on traditional values and offered hope for the LGBTQ community. Craig, a member of Mattachine, believed visibility was the key to ending oppression and tried to draw younger and more militant people into the movement. Karla was radicalized by the 1968 protests at Columbia and Sylvia experimented with hormone treatments before deciding to embrace her natural femininity. Meanwhile, Jim hung out at Max’s Kansas City nightclub and used it as an opportunity to distribute his New Left publication. These individuals, along with countless others, were instrumental in the rise of LGBTQ activism.

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