Download Pdf
Read Online
( 5 of 9 )

Bringing It Home

By Garth Greenwell

Men kissing under a tree, 1977. Photograph by Kay Tobin Lahusen. Courtesy the New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division.

Men kissing under a tree, 1977. Photograph by Kay Tobin Lahusen. Courtesy the New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division.

I was born in 1978, so the riots were well before my time, and in pre-internet suburban Kentucky there weren’t many sources of information about gay life. Probably I learned about Stonewall in my early teens, when I started looking for evidence of that life in libraries and bookstores and, just a little later, in bathrooms and parks. I knew that the riots were important, and I had a vague sense that they had allowed queer people greater access to dignity, to an understanding of our sexuality as a source of solidarity and not just as a diagnosis, though I wouldn’t have used those terms then.

My first real idea of what the riots were like probably came from Nigel Finch’s 1995 film, Stonewall. The film is tonally incoherent but not without its charms, especially Guillermo Díaz’s performance as the drag queen La Miranda and the strange moments when she and her friends break out in marvelously queer musical numbers. Certainly Finch’s version is better than Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film of the same name, which is a disaster of whitewashing, earnestness, and bizarrely retrograde homophobic stereotypes. Neither is as good as the accounts I found, around the same time I saw Finch’s film, by writers such as Edmund White, who describes Stonewall in essays (his collection The Burning Library was one of the most important books of my youth) and fiction (the riots serve as the backdrop for the final pages of The Beautiful Room Is Empty). Distinctive in White’s telling is a sense of the riots’ implausibility and joy: the first shouts of “gay power,” he says, were greeted with laughter, and the parking meter the queers used as a battering ram broke open, to their delight, like a piñata full of dimes.

The irreverence White emphasizes was important, since the only gay politics visible to me in Louisville in the early Nineties was the politics of respectability, embodied by the occasional activist on the local news arguing that the humanity of lesbians and gays—our essential sameness with everyone else—entitled us to the protections of an antidiscrimination law. (The Louisville Fairness Ordinance would finally pass in 1999.) Those were, and remain, important arguments, but they felt somewhat irrelevant to my adolescent self, since they excluded so much of the gay life I knew and loved. They excluded the friends I made in Cherokee Park, where I spent nearly every spring and summer night hanging out and having sex and singing show tunes to car-radio accompaniment. Who wanted anything to do with a respectability that consisted of the right to fight in disastrous wars or (though hardly anyone in Louisville dreamed of this then) to live in the kind of monogamous marriage that had made my parents’ lives such hell? Who wanted the indignity of a grudging tolerance?

Poster for Louisville’s rst annual Gay Pride Week Picnic, 1982. Courtesy Williams-Nichols Collection, Archives and Special Collections, University of Louisville

Poster for Louisville’s rst annual Gay Pride Week Picnic, 1982. Courtesy Williams-Nichols Collection, Archives and Special Collections, University of Louisville

Stonewall might have served as a kind of counterpoint, except that, by the early Nineties, respectability had come for the riots, too. Local history had turned into national myth. How strange that those queens, dancing their cancan line at the riot police, have been folded so seamlessly into an arc of respectable civil-­rights progress stretching from the early homophile associations to Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that extended same-sex marriage rights across the United States. There’s a danger in such accounts of history, which seize on single events as iconic. They occlude conflict, diversity, and competing interpretations; they tame the chaotic, polysemous events of June 1969 by reducing them to a chapter in the flattering ­story America tells about itself as moving, as if by some inevitable force of progress or indelible trait of character, toward greater equity. When we make icons out of particular moments, we create a false history of social movements: for every moment we make famous through retelling, we leave countless stories untold.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of the riots or deny the debt that every queer in America owes to them. But for a kid in Kentucky, Stonewall—even as recounted by White and others who were there—represented, at best, a kind of aspirational gay life, a bevy of uppity queers fighting for their decidedly unrespectable libidinal community. That aspirational life had very little to do with the gay life I actually had. For me, as a young queer in the American South trying to imagine a future, Stonewall wasn’t the history I needed.

When I left home at sixteen, I was convinced that Kentucky didn’t have a queer history. I was also convinced I never wanted to return, and for over twenty years, I hardly did. But a writing project has led me back, and last summer I spent six weeks exploring the Williams-Nichols Archive at the University of Louisville, an extraordinary collection of newspaper clippings, pamphlets, fliers, and oral histories about queer life in Kentucky. I was stunned to realize how little I knew and how much there was to know. This shouldn’t have been a surprise: of course queer people are everywhere. But our stories are so often lost because of active antipathy or passive neglect. It’s difficult to overstate how powerful it was to see the evidence of that legacy—from the young men who wore green carnations for Oscar ­Wilde’s Louisville lecture in 1882 to the heroic AIDS activists of the 1980s and 1990s.

Ever since I left, I’ve thought of my home state as something I escaped, a place to avoid and renounce. Discovering a local queer history has transformed Kentucky—and therefore my own childhood and youth—into something I can reclaim. Half a century after Stonewall, I want to spend more time in the Williams-Nichols Archive, and also to read historians working to preserve local stories and keep reality from turning into myth: scholars and journalists such as Hugh Ryan, E. Patrick Johnson, Samantha Allen, and Jaime Harker. The best way to honor the rebellious queens of Stonewall is to bring queer history home.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2019

New Books

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trials of Vasily Grossman

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ramblin’ Man

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just Keep Going North”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Corralón

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Marmalade Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.