Sunday, June 28, 2009

Stonewall and the Revolts of 1968

What no one ever comments upon, in re: Stonewall (and there is endless commentary upon Stonewall, as in the Times editorial page this weekend, and Rich Wandel's splendid talk at the Chelsea Center last Thursday about what he did in the burgeoning Gay Rights movement after Stonewall) is the timing, vis-a-vis 1968.

1968, you may remember (it hardly got mentioned last year), was the year of rebellion everywhere. The big ones were the revolt against LBJ's handling of Vietnam culminating in the Chicago riots during the Democratic National Convention in August; Prague Spring, culminating in the Warsaw Pact Invasion, also in August; the Paris explosion against DeGaulle; and the Mexico City university riots - the bloodiest, most violent, least remembered of the lot (the Mexican government still denies the whole thing). There were little pops everywhere else, but those were the big ones, the ones that rattled the world. By December, there were notable demonstrations in the least likely bastion of the culture: audiences at the Metropolitan Opera booed Franco Corelli and Gianna d'Angelo off the stage (she never returned to it, at the Met or anywhere), and Rudolf Bing had to put an insert in the program requesting that audience response not be so extreme.

The question is: what did these upheavals have in common? Prague was an uprising against Brezhnev's communism; Chicago against the Democratic machine; Mexico against the quasi-left-wing PRI; Paris against the quasi-right-wing Gaullist Party. What programme did the young (mostly) rioters share?

The answer appears to be an irritation by the powerless against the men in suits (or uniforms) who ran the world and ignored their desires, needs, wishes - the power structure put in place at the end of World War II who refused to change their ways of doing business while the whole world changed around them, who continued to congratulate themselves with remaining impervious to any concerns they had not already resolved upon. The refusal of the power structures to listen. The old refusing to depart. (In an era in which Franco, Salazar, Tito, Chiang, Mao and Stroessner continued to rule, this was quite a notion.)

Briefly the power structure won, nailed the coffin down upon the monster it had begot, but the world cannot be frozen, change cannot be halted for long. And the young were soon entering the power structure and reforming it from within - even in Prague and Mexico. Revolutions are too uncertain, and most people prefer a quiet life - however exhilarating riots are for the young, those whose property might be damaged always side with the forces of reaction. The revolts appeared to fail in almost every case. The violence of Altamont seemed to put paid to the peace and love of Woodstock.

Almost.

By June, 1969, there was quiet on all these fronts. That is when the embattled faggots stood up in Sheridan Square for what, I argue, was the last revolt of 1968 - and the most successful. A pervasive injustice, the attitude of the rulers of the world towards a generally repressed minority, was challenged successfully. Nothing ever went quite back to normal - first in New York, then in San Francisco, then in Chicago, London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Vienna. Today: Shanghai, Jerusalem, Riga, Moscow, Rome are the front lines. No one goes back into the closet. The politicians who denounce gay are either shown to be hypocrites (an easy call) or heartily despised by the youth who know far too much. You can't be gay anymore and think you're the only one. The magazines of the 1970s, the epidemic of the 1980s, the Internet now won't let that happen any more.

Stonewall, the last (and least bloody) was the most effective and successful of the revolts of youth of 1968, the fairy godparent after the fact of all the others.

3 comments:

feralhistorian said...

Excellent post - I'd never made the connection between Stonewall and the '68 uprisings. Now I've got to go back and read more about it all.

j. said...

Interesting! I'd have guessed, if pressed, that Stonewall was '68...

In the Times coverage you cited, I noticed that Frank Rich admits he was unaware of Stonewall, as a student, in '69. Curious ... were you aware of it then, and what did it mean to you at the time?
Were you aware of the first march (then, uptown to Central Park) a year later?

Brightshadow said...

I had just got a subscription to the Village Voice, my very first, so proud of dawning grownuphood, and the second issue had these articles about a riot in the Village by ... WHO? (Shut the paper quick, or someone will think you have an unnatural curiosity about that unmentionable issue.)

No, the march went right by me, and continued to do so till 1975 (I think). By which time I lived in San Francisco and many things were changing.