Rita Mae Brown: Stonewall Created a Market for Stories of Struggle
Maybe We Shouldn't Be So Quick to Buy Them
The Stonewall riots were no ordinary tribulation. When those gay men roared out of the below street level bar on Sheridan Square, a turning point was obvious. In its own way, this uprising against the New York police’s round-up, the vice squad, was as clear as Lyndon Johnson’s signing the Voter Rights Act of 1964. It was a new day.
For gay men, this was the beginning of an overground march which, if not culminating in gay marriage, at least put equality on third base.
It also unleashed a squadron of lawyers, then and now, eager to file against wrongdoing and eager to run for office. At first the only political figure who would defend gay people was Rep. Bella Abzug. It made sense that the initial political push was understood and led by a woman. Male politicians only came along when they learned, depending on their district, they could gather more votes than lose them. Not much has changed there.
I should confess that I was one of two women engulfed in this male rage. The other, Martha Shelly (the name she used in her political work to protect herself) and I were walking along Sheridan Square after hours of struggling with position papers. We heard the distinctive ring of the paddy wagon as it drew near. New York’s Finest parked in front of Stonewall, and the next thing we knew, a tide of furious men, a few of them drag queens, fought back. I still do not know how anyone can fight the police in high heels but drag queens did, clearly negotiating cultural femininity better than I ever did. God bless them.
Martha and I parted ways neither fearing the men would turn on us. Having worked with gay men, we knew we were invisible.
Did Stonewall change writing? It unleashed a tide of books wherein the author exhaustively recounted the trials of growing up gay, hiding, etc. No new James Baldwin appeared, but then how could they? The books were not about the greater outside world except as it pressed upon the inner world.
Publishing houses at first resisted these volumes, then realized there was a market. Booksellers, quick off the mark, now had bookshelves marked “Gay Literature” along with “Black Literature,” “Women’s Literature,” and now there are even more categories. Within the span of a few years, literature became ghettoized, but so did politics. There was no greater good; there was only what’s good for you.
What nibbles at me concerning this commercialization of writing, art, you name it, is that yes, it does help people find where their primary interest may be. But does it not, subtly, tell others, “You need not trouble yourself with this stuff”? I’d like to think otherwise, but I now believe this selling of anyone’s life, of institutionalized oppression, has on the surface put things in the open but underneath made it worse. If you are obsessed with being gay, you are not paying attention to the federal budget, to where American troops are being sent. Nor are you working to end the violence against women and children, one of our major social problems. Every night in this, the richest country in the world, 1.5 million children sleep on the streets at night.
Perhaps a dollar sign should be emblazoned in the middle of the much maligned rainbow flag. This is also the heritage of Stonewall 50. The struggle for equality, at least I see this as the struggle for equality, and the acting out of many at the time, allowed our political enemies to successfully organize over what was, to me, a simple human rights issue. Those anti-gay forces used all that self-congratulation and sexual bravado against us and they still are. We gave it to them.
Perhaps any group of people, rising up at last, can do no differently, for one would have to have a broad vision of politics and power to understand how to avoid further empowering your enemies. But then that’s the rub of institutionalized oppression, isn’t it? You are so busy trying to get by you have no broader vision. Your life has been circumscribed.
If those in power throw you a crumb, you eagerly grab at it. They do, and they do so to divide anyone not like them from others. In this they, too, have been wondrously successful. Apart from women and men working together for gay marriage, gay men and gay women have no strong political bonds. They do have contact, but they are not the power they could be. This is no accident.
What is sold as gay writing rarely addresses these things. Of course, those books would need to be non-fiction. We need them.
I cannot say that Stonewall greatly influenced my work, but I am proud of the moment; when those men blasted out of that door, they knew it wasn’t safe, and I am convinced they wouldn’t have had it any other way.