Like many people across the expansive political spectrum of our current moment in America, I watched President Barack Obama’s second inauguration speech with a careful ear for the messages behind the words. So when he briefly referenced the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which have been the focus of my research for the past two years, my ears definitely perked up. What does this mean? Is this some kind of victory? Should we be celebrating the reference to this particular moment in U.S. LGBT/Queer History? In this blog post, I’ll answer some of those questions from the perspective of my research thus far, and probably pose a few new questions, too.
Let’s start with the context of this reference to Stonewall. Increasingly, there is evidence to suggest that contemporary political rhetoric is a highly nuanced way of speaking that is often honed through the use of focus group methods such as “dialing”. In these trials, speeches by major politicians are laboriously crafted to include soundbites-in-waiting; short phrases that are tested for their appeal to various demographics. Such rhetoric, then, is no longer simply an exercise in predicting the response of an imagined public, but rather has become a technical art rooted in the idea that, from a distance, a speaker can reach out to several groups at once. Even if an ostensibly left-of-center politician accepts that she is only really speaking to those who generally support her, references to topics like gun control must still be carefully couched in language that will resonate effectively with liberal gun owners, suburban parents, and P-12 teachers who may or may not be unionized. Such specific language is known as “crafted talk” and, as political writer Steven Hill candidly summarizes, it is slightly creepy.
This “crafted talk”…is designed to “simulate responsiveness” – to hoodwink voters, and free the candidates to pursue their own partisan agendas. In other words, politicians are busy with their own agendas that have little to do with what the majority of voters want, and use the “crafted talk” and “simulated responsiveness” to sell their agendas like a used car salesman trying to foist a lemon onto customers. (Source)
Ok. So this is probably the worst case scenario, right? Surely there are times when a politician is trying to be honest and inclusive. Perhaps. But ultimately, I don’t think the reference to Stonewall was truly one of them, even if we can read it as a positive sign-of-the-times.
Just over four years ago, I was sitting among students, friends and colleagues in the Black Cultural Center of Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus listening to President Obama’s first inauguration speech. And I remember being slightly in awe of this same man, as he acknowledged atheists and agnostics from behind what is arguably the most important pulpit on our planet. When he referred to the United States as a “nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” I felt a sense of acceptance and inclusion that made me forget, even if just temporarily, the deeply-rooted Christian rhetoric that pushed in on that sentence from all sides. And while I still cringe at the idea of someone who is Wiccan or Jain or Baha’i hearing that list and not finding themselves among it, I know that I felt validated. This was in spite of the fact that it was not more than a few moments before his reference to non-theists that he had explicitly used Biblical language and regardless of the reality that he went on to mention “God” four more times before leaving the microphone. But in that moment, in hearing “nonbelievers,” I heard him say, “I know you’re out there. And I respect you.” Nevertheless, as I listened this year, at a time when you might have expected me to be telling the same story about the warm fuzzies I got from his mention of the Stonewall Riots and his ostensible support for marriage equality, I found myself underwhelmed.
To be sure, neither I nor President Obama are the people we were in January of 2009. Four years of continued economic struggle, the disappointment of the 2010 elections, and the tension with which we both, surely, watched the polls this past November have refined our positions, nuanced our arguments and, in some cases, changed our minds entirely. But do not take me to be so naïve as to be suggesting that I’m merely bummed because he didn’t do all the things he said he would. I understand enough of the circus of American politics to believe two things at least: that no contemporary candidate will ever truly live up to her campaign promises and that most incumbents are more liberal personally than their track record suggests. But the elephant-in-the-corner of both cases is the fact that the whole American political spectrum has been shifted dramatically to the right. So how is it, I wonder, that evoking Stonewall would seem like an effective way to look directly into the eyes of gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans and say, as LZ Granderson has suggested, “I see you”?
As a young academic in American Studies, my primary research focus has been on the narrative of the Stonewall Riots; specifically, the ways in which the story of Stonewall has both informed and reflected LGBT/Queer identity for the last 44 years. At the time, raids on bars frequented by “homosexuals” were common and brutal injustices inflicted by police (especially on those whose clothing did not conform to gender norms of the day) were heinous reminders of a state and society that rejected people like me. As such, the political salience of not only resisting a police raid on a bar, but of forcing city, state, and federal officials back into the building and then trying to set it on fire can neither be mistaken for anything less than violent protest nor polished to suggest some reverence for the system against which those rioters raged. Stonewall was not planned. It was not part of a larger campaign for gay rights. It was a livid, impromptu, dangerous and deeply personal response to many years of violent state oppression. Moreover, the week of riots that followed the initial raid were aimed at reclaiming the protestors’ identity from the newspapers that smeared them and the dirty businesses that exploited them. (Let’s not forget that the Stonewall Inn was owned and operated by members of the New York Mafia who regularly paid off their local NYPD precinct—not to prevent raids, but to plan them in advance and at times that would allow the bar to reopen mere hours later.) And while the narrative of the riots is most often told from the perspective of middle-aged gay white men who did not identify as trans* or gender-variant, numerous firsthand accounts mention a racially diverse cadre of drag queens fighting alongside gay men, lesbians, straight hippies and homeless youth, many of whom engaged in street warfare, tagging buildings with “Gay Power” slogans and ripping parking meters from the ground to be used as battering rams against the cops. Indeed, as historian Gary Leupp writes over at CounterPunch.org,
This was no Seneca Falls (a peaceful two-day women’s rights convention in New York in 1848) or Selma, Alabama (where non-violent actions in 1965 contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act). It was violent resistance. That Obama should feel a need to validate it in such a high profile forum is significant. (Source)
“But wait,” you say, “surely President Obama wasn’t suggesting that details of these three events were synonymous!” And you’re right. And that’s the point. As Leupp suggests, the inclusion of Stonewall here is significant, whether or not most folks know the history behind the reference. It is also important to note, as does Leupp, that the President’s reference to Stonewall should not be read as a condoning of anti-state violence. So, what’s left?
First of all, the obvious alliteration and engaging rhythm highlight the rhetorical utility of this phrase; these three events in history simply sound nice together. But more importantly, they each reach out from over the podium individually. Like “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” the extra conjunctions, “and Selma, and Stonewall,” shine a spotlight on particular demographics making up the president’s intended audience. One can easily imagine speech writers and consultants whispering to one another, “Stonewall?” “Oh, it’s a gay pride thing. From the 60’s. The gays will catch the reference.” Indeed, many of us did. And gleefully.
Just like that, the subtle mention of Stonewall became a metonym for an imagined “LGBT America.” And while NPR quickly pulled together a guide for those who didn’t quite get it and the Huffington Post reported on the angry video response from the American Family Association, LGBT/Queer journalists jumped on the story, too. LZ Granderson, writing on CNN.com, took mainstream media to task for suggesting that there were no memorable lines in the speech. And Irene Monroe, writing for the Huffington Post, considered how President Obama’s linking of Selma and Stonewall might have furthered divides in the Black community. Noting both our country’s problematic tendency to talk about the fight against oppression by only referencing the struggles of Black communities, as well as the sense in which some Black folks were offended at the comparison of the two movements, she ponders the progressive possibilities of such a reference.
Though there is merit to the argument that simplistically viewing all experiences of oppression as similar ignores the salient differences between oppressed groups, it is also true that ignoring how the experiences of oppressed groups are indeed similar — and how, by employing that understanding, they can work together — has limited the possibilities for full and equal rights for all Americans. (Source)
According to Monroe, the President’s Stonewall mention points to an opportunity for solidarity that is accompanied by a challenge to foreground and understand difference. While I agree with her analysis, my concerns differ slightly.
For many white, educated, middle-income, cisgender gay men, such as myself, there seems to be a desire simply to be mentioned in such speeches. In my view, this corresponds to another desire–one which is very effectively lobbied for by national groups allegedly representing LGBT people–to be recognized by the State. To be granted full citizenship, which was as often couched in the demand for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as it is today in the continued fight for marriage equality, seems to be the chief concern of most national LGBT lobbying efforts. But such issues are not the key concerns of all LGBT people. And while smaller organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition or the National Center for Transgender Equality (among many others!) are working to broaden the political conversation around LGBT efforts, our contemporary reality remains a place in which mainstream perceptions of LGBT people in the United States have come to reflect the interests of a socially-privileged, economically-empowered and politically-connected elite.
As such, for the President of the United States of America, during an inauguration speech, to mention the Stonewall Riots as a metonymic reference to the lives and struggles of “LGBT Americans” is clearly a victory. The question is, whose victory is it? Whose story is represented by Stonewall? Whose concerns are assuaged by marriage equality or by the repeal of a ban on military service after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq? And whose voices are represented by the multi-million dollar lobbying machines that make such references possible?
Not mine. For me, a victory is this fleeting moment of significance that is bound so tightly to context and intersection that it cannot move forward on its own. And I believe Stonewall was a victory, but one I cannot claim. And it does inform me and I do believe I can learn from it; but to see it hoisted as a banner congratulating the efficacy of a queer movement that is so deeply mired in complex iterations of racism, sexism, ableism and classism is pure farce.
Victory is not a queer idea. In my view, queerness, if it must be analyzed at all as queer theory and not simply queer survival, is deeply skeptical of boundaries between people, of dominant hierarchies that constrict creative spirit and of the probable falseness of most rhetorical positionings. A political win is fleeting. What comes next is forever.