The "Stonewall" in the title of this intriguing, if narrow, study by Martin Duberman was a mobster-controlled New York City bar which was the scene of a series of "riots" in the summer of 1969, now regarded as an important milestone in the movement for gay and lesbian rights. Duberman, who teaches at the City University of New York, has written extensively in the field of gay and lesbian studies, and this is one of his best-known books. This is more a work of anthropology than a comprehensive history of the origins of the gay liberation movement because it is built around a series of sketches of gay and lesbian life in New York in the 1960s. Duberman focuses on the lives of six gay and lesbian activists, and his research is prodigious, but, whether the lives he selected were representative of the times is subject to debate. In the preface, Duberman acknowledges the book's "emphasis on personality," and the story it tells also includes an interesting mix of petty mobsters and corrupt cops, as well as walk-on appearances by the famous and later-to-be famous, including future San Francisco Mayor Harvey Milk, Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin, author Rita Mae Brown, and Jim Morrison, The Doors' front-man. But there is more to writing history than profiling the leaders even of great social movements.
Duberman is well aware of the important context surrounding the events about which he writes. According to the author: "'Stonewall' is the emblematic event in modern lesbian and gay history" because the series of riots "has become synonymous over the years with gay resistance to oppression." He asserts that his focus on individuals "will increase the ability of readers to identify...with experiences different from, but comparable to, their own." Although this is not, strictly speaking, a conventional work of academic history, Duberman makes some important, incisive observations. For instance, he briefly discusses what he refers to as "the endemic homophobia that characterized the black political movement" of the 1960s. (According to Duberman, Bayard Rustin, the principal organizer of the March on Washington in 1963, was ostracized after Rustin's sexual orientation was revealed.) In Duberman's view, the "new frankness about homosexuality" of the mid-1960s, "was part and parcel of a much larger cultural upheaval," and "the homophile movement" reflected and contributed to "the general assault on cultural values." And, according to Duberman, the direct-action tactics adopted by groups such as the East Coast Homophile Organizations were "inspired" by the efforts of militant students on college campuses and Freedom Riders in the south to achieve social justice in a different arena.
Focused as it is on the personalities of six activists, this book is, in some respects, less than the sum of its parts. I found it fascinating reading, but it is far from the whole story of the early years of the gay liberation movement. There can be little doubt about the importance of individual leaders in the emergence of gay and lesbian activism in the 1960s. However, there is much more to the history of gay resistance to oppression than the extent to which it affords readers the opportunity to identify with experiences different from, but comparable to, their own.