Early in the new American Experience documentary Stonewall Uprising, which premiered this past Monday night on PBS, one of the so-called experts featured in the film says something misleading: "Before Stonewall there was no such thing as coming out or being out ... there was no out, there was just in."
In fact, before Stonewall there were more than a few brave souls, including the leaders of early gay rights organizations, who were very much out. Maybe if the misleading "expert" was someone other than me, I could be more forgiving. But after spending years trying to set the record straight on the Stonewall riots and the history of the gay rights struggleincluding writing an entire book on the first half-century of our movementit was especially maddening to find myself promoting misinformation.
Unfortunately, this wasn't the first time I've found myself caught up in Stonewall mythmaking, rather than being loyal to its history. And each time I find myself unintentionally contributing to gay history fiction rather than helping to bring clarity and understanding, I'm reminded that getting the story of our history close to the truth is no easy task.
Stonewall has proven to be an especially difficult story to tell because the colorful myths around this historic event are so appealing. ( Drag queens beating up burly cops with their high heels, for examplesorry, but it didn't happen. ) Also, it was because some of the people associated with Stonewall were such good storytellers. One of those storytellers, a drag queen who went by the name Sylvia Rivera, offered me a compelling eyewitness account of being at the Stonewall Inn the night of the raid. Over vodka and homemade chili, Sylvia recounted a tale that was as believable as it was inspiring. It wasn't until two years ago20 years after I first interviewed her for my book, Making Gay History, where Sylvia's account appearsthat I discovered she'd borrowed the entire story from another drag queen who was actually there.
Over the years I've learned an essential lesson about understanding the past, both as a journalist and as a consumer of history: don't depend on a single source, whether it's a book, an article, or an American Experience documentary. Every take offered on a historical event like Stonewall is inevitably colored by the varied perspectives of the eyewitnesses toand the chroniclers ofthat history. Fortunately, in the case of the Stonewall Uprising film, you don't have to depend on the documentary alone to draw your own conclusions about Stonewall. American Experience has provided an extensive companion web site ( www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/stonewall/ ) where you can find primary resources, including contemporary accounts of the uprising, and where you can view such ephemera as the oddly cheerful 1955 public service short called "Boys Beware" ( www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/bonus-video/stonewall-beware/ ) , snippets of which are included in the documentary.
Also, in an attempt make amends for my own hyperbolic assertion in the film and accidental contributions to the Stonewall mythology, I've included on the web site mini-profiles of each of the key fifteen people who appears in the film. I can only hope that by providing more information for the public about the experiences and lives of these men and womenin and out of the closetthan could be included in the film, viewers of Stonewall Uprising will come to better understand both what happened on a hot night in June 1969 and the people behind this key turning points in our ongoing fight for equal rights.
Eric Marcus is the author of several books and served as an advisor and associate producer for Stonewall Uprising. For more information, please visit www.ericmarcus.com .