What We Misunderstood About Stonewall
These three issues point to a larger issue regarding the poor parenting that plagues the telling of LGBTQ+ history. The journalist Gary Young written in The Guardian“We like our neat story – an easy-to-follow, self-contained narrative with dates, characters, and landmarks with which we can weave otherwise unrelated events together into a seemingly seamless length of fabric held together by sequence and consequence. The complexity , with all of its nuances and shady realities, is a complicated business, so we choose the facts to match the narrative we want to hear.
I call this a “textbook” approach to history because, like a textbook, we want to break down complex historical narratives into smaller pieces, making them more consumable for the intended audience. Okundaye says, “I think to embrace the complexity of queer history, you have to confront its ugliness. We cannot just choose to cover up all the mess to create and project our wishful thinking onto history, it means we fail to learn lessons about how liberation movements can move forward.
The proliferation of the use of social media as a tool for education and activism has exacerbated this obsession with seeing queer history as singular, simplified history. The word limit on Twitter, the rise of infographic activism on Instagram, and history lessons from TikTok have led us to simplify theory and history into short catchy statements. We are now in a time where we find simple stories more useful than complex narratives, which as a journalist Terry Nguyen says, makes some of us “worried about the long-term neutralizing effect of making advocacy more digestible and consumable for large audiences.”
By restricting queer histories to a single singular narrative, we end up flattening and mythologizing icons and histories, while obscuring forms of difference. The only way to move forward in society is to appreciate our history as a whole, recognizing the good, the bad and the ugly. So how can we treat our history with respect and ensure that we are honest with the mistakes and accomplishments of our past?
Okundaye has a great suggestion, “Engage in oral history and listen to first-hand accounts from people who were present during these movements. Books like Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 by Sarah Schulman are a good place to start. Manalansan tells me, “Look at local, national and regional histories to appreciate what communities have faced and continue to face in their specific geographic, cultural and political locations. We need to provide space for these people to properly represent themselves in a critical global context without falling into the trap of homogenizing and universalizing their struggles.