Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter – Book Review

This book by David Carter is an historical account of the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The riots are commonly attributed as the start of the modern gay rights movement in the USA (and the rest of the western world). In his book Carter tells the story of gay life in New York in the lead up to the riots, the events of the Stonewall riots themselves and the actions and organisations that sprung up in the year or so following the riots.

The book is really interesting. I think it is one of the few accounts of the riots that attempts a thorough historical analysis of the events throughout the period. Carter conducted over a hundred interviews in order to write the book, and the manuscript took ten years for him to complete. However, it seems like Carter significantly pared down all the information that he had about the riots because the book is less than three hundred pages altogether.

That said, the material in the book is well presented and I felt more thoroughly informed about the Stonewall Riots than I ever had before. It’s very difficult to imagine what gay life was like during that period. It was full of secrecy, violence and threat. As Carter describes in the book, many gay people in New York watched the riots and thought finally! The gay community had been oppressed for years, and told that they were psychologically ill or abnormal. However, the riots sparked a movement in which the members were unashamed of their identity, and willing to fight for rights that everyone else took for granted.

One thing that comes out though the book is that the riots were started by the most oppressed, the street youth, however they did not play much of a role in the movement that followed. The movement that followed was comprised of people living in less desperate circumstances, and they found it difficult to get the street youth to join their organisations. The street youth were often homeless young LGBT people in New York, who had short life expectancy rates, and were also at the margins of the more established LGBT community. However, they were also the ones that fought against the police the most viciously and most consistently. One of the aspects of the success of the riots, which I think Carter understates, is how difficult the rioters made it for the police to arrest them. On the nights of the riots the riot police tried to control the crowds, but they were able to run into different side streets and then attack the police from a different angle. If it had been easier to put the rioters down, then possibly the riots wouldn’t have carried the symbolic power that they did.

The book is really good, and anyone who wants to learn more about the origins of the movement, and what life was life for LGBT people when the rest of society was against them should read it. I also think that if you’re part of the LGBT movement, you should educate yourself about what came before, so that you know who fought for the rights and recognition you now enjoy, and also to inspire you to fight further if you have to.

 

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