It’s easy to think of the Stonewall uprising as a discrete moment in LGBTQ history. But the riots, incited by a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1969, were borne of years of activism and frustration in the LGBTQ community, and they set off a large and multifarious movement.
Fifty years later, publishers are delivering books that look at LGBTQ life before the uprising and that shed light on its continuing legacy. Together, these works offer a complex picture of the adversity that LGBTQ individuals have faced historically, and that, despite immense progress, many still face today.
Seeds of Change
The anniversary of the Stonewall uprising presents the chance to reexamine the events of that summer and how the riots changed life for queer people in the United States. This spring, Penguin Classics released the New York Public Library’s The Stonewall Reader, a collection of interviews with and autobiographical recollections by individuals who witnessed the effects of the riots firsthand. The publication of the book, which PW’s review said “constructs a vital and dynamic narrative of the early days of gay liberation,” coincides with an exhibition at NYPL called Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50.
Jason Baumann, who oversees the library’s LGBTQ collections and who edited the book, includes material from the years immediately before and after the uprising, as well as more recent writings. He wanted to focus on personal narratives, he says, because “a lot of the discussion of Stonewall gets bogged down in micro details about what happened on each night or who threw the first rock.” He adds, “The fundamental importance of Stonewall is less in the details than in how it felt to be there and how it impacted the community.”
The interviews and writings about the years after the uprising, Baumann says, capture a new tone on the part of LGBTQ advocates and activists. Queer writers, he says, became more “in your face and confrontational.” He cites a line from an essay included in the book, by Martha Shelley, an activist who helped start the Gay Liberation Front: “The function of a homosexual is to make you uneasy.”
In the wake of Stonewall, “gay and transgender people lost their feelings of shame, or of fear,” Baumann says. “They saw themselves as a political community. They were capable of fighting back.”
The challenges facing the LGBTQ community, of course, did not end with Stonewall. In Disasterama (Three Rooms, Oct.), Alvin Orloff, a manager at the LGBTQ-focused Dog Ear Books in San Francisco’s Castro district, writes about his involvement in the queer scenes in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York from the 1970s through the ’90s. He also describes how his community—in the book he dubs it the “subterranean lavender twilit shadow world of the gay ghetto”—was ravaged by the AIDS crisis beginning in the 1980s.
The emergence of the disease is one of several recurring themes in the spring release Art After Stonewall by Jonathan Weinberg (Rizzoli), which features more than 200 works produced in the two decades after the uprising, by luminaries such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Catherine Opie, as well as by lesser-known queer artists. As Weinberg writes in his introduction, “In the fight to combat HIV/AIDS it was artists working with activist organizations that helped to create some of the campaigns that were most effective at raising awareness and demanding government action.”
To understand the origins of animosity toward LGBTQ people, it can be useful to look even further back in time. In Outrages (HMH, June), feminist author Naomi Wolf, who rose to prominence with 1991’s The Beauty Myth, examines how the British state shifted its attitude gay men in the 19th century, when sodomy became illegal under civil law. The book, which also looks at the life of 19th-century gay writer John Addington Symonds, is an “ambitious literary, biographical, and historical treatise,” PW’s review noted.
According to Wolf, the criminalization of gay sexual relations in the U.K. was brought about when male parliamentarians, seeking to appease feminists who wanted to expand women’s legal power, offered sodomy as grounds for divorce (which did little to help women trying to leave abusive or adulterous husbands). Deanne Urmy, an editor-at-large at HMH, says, “We think homophobic attitudes are ages old. Wolf shows that so many of them have their origins right at this turning point, with this civic construct.”
LGBTQ liberation has been a collective effort, but every movement has its public faces. Several forthcoming books spotlight activists and artists who helped the LGBTQ community to solidify a new, bolder identity.
James Baldwin did much to further the LGBTQ cause with his writing, including his influential 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room. (For a selection of current LGBTQ fiction, see LGBTQ Lives in Adult Fiction.) In James Baldwin: Living in Fire (Pluto, Oct.), Bill V. Mullen, a professor of American studies at Purdue University, details the author’s sexual awakening during the mid-20th century. “Baldwin, in his own life, is always an LGBT activist, because he has to fight every step of his life for his own sexuality,” Mullen says.
For Mullen, Baldwin’s reckoning with his gay identity dovetails with his advocacy for African-American rights. “By the 1960s, he’s beginning to more forthrightly put himself out as a gay artist,” he says. “This also coincides with the time in which he’s hurling himself more into the civil rights movement.”
Mason Funk’s recently released HarperOne title, The Book of Pride, features more than 50 previously unpublished interviews with LGBTQ leaders and activists, several of whom first made their marks around the time of the Stonewall uprising. They include Philadelphia Gay News founder Mark Segal, who during the early 1970s made a habit of crashing live broadcasts, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, to protest for gay rights.
New memoirs also showcase the breadth of LGBTQ activism. In Rainbow Warrior (Chicago Review, June), Gilbert Baker, the creator of the LGBTQ rainbow flag, who died in 2017, tells the story of how the flag was commissioned by San Francisco activist and politician Harvey Milk and describes the day in 1978 when it debuted at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day parade.
Walt Odets, a clinical psychologist, looks back on his childhood with his parents, playwright and screenwriter Clifford Odets and actress Bette Grayson, and discusses the psychological traumas that gay men face, in Out of the Shadows (FSG, June). The book builds on Odets’s 1995 title In the Shadow of the Epidemic, about the AIDS crisis, which was the top-selling book among gay men during its season of publication, according to the Advocate. Jeff Seroy, senior v-p of marketing and publicity at FSG, says that Out of the Shadows “itself is a gesture of activism,” insofar as it establishes that “gay men, in their normal course of psychological development, can be subject to trauma experiences that are very particular to gay men, and that need to be addressed and treated as particular.”
Before longtime LGBTQ activist Edie Windsor died in 2017, she had completed much of the work on her memoir, A Wild and Precious Life (St. Martin’s, Oct.), with her coauthor, Joshua Lyon. Windsor engaged in LGBTQ advocacy in New York City in the years after the Stonewall uprising and was the lead plaintiff in United States v. Windsor, a 2013 Supreme Court case that overturned discriminatory parts of the Defense of Marriage Act. Reading Edie’s account of her early life in New York, St. Martin’s senior editor Anna deVries says, “you really get a sense of the double life that many gay people had to lead in the mid-20th century” and “just how much changed right after Stonewall.”
As the modern LGBTQ rights movement in the U.S. marks its 50th anniversary, activism in some other parts of the world is still in its adolescence. New books track its progress and the challenges that remain here and abroad, and point to possible paths forward. In the next few months, New Press is adding three titles to its series of photo books showcasing LGBTQ life: Dark Tears by Argentinian photographer Claudia Jares (June); Svetlana and Nadezhda by Misha Friedman, with an introduction by Masha Gessen (Oct.), about the radical Belarus Free Theater troupe and the lesbian couple who run it; and This Is How the Heart Beats by Jake Naughton (Dec.), which follows queer East Africans who fled for a new life in the U.S.
New Press associate editor Ben Woodward says the series highlights the difficulties of LGBTQ life in less progressive parts of the world. “A lot of strides have been made in LGBTQ rights in the States,” he says, “and people are now turning their attention to what’s going on outside the U.S.”
In this country, LGBTQ individuals face varying degrees of acceptance. Ryan O’Callaghan, a former offensive tackle for the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs, chronicles his struggle as a closeted gay man in the hypermasculine world of professional football in My Life on the Line, coauthored by Cyd Zeigler (Edge of Sports, Sept.). In a profile published in 2017 by the website Outsports, Callaghan described how he became addicted to painkillers and contemplated suicide before finding acceptance from the Kansas City Chiefs’ clinical psychologist, its general manager, and his teammates.
Sporting Gender (Rowman & Littlefield, Dec.) by medical physicist and competitive runner Joanna Harper, who is transgender, offers another angle on LGBTQ issues in professional sports, taking up the complications faced by transgender and intersex athletes and the question of whether transgender athletes can be said to compete equitably after transitioning. Harper devotes a chapter of the book to Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion runner from South Africa who recently challenged, unsuccessfully, an International Association of Athletics Federation rule stating that women with naturally high levels of testosterone, such as Semenya, must artificially lower their levels of the hormone in order to compete. Harper served as an expert witness in the case, the result of which South Africa’s track federation plans to appeal.
The particular difficulties confronting transgender and nonbinary people are also addressed in new memoirs, including A Year Without a Name by Cyrus Grace Dunham (Little, Brown, Oct.), a genderqueer activist and the younger sibling of Lena Dunham, and Happier as a Woman (Cleis, Oct.), which is told scrapbook style by Martina Gisele Ramirez, a transgender professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University, with coauthor Alicia Partnoy.
Cleis senior acquisitions editor Hannah Bennett says Happier gives readers a “realistic portrait of what it’s like to be transgender today,” including “paying for medical expenses, or the fear of losing their job if they change their presentation, or having a gender confirmation surgery and then having to go right back to work.” Bennett emphasizes the importance of first-person accounts by LGBTQ authors across the spectrum: “What we need to see more of is this genuine day-to-day story of real people living their real lives.”
Count political figures among those real people telling their stories. In November, Hanover Square will publish Moving Forward by Karine Jean-Pierre, chief public affairs officer at progressive advocacy group MoveOn, who writes about coming out as lesbian, her marriage to CNN correspondent and anchor Suzanne Malveaux, and her participation in the Obama White House’s It Gets Better campaign.
In Helping the Good Do Better (Twelve, July), lobbyist Tom Sheridan looks back on his career, including his work on the Ryan White Act, a federally funded program for people with HIV/AIDS. The book, says Twelve editorial director Sean Desmond, is something of an action plan for progressive politicians and political operatives who are looking to bring about change. Amid the current administration’s efforts to reverse gains by the LGBTQ community, Desmond says, the book asks, “What’s the great unfinished business for the gay-rights agenda?”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer in New York.
Below, more on the subject of LGBTQ books.
Homosexual Panic: PW talks with James Polchin
In ‘Indecent Advances,’ (Counterpoint, June), Polchin examines true crime reports from the early to mid-20th century, showing how newspapers from that era reflected society’s fear of LGBTQ people.
LGBTQ Lives in Adult Fiction: LGBTQ Books 2019
Marginalized figures take center stage in these novels by LGBTQ authors and about queer characters.