Like other gay bars of the 1950s and 1960s, the Stonewall Inn in New York City was subject to regular police raids. Mostly, patrons were so afraid of being exposed and losing their jobs, livelihoods, families and reputations that they suffered silently through the raids. But that would only go so far.
Denizens of the Stonewall included lesbians, gay men and transgendered people, some of whom had little to lose, and for whatever reason they had reached a breaking point. When the police raided the bar on June 28, 1969, patrons fought back. The riots that took place marked a confrontational new tack in the fight for LGBT rights. And in the years since, annual marches—now known as Pride Parades—have taken place the last weekend of June in cities around the world.
That, in a nutshell, is the origin story of the modern LGBT rights movement. Told, retold, contested and continually adapted, it is just one of the stories about where the movement comes from and what it stands for.
There are personal stories, too, especially coming out stories. When I came out of the closet in the late 80s, it was a painful birthing process that took about a year. The most agonizing part for me was to admit to myself that I was gay. Then telling my friends and family was relatively easy. For years after that, I’d swap coming-out stories with other LGBT people. After all, coming out was the most dramatic thing that had happened to most of us at that time in our lives; of course we wanted to tell stories about it!
By no means is the LGBT movement the only one that tells its own stories. The struggle against slavery in the U.S. drew on the biblical story of Exodus. And some escaped slaves would tell their personal narratives in book form, through speeches and sermons, or later as oral histories in the Federal Writers Project. Those stories provided inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement, which in turn entered the realms of history and legend alike.
Movement stories are essential, perhaps even inescapable. A movement is defined in part by what stories unite it, and what traditions it draws upon. Telling stories links individuals to larger movements, and these movements to the past.
But there are drawbacks, too. As a story attains the status of legend, it becomes more dramatic and perhaps more inspiring, but it loses some of the messy detail that people identify with. History, on the other hand, is often more prosaic, even boring, but at least allows us to place ourselves more squarely within it.
A few intriguing endeavors in movement storytelling are the Community Organizer Genealogy Project, the ACT UP Oral History Project, the Vanguard Revisited project, and the activist interviews at the National Visionary Leadership Project. Books by Francesca Polletta and Michael Eric Dyson also explore story and legend in social movements.
What kinds of stories might help or hinder a movement? What stories, histories or legends do you find inspiring? And what specific efforts do you know of to document movement stories?
Paul VanDeCarr is a nonprofit writer, researcher and strategist in New York City. Visit his blog “Inside Stories,” and the description of his work-in-progress guide on “Storytelling and Social Change: Strategies for Grantmakers.”