Opinion | Stonewall and the Myth of Self-Deliverance

Consider how abolition, the great moral crusade of the 19th century, is now taught in schools. The New York State Regents curriculum guide, which shapes public high school education in the state, refers to “people who took action to abolish slavery” and names four individuals, all but one of them people of color. A recent prizewinning academic history of abolition assures us that slave resistance “lay at the heart of the abolitionist movement.” And so white abolitionists, however consequential they actually were, have been made to take a few steps back.

The allure of self-deliverance has certainly influenced popular culture: In recent movies like “Django Unchained” and television shows like “Underground,” the slave is an avenger. (You can see something similar in the shift in how Holocaust resistance has been depicted in Hollywood, from “Schindler’s List,” in 1993, which was a drama of rescue — or what’s now reflexively denigrated as a “savior” narrative — to “Defiance,” in 2008, in which Jews pick up guns and save themselves.)

Alas, the yearning for heroism in these circumstances can imply, as its flip side, a sense of shame in “passivity.” But there is nothing shameful about being freed, and the simple truth is that slaves in the American South were in no position to throw off their shackles on their own. That task required the massed forces of an army. It required, too, the likes of James Ashley, a congressman from Ohio who introduced what became the 13th Amendment, devoted himself to its passage and so, in a very immediate way, ended slavery. The great Frederick Douglass, who could afford no delusions about self-deliverance, heralded James Ashley as “among the foremost of that brilliant galaxy of statesmen who reconstructed the Union on a basis of liberty.”

Only those who need no rescuing can pick and choose among their rescuers.

Which brings us back to Stonewall. These days, the episode looms so large that it has been likened to the storming of the Bastille; we furiously debate who threw the first fist, or brick, or bottle. But as the sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Suzanna M. Crage note in a study of what they call “the Stonewall myth,” Stonewall was hardly the first “gay riot.” What gives Stonewall its stature, they argue, is that “Stonewall activists were the first to claim to be the first.” Their point is that Stonewall isn’t commemorated because of its impact on the gay movement. Instead, it “made its impact on the gay movement through its commemoration.”

It mattered enormously, then, that the old-guard gay advocacy groups organized an annual Stonewall demonstration. It also mattered enormously that after the 1971 demonstration, the reporter Joseph Lelyveld published an account in The New York Times that was long, detailed and, read in its historical context, deeply sympathetic. Unblinkered journalists in the mainstream media were indispensable to the cause.

The story of gay rights is the story of gay activism — but it is not only that story. It’s the story, too, of black-robed heterosexuals like Margaret Marshall, who as the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court wrote a 2003 decision declaring that same-sex marriage was entitled to legal recognition. It’s the story of mainstream politicians like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who decided about a decade ago that he wanted New York to become the first large state to legislate marriage equality. Mr. Cuomo blamed the failure of a previous effort on infighting among the advocacy groups, and he called them to heel. Then — with the assistance of rich Wall Street donors — he engaged in the usual wheeling and dealing and arm-twisting to wrangle the bill through the Legislature. He signed it in 2011.


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