I was reading a book yesterday that glosses over some of the major events in gay history when I noticed something that irked me. Actually, perhaps "irked" is a bit of an understatement, because what I noticed actually caused me to stop reading the book and sit there in my living room ranting out loud to myself like a crazy person. What got me all pissed off, you ask? Well, when introducing the subject of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which are credited for birthing the gay liberation movement, a lone sentence stuck out to me like a sore thumb. In it, the author nonchalantly states that Judy Garland's death occurred right before the rioting began.
Now, factually, this is correct. But by dropping that sentence, without any explanation or qualification, into the middle of a discussion of Stonewall, she's clearly trying to draw a connection in the minds of her readers between the two events. Which is perhaps understandable, considering how many authors before her--and even filmmakers such as Nigel Finch in his film Stonewall--have perpetuated the idea that Garland's untimely death somehow sparked the riot that helped set in motion the most massive political organization of gays in history. Consider this clip from Finch's Stonewall.
And it's not just books and movies that keep this idea alive--inevitably, whenever I'm discussing the riots with somebody, Judy Garland pops up. This is an idea that has permeated the popular consciousness. Despite a glaring lack of historical evidence, and despite being thoroughly debunked by historians such as David Carter in his book Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, what I call the Judy Garland Myth persists to this day. Just Google "Judy Garland Stonewall" and read some of the stuff that comes up. It's the proverbial zombie of gay history. We can continue to blow holes in it, but it just keeps lurching forward, green slime dripping from its mouth and all.
It occurred to me as I was cursing to myself about this on my loveseat that it might be more productive to write my thoughts down. So please, entertain my history-nerd rant below the fold.
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First of all, before I delve into this topic, let me just say that I'm not disputing Judy Garland's importance to many members of the gay community in 1969. She was, without a doubt, an icon. Undoubtedly, many gay men were upset over her overdose just as I would be upset, as a gay guy in 2012, over the death of Lady Gaga. Also, there is no disputing that Garland's funeral was a huge event in New York in the time directly preceding the Stonewall Riots. It's probably safe to assume that many gays who participated in the riots had also flocked to her funeral. I'm certainly not trying to downplay Garland's significance in the lives of some gay men in this time period.
Acknowledging Garland's significance within certain segments of the gay community in 1969 is one thing. What some have done, however, is try to draw a line between Garland's funeral and the riots that rocked Greenwich Village starting on June 28, 1969. Because Garland's funeral occurred immediately before the onset of the riots, the "logic" goes, gays were more upset than usual when the NYPD decided to conduct a routine raid on the Stonewall Inn. And so, because of their anger over Garland's sudden death, they reacted violently against the police.
Historians work with evidence (or, at least, that's how it's supposed to work). So, what evidence is there that Judy Garland had anything whatsoever to do with gay resistance at Stonewall?
As David Carter points out in Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, there is pretty much none. Absolutely no written eyewitness account of the riots in 1969 so much as mentions Garland. Had her death been central to the riots, doesn't it follow that at least somebody at the time, when recounting the events, would have said something about her? One historical document that does mention Judy Garland is a gossip and news column of the New York Mattachine Newsletter in August of 1969, which discusses the riots and, midway through, brings up the fact that Garland died (along with other bits of gay news). The two events are not linked in the piece in any way, shape, or form. A piece in Esquire toward the end of 1969 does the same thing. There is no hint in either of these pieces that Garland's death had anything to do with the anger unleashed on the police at Stonewall.
The only other relevant historical document that mentions Garland does draw a link between her death and Stonewall. That piece, by Walter Troy Spencer, is entitled "Too Much, My Dear," and it originally appeared in the Village Voice on July 10, 1969. One problem--Troy is heterosexual and is creating a link between Garland's death and Stonewall to mock what he calls "the Great Faggot Rebellion." This--a disgusting anti-gay column written by a homophobe--seems to be the first (and only) piece of historical evidence linking Garland's death with Stonewall. Not exactly admissible evidence, considering the source.
Furthermore, as Carter's work shows quite well through oral histories and eyewitness accounts, the major fighters during the Stonewall Riots were street youths. This makes sense, of course, since homeless street youths had the least to lose in a high-profile altercation with the police--certainly less than a closeted businessman who might have also been found at Stonewall. The last thing on the minds of street youths would have been Judy Garland, as their generation was much more into soul and rock. Not to mention, they were more concerned with surviving on the streets than with listening to Judy Garland records, which appealed more to the older, middle-class gays.
This is the foundation upon which the Judy Garland Myth is built. Zero historical documentation, aside from a mocking article written by a bigot, and a misunderstanding of the central actors in the Stonewall Riots. To call the link between Judy Garland and Stonewall "tenuous" would be quite generous indeed.
Why does this matter? Am I not nitpicking here?
Well, no, I don't think I am. The Judy Garland Myth matters. By falsely crediting Garland's death with sparking one of the most important events in gay (and American) history, the perpetuators of this myth are effectively stripping gays of their agency and boiling down the birth of the gay liberation movement and gay identity as we know it today to the death of a freaking camp icon. In other words, gays were incapable of fighting for themselves until their icon's death pushed them over the edge. Decades of gay organizing, societal oppression, and police harassment go out the window, and what really matters is that the gays lost their entertainer. This, of course, is ridiculous--gays fought against oppression long before Stonewall and long before Frances Ethel Gumm became "Judy Garland." It's a demeaning, trivializing, and downright offensive myth that oversimplifies a complex event and reduces the figures who bravely resisted police oppression at Stonewall to grieving Judy Garland fans.
Yes, gays were angry on June 28, 1969. They were angry about the oppression they were facing, even in Greenwich Village, one of the most hospitable places for gays in the country. They were angry about their social condition--the laws that effectively criminalized homosexuality, the discrimination and hatred they faced in every facet of their professional and personal lives, their popular depiction as sick and dangerous, the brutality they faced at the hands of the police. They were angry that one of the few places in which they could semi-freely congregate--the gay bar--was regularly raided by police hungry to bash queers. There was a great deal for gays to be angry about in 1969. And the increasing militancy of social movements, as well as the birth of the New Left in the 1960s, provided the perfect context for a radical gay uprising against police.
Stonewall is complicated. The reasons for its occurrence are many. The death of Judy Garland is very likely not one of them. This is not to say that some Stonewall participants were not upset about Garland's death. But, in the absence of historical evidence, we can't make the sweeping statement that Judy Garland's funeral sparked--or even contributed to--the riots. To do so would be to engage in the most fanciful, and dangerous, of speculation.
Can we please bury this myth?