An Interview with Stonewall Author David Carter

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While researching my article on the PBS documentary Stonewall Uprising, I got a wild hair and decided to try to find one of the film's interview subjects, Doric Wilson, a playwright and activist I have long admired. I found him through Facebook, of all things, and we set up a time to speak by telephone. Our conversation was educational, entertaining, and surprisingly (for my slightly starstruck mind), casual.

During the chat, Doric offered to put me in touch with David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, the book that inspired the film. Unfortunately, I received the contact information from Doric with a deadline nipping at my butt and more than enough information to squeeze into my word count, so I wasn't able to include David in the original article. Instead I e-mailed David to see if he might be willing to answer a few questions for and online exclusive interview, and he graciously accepted.

You can watch Stonewall Uprising online on the PBS website.

Sadly since the interview below, Doric Wilson has passed way, underscoring the importance of the documentary and David Carter’s work.

What inspired you to write about Stonewall?
I suppose the deepest motivation was that Stonewall has tremendous symbolic power, a power so great that it is on the same level as that of the great myths. Please note, however, that I am not using the word â┚¬Å”mythâ┚¬Â in the vulgar sense in which it is often used, ie, a lie, but in the original sense of the Greek word muthos, which means a story. Similarly, I also am using the word â┚¬Å”symbolâ┚¬Â not in the vulgar sense of the word â┚¬Å”sign,â┚¬Â but in the deeper sense of something that points to and participates in the deeper reality that the symbol represents.

Given this, when I heard Martin Duberman was writing a book about Stonewall, my first reaction was to slap my hand against my forehead â┚¬â€ I had just found my life's calling, that of writing, and I was looking around for a book to write â┚¬â€ and say, â┚¬Å”Why didn't I think of that?â┚¬Â But I was glad that at least the story was finally being told. Then when his book came out, while it was a very interesting book, I felt disappointed that the riots were so very briefly recounted. I then found out both that there were many people that he could have interviewed but did not and that many people in the community disputed various aspects of his account, and some very hotly: there was no consensus that his version of events was accurate. Thus it seemed to me that the opportunity still existed for me to write a history of the event.

Many credit your book with clarifying the history of Stonewall for perhaps the first time, was that a goal for you?
Yes, I was driven by a passion to really find out what was the truth about all these decades old disputes about what really happened as well as why. Also I enjoy detective work â┚¬â€ I'm a huge fan of the Nero Wolfe books! â┚¬â€ and researching this book allowed me to actually play the role of detective and about something of great historic importance: what happened at Stonewall and why? I always told everyone: I am not out to prove or disprove any hypothesis nor to make any individual or group demons or heroes: I simply want to find out the truth and let the chips fall where they may. And I always stuck to that approach.

When I interviewed Doric, he mentioned that some people have noted the exclusion of an interview with Ms. Marsha in your book. What are your feelings on that?
Well, this is news to me, and I'd be interested to know first who those people are and then to ask them if they have read my book. I include a portrait of Marsha in the book that is about as detailed as my portrait of anyone else from the point of biographical background, giving her the honor of concluding one of the book's most important chapters, â┚¬Å”On the Street.â┚¬Â (I say it is one of the book's most important chapters because perhaps the book's single most important conclusion is that the revolt was led by street people, mainly homeless youths, which last category Marsha Johnson does not exactly fit in, but, as she was very much of the street, I put her in that chapter as the chapter's apogee, so to speak, even though her role was almost certainly lesser than the truly homeless younger street youth taken in their entirety.

Moreover, Marsha had died before I wrote the book, so I could not interview her. I did find an interview with her, but you no doubt know that she was extremely mentally ill and could not hold a coherent conversation, and the one interview I did manage to find with her shed no light on Stonewall nor on her role in the Uprising.

Still, I examined all the other evidence about Marsha I could find and concluded that there was no doubt that she was one of the very first to escalate the resistance to the raid beyond words and passive action (such as the crowd not dispersing), that is, she was definitely one of the first to use physical force. It was totally unpredictable in the years afterward when she would say something about Stonewall, and of the few quotes I have like that, some came from Doric, and one concerned the famous (or infamous) incident of Sylvia Rivera seizing the microphone at the rally that was held as part of the June 1973 Stonewall march (now almost universally called â┚¬Å”Gay Prideâ┚¬Â). Afterwards Doric told Marsha that he did not understand what Sylvia was so upset about and Marsha agreed, saying that Sylvia had not been at Stonewall. (That Marsha knew Sylvia Rivera was not at Stonewall on the first night is also supported by Marsha's having remarked to Randy Wicker that after the first night of rioting she was so excited that when later that night she came upon Sylvia asleep on a bench in Bryant Park in midtown that she woke her up to tell her about what had happened at Stonewall.) So that is about all my own original research can add to Marsha Johnson's story about Stonewall directly from her own testimony.

How did the film version come about?
WGBH got in contact with me and said that they wanted to make a film for their American Experience series about Stonewall and that they wanted me to act as the film's consultant because of the book that I had written.

What did your job as a consultant on the film entail?
It covered the waterfront, but I think my greatest contribution as the film's consultant was in steering the director and producer of the film to the right persons to interview. They had no familiarity with the history of the Stonewall Riots, and Stonewall is a very sticky wicket: there is so much controversy about who was there on the first night. Because I had interviewed people so thoroughly and compiled so much information about the event, I knew which witnesses were reliable and which were not. They also wanted people who would be good for filmed interviews, and having interviewed these people extensively, I also knew who would come across well on-screen and who would not. So I gave them a list of people and we whittled it down based on their other particular needs and concerns.

I also sat in on the interviews and sometimes asked questions of the persons being interviewed or suggested questions to the filmmakers.

I think my next most important contribution was in screening the film as it was assembled and giving feedback to the filmmakers. For example, the earlier versions had a lot about the overall social and political situation of gay people in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s and did not get to Stonewall until very late in the film. I was constantly urging that the amount of that background material be decreased and that more time be spent about the specifics of the Stonewall Inn and the gay rights movement in New York City. I must have contributed about 15-20 very detailed pages of notes, if not more, in total, and, luckily, the filmmakers and WGBH agreed with most of the changes I suggested.

Do you have a favorite moment in the film?
Yes. When the story is told about the first Stonewall commemorative march it is very moving. I also liked very much the way dancing at the Stonewall Inn was portrayed: it was very well done with both the sexiness and the sweetness and the romance coming through.

Is there anything from your book that you wish had been included in the film?
Yes: the last third of the book! The last third of the book is about the emergence of the phase of the LGBT civil rights movement that is called the gay liberation movement, and that is the only reason Stonewall is significant. The filmmakers agreed with me and also lobbied WGBH, but WGBH said that their formula for an American Experience film is that it should be about and only about a specific event. While I can understand that approach, I would still have advised making an exception in this case because almost no American you would stop on the street today could tell you about the history of the gay liberation phase of the movement and what it means: it's as if you were showing a film in a place that knew nothing about the French Revolution and the film you showed was about the fall of the Bastilleâ┚¬Â¦and the film ended with the mob taking over the Bastille and liberating its small number of prisoners, there was nothing about the French Revolution, but then the film jumped to footage of July 14 celebrations in modern France: one might wonder why a prison being taken over by a populace was celebrated nationwide 200 years later. So I wish it had been possible to have included even 10 or 15 minutes of that history.

Director Kate Davis feels strongly that Stonewall should be something students are reading about in school. What are your thoughts?
Oh, I have been saying this for years. The history of the LGBT civil rights movement is not taken seriously as civil rights history nor as American history, and of course it is both. But again, the Stonewall Rebellion needs to be taught in context: it is meaningless if it leaves out the gay liberation movement that came out of Stonewall.

As I watched the documentary, I kept thinking we need something like Stonewall again. Your title points out that the Stonewall Riots started the gay revolution, what do you think about our pace since that night in 1969?
On the one hand, it is has been breathtaking with marriage being legal in some states long before I would have thought that achievable. On the other hand, we don't yet have a single federal law protecting us from discrimination, much to Congress's everlasting shame. Incidentally, I think that when Congress finally passes one piece of federal civil rights protection for us our history will begin to be taken seriously by the mainstream.

You’re currently working on a book about Dr. Frank Kameny. Could you tell us a little about him and how that project is going?
Kameny is truly a giant of the movement and he was the main militant in the movement before Stonewall. What really happened is that Kameny throughout the sixties was being listened to more and more, but not only was the movement gripped by the mentality that we were criminals and we were mentally ill, and Frank and others had to fight very hard to overcome that, but the movement was microscopic in size. My perspective is that when Stonewall precipitated the gay liberation movement, the movement then caught up with Frank. In his very first thing he wrote, back in early 1961, his brief to the Supreme Court, he took a totally unapologetic stance: homosexuality was not only not inferior to heterosexuality, it was its equal, and prejudice against gay people was no different from prejudice based on race or religion, and the government should if anything be involved in stamping out such prejudice, not in fostering it. I've been interviewing Frank for years now and have a great wealth of material from him, and now I want to start interviewing other people. It's a book that I am very excited about, and I think it will add a lot of new information to the literature and change perspectives: I know researching it has changed my perspective.