By John McIntyre
Start counting forward from the Stonewall uprising, and you’re likely to find yourself feeling free, maybe obligated even, to indulge fanciful ideas. Contemporaneous accounts present it as a surreal scene. There’s a counterweight, of course, and that’s the impulse to honor the real risks and sacrifices those pioneering spirits made to move the culture forward. Haltingly forward, sure but not for lack of effort. All of that and more was on display those June nights in 1969. The writer Edmund White’s letter to Alfred Corn described that, “Someone shouted ‘Gay Power,’ others took up the cry–and then it dissolved into giggles. A few more gay prisoners–bartenders, hatcheck boys–a few more cheers, someone starts singing “We Shall Overcome”–and then they started camping on it.” The clash grew serious, though; it turned violent, and the Stonewall’s clientele held their own. It was an unwitting turning point, a cathartic moment that, it became clear in time, had reoriented the longstanding model of police repression and exploitation toward the gay community.
The years afterward were so stocked with highs and lows, they could only give birth to a new art too restless and varied to be called by a single name. A pair of exhibitions–Art after Stonewall at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall at the Brooklyn Museum–mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.