Stonewall Riots Review

By | Friday, June 10, 2022 Leave a Comment
Rashad, Jax, and Natalia are helping Natalia's grandmother (Ms. Carmen) move into a new place. She's worried no one will ever come to visit, but they all assure her that they all love her like their own grandmother and make promises to visit regularly. As they get back to unpacking boxes, Natalia comes across an old photograph from 1969 and when she asks about it, Ms. Carmen recalls that it's her and her girlfriend from 1969. This surprises everyone, and she explains that it was before she had met Natalia's grandfather and, because of the times, she had never discussed it much. The trio of 20-somethings (possibly older teenagers, I suppose; their ages are never made explicit) all manage to showcase their ignorance of what being queer was like prior to the 21t century and, as Ms. Carmen begins to explain, they get transported back to 1969.

Ms. Carmen takes them to the Stonewall Inn, where the three wind up getting into different conversations with residents. Although they all were pretty dismissive of Ms. Carmen's initial warnings, their extended conversations begin to highlight the gravity of things in 1969. As it starts sinking in, the cops bust the place up in a raid, apprehending Ms. Carmen and forcing the remaining trio to get separated. By the time all four find each other the next day, the area outside Stonewall has become a large protest and they all see precisely just how awful people in the LGBTQIA+ community are treated by the cops. They return to their own time, somewhat wiser, and more committed to continuing the fight for equality in their own personal and unique ways.

Obviously, we've got more than a little fiction going on here and it's not a 100% factual account of the Stonewall "Riots" as author Archie Bongiovanni notes in the afterword to History Comics: The Stonewall Riots. In fact, the vast majority of the story takes place on the day before the incident. But even then, we're not looking at a book that details all the specific elements that led up to titular event. The idea is more to cover the mindsets, attitudes, and general vibes of the time. This really could've taken place at almost any point during the summer of 1969, but tying the story to Stonewall specifically means that you can cue readers into the gist of the to broader subject via the naming shorthand.

I was initially struck by the level of ignorance from the three protagonists when it came to the rights of LGBTQIA+ members in the late '60s. Surely, I thought, they must know something about how secretive people had to be back then! But in reflecting a bit, it occured to me that, first, these are 20-somethings and grew up almost entirely (if not literally entirely) in the 21st century. It would be like asking my 20-year-old self what I knew about the 1940s; I could've mentioned some headline events like WWII but I couldn't have told what life was like for people living in the US after the war. Furthermore, I'm pretty certain I had never even heard of Stonewall, much less knew anything about it, prior to my mid-to-late 30s. So I can see how these characters might be a little light when it comes to knowledge about these types of things.

I also felt, at first, that they were flat characters. Not quite stereotypes, but when Ms. Carmen summed each of them up with barely a sentence each, that seemed like all there was to them. This, I'm pretty sure, was deliberate for a couple reasons. First, it gave them all someplace to grow to so that, by the end of the book, they all feel not only more fleshed out but fleshed out for having experienced growth. Second, it allowed the characters to each land on very specific and distinct approaches for how they wanted to continue to push things forward. Natalie, for example, is more inclined to front-line protests and rallies, while Jax would serve everyone better in communicating with both the community at large as well as legislators in particular. They collectively come to the understanding that no one approach is enough by itself and they can all lean into their specific skillsets and interests to work from multiple angles. Had the characters been given much more depth, the message of this conclusion would be a bit more muddied. Or at least there'd be a strong danger of it becoming muddied.

Both Bongiovanni and artist A. Andrews have worked on educational/information comics about equality previously. I had thought I'd actually reviewed Bongiovanni's and Tristan Jimerson's A Quick And Easy Guide To They/Them Pronouns here on my blog before, but it appears I did not. I definitely recall liking that, andc hits just as well, albiet in a slightly different way. It has more of an overt storytelling feel to it, compared to They/Them being more conversational in tone. While Stonewall Riots does fit neatly into First Second's History Comics line, it does seem to stand out somewhat by grounding and comparing the history against right now; the others in the series that I've read take a more traditional historical approach, simply telling the story from the perspective of those in it.

As I said, History Comics: The Stonewall Riots is not a simple, factual recounting of the events of Stonewall. It focsuses more on the pervailing ideas and attitudes of the times and, to that end, becomes a more visceral story, I feel. Worth checking out, I think, particularly since Stonewall doesn't show up in any of your kids' history textbooks at school. The book retails for $12.99 US and came out just over a month ago; you should be able to pick it up and/or order from any reputable book shop.
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