Tuesday, July 28, 2015

2016 Contenders: Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights, by Ann Bausum

It is impossible to review Ann Bausum's new chronicle of the gay rights movement without thinking about where I was one month ago today: standing on Market Street in San Francisco, watching the biggest, most joyous Pride parade I have ever witnessed. It was two days after we all woke up to learn that the Supreme Court had granted same-sex couples the right to marry in all 50 states, and the mood in the city was total jubilation. The parade itself felt incredibly uncontroversial, with every corporation you can think of trying to get in on the act and soak up some of that LGBT goodwill. The Apple employees alone took up several city blocks.

Contrast that with the way things stood on the eve of the Stonewall Riots. Marriage equality was such a distant dream that Richard Enman, representing the Mattachine Society, said, regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage, "Homosexuals don't want that." "Cross-dressing" was a criminal offense, homosexuality was listed as a mental illness in the DSM, and men trying to pick up a date might be told to "keep moving, faggot, keep moving."

Bausum does an excellent job of evoking that time and place with a chatty prologue that addresses the reader directly and invites us to walk the streets of Greenwich Village with her. She maintains that sense of immediacy through the next several chapters, quickly establishing the historical backdrop and then plunging us into a play by play of the events at the Stonewall on June 27, 1969. She combines eyewitness accounts with historical context and broader social analyses to form a full picture of the significance of the riots. And she doesn't shy away from plainspoken descriptions of the gay experience in 1969, from sex in unlocked semi-trucks previously used to haul animal carcasses, to the raunchy chants that gay teenagers shouted at the police.

While the entire first half of the book is concerned with the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the riots, the second half touches, in less detail, on the ensuing gay rights movement, including the AIDS crisis and the fight for marriage equality. Of course, despite the fact that the publication date is May 5, 2015, the book is already out of date, because it doesn't include the recent Supreme Court decision. Sam and I were speculating about whether Viking will release an updated edition, but things are moving so quickly that it might be impossible to keep up. Just last week, several legislators introduced the Equality Act, a comprehensive federal non-discrimination bill. 

As the LGBT community continues to rack up victories, it will become ever more difficult to remember this history of brutal oppression. Bausum's book serves as an essential reminder of that history, honoring those who risked their lives to pave the way, and, I hope, providing inspiration to the next generation to continue the fight.

I think it's unlikely that Stonewall will receive Newbery recognition. Despite the immediacy of Bausum's prose, I wouldn't call it narrative nonfiction on the level of something like Bomb, and it feels like a strong year for fiction. I won't be at all surprised if it the Sibert Committee honors it, though, and it seems like a shoo-in for the Stonewall Book Award. (There's a question: has a book ever won its namesake award before?)

Published in May by Viking Books for Young Readers

1 comment: