The temptation exists in our culture to relate
current events to famous past historical moments via some clichéd
shorthand. Every scandal is a something-gate. Every economic downturn
is a potential Great Depression. Every boy band is an heir to
the Beatles. Every trend du jour is the new black.
And now, in this digital era, every new version of something
that seems to have happened before in a different fashion is
a 2.0. You know, like the much-hyped, overly simplistic and
historically inaccurate effort to brand the protests and outrage
that followed the illegalization of same-sex marriage via California's
Proposition 8 as Stonewall 2.0.
Yet, this is not Stonewall 2.0, at least not yet. And it insults
the broad strokes of gay history since those 1969 riots in Greenwich
Village to say so.
At first, I didn’t react much to this branding, but in recent
weeks the chatter has become unremitting and probably irreversible.
Journalist Rex Wockner takes credit for coining it -- and certainly
he shoved it into the gay intelligentsia’s consciousness, where
it has metastasized. In actuality, though, Long Beach, Calif.,
Honda service manager John Pill registered Stonewall2.com on
November 6, several days before Wockner’s first public use of
the term on November 11.
Either way, it began bubbling up with Andrew Sullivan’s November
18 blog post, hit the Huffington Post by December 5, and was
codified on December 10 by the paper of record, The New York
Times, when one article about the unrest led with the sentence:
“They’re calling it Stonewall 2.0.”
Yes, they are. And that’s a shame. It’s also kind of amazing
that we’re taking this sort of facile view of the history of
the gay movement at the very same time as the tale of Harvey
Milk is being resurrected and mainstreamed in Gus Van Sant’s
movie. That in and of itself should be reminding us that we’ve
had these moments before, that other pivotal events have energized,
stung, and propelled gays and lesbians into new fields of action.
To be fair to Wockner, he offered more than one option in
the blog post that sparked this branding. The headline, in fact,
was “Stonewall 2.0? Gay Activism 4.0?” In other words, he knew
that Stonewall 2.0 ignored everything significant that happened
between June 28, 1969, and November 4, 2008. I’ve far more sympathy
for this less simplistic analysis: “Maybe Stonewall was Activism
1.0, ACT UP was Activism 2.0, the failed corporate activism
of the Human Rights Campaign and No on Prop. 8 was Activism
3.0, and now we are witnessing Activism 4.0 being born.”
Also to be fair to Wockner, he’s known for getting overly
excited about turning points. He did, after all, pronounce the
marriage-equality battle essentially over back in 2004 when
Gavin Newsom and a cadre of county clerks in obscure places
from New Mexico to New York declared it legal by fiat. I believe
at some point he declared all that was left to do was some flyover
country “mopping up.” In 2002, in fact, he announced “the war
for gay equality has been won.”
But allowing this new wave of protests and organizing to be
known as Stonewall 2.0 is dangerous for a few reasons. For instance,
Pill, who registered Stonewall2.com, sort of admits he’s missing
something in telling me: “This is the movement like I’ve never
seen it in the gay community. I wasn’t around for a lot of the
activism in the 1980s.”
Moving from Stonewall to post–Prop. 8 in one step does tend
to overlook a whole lot of other moments. Milk’s election, assassination,
and the riots sparked by the virtual acquittal of his murderer
were potent in waking up the post-Stonewall generation and driving
many a queer politician to run for elected office. The 1979
March on Washington drove thousands of energized people out
of their closets and into activism in local communities, often
far from the sanctity of Greenwich Village and the Castro. AIDS
radicalized the next wave, sparking extreme protests that sometimes
involved violence and vandalism that forced the political structure
to simply acknowledge us. And Matthew Shepard’s martyrdom a
decade ago prompted a profound national grief, complete with
ubiquitous candlelight vigils, that minted millions of straight
allies outraged by the brutality and unfairness of it all.
Each of these flashpoints were at least as important as what’s
happening now in the post–Prop 8 environment. And yet here we
are allowing this next wave of youngsters with laptops and Facebook
groups to believe they are the direct heirs to 40-year-old events
that few of them even know enough about.
That brings us to the other major problem with calling this
Stonewall 2.0: It raises expectations of a newly energized political
force of young gays and allies. And young people are notoriously
antsy, anxious, and impatient. They’re the most egotistical
of all activists, people who believe that history occurs at
Yet as flashy and enthusiastic as the protests have been in
recent weeks, marriage equality isn't really close at hand in
the United States. This is a long-haul struggle for the hearts
and minds of Americans and gay people have thus far actually
been fairly ineffectual. Even if we get the backing of bare
judicial majorities in scattered states, the vast majority of
the nation opposes it by incredibly large margins. The fact
is, we can whine that the Mormons “tricked” blacks into thinking
Obama supported Prop. 8, but the more important contention on
that controversial mailer is, in fact, true: Obama does not
support same-sex marriage. That he also doesn’t support outlawing
is a little too nuanced for the average voter to grasp.
One measure of how overhyped this whole Stonewall 2.0 thing
has been came last month when MSNBC's Keith Olbermann highlighted
polling data that he said implied the post–Prop. 8 protestors
had made in-roads on public opinion among Californians. It was
an appallingly optimistic view of statistically suspect information,
a small SurveyUSA poll that found that 8% of those who voted
yes on Prop. 8 said the protests had changed their minds. That
means 92% remain unmoved.
Still, there’s Olbermann, desperately seeking a silver lining,
explaining how that 8% overcame the margin of 4.6 percentage
points that passed Prop. 8. If the election were held today,
he claimed, gay marriage in California would still be legal.
Uh, no. Olbermann ignored the fact that the poll itself did
not reflect the 52.3%–47.7% results of Election Day; the poll’s
overall sample actually opposed Prop. 8 by a six-point margin.
So it didn’t even start with an accurate reflection of the actual
electorate. And then the subset asked about changing their minds
was a mere 198 people, with a margin of error of plus/minus
Thus, even if these figures were accurate, Prop. 8 would have
still passed at one end of the margin of error. And Olbermann’s
conclusions also don’t take into account that if the election
were still ahead, the Yes on 8 folks would still be funneling
millions into combating it. It’s much easier to sway people
when your opposition isn’t responding effectively; that is,
in fact, how the Yes on 8 people won in the first place.
I don’t mean to dampen the enthusiasm here. But I question
whether such excessive optimism -- this is the equivalent of
the most revered moment in gay history! -- can give way to damaging
disenchantment. How silly we’ll all look in five years if the
marriage picture is still largely the same, save a few victories
here and there, perhaps even an electoral one in California.
“This really is a movement that needs a name,” Pill told me.
I disagree. But even if that’s so, we’re gays -- we’re a creative
lot. We can do better than to rip off our past and, in the process,
disrespect our history.