This post was originally written for the Studying Religion in Culture blog at the University of Alabama and posted December 21, 2020. Click here for the original post.
On June 27, 2017 Billboard released the final installment of “Spilling the Tea,” a pride month drag queen roundtable discussion with moderator Tamar Braxton posing questions to drag queens Derrick Barry, Pandora Boxx, Mariah Paris Balenciaga, Manila Luzon, and Willam Belli. In the episode, found here, the discussion takes on many topics including a reflection on the Pulse nightclub shooting that took place in Orlando on June 12, 2016 and which claimed 49 lives. When Tamar Braxton asks the queens how they see the Pulse shooting impacting Pride Month a year later, older queen Pandora Boxx answers, “I think the younger generation thinks [being gay] has just been accepted this whole time, and they don’t realize we’ve had to fight for it.” Derrick Barry then interrupts with: “Like when people don’t know what Stonewall is.” The exchange takes place starting at 4:05 in the video and what follows is below:
Tamar Braxton: Why don’t you tell everybody what that is.
Derrick Barry: That was fighting for gay rights. I mean, people were killed.
Willam Belli: Nobody was killed at Stonewall.
Derrick Barry: Nobody was killed?
Willam Belli: Nobody was killed at Stonewall.
While a shocked (and more than likely embarrassed) Derrick Barry sits in silence, Willam Belli goes on to explain that the Stonewall Riots took place in June of 1969 when members of the LGBTQ+ community in New York City stood up to the police violence they were experiencing.
This moment in the roundtable came to my mind after a recent class discussion around Jean Baudrillard’s little book, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991). Baudrillard is careful not to fall into the conspiracy theory realm of saying that no one was killed or the conflicts did not have consequences for thousands of people (i.e., that the events did not take place), but he challenges the narratives that were circulating before, during, and after the conflict (if that’s what we should call it). He argues that the narrative of a cohesive thing called a war was the invention of the media and Western, colonial powers that had vested interests in destabilizing the Middle East, maintaining access to oil, demonstrating what the US was capable of in a post-Cold War world, and so on.
The point? A significant amount of work is done when the words “The Gulf War” become shorthand, and therefore a placeholder, for the series of events and conflicts in Iraq and Kuwait in the early 1990s. By means of this work we come to understand The Gulf War as a war that was fought between two fairly equally-matched parties on a battlefield for a reason—such a common and shared understanding is implicit and just assumed when we call them “The Gulf War.” In saying “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” Baudrillard is arguing that these assumed understandings of this thing known as The Gulf War were created and disseminated to mask other narratives that one could tell about the events–narratives that might work counter to the one presented by the mainstream media and governments at the time.
Thinking with Baudrillard about how we make sense of the world does not mean that we must begin saying that the events did not happen or were not consequential, but it is to say that such events are only ever present as narratives that we tell. Moreover, narratives are always partial, as the narrator is constantly editing and compressing as they narrate to deliver the most clear and cohesive version of the narrative as they can. So, in the same way that we use “The Gulf War” as a specific sort of placeholder for the events in Iraq and Kuwait in the early 1990s (to create a consistent and cohesive narrative with a clear beginning and end), “Stonewall” becomes a placeholder for the events that took place at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 and works to create a narrative that does the same work.
When we think with Baudrillard, Derrick Barry’s inability to explain Stonewall, aside from “That was fighting for gay rights,” and the assertion that people were killed begin to make a little more sense. For “Stonewall” has also become a placeholder for the events that took place and is chalk full of assumptions about what happened and why. As people began using “Stonewall” as shorthand to talk about the riots (and is “riot” any better a term?), narratives were revised and reduced and edited and compressed, until “Stonewall” becomes, at least for some, “fighting for gay rights” and Derrick Barry conflates that with dominant narratives of fighting for freedom that often involve death at the hands of the authorities.
Derrick Barry’s strategic (though not successful) invocation of the event shows that the shorthand signposting we do with so many events, like The Gulf War, does a significant amount of work in creating narratives and origin stories that might have little to do with the perceived “true” origin.
Derrick Barry did not need to know that no one died at Stonewall until Tamar Braxton asked her to explain the events because, until that moment, everyone in the room assumed to have a shared understanding of what they meant by “Stonewall.” It is in the moment when Tamar Braxton says, “Why don’t you tell everybody what that is,” or when Baudrillard poses a provocative claim that “the Gulf War did not take place” that we are forced to confront the fact that our shared understanding of the placeholder is not, as we like to believe, shared. For when we think with Baudrillard, we might think again about whether, or which, “Stonewall” (or, the narratives we subscribe to about Stonewall) took place.
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