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Introduction and Overview
This guide is designed to inspire discussion and deeper understanding of Stonewall Uprising, an AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary about the June 28, 1969 confrontation between New York City police officers and patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar owned by the mafia. The film explores the issues, laws, and the prevailing anti-gay climate that inspired an uprising which ultimately transformed how gay people thought of themselves and propelled the fight for gay equal rights onto the national stage and into communities large and small across America.
Stonewall Uprising offers a compelling starting point for discussion, writing, and activities that will help viewers gain an understanding of how America's gay citizens were once subjected to government-sanctioned discrimination, harassment, and incarceration.
The discussion guide is intended for use in both academic and community settings, including:
- in conjunction with high school and college American history curricula that include the rise of the Civil Rights movement and the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s
- as part of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) or college LGBT organization presentation
- at a screening sponsored by a local community group
Using This Guide
The Stonewall Uprising discussion and teacher's guide offers suggestions for conversation and learning around American history and culture. We offer recommendations for advance preparations, things to consider while watching the film, and discussion questions and activities for after viewing the film.
Educators may find Stonewall Uprising's subject matter challenging. Talk with students about LGBT identities and create a safe space for viewing the film by setting guidelines for the post-screening discussion. The national organization GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) offers helpful lesson plans, curricular tools, and information on teacher training programs and more on its website. (www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/educator/educator/index.html)
Browse the timeline of milestones in the gay rights movement, read profiles of selected people featured in the film, and look at articles published around the time of the riots. Consult the further reading list for list of recommended books and websites about the Stonewall Uprising, the gay civil rights movement, and other LGBT issues.
While viewing Stonewall Uprising keep in mind the following:
- How did the event unfold? Does the story have a discernable beginning, middle, and end? What are the major sections of Stonewall Uprising?
- Who tells the story? What kinds of different perspectives do they have?
- Consider the range of emotions expressed by the people in the film. What do you think inspired these feelings?
The questions that follow are meant to stimulate discussion about a range of issues and experiences raised by Stonewall Uprising.
- What is your first impression of Stonewall Uprising?
- What did you like and dislike about the documentary?
- What emotions did you experience while watching the film?
- What did you learn from Stonewall Uprising?
Spend three minutes writing down the first words that come to mind when you think about June 28, 1969.
Understanding the Event and the Participants
- What were the different roles of the people at Stonewall? Who were the protagonists, the bystanders, observers, etc.?
- How did the gay activists featured in the film come to understand their sexual identities? What implications did one's sexual identity have for the life they expected to live? What was it like to live as a marginalized person?
- What were the people at the uprising fighting for? What were they reacting against? What did the participants interviewed for the film say they wanted? When the interviewees said the street kids had nothing to lose, what did they mean?
- What was the tipping point at Stonewall? What is the difference between a riot and an uprising?
- What were the police directed to do? How did the police feel about what they were doing?
- Did any of the participants use violence during the uprising? Who, and what was their role? What did violence accomplish? What were other participants' views of violence?
- How was the Stonewall uprising covered by the media? Why are there so few surviving images and no film footage of the Stonewall riots?
- What was the potential impact on a gay person who was arrested and named in the newspaper during the Stonewall era?
- Do you think peoples' ages affected their opinions and actions at Stonewall? Was there a generation gap between the protestors and those in a position of authority?
- What was the range of emotions expressed by the people who appear in the film? Why did some people express anger? Why did some people express joy? How were their emotions affected by their circumstances?
- How were the people in the film changed by their experiences?
Activity:: In Their Shoes
Put yourself in the shoes of one of the people in the film, and write a letter to a friend about your roll in it.
What character from the film do you relate to the most? In what role can you best imagine yourself - policeman, journalist, politician, bar patron, onlooker, etc? In what role can you least imagine yourself, and why?
Describe what you do that night, what you are seeing and how you are feeling.
Activity:: Analyzing the Media
Explore how the media reported on -- or ignored -- gay issues at the time of the Stonewall uprising. Analyze how the media helped shape public perceptions of gay people and the gay rights movement.
Research media coverage of the Stonewall uprising. How do the articles from 1969 compare with more contemporary articles about the riots? How do they compare with articles published by gay media outlets at the time?
- What did the rioters accomplish at Stonewall? What is the legacy of the Stonewall uprising? What relevance does the Stonewall uprising have today?
- What impact did Stonewall have on the gay civil rights movement? What was meant by calling the uprising "the Rosa Parks moment"?
- How did existing gay rights organizations respond to the Stonewall uprising?
- Is there still a generation gap today regarding views about gay people and their rights?
- What is the impact today when a gay person who has hidden his or her sexual orientation is publicly exposed?
- What are gay people fighting for now?
Activity:: Setting the Context
Place the film in context by reviewing the social and political climate in which the Stonewall bar raid and subsequent riots took place. Create a timeline of other major milestones in American history in the years leading up to the riots.
Review this timeline of milestones in the American gay rights movement. What major U.S. political, social, and cultural events occurred in the months and years before and after the June 1969 Stonewall riots?
How did these events set the stage for the Stonewall uprising? How might any of them have affected the public's reaction to the riots?
Activity:: In Your Inner Circle
Interview friends and family members across multiple generations about their views on contemporary gay rights issues, including allowing gay people to serve in the military and allowing gay people to legally marry.
What issues do they support or not support, and why?
How do the views expressed by the people you interview differ across the generations? Do their views differ from yours?
How have their views changed over time? What life experiences have they had that contribute to how they think about gay people and gay rights issues?
Activity:: In Your Community
Communities large and small across the United States have their own gay rights histories. Read oral histories or conduct new interviews with local activists and community leaders who have been involved in the gay rights effort. Research the history of local gay rights organizations.
What was life like for gay people in your home community before and during the time of the Stonewall uprising? How did gay people socialize? How were they treated in public establishments?
Was there a turning point in your community's gay rights effort?
Is there a Gay Pride March in your local community? What is the history and purpose of the annual march?
Activity:: The LGBT Rights Movement Today
Many gay civil rights issues are still in the news today. Using newspaper articles, images and video, create a presentation comparing the issues of today with the issues the participants in the Stonewall riots said they were fighting for in 1969.
What are the most prominent national gay rights issues today? Are they different from the issues being discussed in your local community? Are there laws in your community that protect gay people from discrimination? What do those laws say?
Compare the current state of gay rights in America with the rest of the United States and other regions of the world, including Western Europe, Africa, and Asia.
How does the Stonewall uprising fit in? Are the issues that were raised then still relevant in the United States? In other places around the world?
Why are Gay Pride Marches held today? Where are they held?
My American Experience
What do the Stonewall riots mean to you? Were you in New York in late June, 1969? Did the riots impact your life? How do you think America changed after the Stonewall riots?