Playing the Riot Box by James Carraghan

InFinite Museums

The beat of the heart my love / Is stronger than the charts my love / Your water sign just lit my fire.

–“No Matter What Sign You Are,” Diana Ross and the Supremes.

There’s a lot of Motown sound coming out of a hole-in-the-wall bar on Christopher Street. That sound, that space, that park, changes with almost every year. The street changes so that elements of its past are forgotten; others are compartmentalized. The voices coming through the speakers are mostly smooth and harmonize with each other. The feeling is sentimental, in an uplifting way—exactly the sort of thing you would expect in any bar with a decent jukebox. Music, while it covers the air, doesn’t cover the less-desirable elements of the bar. You might not want to order a drink, sources say that they didn’t really clean the glassware, and some nights the bar gets so crowded that movement, dancing, even the flow of the music itself seems impossible. The whole scene can seem like something out of an upside-down wonderland. All of these people come together in this space after thinking for years that they were the only ones who lived and loved in a particular way.


Record and Glass

Photograph by the author

After the riots, the rebels of the bar go back and piece together the records in the jukebox. There are some questionable selections, but the list holds up, and eventually it is posted to the internet for world consumption. Diana Ross and the Supremes, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, the Fifth Dimension. You can still hold a pretty decent dance party to this list. I did just that, alone in my house for an afternoon with a friend and a bottle of vermouth between us. We put up tissue-paper lanterns and sunflowers on the walls and ceiling of my room and danced and talked in equal measure, making occasional platitudes about gay power and the need to reinvent our revolutions between trying on someone else’s heels.


The Stonewall Riots occurred in June 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City. To raid a gay bar was a common enough occurrence. Most gay bars were run by the mafia, and routinely enacted a strategy of blackmailing selected customers, knowing that they would lose their jobs if they went to the police, who had no interest in helping anyway. The bind of pre-liberation queerness—to be caught between the police and the mob—is the kind of drama that pulp novels were made for. Perhaps this is why so many of the first fictions to actually address the subject of homosexuality with explicit detail came out as cheap paperbacks with leery covers that suggested the scandal burning up inside—both inside the pages and inside the characters. The queer was walking down the thin line of their own lawlessness, waiting for the moment of discovery of madness that would tear them apart. Rarely did these stories have any kind of happy or redemptive ending. (Indeed, that’s part of the reason why the charm of Todd Haynes’ film, Carol, was completely lost on modern audiences—Highsmith’s novel was the first lesbian love story pulp to feature a happy, non-suicidal, ending. Even Gore Vidal’s “literary” The City and the Pillar ended in self-violence of one kind or another, depending on which of Vidal’s two endings you consumed.) The bars were dirty—who could complain? Dirty space is better than no space. Holding a space in the realm of Christopher Street was more than could be hoped for by those in suburban areas. The bar scene was mostly younger people, some of whom were not even eighteen the night of the first riot.


Mattachine Society sign.jpg

A message from the Mattachine Society, a pre-Stonewall LGBT+ activist organization, painted on the window of the Stonewall Inn in the days after the riots.

Most of the major homosexual writers either frequented metropolitan playgrounds where queerness was an after-dinner reprise, or else left the states to find locations in Europe or some other land with more history and a tradition of classical/historical sexual ambiguity. Vidal alternated between Europe and the coasts, Capote lounged in the gilded worlds usually reserved for soap-opera wives (producing less and less, becoming more and more incoherent with drink and drugs), Highsmith wandered through Europe, settling in Switzerland and alternating between writing the psychological fiction that made her name and anti-Semitic screeds to the local paper, Paul Bowles lounged in Morocco, and Djuna Barnes wasted away in Greenwich Village, barely able to continue writing and being visited on her doorstep by cliques of younger women (including Carson McCullers) at whom she shouted through her window. James Baldwin returned to the United States to chronicle the Civil Rights movement, and witnessed friend after friend assassinated. He would live out the rest of his days in France, returning to the United States for speaking tours and to research for his books, but he would never return permanently. The nature of the city allows for something that the insular suburbs and rural world still do not—a difference tolerated as a new kind of eccentricity, the species “homosexual.” Reading the literature of the time, it becomes clear that to exist as a queer person, to discover one’s voice, one had to be born to one of these meccas, or one had to become an exile.


Of all the singers on the jukebox, Sinatra has the most unusual relationship to the gay men of the bar, courting them while reinforcing his own heterosexuality. Sinatra appeared in the film Advise and Consent as the disembodied crooner of the gay bar scene—the first gay bar to be featured in detail in an American film—in 1962. Sinatra’s voice was the object that the queer men were all lusting after, his crooning being directed back at him. How many of us changed the lyrics or the names of songs, adding in boyfriends to take the place of girlfriends? (I’ve sung “I’ve Just Seen a Face” by the Beatles about enough boys that it has almost become a running joke.) The terrible jokes “My Way” inspires have always made the song an object of pity for me, especially when Sid Vicious isn’t the one singing it. Sinatra’s version seems to strike an odd note between sincerity and absurdity, in which the man who did it his way was plodding and pedestrian, with almost nothing original about it. I can imagine someone putting it on at the end of the night, to make everyone go home. At the same time, it asks some of the foundation questions of theorists: “What is a man? / What has he got, / If not himself?”

When the fire comes up the night of the riot, and the police are pushed into the back of the bar, replacing those they sought to harass as refugees in this dark box of a back room, worried that they may have to shoot their way out through the crowd of street kids, the first lines of Sinatra’s song take on new meaning—it’s time to go home, because the world as we knew it this morning is ending. The softness of the voice and the twinkle of old blue eyes retain a hint of the young man photographed in a police mug shot—the crooner who rose up from looking almost like rough trade, growing into his face, turning into a tuxedoed king of the easy listening set.


Sinatra Mugshot

Sinatra’s Mugshot in Bergen County, 1938


I think about my friends walking down Christopher Street on a class trip and ask myself if I could bare to see them face fire and clubs. So many of the “street kids” involved in the riots were just that: kids. It is the rage and bravery of youths that comes through most in these few images we have. The marked difference between the documentary photographs and odd film clips we have of the Stonewall riots and the pride marches that follow is not ideology—Stonewall was about police violence and the systematic targeting of a minorities by the state; modern prides are about corporatized communities and, apparently, making straight people feel tolerant—but the total, unrepentant chaos of the riot in full motion. There is no pattern to the images apart from what might be seen by an overarching deity as the blood pours off a young person’s chest and a woman nurses a bruise. There is no denying that the first move towards modern pride was the release of a tremendous rage.


From A Gay News Chronology: January 1969–May 1975: Index and Abstracts from the New York Times (Arno Press, 1975):


4 policemen hurt, 13 persons arrested after hundreds of youths rampage, Greenwich Village, because of plainclothesmen’s raid on Stonewall Inn, bar which police say is well-known for homosexual clientele; police, acting on repts [sic] of illegal sales, confiscate liquor; Dave Van Ronk among those arrested. (6)


Listening to the music, looking at the photographs in detail, it is astonishing how much of Stonewall’s history has been whitewashed. There are so many connections with the burgeoning Black Power movement—the same songs that empowered a racial minority empowered the sexual minorities within it. There is no gay rights movement without the movement for black civil rights in the face of anti-black racism. Many of those writers who have commented on the Riots have stated that “Gay is Good” as a chant began as the direct descendant of “Black is Beautiful.” There is also no movement without the trans, gender-variant, and queer people. The movement for queer rights has always been about gender as well as sexuality. The number of Stonewall vets who have been read as white men “dragged-up”—that is, denying the reality of their transgender/gender non-conforming identity (how they present themselves, the legal name changes they applied for, the surgeries they stole for, the marriages to male partners after surgeries, the declaration time and time again that her name is Sylvia once and for all)—is astonishing. Pronouns are difficult and inconsistent source to source, and it becomes more complicated as our own vocabulary changes in the 21st Century. Respect for the names people use for themselves is thin in many accounts—it takes me a while to realize that various sources are writing about Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, because they refer to them by other names, deadnames, and treat their female identities as a form of roleplaying rather than a means of existing as themselves. Identity construction is an inherent part of any civil rights struggle, that is the ability to determine both where one stands in relationship to the world and what that world’s limits are upon your person; how far the world can cut into you, and you cut into it.

Chants beget chants: “Black Is Beautiful” gives us “Gay Is Good” in response. This leaves us asking, Queer Is…?” The mountains of paper generated by theory can only direct, not answer, this question. The riot was not a calculated, planned, act of rebellion asserting the autonomy of those who consented to be in the bar that night. It was born out of exhaustion—tired of being made victim yet again by a state that refused to view them as anything other than a nuisance.


Again, from A Gay News Chronology: January 1969–May 1975: Index and Abstracts from the New York Times (Arno Press, 1975):

heavy police reinforcements again clear Sheridan Sq area of NYC when crowds angered by raid on Stonewall Inn frequented by homosexuals sweep through area; 3 persons held. (6)

Riots are something you quell, something that is either beaten back or burns out the soul of their location. Watts, we are told, was never the same after the 1965 riots. Part of why the Stonewall Riots could go on was structure of the square where they occurred. The square is actually an uneven triangle, and it is not hard to run down one street to the other to stop the police for retreat. The triangle is the early symbol of Gay Liberation, reclaimed from the bodies of gay prisoners in concentration camps. The view from Christopher Street comes to a small triangle almost like the tip of a thin dagger. The intersections by Christopher Park are hellish, with traffic seemingly coming from eight directions at once. Even so, when I’ve visited in pilgrimage, the traffic has mostly been from young people exiting the subway. Standing in the Park, one can see how easy it would be to become trapped in this location. My friends and I run around the triangle, away from the Stonewall Inn, across streets with oncoming taxis, and finally back to the origin point, waiting there for us with a drink.


Streisand, too, is one of the few artists that step out of place in the jukebox. Already a gay icon by 1969, the exuberant lavishness of the Hello Dolly! soundtrack leaves the listener pining on. Remembering her role in the film of Funny Girl, the romantic build-up of “My Man” seems it would do better, mixing with Sinatra’s peculiar “way” of being in the back of a gay bar. Her early voice has the power to hold notes and go without breath for (seeming) minutes. Deviating from the playlist, my friend and I throw in the clip from Funny Girl where a tearful Streisand sings a song of devotion to the man who’s just broken her heart, pulling herself together to end the song—and the film—on a high note, and earning herself a permanent place in queer hearts, in the space that Judy Garland left behind. The seemingly anti-feminist message of the song takes on a different context when placed in the realm of queer triangles of relation, and the devotion that two men can have for each other. In Hello Dolly!, she reembarks into the world after the death of her husband, she makes this her coming out, a way to feel her heart coming alive, joining in the parade marching towards the future, rather than letting it pass her by.

If there is a modern gay pop aesthetic, one can see it forming in these songs on the jukebox. Under the beats, the messages that can be read into the songs demonstrate why they click in this bar. “No Matter What Sign You Are” suggests a love that triumphs over the universe itself, even if the nebulous forces threaten to crash everything. “The Young Folks” draw on the desire of protest and change; “You better make way” because things cannot be the same. The energies of these songs move towards a future desire, the love that is to come around the corner—I love you more today than yesterday, / but not as much as tomorrow. The music pushes towards the energy of love,  even as around the world, Vietnam continues to burn in the year after the My Lai (4) Massacre, Solanas shot Warhol, Martin Luther King is assassinated, and the specter called Nixon takes the Presidency.  The construction of the playlist of jukebox singles is in part a construction of queer identity. Under the rhythm, the beat of the oncoming disco explosion can be heard. The lyrics offer reassurance, the live performances offer a sense of life lived on a larger scale than most people could ever experience. I sometimes wonder if the theatrical bent so many of us queers seem to have has to do with the uneasy feeling that one is always playing a role—theatre offering a legitimate reason to reveal the act of role-playing itself. (When I dress myself, do I dress the part of a homosexual? Only when going to parties.)

White statues stand in Christopher Park today. In the aftermath of the first AIDS crisis, they serve as testimonials to the way the past still walks in the park if you sit and watch quietly. Blue plaques make clear that this is the sight of something important. The Stonewall Inn still operates, with a back room dedicated to the days of the riots, filled with memorabilia and collages to its history. It became a national landmark in 2015—the first dedicated to LGBTQ+ people—and in 2017 its status was “put under review” by the President—quite possibly a record for Government turnaround. The Stonewall Inn is proof that queer people have had something to contribute to changing the face of this country. That the memorial commemorates the progress made in part because of the combination of violent and nonviolent protest, it makes more sense that an agency of power, such as a government interested in making the queers disappear, would have an interest in forgetting it. This music provides a link to this riot and rebellion that would ignite the energy of generations of protest. This is the dance the offspring of Emma Goldman swayed in the sidewalks and narrow alleyways. This is where Edmund White walked as the City Boy he describes in his memoirs, heading towards the trucks that held dozens of bodies cruising in the night. This is the lane of red light neon becoming black streets walked on by all colors living out in the open one night a week, and those living on the street, wandering in to an apartment bedroom for a paid respite. This is where we gather together in a worship called love. This ground is sacred, and the music is our hymnal.





To Love Edward Said by James Carraghan

InFinite Museums
Edward Said

Edward Said

I must confess to my own sins here: there is a small part of me that has fallen in love with Edward Said. I do not mean this in the sense that I admire his scholarship and think of him as a role model (though that is very much the case). I mean that I have actually fallen in love with this man—the way that Patti Smith wrote about falling in love with the poet Rimbaud, who died many years before she was even born. Even as I confess to this, I wonder if I am falling into the trap that Edward Said has warned us against–if I am romanticizing the other, am I creating an idea of this other person to fill some need that I have in my own life? Looking at photographs of Said as a young man–and even as a middle-aged man–it is apparent that he cut a dashing figure, contesting the portrait I have seen of Derrida in a trench coat, walking along the streets of New York, collar up against the wind, smoking, and actively participating in the spiritual recreation of Humphrey Bogart as an Algerian philosopher.

Derrida as Bogart

Derrida as Bogart, from Derrida

I do not, at least, write Edward Said’s name with little hearts around it in my diary.

I recently saw a speech by Dr. Colleen Clemens exploring the way that the Malala narrative has been utilized in American discourse. She connected this narrative with the story of Mukhtar Mai, and I began to wonder where the differences lay. The attention paid to women’s rights in the context of Muslim and Middle Eastern identity, she says, shows less care for the rights of women specifically than for a desire to boost support for military operations: “I do not want to see the same thing done with Malala or her story, when she and it are no longer serving this country’s military or nationalistic needs.” I began to think as well about the ways in which particular women seem to come forward, hold a moment in light as the oppressed Muslim woman, suffering under terrorism and misogyny (which is a form of terrorism under a different label). Soon after, these women disappear, often without their situation vastly improving, or rather without a serious shift within the larger culture they belong to. Things go back as they were until the next military intervention. I see these books come in at my store all of the time–I am Nujood: Aged 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali, My Forbidden Face by Latifa, and even Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s duel memoirs, Nomad and Infidel—the former of which includes the subtitle I’m sure so many of us would itch to deconstruct: “From Islam to America.” There is something about these narratives that suggest sympathy and apathy at one. If they cause a change of heart in the ideological xenophobe, I have not yet seen it. I notice none of the people who read these books have any interest when I talk to them about Nawal El Saadawi.

I think of the picture of the “Afghan Girl,” a 1985 cover image for National Geographic that became synonymous with the refugee crisis arising from the Afghan War. Her name is Sharbat Gula. No one knew her name for almost twenty years after the picture was taken because the photographer did not record her name at the time. In 2016, she was deported from Pakistan back to Afghanistan for living there with false documents. Her children were deported with her. At the same time, her image was reprinted all over the world as the cover of various collected editions of the “Most Iconic Photographs” ever taken. Gula went to court before she was deported in a full burqa. Newspapers remarked on the fact that these famous eyes were now covered by the veil, forgetting perhaps that her eyes and her image belongs first and foremost to her—not any photographer on the court steps. There was a moment in which her image served a purpose (be it a valuable one) before she was abandoned and marginalized once the interest of the mainstream discourse shifts.

There is a need to develop a critical awareness of what the term “Orientalism” specifically means in this context. The specific locale, what might be termed the “Middle East” in the 21st Century (engulfing the idea of a “Near East”), and what was called “the Orient” until the mid-20th Century. Said places his primary focus in Orientalism on American, French and British perceptions of the “Orient.” The history of the term is a study of the varying ways in which a geographical territory was interpreted by three primary colonizing powers. The after-effects of these particular divisions in thought, and the discourses produced by them, are still lingering with us in some of the examples previously given.

Orientalism is the perpetuation of a “once-removed” perspective. The Orientalist perspective expands, cuts and repeats the narratives of other writers–journalists and travel writers–to create a fictional sense of a place as it sees fit. The Orient, as presented in the minds of these writers to their readers, is not a coherent place that can be marked as individual countries and cultures. These works were the frame on which to hang forbidden desires, the thirst for the exotic and fantastic, and the desire for adventure–often without direct experience of the lands being described. Talking for a moment about German perceptions, Said notes:

There is some significance in the fact that the two most renowned German works on the Orient, Goethe’s Wesröstlicher Diwan and Friedrich Schlegel’s Über die Sprache und Weisheit see Indier, were based respectively on a Rhine journey and on hours spent in Paris libraries. What German Oriental scholarship did was to refine and elaborate techniques whose application was to texts, myths, ideas, and languages almost literally gathered from the Orient by imperial Britain and France. (85-86)

It is through these manipulations, craftings, and reworkings of another culture that these Western empires were able to better to envision themselves. While one can question the importance of hindsight in analyzing how much of this was a consciously sustained practice (like the production of nationalist propaganda in a Presidential campaign), there is little doubt that this series of motifs were (and to an extent still are) perpetuated in a meaningful and detrimental way. Said again, “Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment” (75).

Music by Mohammet Fairouz, who has incorporated Said’s work into several of his compositions.

Orientalism “is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts” (80). It is a way of confronting the way in which colonialism is constructed. “…nearly every nineteenth-century writer (and the same is true enough of writers in earlier periods) was extraordinarily well aware of the fact of empire,” Said writes (81). This awareness of empire did not always connect to a critical awareness of the mechanisms of empire, and Said acknowledges examples of thinkers whose works advocated for republics and self-government for the “west” and colonization with limited control for the “east” (81-82). There is the Dr. Schweitzer quote that has followed all humanitarians either as a warning or an implicit guide: “The African is my brother, but he is my younger brother.”

I think it is important to recognize the directness with which Said situates himself within the context of his study. He addresses what he perceives as a misconception about the divisions in the Middle East and the way in which his experience has been, occasionally, misconstrued as perpetuating or condoning antisemitism:

In addition, and by an almost inescapable logic, I have found myself writing the history of a strange, secret, sharer or Western anti-Semitism. That anti-Semitism and, as I have discussed it in its Islamic branch, Orientalism resemble each other very closely is a historical, cultural, and political truth that only needs to be mentioned to an Arab Palestinian for its irony to be perfectly understood (92).

As a term that historically does not always equate itself with specifically Jewish identity, Said finds an irony that he–a person who would be described as Semitic–could be accused of perpetuating antisemitism in a whirlpool of learned self-hatred. The famous photograph of Said—by this point no longer living leukemia but dying of it—throwing a rock (or a broken cell phone, depending on which story you have heard) at an Israeli guardhouse in Lebanon is a gesture not of antisemitism but of aggravation towards a body of power, as if to say, “Words have failed to impress you. Let me show you my feelings.” It was something little children do, and had been doing that day before Said came upon the scene and joined them.It was a moment in which the individual sees the power of the state and chooses to stand anyway.


Said throws

Said suggests these Semitic, colonized cultures which are perpetually presented in the West as if they were doomed to perpetual struggle have, in reality, more in common with each other through their shared history of misrepresentation and abuse than they do with their colonizers or imperial allies. Said never loses the sense of urgency behind the cool collectiveness of his prose, and the passion of his debates are apparent in this text, which serves as the introduction not only to a particular book, but also to a life’s work.

A Late interview with Edward Said, discussing Reflections on Exile and other essays

An earlier version of this column appeared in PostColonial Minds as “The Love of Edward Said”