We can learn from our elders and do better: a response to the Stonewall 50 event
by Sarah Ross
On Wednesday, April 3, at 6:30 p.m., American University’s School of Communication (SOC) held the panel “Stonewall 50: Exploring the role of LGBT Media Representations in the LGBT Liberation Movement” in the Masli Doyle and Michael Forman Theater.
My reactions to this event were pretty much as follows:
Overall, this was a cool event. Walking into a room where people were knowledgeable and cared about LGBTQ+ representation in the media, from news stories to celebrities to films and TV shows, was a breath of fresh air.
I was excited to hear from the panelists, each a member of the LGBTQ+ community themselves. SOC’s very own Dr. Sherri Williams moderated the event. The panelists included Joshua Johnson, Host of 1A on WAMU/NPR; Ruby Corado, Founder of Casa Ruby; Greta Schiller, filmmaker and director of “Before Stonewall”; and SOC’s Dr. Rodger Streitmatter, professor and author of “Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America.”
I wish I could write a review of the entire event and all it taught and reminded me, but at the end of the event, I felt conflicted. However informative the event was, it was also discouraging to hear some of the panelists’ statements gloss over how students today feel.
Here’s the tricky part. One of the things I have found myself as a young member of the LGBTQ+ community is that we often don’t know our history. Even as we face oppression and different kinds of discrimination, the reality is that it’s much easier to be out now, at least in the U.S., than it ever has been. Many of us come to conclusions on our own communities without even knowing the struggles of Stonewall or the realities of the AIDS epidemic. In fact, even as students at American University, many of us are removed from communities where discrimination is frequent, violent, and deadly, even in other parts of D.C.
Hearing the panelists recall what they witnessed, what they remembered, and what they’ve seen was vital. Dr. Streitmatter recalled that the New York Times published an article around 1983 that said that AIDS could spread by “routine close contact”. This vague and harmful statement led many people to try not to stand near a gay man in an elevator, at the gym, and many dentists even refused to service gay men at the time for fear of contracting the virus. “I’m not sure how much young people know about that,” Streitmatter said.
Indeed, there’s a lot we young people don’t know, and we have a lot to learn. As the panelists went through past and present representations of LGBTQ+ people in the media, it was plain that we’ve come a long way but still have a long way to go. Good representation, the panelists stressed, is three dimensional. It doesn’t focus exclusively on trauma or happiness but rather allows one to see “the full breadth of the human experience,” as Johnson put it. Representation allows LGBTQ+ people to be just that: people.
This was all generally well and good until Tessa Dolt, a senior journalism student, asked an interesting question. She reminded the panel of many small instances of progress and frustration alike from the AP Stylebook, including the use of the gender-neutral “Latinx” in place of “Latino/a” and using singular they/them pronouns are accepted but limited. Given all these restrictions, she asked, how do we tell stories accurately while following a book that is three steps behind?
Greta Schiller responded by going on a rant about tone policing, saying that we have to remember that people come from different places and times where norms are different. I was trying to understand her until she gave an example. She mentioned that when and where she grew up, it was perfectly normal “for people to say n*****.” The already quiet room grew scarily silent as Schiller nonchalantly continued with other examples such as “f*g” and “queer”, saying that she thinks “people jump down others’ throats” too quickly nowadays.
As if saying the n-word wasn’t enough, Schiller went on to complain about how she gets in trouble with her students all the time for saying certain things, particularly emphasizing that she hates being cast as “the old white lady” who doesn’t know what she’s saying.
I’m not doubting Schiller’s documentary expertise or teaching skills, but saying the n-word, especially on a panel with two highly esteemed black professionals, shows a blatant disregard of others’ feelings and of the power of language.
Other panelists tried to get the conversation back on track, but no one addressed Schiller’s comment. Dolt’s question wasn’t even fully answered. When I spoke with her, she said she was frustrated in that moment. She then painfully summed up my feelings about the panel, Schiller’s comment, and panels in general: “How can we learn from people who are unwilling to learn now?”
I’ve heard many adults, especially academics, complain about what they “can” and “cannot” say nowadays. I’ve had to read takes on my generation being too sensitive, too overbearing, too reactionary. Maybe some of us are sometimes, but I’d rather live in a world where a white panelist can’t say the n-word, especially on a panel where she is lauded for her documentary efforts largely about LGBTQ+ activists of color. It’s a slap in the face to the trans women of color at the very heart of Stonewall and to all black activists.
Dolt and I realized that we ourselves were complicit in the lack of response to Schiller’s question. We could have said something, but were shocked and felt restricted by the expected norms of behavior at a panel event. Admittedly, this does not fully excuse us, but it does bring into play the power dynamics of events like these. Panelists are supposed to be experts and worth listening to. These specific panelists have a wealth of knowledge and experience that young LGBTQ+ students do not. So how do we move forward when our elders won’t grow with us?
I think that we can respect the work those before us have done, but we don’t have to hold back criticism. We have to be able to challenge one another in order for true growth and intergenerational learning to take place. Even when the panelists got excited about new Chicago mayoral election winner Lightfoot, who is a black lesbian, it became obvious that many of the panel’s suggestions stayed neatly within the lines of appropriate liberal pushback. No one mentioned that many LGBTQ+ people in Chicago were against Lightfoot. When Johnson recommended that young journalists learn empathy by doing stories on those we hate, he did not acknowledge that such recommendations can potentially put minorities in danger and expose them to more trauma.
If anything, I would expect LGBTQ+ academics and experts to understand that language is incredibly powerful. Who we do and do not give a platform reflects on what kind of society we want. As young people, we need to learn our history and contextualize our experiences, but we also need to stay strong in defending what we want to see in the world. I believe that these panelists had a lot of great thoughts and a wealth of knowledge, but the seeming unwillingness (except for Schiller, where it was blatant) to fully engage with the concerns of this generation’s LGBTQ+ people disappointed me.
We’ve come so far. We should be able to go farther, and I for one think that starts with actively condemning Schiller’s usage of the n-word and dismissal of her students’ concerns. Students should never have to feel like their voices aren’t being heard. Black people should never have to choose to compose themselves and remain quiet in the face of open usage of slurs. This really is not difficult. In fact, I would encourage Schiller to do exactly what she tells her students to do: “Stop. Look. Listen.”