Stonewall – What Changed … And What Didn’t.
The Stonewall riots have long been recognized as the birthplace of all alternative community activism as we know it today. It can be credited as the absolute starting point for the recognition and growing acceptance of not only gay rights, but all alternative community rights.
However, as much as Stonewall led to significant and important changes – having led to legal gay marriage, continued rights activism worldwide, and a burgeoning community that is finally finding acceptance in the mainstream – there is a dark undercurrent that still runs strong through our community. Some very important things have not changed at all.
It is something we overlook as we continue to fight for our rights and something we participate in daily, with or without realizing it. It has no name, we have given it no title by which we can identify it or call it out. Is this because we don’t have time to deal with one more thing? Or is it that we know that once we name it, we will be accused of nourishing and raising it?
Perhaps a look at the history will help us define this hidden beast, bring it out into the light so that we may, as a community, finally slay it and be done with this dark chapter of our story. We try every day to encourage inclusion, to demand respect for all of our members. Let us look to our own back roads and alleys, as a community, and see who we left behind.
It is time to understand the truth of Stonewall and the truth of the real warriors that sparked our revolution. It is time to finally look take a hard look at ourselves, at our own community, and realize that we are guilty of a deep and shameful crime … the ultimate marginalization and whitewashing of our own people and history… and to admit to ourselves that this horrendous injustice carries on to this day.
We need to take a moment here before we get too deep into the stories of Stonewall and hidden darkness that follows after it, to discuss a word I will be using quite often from this point on. We need to discuss it because we have gotten so used to using it, we don’t think about it anymore. It has become one of those vague things that we don’t consider the true meaning behind.
Did you ever wonder why we needed to add the Q to LGBT? The definition does not speak well to our motives.
Queer – adjective –
A. worthless, counterfeit
B. questionable, suspicious
C. differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal
1 eccentric, unconventional
2 mildly insane: touched
D. absorbed or interested to an extreme or unreasonable degree: obsessed
Not very flattering is it? Why would we choose to use such a word to define our own community members?
I believe we tried to halfway reclaim this word, but only just enough so that we could then use it ourselves the same way it was being used against us before the reclamation … as a separating point. We added it to our beloved acronym as a way to soothe our own guilt, without actually needing to look at ourselves and address a bias that has existed as long as the fight for rights has, if not as long as humans have breathed air.
I’ll never be able to prove it. It is admittedly pure conjecture on my part, though conjecture based on massive amounts of research of how certain members of our community are so often used, then tossed aside as unseemly when they were no longer needed by the mainstream acceptable members of our community. It is no coincidence that there is such a fight to add even more letters as certain members fight their way out of the quagmire that is “queer”, they don’t want to be associated with it either.
In the remainder of this paper, I will be using the collective “queer” as it was often used in our own community – as a single word to separate out those that are not quite good enough, in our eyes, to be labeled with the other letters. We have eased this harsh view in recent years, but the dark current that is the term “queer” still flows freely for some parts of our community.
It will include, as it so often does today, the following – transvestites, drag kings and queens, street kids, gay males that are too effeminate, lesbians that are too butch, persons of color, the leather community, and occasionally even a few straight, but not entirely straight and nowhere near narrow, allies that we just don’t know how else to classify, but want to somehow include in our community.
As you read, please remember these definitions, and remember this list. Remember the ideas that word encompasses. Consider the undercurrent of disapproval this word may be creating to valid and unbelievably important members of our community. It’s important to understanding why I felt this essay needed to be written.
I’d also like to suggest that we, as a community, take full control of this word, bring it fully into our lexicon with a rich, full, and positive definition, and who knows, maybe a flag or symbol of its own.
Before 1:20 am on June 27, 1969, gay activism looked very different from anything we see now. Gay rights activism in the late 50s and early 60s saw the first organizations hoping to secure gay rights and acceptance for our people.
These organizations were heavily invested in proving they were respectable men (in suits and ties) and women (in dresses and heels) … normal … just like everyone else. They fought hard to show at every meeting and picket line, as well as in their everyday lives, that they were in no way mentally ill, despite what psychiatrists had been saying about them for decades.
They were striving to prove they were “the good gay”. The gay that could be trusted, that could quietly assimilate into society, that did not need to be made illegal with sodomy and homosexuality laws. The gay that didn’t need to be kept away from children or the elderly for fear they would somehow harm these most vulnerable citizens.
They worked even harder to exclude anyone that did not fit this strict narrative exactly.
Unfortunately, they were also a product of their time. They had the mindset that being “normal” was paramount, and like many organizations, suffered from the ideals that permeated the society of the time. Women, people of color, and any gay male that strayed from the straight-laced version of normal that was standard amongst heterosexuals of the day were not allowed to join their groups at all. And only women of respectable dress and fair skin were allowed to join the picket lines.
That left a large swath of our beautifully unique communities standing in a downpour, getting soaked in intolerance and indifference. Absolutely derided and dismissed as deviants … by the very people that should have been pulling them under the protective umbrella of the gay rights movement.
Women, the leather community, persons of color, queens, kings, street kids, and especially the girly boys and the butch dykes. These individuals, often not being considered “normal” even at a glance, were turned away and condemned their fellow community members faster than they were shunned by the heterosexual crowd.
So, as it turns out, the first seekers of our rights were elitist white-gay-men only clubs that only allowed respectable white women that towed their strict line to join in the picketing, but had no space for anyone else. The “good gay” never accepted their queer brothers and sisters. Not in the 50s … not in the 60s … and not even after Stonewall.
Stonewall was not the first queer riot to erupt between corrupt and intolerant police and the alternative community. That distinction actually goes to the Cooper Do-nuts Café in Los Angeles, a full decade earlier, almost to the month – Cooper’s was in May 1959 and Stonewall was in June 1969.
The story here is similar – a hang out that attracted an alternative crowd gets raided, and the queers had had enough. The only differences between Cooper’s and Stonewall are that there were many more arrests, the rioting lasted only one night, and it was easily contained by police to the area immediately surrounding the café.
The reason we do not now call for the community to Remember Cooper’s as we do to Remember Stonewall is the west coast had a much larger establishment of the 50s and 60s style of gay rights organizations that held tight control over what kind of gay was allowed and would be fought for. They quickly renounced this riot and set about quietly and carefully silencing their queer brothers and sisters while distancing themselves from what they saw as reckless and deviant behavior.
Because of this disturbing attitude, and the amount of control these organizations had, no new organizations popped up, as they did after Stonewall, to demand the rights and basic respect that the rioters were being refused on a daily basis, even from the gay rights organizations in existence at the time.
There was also the New Year’s Ball raid in 1965, the Compton’s Cafeteria riot of 1966, and the Black Cat Tavern riot in 1967, each of which shares, yet again, the same story of corruption, abuse, and queers standing up for their rights and respect as human beings.
Sadly all these events took place in California and fell to the same “good gay” pressures as the Cooper’s riot, and what little resistance occasionally remained after the silencing of the queers was quickly swallowed up by the massive counterculture movements that were taking place at around the same time.
Most of us know the overall story of Stonewall, and I see no need to retell it entirely here.
However, I feel the need to set the record straight, or rather, set the record queer about a few things. To do this we will look at three pivotal persons in the history of Stonewall and the gay rights movement that followed. Very few people stood out as champions of the gay rights, and thereby alternative rights, movement as these people did, and their stories are of such importance that they need to be preserved.
Meet the MLKs of your rights movement –
- Stormé DeLarverie, half black cisgender lesbian transvestite.
- Marsha P. Johnson, black cisgender gay transvestite.
- Oh … and that P stands for “Pay it no mind!” (how awesome is that?)
- Sylvia Rivera, Hispanic gay transexual
These amazing people are the names we know, or should know, and their stories can only be understood from the perspective of who and what they were as a whole. They weren’t just queers, they were so much more, and it made them the lightning rods of the movement that became what we stand for as a community today.
For decades there was a lot of mystery and rumor when it came to figuring out who the person was that started the riot inside and outside the Stonewall. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson are both credited with it, but veterans at the time, including Marsha, described a “cold-stone dyke”, which neither Sylvia or Marsha would ever be confused for, as the perpetrator. Marsha also said herself that she didn’t arrive until there were already fires in the streets after 2 am.
Towards the end of her life, that dyke finally told her tale and why she had hidden the truth all along. Her name was Stormé DeLarverie, and her story is truly one for the ages. She never told anyone, despite many journalists and authors asking, that she was the cold-stone dyke for two simple reasons – it was no one else’s business, and she felt people knowing who she was would prevent her from doing what she considered her true calling – protecting the Village from “ugliness”, as she called it.
She was an amazingly beautiful woman. Born to a black mother and a white father, she was abused by both blacks and whites as she grew up, until the day she stopped running and faced down her tormentors in her early teens. She vowed that day to never run again, and she never did.
She discovered that she was lesbian at the age of 18, and from then until the age of 35 she lived, dressed, and worked as what we today would call a lipstick lesbian. Dresses, fine hairdos, heels, and proper makeup are all evident from the few pictures that survive from this time in her life.
But all that would change when she took a job as the MC and DJ for the Jewel Box Review, a huge and successful drag show where Stormé was billed as “the only girl”. She started dressing as a man for the job – but it wasn’t long before she had embraced this new version of herself completely.
She never changed her name, never changed her walk, never altered her voice, and never fussed over pronouns – “I just didn’t care .. I don’t care now” was her answer when asked during one interview about conforming to male standards or pronoun preferences.
Dressed in full butch attire down to the low slung holster complete with a licensed pistol on her hip, much like you see in old westerns, she patrolled the Village and was a bouncer for lesbian bars until the age of 85.
She participated in gay rights activism, marches, and pride parades until the age of 89, when her presence was so missed from the Stonewall Veterans Association car that took part in the Pride Parade of 2010, even the New York Times noticed and wrote a story on her absence.
She had a fierce determination to protect her home, her rights, and those she called “her girls” and “her children” from ugliness. Moreover, she had absolutely no fear when it came to facing down any foe. Which leads us directly to just how, at approximately 40 years of age, she started the Stonewall riot.
At the time in New York City, being a transvestite was actually illegal, while being gay was “only frowned upon”. So when the cops raided a gay bar, any gay or lesbian that was there was hassled, and probably manhandled and abused, but then simply kicked out of the bar. This also happened to the trans persons that were “passing”, as we call it today.
So when they raided the Stonewall that fateful morning, an officer confused Stormé for a man, and he pushed her around a bit and told her to leave, while those that were suspected of being transvestites were lined up for test and arrest – being taken into the restrooms and their genitals checked to be sure their equipment matched the clothing they were wearing, if it didn’t they were arrested.
Stormé, being a protector of the highest order, refused to leave and earned a crack on the head from a police baton for her efforts. The cop, on the other hand, found himself laid out on the floor of the bar, some say unconscious, after Stormé, with blood running and no doubt a wicked headache, punched him in the face.
She was, of course, arrested for this and roughly manhandled out to the paddy wagons when they arrived some 15 minutes later. Stormé fought tooth and nail, and as she was paraded past the crowd of curious onlookers and the few ‘just gays’ that had escaped the Stonewall, she screamed at them, saying something like “aren’t you going to do something?” before being viciously tossed in the truck.
The sight of Stormé fighting with all she had and being mistreated at the hands of police, combined most likely with the story of the cop she laid out in the bar, galvanized the mostly queer crowd and they surged as an angry mob to attack the police in a way that had never before been seen, and the Stonewall riot began in earnest.
Nothing else is known about Stormé’s further participation in the two days that the Stonewall riot spread throughout the Village, or the smaller riots that sprung up around the Village for various reasons during the week that followed that later became clumped together as “The Stonewall Riots” and lasted 6 or 7 days.
What is known is that Stormé became “the Rosa Parks of the gay community” because of her unflinching resolution to keep her people and her home safe. She stood up for queers at a time when doing so may well have gotten her killed, and did so with a determination that was completely unwavering.
I am sad to say that her community did not treat her quite so well in her last four years of life as she had treated them in the previous 90 years. From 2010 until the heart attack that took her life in 2014, Stormé was living alone, destitute, and all but forgotten in a Bronx nursing home. To this day very few people know her name, the truth of her story, or how she was the catalyst that gave us the alternative rights movement, and successes, that we enjoy today.
New York City is a place fabled for its interesting people – containing oddballs, kooks, crazies, and characters of such variety, quality, and quantity as can be found nowhere else in the world. But even in this city, Marsha P. Johnson stood out from all the rest.
To understand Marsha, you need a little information on the street kids. With none of the support systems or awareness programs that exist today, gay youth of Marsha’s day flocked to cities, especially New York and San Francisco, in hopes of escaping the hatred they often found in their small towns and rural families.
They quickly found themselves without work, homeless, and desperate to survive. So they walked the streets, slept in the park and on the piers, and hustled (prostituted themselves) for every scrap of food and stitch of clothes – when tricks were bad and they didn’t have money they scavenged the dumpsters and trash cans. The street kids often had drug problems and were not welcome much of anywhere, even most of the gay establishments, and they rarely had the money to dress for, much less attend, the big gay events, known as Balls.
This is the world that Marsha found herself falling into when she left her New Jersey childhood home, crossed the Hudson, and sauntered into the bright lights and dark alleys of Greenwich Village. She had fifteen dollars in her pocket, a backpack full of clothes, and a dream to find a billionaire daddy with whom to live the gay life.
She started her life in the Village as a frisky young gay man ready to take over the world. However, life had other plans for Malcolm. Soon she found herself without a dime and sleeping wherever she could find a place to lay down. She began to hustle to keep herself fed and get a warm bed for the night.
It quickly came to her attention that pretty boys and boys that dressed up as girls made more money, and so started her journey to becoming Marsha P. Johnson. During this journey, she did consider medical intervention to become more female, even planning a trip to Sweden where the procedure was considerably cheaper than here in the States. She never followed through, despite traveling in Europe with the Hot Peaches drag show, and described herself throughout her life as a man or boy, a drag queen, and a transvestite.
She even did us the favor of defining the different “levels” of trans in an interview she gave near the beginning of her time at the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an organization that was created to take in the castoffs of the mainstream gay rights organizations, especially transvestites and street kids. The variations of trans at the time, according to Marsha –
- “A drag queen is one that usually goes to a ball, and that’s the only time she gets dressed up.”
- “A transvestite is still like a boy, very manly looking, a feminine boy. You wear drag here and there.”
- “When you’re a transsexual, you have hormone treatments and you’re on your way to a sex change, and you never come out of female clothes.”
She seems to have dressed often in men’s clothes and could be seen with a yellow hanky flagging from her left back pocket, identifying her as a piss top and suggesting she might also have been a leatherman since they were the ones that used this hanky code most. Other parts of the gay community were picking up on the hanky code at this time, but it seems to have not truly been mainstream until the early 90s, as most of the hanky code generally applies to BDSM activities that are not a huge part of the mainstream, gay or straight, even to this day.
For her drag wardrobe, she scavaged clothes, wigs, and makeup from the trash, traded treasures with other street kids and hustlers, or bought them second hand if times and tricks were good. She scavaged tossed flowers and made ornate headpieces out of them. She was never a glamor queen with beautiful costumes, elaborate wigs, and expensive makeup kits, she was a street queen with ragged edges and slapdash makeup.
And a glorious street queen she became. She had a loud and raucous voice that could never be mistaken for anyone but Marsha. She had an open and friendly demeanor that led her to say hello to anyone that came close to her, without a care of how they treated her in return. She invited everyone into her world, freely and without hesitation, a rare quality for a street queen hustler that had suffered so much abuse.
She had a nature and presence that refused to be ignored, no matter how down and out she became. She spent time in mental institutions for unknown disorders, fell hard into drugs as many of the street kids did, and suffered beatings, rape attempts, and abuse over and over, but she never lost the spark that made her so unique … and in time, so important.
Marsha was known to stand up to those that tried to abuse the people around her, often with humor and rarely backing down. So it makes perfect sense that when she found out of the Stonewall riot, likely from one of the gays that had escaped and didn’t stick around once the violence started, that she immediately headed into the fray.
The story of Marsha’s exact involvement in Stonewall and the following weeks worth of riots has changed so much over the years, even to the point where Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera are believed to have started the riots, that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is the truth and what is the legend.
What is known for sure, from her own stories and veterans stories, is that Marsha arrived at the edges of the Stonewall riot, without Sylvia, just after 2 am and that she waded in wholeheartedly to defend her fellow queers from police brutality and arrest. It is believed that Marsha was pivotal to spreading the riot far further than it might have gone on its own.
The story goes –
The police were trying desperately to corral the queers and contain them, but supposedly Marsha would not be contained. Always breaking free, she would move down the road a bit, then stop to pelt any would-be attackers with whatever is on hand, probably even the bottles and bricks she is said to have thrown at the mirror in the Stonewall in order to kick off the riot.
Marsha was so well known by the street kids she protected and took in whenever she was able, that when they and the other queens saw her fighting back against the police, they too joined into the fray, growing the riot exponentially. This may be why so many thought that Marsha had started the riots to begin with, she seems to have been so instrumental in spreading them throughout the Village that first night.
But Marsha’s true place in history, what she should be remembered for most aside from her fearless bravery in the face of all things, came after the riots. It came in the form of her putting her street celebrity to use to create and support the activist movement that we recognize today.
She raised that unique voice often in order to bolster the memberships of the very first gay-centric newspapers in the world as well as the first confrontational activist organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), despite the fact that she was looked down upon every time she was there.
She helped build the funds of the GLF, and later the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) which formed when the GLF fell victim to organizational issues after four short months. She organized the other street queens to do shows or hold dances and balls in order to make sure that pride parades got funded and gays were bailed out of jail, even after the mainstream gays had essentially thrown her back into the dark alley when it came to the rights movement.
Apparently, they were happy to take her money, as long as she didn’t come to the meetings or events.
While she did not start the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), as often reported, her friend Sylvia did ask her very soon after it was started to become vice president, and she stepped into that role happily and put the full force of her considerable personality behind it. She fought daily to get one more street kid a meal, a safe place to sleep, and a way to stay off drugs.
Marsha’s entire life was dedicated to bettering the lives of others, despite the fact that she spent much of her own life destitute and homeless. Her last years were harsh, she had delusions and mental breakdowns thanks to a syphilis infection that went undiagnosed until it was already in the second stage.
She was on welfare, but still turning tricks when emergencies arose, such as when she needed money to get one of her husbands a tombstone after he was shot by police. Occasionally she would have episodes and be found miles away from anything familiar to her and in her underwear.
In her last interview, she spoke in a rather meandering way of her life, her journey, and her message. She told of the triumphs of gay liberation and the sorrows of being abandoned by the very groups she had worked so hard to make succeed.
She was not elegant, or rather she was not elegant in a way we might recognize today. However, she was so very poignant as she spun her tale, it brought me to tears as her pain and wistful wish for the world, especially her world, to love her as she loved it washed over me with each word.
Four days after this interview, she disappeared from the streets that were her home. Ten days after the interview, she was found dead, floating in the Hudson River.
To this day no one knows for sure how she died. Police of the time did no investigation, ruling her death a suicide on the spot, so it is unlikely we will ever know about her last days or the cause of her death.
It is important to note, especially in the case of transsexuals, drag kings, and drag queens, that pronouns were not of special importance, and definitely not of the singular focus that they are becoming today. Most queens were called she, no matter what they were wearing at the time, and most kings were never called he, and no one, most especially not the queens and kings themselves, cared one way or another.
Sylvia Riviera was born Ray Riviera on July 2, 1951, in New York City, and was of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, giving her an undeniable Hispanic heritage, and a latina beauty not to be forgotten. Her life started harsh, her father abandoning her and her mother committing suicide before she was three years old, and it just got harder from there.
She was partially raised by a grandmother that so disapproved of her effeminate ways and makeup use that she found herself on the streets, working as a child prostitute, at the age of 11. Luckily she was soon taken in by the local queens, who gave her the name she used for the rest of her life – Sylvia.
Her life on the streets was cruel. She fell victim, as so many like her did, to savage drug addictions, harassment, homelessness, police brutality, arrests, and just about every other ailment or abuse to be found in the average street kid, plus all the ones heaped up on drag queens, gays, transvestites, and transsexuals.
Syliva was a bright star among already unique souls. While many around her activists for certain causes, she seemed to decide that her entire life was to be an activist for all the causes of the downtrodden and abused.
She started her life in activism in the Civil Rights movement and followed that up by joining first the movement against the Vietnam War and the second wave of the Feminist movement. She was also very involved with Puerto Rican activism through the Young Lords and African American activism with the Black Panthers.
So by the time that Stonewall rolled around, Sylvia was primed, knowledgable, and more than ready to take the lead in the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots, actions that would cement her name forever into the annals of history.
In the years since Stonewall, Sylvia’s actual place during the riots has been forgotten, confused, or melded with the stories of others. All we know for absolute certain is that she was not in the Stonewall bar that night since she was even then a well-known drag queen, but not included in the arrests that were made.
Marsha P. Johnson, in interviews she gave shortly after Stonewall, claims to have found Sylvia on a park bench, sleeping off a heroin high, and filled her in on the riots – suggesting that Sylvia was not part of the two days that were the original Stonewall riot. It is not known what part she played in the remainder of the week, which was filled with smaller scuffles and protests all over the Village, that later got lumped together with Stonewall to become known as “The Stonewall Riots”.
But this should not, in any way, erase the astronomical importance of Sylvia Rivera in the days, weeks, months, and years that followed Stonewall. While Sylvia may or may not have been throwing beer bottles during the riots, she was absolutely instrumental in creating the groundwork for the gay and alternative rights movements.
Sylvia helped to create the GLA, and with Marsha, ensured they were funded enough to have a location, phone number, and printed materials ready to hand out, despite the fact that the GLA faltered almost immediately, and after only four months failed completely and disappeared. The GLA name has been resurrected and used a great many times, including shortly after the original closed its doors, leading many to believe that the group has been there the whole time.
As the GLA started to go down, Sylvia and Marsha then went on to be the main forces behind the GAA, once again bringing together her drag queens and street kids to ensure that the new organization was fully funded through admission fees for drag shows, house parties, dances, and street balls.
The GAA went on to become quite the voice for gay rights. However, as soon as they were strong enough to raise money without Sylvia and her motley crew of vagabonds, they did everything they could to get rid of her and her kind, including changing the language of their documents to expressly exclude transvestites, drag queens, and street kids.
Once again it was cold shoulders, disgusted sneers, and abusive comments for Sylvia and any other that did now fit the ideals of “normal” that these groups said was the only way for them to achieve their goals.
In response to this rejection, Sylvia then started her own group, which she would control. Marsha soon joined her as vice president, and STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) was born. STAR would be the home of the castoffs from now mainstream gay rights groups – the street kids, transvestites, leathermen, drag queens, drag kings, transexuals – the queers.
Together, Sylvia and Marsha would start their little group in a tiny trailer in a parking lot, move it to a 4 bedroom apartment without electricity or hot water, and then finally to its own building. They would provide food, shelter, clothing, safety, and drug intervention to as many as they could.
In order to accomplish all of this, and keep the street kids from having to hustle just to eat, Sylvia and Marsha prostituted themselves instead. They kept this house running for years, and resurrected it several times for short periods, by begging, stealing, and hustling to get the supplies they needed and keep the bills paid.
Where Marsha was funloving and quick with a joke, Sylvia was in your face, demanding to be noticed and accepted. She refused to let you forget that she, and her street kids, were there and needed just as much support as they gave.
Sylvia was the type that refused to be cowed or left in the dirt, trampled by those that would use her and dismiss her over and over again. She was the kind to storm a stage and berate the audience, the group that created the event, and each speaker by name for standing on the broken backs of the street kids and transvestites that took the beatings and raised the money ensured their survival in the first place.
To the moment of her death, Sylvia was an active warrior in the fight for her causes. In her death bed, days before she died of complications from liver cancer, she met the heads of the Empire State Pride Agenda to ensure that transgender inclusion was part of the new group’s political structure and agenda.
For most of her life, Sylvia was destitute and homeless, abused and rejected, used and tossed aside, but she never allowed herself to be beaten. She was the one to create the very voice that we have today as we demand still the equality she fought for to her last breath.
I could regale you for thousands and thousands of words about what happened after Stonewall. I could tell you about the National Organization for Women and the Lavender Menace. I could inform you of the dismissal of gay subcultures as archaic, or how the gay pulp fiction industry was destroyed and many of its stories lost for all time. I could even whip up story after story about the many first-of-their-kind activism groups and gay-centric newspapers that came into being within months of Stonewall.
Moreover, I want to tell you about all of those things, and then follow up with the transformative tales of the first Pride parades/marches, there were three and they happened simultaneously across our nation. Of the amazing fact that a mere two years after Stonewall, every major city in the US … every single one … had a gay rights organization of their very own and of the new breed of confrontational activism.
I want to luxuriously wrap you in the descriptions of the glorious things that your gay brothers and sisters did for you so that the larger alternative community could have its safe havens, events, and super specific niches.
And perhaps, someday soon, I will share those stories, in all their awesome detail …
But today is not that day.
Today I must inform you of a sadness that invades me and darkens my heart. Today there are tears and anger. I want to take a careful look at those that actually did the majority of the fighting at both Cooper’s and Stonewall.
I want to remember the queens, kings, hustlers, and street kids that finally stood up for our rights in a way everyone else in our community was simply too terrified to do at the time. I want to truly bring home to you that it was the bodies and blood of the least fortunate amongst us that were on the front lines of our freedoms.
Today, we must examine our community and finally deal with the festering wound that was created by the aftermath of Stonewall.
I have been a small and sometimes distant part of the leather community for a decade and a half at the time of this writing in 2019. Of course I knew the story of Stonewall, which happened just a few months short of 50 years before today.
Or at least I thought I did. As I started buckling into research to create useful content for Suck The Rainbow, I quickly learned that some of what I thought I knew was off … if not completely wrong.
I learned that certain members of our community, despite their sacrifices and their willingness to give for the cause, are even today dismissed, abused, and made fun of … not by the outside world, not by the “straights”, and not by the everpresent evil known as “them”… but instead by their very own community.
We seem to have fallen into the same patterns of the 50s and 60s rights organizations, deeming ourselves ultimate purveyors of what is allowed and what is not, offering snide comments and cold shoulders to those that do not fit neatly into our narrow definitions.
We do this even as we scream to be treated as equals by the rest world.
I also discovered that there is a disturbing trend amongst some of our communities to appropriate Stonewall warriors into their causes, instead of accepting that they already have, or should already have, an honored and treasured position in every alternative cause.
The facts of who and what these amazing people were in life is being changed, they are being forced post-mortem into identifies as part of THIS group and THIS set of rules and definitions. Period. And it does not seem to matter what their own words or deed prove about them.
And worse, this seems to be happening for no better reason than to suit a political agenda that we can not know that these individuals themselves would have agreed with or joined.
We are doing our people and our history a great injustice. We are refusing to recognize the deep abandonment and shame that we have caused them, for decades, even as we ride the glorious wave of pride and freedoms that they gave us.
Take a look around you, friends. Where are the queens, kings, hustlers, and street kids that stood up and demanded our rights for us? What happened to these brave souls once the more mainstream of us didn’t need them anymore?
Marsha P. Johnson, born Malcolm Michaels Jr., disappeared for days before being found floating in the Hudson in 1992. She was a poor, black, homeless queen/transvestite that hustled every day of her life to survive, presumably until the day she died. What lead up to and the cause of her death remains a mystery to this day.
Marsha is now being called transgender, despite her own words describing herself as a transvestite – not a transsexual or transgendered – and claiming her birth-assigned sex/gender proudly.
Sylvia Rivera, born Ray Rivera, died in 2002 of liver cancer. She was poor, Hispanic, homeless gay transexual that fought until the very end to bring to light the plight of transvestites, gays of color, and the street kids that were left in the dirt by mainstream alternative culture.
Sylvia is now being called transgendered, despite her words directly rejecting this term being applied to her, she claimed for herself the identity of transexual.
Stormé DeLarverie lived until 2014 and passed away due to a heart attack. She was half black and an active part of many activist groups through her life, most notably the Stonewall Veterans Association. She worked as a lesbian bar bouncer and protector of the Village until the age of 85 and marched or rode in Pride parades until she was 89. She spent the last four years of her life alone, impoverished, and all but forgotten as she suffered from dementia in a Bronx nursing home.
She is now being called transgendered, despite the facts that she has always claimed to herself her birth-assigned sex/gender and the terms queer, transvestite, woman, dyke, and butch lesbian.
Unfortunately, in our zeal to embrace and claim our heroes, sometimes we just go too far. We start unthinkingly stripping away the facts of their lives to fit the narrative of our stories. I do not believe that we do not do this with spite, maliciousness, or vicious intent in our hearts. But still, we do it, and in doing so we dishonor their memories and feed the dark beast that plagues our community from within and in silence.
I absolutely understand the need to identify these icons as “just like me”. To claim them as part of your personal cultural heritage. We all want someone to look up to, to hold high and say “look… that person is just like me”. But we are doing our own people a great injustice. We are refusing to recognize the deep abandonment and shame that we have caused them, for decades, even as we ride the glorious wave of pride and freedoms that they gave us.
There is absolutely no reason that Marsha, Sylvia, and Stormé, not to mention the multitude of nameless ones that were on the front lines of Stonewall and other confrontations, cannot be exactly who and what they were during their lifetime and STILL be hailed as the pioneering activists for gays, lesbians, trans, queens, kings, street kids, hustlers, and whatever other niche of the alternative community that we each claim as our own.
These amazing people were the start of your (choose your identifier) revolution.
They started and continued through their lives the fight that secured the rights, freedoms, and acceptance that we each – no matter our race, sex, age, gender, or identity – enjoy right now. They started the groups that would become the clubs, groups, events, marches, and parades that we take part in every day.
Whitewashing their history and their identity to fit an agenda, ANY agenda, is nothing more than perpetuating the horrendous legacies of oppression these fantastic warriors faced, and fought against, for their entire lives.
So yes … Remember Stonewall.
Remember the whole truth of Stonewall, and the riots that preceded it – Coopers, The Black Cat, the ’65 New Year’s Ball – not just the parts that make you feel good about yourself and the community.
Remember the queens, the kings, the hustlers, the street kids, and the gays of color.
Remember the marginalized and oppressed.
Remember the rejection they faced then, and still face now, from their own community as well as the world at large.
Remember the blood, sweat, tears, money, time, and effort they gave over and over again to the cause – despite this rejection, marginalization, and oppression from their own people.
Remember the queers.
Now step up, just as they did, and do something about it.