It’s been 50 years since a routine police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City ignited four days of violent protests after patrons of the bar rose up and resisted against police harassment and discriminatory practices targeted at what was at the time known as the “queer” community (an all encompassing description of non-heterosexuals and gender/sexual minorities). And while the movements that followed infinitely splintered into a never ending list of acronyms, letters and symbols, the fight for true inclusion, however it manifests, continues today. However, just as the Stonewall Rebellion (known to everyone else as the Stonewall Riots) was pivotal to the expansive efforts of queer liberation and gay rights activists after 1969, it also has become a symbol of a largely white, male movement that relegated people of color, particularly trans women, to its margins. Yeah, they could riot, but just a long as they stayed quiet.
It’s certainly not a story we haven’t heard before; it’s about as old as the New Testament. And as Carolyn M. Brown explores in her new piece, there are good reasons why new generations of queer activists want to reclaim the movement and its commemorations from the contemporary party-focused, corporate dance-off that the Pride parades all over the world have become. The Reclaim Pride Coalition will kick off the Queer Liberation March on June 30, with the goal of highlighting the most marginalized members of the community and addressing the ongoing struggles they face. “We must stand united and refuse to march with police, corporations and the systematic violence they continue to inflict on immigrants, people of color, and marginalized folks across the queer and trans spectrum.” Read Why Don't You Guys Do Something?
Most books, movies, and television shows about Stonewall continue a proud tradition of whitewashing and genderwashing by erasing key minorities from queer history. However, white gay men were not the unsung heroes who sparked a revolution. Instead, it was the unsung sheroes, activists like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Stormé DeLarverie who were critical to the resistance and helped catalyze a movement. So while RuPaul might proclaim that the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, fed up with police harassment, “used their grief over Judy’s Garland’s death to rise up and fight back and the Gay Liberation Movement was born,” no witnessed accounts mention this Garland association. In fact, many of the people who were actually there during the uprising emphatically deny this tale. One of the problems with this urban legend is that it trivializes the events at Stonewall and minimizes the revolutionary resistance by the poorest and most marginalized people in the queer community. Because in the end, the real patrons of the Stonewall Inn were mostly drag queens, transgender women, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, sex workers, and homeless youth.
What Brown poignantly explores in her essay are the distinct battle lines that were drawn between equality seeking assimilationists, (who aligned more closely with the Civil Rights Movement’s acts of straightforward "civil" disobedience) and the more progressive liberationists, who wanted to challenge all that power and privilege. “In the early days of the modern LGBT movement, the Gay Liberation Front was one of the most visible and vocal organizations promoting equality for the entire LGBT community. Members of the GLF had even formed a united front with the Black Panther Party. One important reason for working together was a shared identity as criminalized minority groups combating police brutality." But the power stayed with the white establishment and the chance for a unified front quickly faded into the background of history.
On August 15, 1970, Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, gave a speech in New York City where he outlined the Party’s position on two emerging movements at the time: the women’s liberation movement and the gay liberation movement. What we have been traditionally taught about the Black Panthers is that they were this dangerous radical group that was also notoriously homophobic. The fact is that the Black Panther Party had called for the Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention with the goal for the weekend long meeting being to completely rewrite their constitution. “There were no less than 25 points related to gay liberation, trying to right wrongs we still face today. How do we not remember this, how do we not use that for our fight?” Syrus Marcus Ware calls out in his book QueerEdge: From Gay To Queer Liberation. So even if the new generation of activists have left the all encompassing and inclusive concept of queerness behind, the harsh reality is that 50 years since the Stonewall Rebellion, transgender and other yet to be named nonconforming individuals still face significant hardship and discrimination, no matter how many letters and symbols they add to the movement’s name. It's up to the rest of society to prick up their ears and listen.
Just as Queen Elizabeth proclaimed it illegal for anyone actually named Juliette to perform on London's Globe Theatre stage in the late 1500’s, there also was a time in the more recent history of these United States when it was illegal for men to dress as women, and vice versa. With gender fluid dressing now "on trend" it seems absurd that New York City once had its very own pants police, yet it most certainly did. Which is why when lovers Doc Brenner and Danny Brown founded the Jewel Box Revue in 1939, they rationalized that their show of “female impersonators” was no more than a continuation of Shakespearian traditions themselves.
The Jewel Box Revue put on what we would now call drag shows at different nightclubs in New York City and across the country for over 20 years. The Revue consisted of “twenty five men and one real girl” which left audiences to guess who was who, what was what, and which was which. They spent much of the show trying to figure out who the “one girl” was. In an epic finale, the MC and host, Stormé DeLaverie, who was always dressed in a perfectly tailored suit and ‘statche, would perform “A Surprise With a Song,” revealing her true identity as a woman. Victor/Victoria eat your heart out. And unlike the drag shows of today, there was no lip syncing. The entertainers performed wholly original music and dance routines, burlesque, and sometimes they even dabbled in a little comedy.
Not only was the show groundbreaking for its time because of the performers, but because it was completely gay owned and operated with a racially diverse staff. Despite all this, Brown and Brenner still knew they would have to appeal to a conservative straight world in order to survive. Their Shakespearian rationalization paired with the iconic entertainers made the Jewel Box Revue a staple in gay and edgier communities alike. They made people comfortable with the show; so much so that often the number of straight audience members outnumbered the gays. After Stormé DeLaverie famously shouted “why don’t you guys do something?” during the Stonewall riots, the Revue’s drag queens and king became cemented in history. Which is something RuPaul, and the rest of us, should thank them for.