Why Don’t You Guys Do Something?
by Carolyn M. Brown
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 and additional letters, and symbols, the fight for true inclusion 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.
So what began as the Queer Liberation movement of the early 70s quickly became the Gay Rights movement of the 80s and “the gay community" came to be synonymous with gay men, and no longer the broad all-inclusive term that queerness itself had encapsulated. For instance, white lesbian activists took issue with the major organizations’ growing presence and power so it became the gay and lesbian rights movement. A separatist mentality gave way to the ostracization of bisexual and transgender individuals who were seen as muddying the waters. This act of defining, of self naming has itself become a kind of creative back and forth between the generations of marginalized people who will not allow themselves to be erased and will not assimilate to fit the needs of those with the most power when their own elder statesmen were pivotal players in the rebellion itself.
In addition to this year marking the 50th anniversary of the uprising, New York City also was selected for the first time to host the WorldPride festival, a global event held every two years. The combination of Stonewall 50 and WorldPride is expected to draw a record 3 million spectators this June. Yet those disenchanted with modern day Pride marches, a coalition of over 50 organizations and hundreds of individuals have set out to “reclaim” Pride and redefine how New York commemorates the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.
The Reclaim Pride Coalition will kick off the Queer Liberation March on June 30, the same day as the annual Pride March organized by Heritage of Pride, 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,” declares trans activist Chelsea Manning on Reclaim Pride’s website.
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 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. Roughly 70 percent of the crowd who were there at the Stonewall Rebellion were people of color, notes author and journalist Perry Brass, an active member of the now defunct Gay Liberation Front, one of the first radical organizations formed after Stonewall.
One of the first known photographs of the Stonewall Rebellion to appear on the front page of the New York Daily News on Sunday, June 29, 1969 shows a group of white street kids fighting off the police in front of the Stonewall Inn. But this is just the kind of historical record that contributes to the purging of the contributions of the people who were there doing most of the fighting. Just like when, in 2016, Barack Obama designated Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, and the surrounding streets and sidewalks a national monument in recognition of the area’s contribution to gay and human rights, it features four white statues, erected in 1992, to memorialize the uprising: “Two gay guys standing and two lesbians sitting on a bench. No transgender woman,” bemoans Griffin-Gracy in the 2015 documentary film Major about her life and campaigns.
One of the transwomen of color there that night who is still alive, a 78-year-old Griffin-Gracy recalls how once the community at large got involved after the rebellion, “all of a sudden it was the white gay guys and lesbians who had did this and there may have been a drag queen or two there, when really, we (were the ones who) frequented that bar. Where’s the respect for those who were involved, those who were trying to make a change…girls of color who had a voice before this happened.”
In those days, the Penal Law of the State of New York still contained the crime of Consensual Sodomy and Loitering for Deviate Sex. Sexual contact of a certain nature between members of the same sex was unlawful. There was a criminal statue against cross-dressing which allowed the police to arrest people wearing less than three gender-appropriate articles of clothing. The New York State Liquor Authority penalized and shut down establishments that served alcohol to such individuals, arguing that the “mere gathering of homosexuals was disorderly.” For these reasons, a key demographic flocked to taverns and nightclubs that were places of refuge where they could openly socialize and express themselves.
The Stonewall Inn was run by the mafia who profited in catering to a shunned queer clientele, according to David Carter, author of Stonewall: the Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. Carter points out that the mafia typically bribed cops not to harass their clientele and would often tip off their patrons whenever a raid was about to go down. But there was no such warning at around 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969, when plainclothes policemen raided the Greenwich Village gathering place. Standard procedure was to line up the patrons, check their identification and arrest any men dressed as women or women dressed as men. But that day many of the patrons refused to cooperate with the police.
And it is the oral history from the people who were there that sheds light on the series of events that led up to the rebellion. Various accounts cite a scuffle involving a black butch lesbian in handcuffs, believed to be Stormé DeLarverie, a drag king at the Jewel Box Revue, North America’s first racially integrated drag revue that regularly played at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. That night, like all other nights, DeLarverie was in violation of the on the books law against cross-dressing.
The story goes that she was being escorted into a police wagon but resisted arrest and repeatedly tried to escape before she was struck in the head with a police baton. She then punched the cop, shouting to bystanders, “Why don’t you guys do something?” In his 1995 book, The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America, Charles Kaiser credits DeLarverie as the butch lesbian who mobilized the patrons of the Stonewall Inn to fight back by throwing the first punch.
Legend also has it that in 1969 black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, who was celebrating her 25th birthday, threw a brick at the police therefore kicking off the entire Stonewall Rebellion, while others say it was 17-year-old Puerto Rican trans activist Sylvia Rivera who threw a Molotov cocktail into the crowd that started it all. Some accounts have Johnson stating she arrived on the scene after the protests had already started and the cops were barricaded in the bar, while Rivera has been attributed with saying that she didn’t throw the first Molotov cocktail that night but that she did throw the second one.
“They (cops) used to do that to us all the time; the light would come on and everyone would stream out…you knew that was the routine…,” recounts Griffin-Gracy who was inside the Stonewall Inn at the time. “That night it simply wasn’t going to happen…you got this feeling, everyone just looked at one another…and done, we can’t take it anymore. I don’t know who threw what and it doesn’t matter, all that matters is that night we were busting the cops’ ass,” she exclaims in the documentary Major.
But that night, the patrons did not disperse, and instead doubled back and re-formed behind the police, taunting them, throwing rocks and bottles, shouting "Gay Power!" according to various accounts. The crowd swelled to over 500 people by the time NYPD’s Tactical Patrol Force arrived in large numbers to drive the flock from the front of Stonewall. The bar opened again the next night as thousands gathered out front and along adjoining blocks as they reportedly set fires in garbage cans and jumped on top of cars. Tensions between the NYPD and LGBT protestors erupted over the next few nights until July 1.
And every year, since then, there have been evolving commemorations, beginning with the very first anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, on June 28, 1970, with street marches in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. The Christopher Street Liberation Day March is what it was called before eventually becoming known as Pride parades or festivals around the mid-1970’s.
But every Pride march was born out of political protest and the mood at those first marches in 1970 could be described as “radical celebration” of people living everyday life in a constant state of oppression and marginalization, George Chauncey, a history professor at Yale University who has written extensively about LGBTQ history, told the Washington Post. There were no floats, music, or dancing.
In 2017 documentary QueerEdge: From Gay To Queer Liberation, Black trans activist Syrus Marcus Ware, co-founder of the Prisoners’ Justice Action Committee, points out that first Christopher Street Liberation march in New York was funded by an independently wealthy trans woman who donated money for the banners among other items. No one ever mentions her, contributing further to the complete erasure of trans people from historical and cultural narratives.
The Stonewall Rebellion did not initiate gay rights activism but rather catalyzed a new generation of formalized political activists that embraced communities on the outer fringes. Battle lines 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.
A prime example of the assimilationist movement was the Mattachine Society, a group of gay men in Los Angeles formed in 1950 with the goal of protecting and improving the rights of gay men. National chapters later popped up in New York and other cities. In 1966, the New York Mattachine Society held a “sip-in” to challenge the regulation that bars were not to serve patrons deemed “disorderly,” which meant gay men. Taking a page from the civil rights sit-ins of the South that integrated lunch counters in restaurants, members of the Mattachine dressed in suits visited taverns, ordered a drink, declared themselves gay, and then waited to be turned away so they could sue, as told to National Public Radio by Dick Leitsh, former chairman of Mattachine Society New York and sit-in participant. The men were denied service at the Greenwich Village bar Julius, resulting in a lot of publicity and the reversal of state liquor laws denying service to gay patrons.
Although it claimed otherwise, the Mattachine Society was centered on white middle-class men who wanted to show that they were not “sexual deviants” but just like everyone else, as recorded in the Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. The group’s focus reportedly was assimilation and respectability. But their vision left out the most marginalized members of the queer community, leading to the endless splintering of movements that continues today.
While the media labeled it the Stonewall Riots, the protestors, made up of more than just white men, called it a rebellion. In the aftermath of the Stonewall Rebellion, radical groups like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) formed immediately (in July 1969) to oppose and address broader social justice issues like militarism, racism, and sexism. “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 (whole) LGBT community,” stated Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) which was founded in 1978, during a 40th anniversary reunion of GLF members.
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. 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, according to the reference center BlackPast.org.
“What we have been taught about the Black Panther Party is that they were this dangerous radical group that was homophobic,” Syrus Marcus Ware calls out in his documentary film QueerEdge: From Gay To Queer Liberation. He notes that when the Black Panther Party called for the Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention with the goal of the weekend long meeting to rewrite the constitution, “there are 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?” he asks.
Dissident members in GLF launched the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) in December 1969 to work within the political system to secure basic rights for gays and lesbians. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who started out on the frontlines of GLF, formed the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group dedicated to helping homeless youth, queer prisoners, and trans women of color. The Queens Liberation Front was an advocacy group formed on behalf of street drag queens.
Internal rivalries led to the collapse of New York’s GLF within two years of its founding. In 1972, Lesbian members had splintered from the GAA forming the Lesbian Feminist Liberation for the sole purpose of focusing on lesbian and feminist issues and to further distance themselves from gay men, trans women, and drag queens.
By 1973, both Rivera and Johnson had become a visible presence at gay liberation marches and other radical political actions, as revealed in the 2012 documentary Pay It No Mind – The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson. Johnson was known for her fierce activism and advocacy of sex workers, as well as saying the ‘P’ in her name stood for “pay it no mind.” Rivera became an outspoken activist who rallied against racism, sexual violence and transphobia.
At the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally, Rivera stormed the stage and shouted, "You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!” according to the book Out For Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. She was referring the members of the Lesbian Feminist Liberation. She grabbed the mic and criticized gay liberation activists for adopting an assimilationist agenda. Rivera, a sexual assault survivor, spoke about complacency in the community because gay, lesbian and transgender activists were arrested, jailed, and raped by heterosexual inmates in the years after Stonewall.
Adding insult to injury is that gay and lesbian activists fought to get New York to revise anti-discrimination laws to add sexual orientation but not gender identity and expression. Rivera had been involved in the 1972 campaign for New York City’s gay and lesbian rights bill, repeatedly insisting drag queens and other gender nonconforming people were included within the bill’s language. A gay rights bill was finally passed and signed into law by then Mayor Ed Koch in 1986, which banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment and public accommodations.
Rightly so, an embittered Rivera spoke about how political activists sold out transgender members of the community in order to appease politicians in passing gay rights legislation. It would be 50 years post Stonewall before the state legislature added gender identity and expression to New York's anti-discrimination laws in January 2019.
Those who had fought in the Stonewall Rebellion were further pushed to the margins in the movement as the outbreak of AIDS in the United States dominated the struggle for gay rights in the 1980s and early 1990s. GMHC (formerly Gay Men's Health Crisis) was founded in 1982 to end the AIDS epidemic and uplift the lives of all affected. GLAAD (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) was formed in New York City in 1985 to protest against what it saw as the New York Post's defamatory and sensationalized AIDS coverage. Fed up with the government’s pacified response to the AIDs crisis, in 1987, dissenting members of GMHC formed the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) to fight AIDS through legislation, research and treatment. The group coined the motto: Silence = Death.
Johnson continued her work as an activist and even as an organizer with ACT-UP. Shortly after the 1992 Pride march, her body was found in the Hudson River, off the Christopher Street docks, under suspicious circumstances, according to the book Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Rivera, who had retreated from activism for two decades, rejoined the movement following Johnson’s death. In the last five years of her life, Rivera spoke about the need for drag queens, butch lesbians, and trans people to fight for their legacy at the forefront of the movement.
Half a century since the Stonewall Rebellion, the community is so focused on inclusive and expansive language that the acronym keeps growing to the point of extremity as generations of marginalized young adults demand to be included in the continuum of the queer cilvil rights movement. Right now we are at LGBTQIANG+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and gender nonconforming plus) people, and the abbreviation gets even longer once you take into account pansexual and two-sprit (Indigenous Americans) individuals. There is no acronym that will ever be inclusive enough to cover every single sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual minority in the community!
There is such a divide and aggravation that exists within the community that there is now disconnect with the rainbow flag’s symbolism. In 1978, artist and activist Gilbert Baker designed the rainbow flag—a longstanding emblem of pride. However, the colors black and brown were added to the rainbow flag at the 2017 Pride parade, per the Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs’ More Color More Pride campaign, to represent inclusion of people of color in the community. Yet, the stripes on the original rainbow flag had nothing to do with skin color. The eight symbolic colors were: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for serenity and violet for spirit. Albeit, there has been an individual Trans Flag—pink, blue and white colors—flown in Pride parades since 2000.
This kind of social and political rift keeps happening in part because the leadership—and face of—major national LGBTQ+ organizations remains predominately white, gay, and male, much like how most CEO’s of major corporations in America are white men, at 95%, with people of color representing less than 1%. Some gay white men argue that they feel as if their contributions to the movement are being downplayed in favor of all this pesky inclusion. The real issue may be that they just don’t get it and won’t if they continue to fail to acknowledge white privilege exists even in within the LGBTQ+ community itself.
There have been recent gains such as same-sex marriage rights and elimination of the don’t ask don’t tell military policy, but social justice and advocacy is far from over. Many of the protections achieved over the past decade face renewed threats. Bias and discrimination is on the rise. Reports show hate crimes against black and brown sexual and gender minorities is at an all-time high and rising. Members who are also part of immigrant communities are more so under siege.
So while a Time magazine 2014 cover story may have announced “The Transgender Tipping Point” in visibility and activism, largely led by transgender women of color, most notably actress Laverne Cox and author, activist and Pose television series director Janet Mock, and Out magazine is dedicating an entire issue to women and nonbinary femmes, the harsh reality is that 50 years since the Stonewall Rebellions, trans and nonconforming individuals still face significant hardship and discrimination, no matter how many letters are added to the movement’s name.