Stonewall: Then and Now

Laurie says:

I wrote this a week ago, and I said that 9 transgender women (that we know of), mostly black and brown, had been murdered this year.  Two more have been murdered since then. I initially wrote this in anger and I am writing in anger now.

On Tuesday, the body of Brooklyn Lindsey—a transgender black woman—was discovered on the porch of an abandoned house in Kansas City, Mo. She was 32. CNN reports her death has been ruled a homicide due to multiple gunshot wounds. This makes her the 11th black transwoman to be murdered in America this year. From The Root
My grandmother’s jewelry store,The Waverly Shop, was up the block from the Stonewall riots in 1969. I grew up in that neighborhood and later worked in her shop. But by then, I was no longer in NYC but living on the houseboats at Gate 5 in the Bay Area. I heard about it and was awed that people were fighting back for the first time. (I know more now.)

Marsha P Johnson

At the time, the Stonewall Inn was owned by the Mafia. The people who hung out there were among the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community: drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless youth. Police raids on gay bars were routine in the 1960s, but officers quickly lost control of the situation at the Stonewall Inn.(Wikipedia) Usually they got to abuse people anyway they wanted to, but not this time. Sylvia Rivera, a Latina, and Marsha P Johnson, an African American, were in the forefront of the battle. Many people believe that Johnson threw the first brick.

In the late 60’s they would have been identified as transvestites, or drag queens, or transexuals. Johnson and Rivera would not have called themselves “transgender.” The word was not in common use. But they lived almost exclusively as women, and transgender people today consider them two of their own. (NY Times)

For a short time after Stonewall, LGBQ people were united. Then “respectability” kicked back in, and the people who stood up for themselves and for all queers at Stonewall were erased from the history (until fairly recently, and then only occasionally). Gay men, mostly white, took over the movement and ostracized women like Johnson and Rivera.

There is a statue of two gay men (and two lesbians sitting behind them on a bench.) made to honor the people who fought at Stonewall in a small park across the street. They are white and very respectable in their presentation. Very often our public art reflects not the true history but the comfortable story.

Respectability, wanting to appear “normal” in the larger society is always an activist problem. It expels people who are perceived as different in presentation or attitude, and who are are perceived as outrageous. It is a box imposed often by activists themselves.

Both women had difficult lives and no longer survive. They founded the first transgender support organization and were intermittently very politically brave and active in their lives. They got some recognition in the 90’s. Rivera said The movement had put me on the shelf, but they took me down and dusted me off, in a 1995 interview with The New York Times. Still, it was beautiful. I walked down 58th Street and the young ones were calling from the sidewalk, Sylvia, Sylvia, thank you, we know what you did. After that I went back on the shelf. It would be wonderful if the movement took care of its own. But don’t worry about Sylvia.

Finally 50 years later NYC is honoring Rivera and Johnston with a statue. And this all and good but I know if they were still here they would rather see a better world for transgender people and everyone who was in the bar. But transgender people don’t have discrimination protection. They can no longer serve in the military. In 2018 we know that at the very least 29 transgender people were murdered (the most ever recorded), most of them black and brown, and at least nine more have died in 2019.

LGBQ people have made remarkable gains since Stonewall, but transgender people, particularly people of color, have been far too often left behind.

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