The heart expands again during Pride month
Carrying critiques of rainbow-washed corporations and a sanitized history while still embracing real community
People wearing masks walk past the Stonewall Inn during the the Queer March for Black Lives on June 28, 2020 in New York City. LGBTQ Pride groups are celebrating the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. (Photo by Jeenah Moon / Getty Images).
Over the last few years, I’ve turned into a bit of a Pride Grinch. Being a Black queer and trans historian and observing the celebration of a radical anti-police protest turn into an excuse to hawk rainbow-tinted goods or watch twinks dance on the floats of banks that fund war and oil pipelines leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “the first Pride was a riot” — and this is true, but it’s not the entire picture. We celebrate LGBTQIA+ Pride in June to coincide with the Stonewall Uprising. In my work, I find untangling the many narratives of what happened those hot June and July nights in Greenwich Village similar to parsing folklore.
What we know about the events of June 29, 1969, is largely based on the firsthand accounts of those on the ground. The line between oral history and folklore is never as neat as we want it to be. For decades different factions have argued about who threw the first brick or shot glass, the number of participants at the event, and even what truly prompted the police crackdown.
The truth is we’ll never know. Did trans activists Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera throw “the shot glass heard around the world” to kick things off? How many cops descended on the mob-owned bar, and which New Yorkers showed up to say “enough is enough”? And, of course, was the whole thing really about oppression or gay lament over the passing of icon Judy Garland?
What we do know is that for a few summer nights in ‘69, a legion of humans of all stripes and statuses took to the streets to tell the NYPD that their harassment and brutality were not going to go unchecked.
The first night of fighting was led by the fierce Stonewall patrons: queers, queens, gender nonconforming folks, femmes, trans women of color, dapper butches, runaways, hustlers, and those still trying to find the words to match how they lived and loved.
Stonewall’s patrons were soon joined by others in the heavily LGBTQIA+ neighborhood, and by residents from further-flung Black and Brown boroughs that were tired of the NYPD’s legacy of brutality. By the end, potentially thousands had shown up to fight.
The majority of the clientele at the Stonewall Inn who started the uprising lived at the intersection of multiple minoritized and oppressed identities and were actively involved in radical intersectional movements.
The Stonewall Uprising was predicated by events like these clapbacks:
- Los Angelos’s Cooper’s Donuts in 1959 — A gaggle of queer and trans patrons of a cafe refused to be harassed by the police and pelted them back with donuts.
- The 1966 Compton Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District — A 24-hour cafeteria frequented by queer and trans people of color tried to push out the “unsavory” clientele and was met with drag queens and trans women fighting back against cops with coffee and purses. In the days that followed they were joined by local churches that picketed the establishment. This is often considered the first explicitly transgender led protest.
- The 1966 Sip-In at several bars in Greenwich Village — A nod to the Black-led lunch counter sip-ins, patrons that were suspected of being queer or trans could be denied service by bars
Far before these events, the fight against the rigid gender binary and limits on love were being combatted in ways that rarely made the news. Those that live and love beyond the colonial and white supremacist gender binary aren’t new, and neither is the fight for our liberation.
Sylvia Rivera, a well-known Latinx trans activist and a veteran of the Stonewall Rebellion, was always quick to remind folks that the events of the summer of 1969 were far from isolated. “All of us were working for so many movements at the time,” Rivera said. “Everyone was involved with the women’s movement, the peace movement, and the civil rights movement. We were all radicals. I believe that’s what brought it around.”
The events at Stonewall were spontaneous, but more importantly, they erupted from seasoned activists already fighting for justice. As Black queer sociologist Roderick A. Ferguson says in his book One-Dimensional Queer, “Stonewall was a phenomenon that was in dialogue with acts of civil disobedience and protests through the country.” Making the event seem solely spontaneous erases the legacy of Black and Brown revolutionary action and education that led up to the event. This wasn’t just a combustion of angry gays — as many there that night have noted this was a boiling point for people of color and the police.
The “advent” of the modern LGBTQIA+ liberation movement wasn’t driven by sexuality and gender alone, it was understood that all oppression is connected as is all liberation.
The memorialization of Stonewall as the start of the gay rights movement, and the transformation of its origin story from a radical intersectional coalitional powerhouse to a stepping stone to gay marriage and military inclusion has been a curious one.
For the 10-year anniversary of the uprising sculptor George Segal was commissioned to create the first-ever monument in the U.S. for the gay rights movement. The monument depicts either two groups of people that are very close friends, or gay couples. The sculptures have been vandalized several times by both homophobes and members of the LGBTQIA+ community frustrated with the sanitized version of Stonewall history. The artist and all of the models were straight, cisgender, white folks that had nothing to do with the events at Stonewell. And the statues are bronzed but are literally whitewashed.
The whitewashing of Stonewall has continued through time, reaching a nadir with Roland Emmerich’s film Stonewall, which suggests the uprising was started by a white, cisgender, recently out gay boy from Indiana who threw the first brick and launched the gay rights movement. The original statues created by Segal and the film by Emmerich are representative of the transformation of Stonewall as a radical, liberatory and intersectional uprising to the birth of a Gay Rights Movement solely for white, cisgender gays and lesbians.
In this variation of folklore, Stonewall looks like a battle against homophobia for the right to assimilate. The statues that theoretically depict couples are subdued, white and easy to swallow for casual passersby. The myth that rises out of these tellings is that gay liberation is a fight for normalcy, and this myth does not have room for Black and Brown and/or gender-nonconforming bodies.
On the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, parades and celebrations were held in Chicago, San Francisco and New York City launching our annual Pride traditions. But just four years after the birth of Pride, there was a push to not include trans women and femmes in Pride.
Jean O’Leary was in the middle of a speech about trans women and drag queens being antithetical to the movement of women’s rights and gay rights (she went on to be a major political figure that would push to exclude trans and gender non-conforming individuals from any legislation fighting homophobia) when she was interrupted by Sylvia Rivera booming over a sea of boos, “Y’all better quiet down.”
Rivera went on for four minutes to remind those gathered at the annual Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade of all of the work that she and other trans women and femmes had done for the whole community, like establishing STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionary) to house unsheltered LGBTQIA+ youth and joining sit-ins and protests for queer and trans rights.
Years later O’Leary would own up to the irony of her discriminating against trans women while bemoaning the discrimiation she faced in the women’s rights movement as a lesbian, but her speech that day still echoes in the mouths and minds of feminists who believe trans folks are hurting the movement with our very existence.
In more recent years, the tides have shifted some to acknowledge the radical roots of Pride. Motions to remove cops from Pride events (after all we’re hitting the streets because they hit us), ensure events are actually accessible and acknowledge and uplift the role that trans women of color have had in our collective liberation while still being the most vulnerable community.
This year at Albuquerque Pride, I was still planning to be a bit of a Pride Grinch. I’ve had the honor of marching next to the University of New Mexico’s LGBTQ Center’s float in past years, and know that while the day can be magical, it’s also long and hot as hell. I figured if I’d participated in the parade once that was probably plenty. How much Pride does one queer really need? My band Eileen & the In-Betweens was set to play on a float. As we struggled to get our sound system powered up, a bit of the Grinch in me was relieved to not have to witness the corporate co-opting of our liberation, the day-drunk looky-loos, and the 90-degree heat radiating off of the asphalt.
What I’d forgotten was that beyond the millions of dollars spent on rainbow-washing products and corporations that turn around and fund homophobic and transphobic candidates, there is a community still fighting and still celebrating.
What often gets lost in the folklore of Stonewall, and trying to parse out who played the biggest role or who was the first to strike back, is that droves of people came together because we cared about each other. The power of Stonewall, the power of Pride, is about us standing together.
I remembered my first Pride so vividly, and how alive I felt. Not just alive, but so much more importantly for the first time, not alone.
This year, my bandmates and I watched the rest of the floats queue up and realized if we made it, we would be the caboose and maybe playing acoustically. As a joke, I said maybe we could attach the solar panel to the leather chest harness I brought.
A half an hour later we were flying down Route 66 on haybales with a solar panel attached to my back and a viola tucked under my chin. Being last on the parade route meant we didn’t have to stare at all the corporations that rainbow washed for one month before dropping us. We got to just be with our community.
Playing songs of queer love and trans liberation to thousands of people and getting to see the whole crowd at once brought me back to that lonely queer kid that just needed to see and be seen. Every member of the band was lucky enough to connect with our sweethearts along the route.
At 30, I’ve officially been out of the closet longer than I was in it, and the joy of watching my favorite people fall in love without shame, and the fact that I get to kiss the love of my life on the busiest road in the city to the sound of cheers and not jeers – these facts and these feelings will never get old.
I saw whole families wearing shirts supporting their trans child, queer elders that have survived two plagues and still show up for their community, and so so so many smiling and singing faces.
In a year filled with so much fear — anti-trans legislation aimed at children and families, the overturning of federal abortion rights protections, and the specter of gun violence haunting every school and gathering — it sometimes feels antithetical, even blasphemous to celebrate.
Pride was, and always will be, about our people, and taking a moment to breathe while we fight to celebrate our very existence and how far we come.
I can carry my critiques of the whitewashing and co-opting of Pride, and I can celebrate my community at the same time.
I can know our messy and radical history, and fight for a brighter future.
I can be that queer and trans adult I wish I had as a kid, and I get to do that every day.
Pride is still a great reminder of all these folktales and truths. It’s safe to say my heart grew three sizes that day.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.
Lazarus Nance Letcher