By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
The Stonewall Riots of 1969 seem to grow in stature each year. Their mention in Obama’s second inaugural address helped cement their place in our country’s civil rights history, and their anniversary marks the worldwide celebration of LGBTQ Pride events.
In the media, Stonewall has become synonymous with “the birth of the gay rights movement,” however, illustrating the way this increasingly important event—catalyzed and led by trans women of color and homeless youth—has been made over in a middle-class, white, cis gay male image. With the Hollywood movie Stonewall preparing to tell this white and ciswashed story once again for a worldwide audience, it’s time to look at how these erasures happened, and why they’re flat wrong.
The Stonewall Riots were a three-day uprising in protest of the corrupt, oppressive police practices that left LGBTQ adults vulnerable to exploitation and persecution. At the time LGBTQ identities were all criminalized. Community members, driven underground, met in mafia-run bars that overcharged them, and were routinely subject to police shakedowns.
It was during one such raid that the riots occurred. The earliest accounts of Stonewall all concur that trans women of color and/or street youth—those participants unable to easily blend back into mainstream society, and thus, those with the least to lose—were the instigators of the protest. The two most prominent among these were Latina trans woman Sylvia Rivera and African-American trans woman Marsha P. Johnson.
Rivera spoke often of her part in the action, and was celebrated for it later in her life. In 2000, she was honored for her role at a World Pride event in Italy. Following her death, the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets in the Greenwich Village—blocks away from the Stonewall Inn—was renamed Rivera Way in her memory. Shockingly, however, as of late she’s been written out of Stonewall history.
While Rivera featured prominently in Martin Duberman’s 1993 history, Stonewall, she’s completely erased in David Carter’s 2004 book, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. The subtitle of Carter’s book—which served as the basis for the 2010 PBS documentary Stonewall Uprising—makes his agenda clear: to frame the riots as a cis gay male action (Carter did not respond to requests to participate in this story).
While grudgingly acknowledging the participation of Marsha P. Johnson and the presence of homeless youth in the uprising, Carter mind-bogglingly concludes in his text that the protest was largely the result of the white, middle-class gay men in the crowd. In Stonewall Uprising, he speaks angrily of how the press referred to the riots as “the night the drag queens fought back,” calling such headlines “pejorative.”
In an interview with Gay Today, when asked bluntly why Rivera was not in his book, he essentially calls her a liar, saying, “I can only conclude Sylvia’s account of her being there . . . was a fabrication,” and saying he could find no one to corroborate her claims. Who was asking, though? His book also leaves out the participation of Miss Major, another trans woman of color, who today is a prominent Bay Area activist. Omissions like this, coupled with the lavish attention paid to white cis gay men in his book—men like himself—make it seem Carter found the evidence he wanted to find.
Carter’s version of Stonewall looks as though it will be replicated in the upcoming film Stonewall. Its cast list does not mention Sylvia Rivera or Miss Major. Marsha P. Johnson appears far down in the listing, her part filled by a cis male actor, of course (ugh). The film’s director, Roland Emmerich, and writer, Jon Robin Baitz, are both white, cis gay men, as is the bulk of the cast. Art imitates life as trans women of color are pushed out of Stonewall’s story, and the benefits of their actions are reaped by others.
This happened to Sylvia Rivera, who was ostracized from the LGBTQ rights movement that sprang from Stonewall. Both trans exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) lesbians, such as Jean O’Leary, and conservative gay men, looking to leverage their social capital, excluded her from the nascent movement, abandoning the pursuit of gender-identity protections and focusing instead on the narrow goal of sexual-identity rights.
As Martin Duberman wrote, “Sylvia was from the wrong ethnic group, the wrong side of the tracks, wearing the wrong clothes—managing single-handedly to embody several frightening, overlapping categories of otherness” to those who threw her under the bus. To watch her heart break from this betrayal, one can visit YouTube and view her speech to the crowd assembled for the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally, where she spoke over O’Leary’s objections.
Johnson and Rivera co-founded STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a group organized to assist homeless trans youth. While they fended for the basic needs of the trans community, groups like the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance, which sprung from Stonewall, lobbied for political gain along narrow cis gay and lesbian lines.
When we tell the story of Stonewall, it should not be the story of the people who benefited most from its actions. It should not be the story of the gay rights movement, full stop. It should be the story of intersecting identities of oppression. The people who fought the hardest at Stonewall were those who were the most oppressed. Trans women of color are still the most vulnerable group in our community. Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, calls the violence faced by black trans women a “national crisis.”
Let’s stop ciswashing and whitewashing Stonewall, and use it instead as an example of how we need to fight racism, transmisogyny and poverty in our culture. Let’s stop leaving Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major out of the picture, and instead treat them like the heroes they are.