By Charlie Vázquez, PQ Monthly
I had the thrilling opportunity to be published in a book of essays called “Love, Christopher Street” last year, a fascinating collection of several diverse perspectives and reflections on one of the world’s most famous “gay alleys.” An essay by the award-winning writer and syndicated columnist Reverend Irene Monroe—entitled “Dis-membering Stonewall”—helped me to better envision what transpired on the night of the Stonewall Riots and how The Stonewall Inn’s well-known people-of-color and working-class patrons lit the fuse to the Gay Power movement—despite what the media represents.
The Reverend Irene Monroe was there that night.
PQ: You experienced the Stonewall Riots, as you vividly recapture for us in your wonderful essay. The main thrust behind it is that the Stonewall Riots have been appropriated by mainstreamed LGBTQ culture, when as you pointed out, they were a people-of-color and working-class backlash against the abuse of power by the NYPD. Can you elaborate on this?
RIM: People-of-color and working-class people were constantly at the abuse of power by the NYPD—irrespective of sexual orientation. It was the 1960s. By 1969 a number of race riots had sprung up across the U.S. due to the racial and economic disparity that African Americans confronted daily. By 1969 Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, just to name a few, were assassinated. And by 1957 the U.S. had experienced what was called “The Red Hot Summer,” where urban enclaves across the country went up in smoke because of these racial and economic disparities that blighted the spirit of a young generation of African Americans.
And let’s not forget that a number of movements were also afoot—Women’s, black civil rights, Black Power, etc. King’s philosophy of non-violent resistance was wading by 1969, particularly since he died by violent means. His movement was being edged out by the younger and more militant Black Power movement. In the 1960s, the NYPD (as with most urban police forces across the country) harassed black people and I don’t mean to suggest it has stopped in 2013.
PQ: You mentioned that photographs of the riots often omit those of the black, Latino and other working-class folks that helped to lead the charge. What would you say to detractors who might propose that, “if they were really there, then the proof would be in the pudding,” so to speak?
RIM: I would like to believe that the media would not discriminate a newsworthy story such as this one no matter who the players were. The media, however, didn’t come down to the Village until much later and many black folks were gone by then. By that time, the news had gotten out and people in large numbers—mostly whites—joined the struggle. African Americans, even today, are not likely to go to where a riot is happening and hang around or “fight to be fighting” unless loved ones, friends, etc., are ensnared in it.
The blacks that went down to the Village in the wee hours went because it was told to us that “the Pigs,” a term employed during that era to mean the police, were beating up on black gays. Many African Americans thought it was another form of police harassment of blacks, but this time it was targeting a particular demographic within the black population.
PQ: Why do you think it was important for the mainstream to claim this turning point in LGBTQ history?
RIM: The LGBTQ population was constantly being harassed. And I’m delighted that the community finally rose up and fought back. I see it as a “mountaintop” experience: once you’ve confronted your greatest fear and see a better world before you, you cannot revert back. And it’s the hope that those behind you will see to it that the struggle for a better world unfolds.
PQ: Your essay establishes the strategy that raiding The Stonewall Inn on that evening was even more attractive to the NYPD, because more than just having the opportunity to harass LGBTQ folks, they would also get to harass people-of-color as well. Can you talk a little about these divisions in the LGBTQ community that are based on race and class? It seems that during every “pride” season people swarm to parades and to parties and bars, but for the rest of the year we tend to associate with people of similar incomes and backgrounds, racial identities, etc.
RIM: The NYPD enjoyed raiding all the gay bars. I think that by raiding The Stonewall Inn—knowing its patrons were people-of-color and knowing well their communities’ homophobia—they may have felt they could beat up on this segment of the population without backlash from the greater black community. Well, the NYPD found out they were wrong. We went down there because we knew that those black and Latino patrons needed our help. It was a riot as usual for many of us.
As for our LGBTQ community today, I feel that although struggles are still before us, much of our confusion has to do with the ever-changing tactics of our opponents. The 1960s was this nation’s “revolutionary” era, followed by the backlash eras of Ronald Reagan’s and George Bush’s divisive and diffusionary politics that swung this nation into decades of political apathy. With the LGBTQ community being the fastest disenfranchised group to touch the fringes of America’s mainstream, we seem suspended in a holding pattern.
Prides of communities-of-color focus on social, economic and health issues impacting their entire communities. Where the primary focus in “white” prides has been on marriage equality, as in the larger community, LGBTQ people of African descent have had to focus not only on HIV/AIDS, but also unemployment, housing, gang violence, LGBTQ youth homelessness, etc. As an example, Sunday gospel brunches, Saturday night poetry slams, Friday evening fashion shows, bid whist tournaments, house parties, soul food and Caribbean cuisine, and beautiful displays of African art and clothing are just a few of the cultural markers that make Black Pride distinctly different from the dominant queer culture.
Our LGBTQ diversity should not be diluted, but should teach us more about its complexity, and by extension, teach the larger society.
Video: The Reverend Irene Monroe on Confronting Homophobia in the African American Community