Solidarity on Stonewall anniversary
- Published: June 29, 2020
The following opinion column was printed in the June 25 edition of the News:
What happened at Stonewall in NYC 1969, was a riot against the police. A backlash against regular raids on LGBTQ bars, this wasn’t in answer to just a few homophobic police officers targeting our social havens in one city. This was a manifestation of our rage against the socially, politically, legally sanctioned nationwide assault on our culture. Policing our private lives, cops were seen as just doing their jobs, “cleaning the streets” of sexual and gender deviants. Policy gave police permission to mistreat us. In 1969 “homosexual acts” were illegal and there were bans on “cross dressing”; Female officers were known to escort gender-bending clientele into bar bathrooms to check underclothing and/or anatomy.
Reviewing the old newspapers, it’s clear even the alternative presses were biased, homophobic, and not on our side. Most of the public saw headlines about the police “hurt in a ‘village raid’” or reports cheapening the experiences of the very real pain felt by the queer folks involved. One newspaper headline described the scene: “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.”
The ’70s would be the era for the gay rights movement, born out of a cohesive radical stance against the criminalization of our very bodies, our acts of love, and our attempts at fostering community in the only “safe” public spaces we knew: urban bars and clubs, spaces often owned by the mafia. In these spaces, we came head-to-head with the State. We were surveilled by plain clothes police — our affection toward each other was a crime and butch lesbians and gender-bending men were arrested and battered by police, treated as criminals for violating locally and state enforced dress codes. Inspired by black activists, politicians, and radicals, white queers took to the streets and over the next decade black and LGBTQ activists held a fragile bond. In 1970, James Clay Jr., 24 years old, black, and gender queer was shot in the back eight times by Chicago police. Clay had a criminal record of “female impersonation” and was wearing women’s clothes when he was killed. Police in Chicago had also recently shot Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Recognizing the bridge between events, acknowledging many transgender women were Black and being arrested by white police officers, the Chicago Gay Alliance started working with the Black Panther Party.
But something shifted. Police rapidly decreased their raids on bars patronized largely by white queers so white queer people felt they’d successfully fixed the problem. We turned away from the struggle for Black freedom, refusing to acknowledge the ever-increasing incarceration of Black and brown Americans. Historians like Timothy Stewart argue the lost potential of Black and LGBTQ coalitions against police violence was due to the “evaporation of organized support from white liberals — including gays — for reigning in police.”
There were no smartphones at Stonewall, and this has made it easier for white folks to recall a story that assists us in maintaining what anthropologist Eric Plemons calls our “self-congratulatory nostalgia.” If white queer folks can imagine a night where white cisgender gay men and lesbians fought against the police, we can claim great victories for the LGBTQ community. After all, now we can marry, have and adopt children, and have successful careers. But if we tell the truth, honoring the effort from folks like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé Delarverie, queer people of color, if we remember they were not only with us, but inspired our rebellion on Christopher Street, then white queers also must acknowledge the staggering failure to liberate all belonging to our community. Instead, white queers liberated themselves from their surveillance by state power, and absolved themselves from the responsibility to struggle in solidarity with our Black and brown and Indigenous queer comrades.
Timothy Stewart argues that once white queers felt free from being targeted by police, the movement shifted focus to places of employment and fair treatment at work. And in the ’80s, compelled to fight the AIDS pandemic, we turned away again. In the ’90s we focused on our right to marry. Stewart says, “White middle-class gay activists underestimated the importance of fighting law enforcement power beyond what immediately shaped their everyday lives.” White queer folks refused to acknowledge the continued criminalization of LGBTQ people of color.
We, as white queers, know about institutional control and what a far-reaching force it is in our lives. Our complicity must be dissolved. We need to admit most of us live segregated lives and it’s up to us to do better. In the spirit of visual artist Lilla Watson, queer liberation has always been bound up with Black, brown, and Indigenous liberation. It’s time to act, to invest in black businesses, to support the work of black artists, to give and raise money to the political campaigns of black and brown, and indigenous politicians. This Pride year we must march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement and commit to join the fight against systemic racism. In memory of Stonewall, I will fight for blackBtrans women, gender-bending brown lesbians, Indigenous drag queens, and all queer people of color, the same beautiful and brave folks who were there, 51 years ago, on that summer night at Stonewall Inn.