These times, are they a-changin’, as Bob Dylan wrote? Are they?
I don’t know.
What I do know… well, I guess I know a few things, but one of the weird ones is that it’s Pride month. At least where it’s not too hot to host Pride parades and festivals, June is when we celebrate LGBTQIA Pride. (Don’t worry, I see you, Atlanta, and other Southern cities that have to wait until October. I see you and your parades and festivals coming up in the fall, and I look forward to hearing about them!)
So how can I write about Pride in a time like this?
How can I, a white woman, write about anything like Pride in a season of uprising against racist brutality and the unsafe police state in which Black and brown people live in the United States?
Well, in one word, it’s this: Stonewall.
There were several organizations serving lesbian and gay people before the “Stonewall Riots” occurred. So why do so many of us—me included—think of Stonewall as the definitive beginning of what would become the LGBTQIA movement in the United States?
Let me tell you a little bit about Stonewall and why it’s important. First, I’ll begin with what came before Stonewall and the lives of queer people before the uprising in late June of 1969.
Until Stonewall, the lives of gay and lesbian (much less bisexual and trans people!) were marked by shame. They were marked, over and over, by police raids on our bars, by arrests, threats, and, essentially, the necessity to hide whenever possible. And hiding wasn’t possible for some people, but for some it was. Some of “us,” could blend in. Some of us could fade into the suffocating atmosphere of straight culture, and some of us could not.
Drag queens and trans women tended to be arrested and caught up in police raids. Trans men, butches, and drag kings tended to be caught out on the streets, and beaten by the police or had their bodies checked in broad daylight to make sure they had “women’s” underwear on. The “three-article” rule (which never actually existed) was putatively understood to mean that any given person must be wearing at least three articles of clothing of the “proper sex” or they could be arrested. Similarly, 19th-century “masquerading” laws were used to take people into police stations when trans and gender-nonconforming people were discovered on the streets or in bars.
Certainly, activities like dancing in bars was forbidden.
Enter the Mafia.
The Mafia, who was willing to pay off the cops so that they’d look the other way. The Mafia, who extorted people by making them sign their names so that they could be blackmailed if “necessary.” The Mafia, who really didn’t care one way or the other what happened to the people in the bar, but who knew they could make a mint on the place if they made it available.
One night, though, there was a police raid nonetheless, when the alcohol in the place was confiscated.
One night, the police got scared of the people they’d scared into the streets and so they barricaded themselves into the bar!
And they came back.
They came back, and there was no fire exit. There was no other egress. The place was unsafe, barely restored, and not up to code, of course. Why would it be? It was a “private club.”
A gender-nonconforming person assigned female at birth was beaten by police with batons, and said at the top of their lungs, “Do something!” And they did. The people who had hidden in that shady, dim bar, did something. And not just anything, but they fought back. Many of them were taken to jail—a VERY unsafe place for trans men and women, butches and queens.
And they kept fighting back. For days, the uprising went on.
And this event, this event is the place from which so many of us mark our beginnings as out queer members of the society.
It is because of Stonewall that I could kiss my lovers on the street. It is because of Stonewall that I could walk without shame or fear – with pride, in fact – in my leather jacket with cock ring and handcuffs on the epaulets, hair shorn, earrings that were sharp enough they should have been illegal under the Geneva convention, smoking those Marlboro reds out of a signature extender.
And it is also because of Stonewall that I could not only be an edgy outsider who crossed boundaries and put my political, social, sexual, and spiritual life “in your face,” but it is also because of Stonewall that I am legally married. It is because we learned that rebellions, uprisings, riots work.
The idea that you have to make yourself “acceptable” or “respectable” to get things done is horseshit.