Sunday, 28 June 2009

Forty years on, and..?

The Stonewall riots are widely described as a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of New York City.

They are frequently cited as the first instance in American history when gays and lesbians fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted homosexuals, and they have become the defining event that marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.

Yet, as Haydon Bridge, writing in this week's issue of QX magazine, says:
"When it comes down to it, we know little for certain about one of the most significant events in gay history. Why was The Stonewall Inn raided? Who was there that first night? Who started the riot? Who did what to whom? Opinions differ. We’ll never be sure exactly what happened in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1969 because only one newspaper thought that the whole event was worth recording. That’s not surprising because it was no big deal. New York gay bars were raided all the time. This was also the decade of riots, much bigger ones than the “melée” around The Stonewall Inn. Not only were there no TV crews covering the event, there were hardly any photographers. The news took months to reach the rest of the U.S."
And in the UK, it hardly made an impression at all - coming as it did at a time when decriminalisation of homosexuality had just been achieved here by genteel political means.

Many and varied are the "myths" that surround the events at Stonewall. If everyone who claims to have been there actually was there, the tiny bar and its surrounding streets would have had a crowd the size of an audience at one of Tina Turner's concerts.

As for the link between the news of the death of icon Judy Garland and the heightened emotions of distraught queens being their reasons for rioting, not a single eye-witness recalls Garland's name being discussed. In fact gay activist and pioneer Bob Kohler said:
"When people talk about Judy Garland's death having anything much to do with the riot, that makes me crazy. The street kids faced death every day. They had nothing to lose. And they couldn't have cared less about Judy. We're talking about kids who were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Judy Garland was the middle-aged darling of the middle-class gays. I get upset about this because it trivializes the whole thing."
In his foreword to Philip Core's brilliant book Camp - The Lie That Tells The Truth (one of my favourite books of all time - available on Amazon), George Melly says:
"It should not be forgotten, particularly by the macho-clones with their short hair and big boots, that when, in Greenwich Village, for the first time and without precedent, a group of effeminate little queens refused to accept the police's casual invasion of one of their bars, they repelled them, not with knuckle-dusters or karate blows but with hand-bags!"
A wonderful piece written in defence of "camp" against the bigotry of certain types of "straight-acting" queers and assimilationists maybe, but even Gorgeous George was working on second-hand anecdotal evidence. For even now no-one is really certain whether it was in fact the "effeminate little queens", or even the drag queens, who fought back first - or was it the dykes?

Trannies certainly were prominent in the struggle, as witnesses confirm:
"An officer shoved a transvestite, who responded by hitting him on the head with her purse as the crowd began to boo", "Fights erupted with the transvestites, who wouldn't go into the patrol wagon", and "All I could see about who was fighting was that it was transvestites and they were fighting furiously".

But what was the legacy of the riots? A united front? A world gay rights movement? Although it was probably as a direct consequence of those events that forty years ago queer activist organisations such as the Gay Liberation Front and in the UK the Campaign for Homosexual Equality were founded (and it is certainly the reason why Pride marches are held at this time of year), not everyone in the gay community considered the revolt a positive development.

To many older gays and many members of the Mattachine Society [an organisation that worked throughout the 1960s in the US to promote homosexuals as no different from heterosexuals; its equivalent here in the UK was ‎the Homosexual Law Reform Society] the display of violence and effeminate behaviour was embarrassing. An early gay rights pioneer Randy Wicker even went as far as to say that the
"screaming queens forming chorus lines and kicking went against everything that I wanted people to think about homosexuals ... that we were a bunch of drag queens in the Village acting disorderly and tacky and cheap."
And gay and lesbian rights activist Jean O'Leary certainly made her feelings clear subsequently, deriding transvestites and drag queens for mocking women as entertainment - to the point that transgender activist Sylvia Rivera and "freedom fighter for men who dress as women" Lee Brewster felt prompted to storm Ms O'Leary's stage shouting "You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!"

In truth, there has always been a divide in opinion between lobbyists such as the UK's Stonewall group (yes, it was named after the riot) and those such as Peter Tatchell, who says in an article in yesterday's Times:
"We had a beautiful dream, but it is fading fast. In the 40 years since Stonewall, there has been a massive retreat from the ideals and vision of the early gay liberation pioneers. Most gay people no longer question the values, laws and institutions of mainstream society. They are content to settle for equal rights within the status quo. Conservatism and respectability have taken over the gay movement. In the late 1960s, we saw the family as a patriarchal prison that enslaves women, gays and children. Four decades later, the focus of most gay campaigners is on safe, cuddly issues like civil partnerships and adoption. Gay people are increasingly reluctant to rock the boat and more than happy to embrace traditional heterosexual aspirations."
There are still many, many battles to be fought for the rights of gay people (in the West as well as in more repressive regimes across the world), and there are still many people whose attitudes need to be changed - both straight and gay!

Public mass events like the Gay Pride parade must still be seen as a political statement, not just a fluffy carnival. I may be wearing feathers, fouf and faff next Saturday, but I am there every year (along with thousands of other gay people) in order to make certain that the media and the public realise:

"We're here, we're queer - get used to it!!".

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