Friday, 17 July 2009

"Six inch heels, seven inch wig, slinky gown and loads of attitude"

We had been looking forward to last night's The House of Homosexual Culture's landmark event Stonewall - 40 for a while. Both Madame Acarti and I have long histories in the gay rights movement, mine through several years of lobbying, petition-raising and Pride-attending (previously blogged - and badged again on the night - so I probably don't need to elucidate for the sake of repetition).

Tony (the erstwhile Madame A) has an even longer history than my own of involvement in campaigning - in deepest darkest Plymouth, he was a very early 1970s member of their own branch of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality - and he proudly wore the T-shirt to prove it. A particularly rewarding moment was when he had his pic taken alongside his (and our) hero Peter Tatchell, who remains an inspiration to us all (small town or big city queens alike) for his ceaseless efforts on behalf of our rights and our liberation.

Our host Rupert Smith opened the proceedings with a potted outline of the context against which the night was set - the 40th anniversary of a major landmark in gay history, when a hitherto insignificant New York gay bar and its punters stood up to their continued harassment by the police, and fought back. The Stonewall Riots began.

Professor Jeffrey Weeks (London South Bank University) began the evening with a very incisive exploration of whether the Stonewall "riots" were actually the foundation of everything we think of as "gay liberation". His argument, notwithstanding his own background in activism, was that yes, the events of June 1969 in America did indeed breed a new form of radical direct action amongst gay people - not least the formation of the Gay Liberation Front here in the UK, and the various attempts to make Gay Pride events happen, from the early 70s to today's glittery parade, at a time of year that commemorates Stonewall.

But he also exposed the various well-documented divisions that occurred almost as soon as movements such as the GLF arrived. Women, political lobbyists such as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (as opposed to direct action aficionados), bisexuals and the Trans community soon went their own separate but distinct ways - and the rest, as they say is history.

Lindsay River (Director of user-led older LGBT organisation, Age of Diversity) followed, with her personal perspective on one of those dichotomies - the role of gay women in the rights movement. Her early loyalties torn between the budding GLF (which ironically she joined in the early 70s just as the radical lesbians all quit en masse) and her radical leftie feminism, she gave us a fascinating insight into her own evolution from those early days into the frequent attempts to get lesbianism recognised within the wider Women's Movement, and to get women's rights integrated within the gay rights movement.

Roz Kaveney - whose excellent and quotable mantra is "I was reared Catholic but got over it, was born male but got over it, stopped sleeping with boys about the time I stopped being one and am much happier than I was when I was younger" - led our understanding of Stonewall (and its repercussions) down a separate path.

Obviously trannies, TVs and drag queens have subsequently been recognised for the vital and central part they played in repelling the cops on that particular night (read my blog for a potted history), but, stung by the memory of how certain elements of this so-called "unified" gay rights movement tried to play down the significance of their presence, she read a poem she recently composed on the subject and dramatically placed the spotlight back onto those "Stonewall Girls" who were actually on the forefront of the action.

Part one of our evening concluded in an even more fittingly dramatic style as Rikki Beadle Blair, actor and creator of Stonewall the Movie (and play, which we went to see at The Pleasance Theatre before it went to Edinburgh in 2007), took the stage. In an excellent and captivating extract from his "one (wo)man show" he captured loudly, proudly, dramatically and brilliantly the (semi-biographical) feelings of a naive gay black man who relives the pride of the drag queens ("six inch heels, seven inch wig, slinky gown and loads of attitude") who led the riot, then recreates him/herself with all the pride, drama and chutzpah that they inspired in him. Superb!

Paul Burston, Michael Twaits, Jeffrey Weeks, Peter Tatchell, Ruth Hunt, Rikki Beadle-Blair, Roz Kaveney

Opening part two, Ruth Hunt (Head of Policy and Research at Stonewall), a "young dyke in a suit", as she described herself - took us through a little of what the current day lobbyists - named, twenty years after the event, in honour of the riots - stood for, and what they had achieved (quietly, maybe, without direct action, maybe) on behalf of gay people in the political arena.

She freely admitted that there were indeed critics of their, and her, modus operandi, but that she was more than well aware that in some future political climate there may once more be a need for a more radical type of protest - and that she would be ready and more than willing for the challenge should that day ever arrive.

Our star speaker was of course the tireless, splendid and iconic campaigner Peter Tatchell. His speech - welcomed with whoops of acclaim from our audience - tore into some of the shameful facts that remain about what gay people have actually achieved over the past forty years, and what in effect "second best" citizens we remain, from the perspective of equal - or even distinct - rights. Peter's utopian vision may sometimes appear to drift towards ultra-leftie "commune"-based idealism, but at the heart of the matter are some absolutely brilliant insights.

"Civil partnership" is indeed a compromise. We are supposed to accept the fact that we will never be able to marry if we want to or not, there is no option for becoming "next of kin" or gaining any of the other "advantages" that come with "civil partnership" without succumbing to a prescribed social "norm" of a ceremony, and no-one - whether gay or straight - who wants to opt out of a religious or civil ceremony has any partnership rights at all.

The "age of consent" may well have been equalised at 16 for gays as well as heterosexuals, but under this government's tenure the specific criminalisation of anyone who dares to be sexually active under that age is now written into the statute books, with a maximum prison sentence of six months (unprecedented under any previous government).

Shocking, angry stuff - yet so many gay people are completely unaware of the facts!

Peter's rapturous ovation almost brought the house down. However, we had one final treat in store, as the lovely Michael Twaits took the stage. "Post drag; Post Gender; Post giving a shit!". We had seen and enjoyed his thunderous, poetic patter-song/poem about the experiences of the queens on the night of the Stonewall riots (set the the backing track of Amy Winehouse's Back in Black) before, but tonight, after a breathtaking evening, it just seemed to be the most fitting way to round off the final event of the London Literature Festival...

Stonewall: 40

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