LGBT History Month: A Postgraduate Perspective

Every February, in the UK, is also LGBT History Month. Across the country, events which promote queer history took place throughout the month: York Castle Museum took steps to ‘bring history out of the closet’ and build an LGBT collection; Birmingham University hosted a series of talks, performances and screenings, and Universities across Manchester joined together to run a full programme of events. To recognise this month of celebrations, we have invited one of our PhD students, Jamie Cumby, to share some reflections on LGBT history. Jamie is writing a dissertation focusing on the book trade in 16th century Lyons but has a long standing interest in contemporary queer theory, as well as current scholarship in queer history.

This February/Queer History Month, a few things have been on my mind.  Ever striving to be a crowd-pleaser, I’ll start talking about them with a Princess Bride joke:

“Stonewall” – You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.

Leslie Feinberg,  taken by Leslie Feinberg, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The popular story of the gay rights movement frequently begins with the NYPD raiding the Stonewall Inn on June 27th, 1969, triggering a five-day riot in New York’s Greenwich Village.  The riot happened in the context of widespread police violence against LGBT people).  Homosexuality was still firmly against the law in 1969.  Police would frequently raid known gay hotspots to round up gender transgressors.  For example, when Leslie Feinberg the author of Stone Butch Blues, lived in Albany, NY in the 1950s, the law required a person to wear at least three items of gender-appropriate clothing. When taken back to the station, the LGBT detainees were frequently raped and beaten as “punishment”.  Although the Stonewall Riot was not the first major strike back against this regime of police terror (the honour goes to the August 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco), it was momentum from this event that eventually transformed into the annual Pride parade.

You may be saying “Wait a minute, Jamie! We know this! And it sounds like we know what Stonewall means.”

Stonewall certainly was one of the biggest flashpoints in contemporary queer liberation movements.  It is absolutely right to link “Stonewall” with gay rights. However, the annual pride parades that take place in June throughout the United States, which ostensibly commemorate it, have strayed far from the movement’s initial leaders and values. Whilst gains such as Marriage Equality campaigns and LGBT adoption have given us a world out forebears could only dream of, the kind of person who can be concerned with the sort of future they will build has to have a possibility of a future at all.

Taken by Patrick Down, CC BY-NC 2.0

Taken by Patrick Down, CC BY-NC 2.0

The issue does not lie with Stonewall as an important moment, but with the way we decontextualize it.  The word loses its meaning when contemporary rhetoric draws a direct line from Stonewall to Marriage Equality.  This false equivalence gives rise to the assumption that the leaders of the 1969 Stonewall riots were the same sorts of people who are the public face of gay rights today.

The person who “threw the first bottle” in the 1969 riot didn’t look like Dan Savage, and her message was certainly not about waiting for “it” to “get better”: Her name was Marsha P. Johnson and she was a poor, black trans woman who could not afford to wait.  On the night of the raid, when the police divided the bar’s patrons by perceived gender, and forced each in turn to expose their genitals to verify this assessment, Johnson shouted “I got my civil rights!” and threw a shot glass at a mirror.  Her unwillingness to continue submitting to transmisogyny and police violence triggered a similar response in her comrades, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Marsha was an advocate for the entire gay community, certainly, but she fought especially hard for our community’s most marginalized members.  She was a co-founder of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), which began as the brainchild of her long-time friend and fellow trans woman of colour, Silvia Rivera.  STAR provided food, shelter, clothing, and advocacy for young, homeless trans women and drag queens, who ordinarily would have to resort to street hustling and petty theft in order to survive.  Rivera and Johnson funded the project out of pocket, often putting themselves at risk in order to afford rent and food for their “STAR people”.

Stonewall Inn: Taken by Scott Beale/ Laughing Squid (laughingsquid.com), CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Stonewall Inn: Taken by Scott Beale/ Laughing Squid, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By 1973, only four years after Stonewall, the gay rights movement was already working hard to disassociate itself from its trans advocates.  There is a profoundly affecting video, taken during the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally of Silvia Rivera’s final public appearance before her twenty year hiatus from the mainstream movement.  Having overcome a push from trans exclusionists to deny her the right to speak, Silvia faced down abuse from the crowd to shout the fundamental importance of STAR and trans people to gay liberation.

Though the Rivera we see in the clip is powerful, self-possessed woman, later that same day she attempted suicide.  Despite being part of the original Stonewall riot, Silvia was soon rejected and almost destroyed by a mainstream pride movement that came to focus on respectability politics before trans advocacy.

Marsha P. Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River in July of 1992.  The NYPD refused to re-open her case as a possible homicide until 2012.  In 2015, at least five trans women of color have already been murdered in the United States alone.  Pride cannot claim the legacy of Stonewall while erasing its trans founding mothers, particularly not when it is legal to argue that a trans woman is to blame for her own murder in 49 States.

If anything represents the failure of the Pride movement to fully embody the riot’s legacy, it is this.  It is the lack of justice for Lamia Beard, Taja DeJesus, Penny Proud, Ty Underwood, and Yasmin Vash Payne in 2015, and the lack of justice for Marsha P. Johnson in 1969, in 1973, and in 1992.

About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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