Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Ghosts of Stonewall - A Blog for Suddenly Fem by CiCi Kytten

(October is LGBT History Month. Please do not mistake me for a historian. I’m a blogger. Like many others, I’m trying to make sense of where we’re going by looking back at where we’ve been. This blog was written with more than a little help from online historical accounts and Wikipedia.)

On a recent trip to New York City, my friend told me a story about the old theaters of Broadway.  Sitting in those old halls during the intermissions between acts, I could imagine the many actors, musicians and stagehands who have worked those stages -- some of them dating back to the 1800‘s. And, apparently, some of those performers might never have left. The theaters are said to be haunted. Therefore, every night, a light is traditionally left on to illuminate the stage -- in order to ward off the ghosts of Broadway.

I had a wonderful weekend in New York. I spent most of my time near Broadway or Time Square. I saw some shows. Saw some sights. But I wanted to take some time to visit the Stonewall Inn.  

And I didn’t just want to visit. I didn’t just want to pose for a few selfies outside on Christopher Street. I wanted to spend some time inside the inn. To have a drink. To shoot some pool. To sit quietly in the back room and soak up the history. I wanted to  spend a little time with the ghosts of Stonewall.

Spending some time with the ghosts of Stonewall.
Sylvia Rivera and Masha P. Johnson
Of course, you can’t really visit Stonewall. You would need a time machine to truly visit.  The Village has changed. The gay and trans communities have changed.  Anti-LGBT legislation and police enforcement have changed (somewhat). And to a certain extent, the very nature of being gay or lesbian or trans has changed. With changes in social acceptance and legislation comes confidence.  And with confidence comes a whole new way of behaving.  Of interacting with the rest of the world. Of thinking.

The people of the 1960’s had no such acceptance. They feared the police.  And as for legislation, in many cities - including New York -- the mere act of dressing in apparel “not belonging to his or her sex” was illegal. The act of wearing less than three items of clothing for one's assigned gender was cause for arrest. (This actually happened to a friend of mine in Santa Monica in the late 1990’s. I would have thought those antiquated laws would have been overturned by the 90’s!)

I should also add that the Stonewall Inn is not a museum. It’s a working bar. It’s not all that different from the corner bars you might find in the little milltown where I grew up in Massachusetts.  A lot of old timers at the bar.  A pool table with no chalk.  And a lot of faded pictures of days gone by.

On the whole, it’s a pretty ordinary dark, cramped gay bar with lots of rainbow flags and posters of upcoming drag shows on the windows. I sat with my friend in the back room, nursing my rum and Coke and channeling a few ghosts.

In the 1960‘s the Stonewall was run by organized crime. Queens who were often denied entry at other gay establishments found a home here. As did runaway youths who weren’t old enough (under 18) to drink in a legit bar.  Some say the street queens were merely tolerated at Stonewall. Others say they controlled the juke box -- and that’s why it was such a great place to dance. (As you can already see, reports and memories of those days vary greatly.)

Some descriptions of the Stonewall Inn make it sound almost like a flop house as much as a bar. One writer said that gay and trans young people -- tossed out of their homes or having run away because their homes became hostile -- could hustle or panhandle for the three dollar cover charge and spend most of the night in the inn.  A warm haven in the cold New York winters.

There are some reports that in those days, desperate trans youth resorted to self-castration in the back rooms of such bars -- although that report didn’t specify the back room of the Stonewall. Still, it was difficult to sit in that back room and not think of a young runaway -- with no job, no higher education, no home, and no hope -- seeking some semblance of peace of mind with a razor blade and a few damp bar towels.

Above the doorway in the back room of the Stonewall are framed photos of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson -- two key figures in the both the Stonewall riot and the dawn of trans activism. Some say Marsha was the drag queen who threw the first brick at the riot. Others say she was the person who uprooted the parking meter that was used as a battering ram to knock down the front door of the inn.  Sylvia recalls taunting the police and tossing pennies at them -- the police reported being hit by projectiles including bricks (from the cobblestone streets), bottles, and spare change.

You can argue their specific roles in the riot. Riots tend not to be neatly organized, planned or chronicled. You can attempt to diminish their roles in a feature film about the event (as was recently done) and try to whitewash the contributions of these two extraordinary people of color. But what is not up for debate is their generosity and courage in protecting and advocating for the rights and safety of trans people, queers, street kids and people of color throughout their lives.  

Together they formed STAR -- Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries. Often homeless themselves, they dedicated their lives to advocating on the behalf of homeless street queens and gender queer runaways. Both were known to give to others when they had little or nothing themselves and both were visible participants in civil rights marches and Pride events.  (Famously, Sylvia was booed at one of the first Gay Pride events -- an indication of the strained relationship between gays and trans people that still exists today.)

Sylvia spent years running a food kitchen that catered to the street kids of the neighborhood. Marsha went on to become a founder and key figure in ACT-UP.   Marsha retained her male identity throughout her life, sometimes appearing as Malcolm, Marshall or Mikey. As her friend, journalist Randy Wicker, said, “Marsha rose above being a man or a woman, rose above being black or white, rose above being straight or gay" 

Similarly, Sylvia transcended labels. Later in life she stated, I’m tired of being labeled. I don’t even like the label transgender. I just want to be who I am. I am Sylvia Rivera. Ray Rivera left home at the age of 10 to become Sylvia. And that’s who I am.”

For me, it was an odd feeling sitting in the backroom. Feeling as though I was sitting in just another bar with modern day pop music blaring, while simultaneously feeling as though I was occupying hallowed ground. I was overcome by a sense of sadness for the people who once drank there and danced there and fell in love there. I suppose I should have felt happy that there in those dark corners they found refuge and a few hours of warmth and acceptance.

But I know that their lives were devastatingly difficult. I know that their lives were hard.

I was also saddened by the thought that, while conditions have certainly improved, our current community still faces many of the same challenges. We are a long way from an acceptable level of respect in mainstream society and far from equal treatment under the law. Worst of all, murders of innocent trans people -- many of them particularly vicious and heartless in nature -- still occur with devastating regularity. 

I am also sad to think of the conflicts that I see occurring within our current trans community.  As I read varying accounts of the Stonewall Riot, I saw many references to cross dressers, drag queens, and sex workers. Positive references. References of respect. References to acts of courage and defiance that ignited the riot that started the movement that has led to better lives for so many of us -- gay, lesbian, trans, whatever.

Cross dressers.  Drag queens.  And sex workers.

Ironically, these are the very same groups that many in the trans community are now trying to distance themselves from. Hoping that we’ll all assimilate. Hoping that we’ll all conform to some mainstream view of what is acceptable, appropriate, and correct.  But to me, this sounds an awful lot like that very same logic that led many in the gay community to marginalize trans people and shout down Sylvia Rivera.

The ghosts of Stonewall are still haunting us. Warning us. Reminding us that there is strength in unity, in selflessness, in charity of spirit. That having the courage to be yourself doesn’t have to mean denying others the very same right.  

Take care our there.
Be safe. Be smart. Be sexy.



Lydia L said...

Thanks CiCi for the primer on Stonewall as well as sharing your personal thoughts from your visit.

BTW, looks like you know your way around a pool table. Great form! :)

Sarah J said...

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