Reclaiming Stonewall

I suspect that most people in the LGBT community have heard the name Stonewall, and know something about the Stonewall Riots of 1969, and how they led to the Gay Rights movement which has campaigned for equal rights for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual people across the world. But, to all intents and purposes, the LGB movement has seemingly ignored Trans people, leaving us to campaign on our own. I suspect, though, that not too many LGB people recognise the horrible irony of this.

I’m going to throw two names at you, dear reader and, be honest with yourself, there’s a good chance that you’ve probably never heard of them or know who they are. They are: Sylvia Rae Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. No? Then read on. (Kudos if you really did know).

These two are trans women who, on the 28th June 1969, became leaders in the Stonewall riots, a turning point in LGBT rights, when a police raid on the Stonewall Tavern, a gay bar, on Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, NYC resulted in a series of of spontaneous and violent demonstrations. Rivera and Johnson, both present in the bar, became the first to strike back at the police. Rivera is quoted as saying “I’m not missing a minute of this — it’s the revolution!”

Sylvia Rivera went on to become a founder member of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance and, with Marsha Johnson, also formed STAR, Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries. One of the GLF’s first acts was to organize a march in response to Stonewall and to demand an end to the persecution of homosexuals. The GLF had a broad political platform, denouncing racism and declaring support for various Third World struggles and the Black Panther Party. They took an anti-capitalist stance and attacked the nuclear family and traditional gender roles.

A parallel GLF was set up in the UK in 1970 which eventually led to the creation of  the London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard and then to OutRage! and Stonewall.

Sylvia Rivera eventully left the GLF due to a falling out over the marginalisation of trans people by the gay community.This marginalisation was brought to the fore in the 1973 Stonewall Rally when feminist activist Jean O’Leary protested the presence of crossdressers and drag queens, believing they were mocking women. During a speech by O’Leary, in which she claimed that drag queens made fun of women for entertainment value and profit, Sylvia Rivera and Lee Brewster jumped on the stage and shouted “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!”

This marginalisation continued through the years. Marsha Johnson died in 1992 in mysterious circumstances, her body found floating in the Hudson River. The police ruled it suicide but, with continued pressure from her friends and supporters, eventually reopened the case in 2012. Trans exclusion increased over the years, as attitudes about binary and fluid sexual orientation and gender developed and came increasingly into conflict.

Rivera eventually led a protest march against trans marginalisation in 1994, in response to the exclusion of trans people from the Stonewall 25 march in NYC. Since then, trans exclusion from the LGB community seems to have grown. In the US, the inclusion of transition expenses and surgery costs  was removed from medical insurance cover, in 1980, on the recommendation of the radical feminist Janice Raymond. It also seems that its impossible for US trans people, especially trans women, to perform even the simplest functions, such as using a public toilet, without suffering from some form of harassment.

In the UK, in the last few years, our situation has improved. The inclusion of gender identity in the Equalities Act, the ability to change our birth certificate to reflect the correct gender and our ability to get married. Our ability to obtain treatment on the NHS, with ongoing support is something none of us take for granted.

Everything we, as trans people gain, has been as a result of the work and dedication of trans people. Every inch of legal protection, every scrap of equality, every ounce of recognition has been gained by trans women and trans men.

Yet, we have been treated, as a whole, like the little sister that no one has time for, marginalised and left to fend for ourselves by the gay rights movement that trans women helped to start.

I think it’s time we reclaimed Stonewall, don’t you?