Reclaiming Stonewall – Redux

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. Things in the US, however, are changing slowly. Many states have voted in protections for trans people, equal marriage, and now coverage for transition-related medical expenses (including surgery) from medical insurers.

In the UK, in the last few years, our situation has improved as well. Despite it’s flaws we have the Equalities Act, the introduction of the GRC (Gender Recognition Certificate) giving us the ability to change our birth certificate to reflect the correct gender, and the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act, giving us the legal ability to get married, (the annoyance of the spousal veto notwithstanding).  Our ongoing, (and sometimes problematical), ability to obtain treatment on the NHS, with ongoing support, is something none of us take for granted.

Unfortuantely, some of what benefits us as trans people has been gained as a by-product of changes put in place to benefit LGB people, with trans people often left out of the decision-making process. Everything that directly affects us only, as trans people, has been gained as a result of the work and dedication of trans people, by those at the forefront of activism in the UK. People such as Sarah Brown, Roz Kaveney, Natacha Kennedy, Sarah Savage, C. N. Lester, Fox Fisher and many others.  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 sitting in the corner that no one has time for, marginalised and left to fend for ourselves by the gay rights movement that trans women helped to start, and the organisation that carries its name.

We need to talk. Things need to change.

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

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Apocrypha and Apocalypse

I took a walk out yesterday and, despite the high temperature and humidity, (having worked in hotter countries, the humidity in the UK still gets to me), it was a lovely day. The sky was pale blue with not a cloud in sight, birds sang, people gathered in the parks to enjoy the sun, children played, the traffic flowed and all seemed well in the world. This troubled me. How come married couples were walking hand-in-hand in the parks and streets, and children playing happily, (well, most of them anyway)? Where were the plagues of rats and mice? Where were the floods, destroying the towns and cities and the terrible diseases to accompany them? Why weren’t husbands and wives murdering each other in the streets, while the children ran rampant and feral, attacking all and sundry. Why wasn’t society destroying itself in an orgy of insane violence?

After all, Same-Sex Marriage was signed into law last week.

Following many of the articles in the online press and reading many of the comments, from the members of the religious communities and the far right, regarding SSM, has been a constant source of both amusement and amazement, frequently at the same time. Many of the early comments focussed on the “Why change marriage when there are Civil Partnerships” argument here in the UK. Others focussed on the ‘death of society as we know it‘ and some just became abusive. Around the world the harbingers of doom came out of the woodwork, (closet-shaped, of course), to proclaim everything from plagues of rats and mice caused by gay people and gay marriage to full on end-of-the-world-in-six-months caused by the defeat of DOMA and Prop 8 in the US. And then there’s the Westboro Baptist Church, but the less said about that lot, the better.

But once again, the predicted doom has not come about. Oceans are not rising up, rats and mice are not flooding into cities and eating the citizenry, there isn’t a sudden rush on storms and tornado’s to destroy gay-friendly towns. There have been two earthquakes this week in China but, since China has no plans on introducing same-sex marriage, I doubt even the WBC could ascribe these to anything other than stress-relief in the Earth’s crust (although they’d probably give it a go).

Nope. All we have is 18 countries where same sex marriage has been legalised (I’ve included the US even though its not nationwide yet). 18 countries where society still flourishes and grows, changes, updates, moves on. This gives me hope that, despite the recent law changes in Russia and despite the problems suffered by gay and transgendered people in Greece and other countries, the human race is moving, albeit very slowly, in the right direction.

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Addendum

I’d started this entry with a whole host of quotes from various different people on the subject of Same Sex Marriage, and my replies, but it sort of changed as I went along, (which probably explains the stilted writing style). I have kept a couple below, along with links to their sources and other information:

One notable comment came from Dr John Semantu, the Archbishop of York regarding SSM and civil partnerships (BBC News 11th March 2012):

“There’s a difference – and people don’t these days want to talk about difference – there’s a difference between a civil partnership and marriage, and that difference doesn’t mean one is better than another, but they’re different.”

I wondered if he realised what the SSM bill was all about. CP’s are different from marriage. That’s the problem. They’re supposed to be equal but one is more equal than the other. (See The Lords of Orwellian Change). That’s the whole point of the government introducing the SSM bill, to make things equal.

Gerald Howarth, MP for Aldershot (my home) was even more off the wall and, seemingly, target as well (Aldershot News 8th Feb 2013):

“Civil partnerships offer virtually all the benefits available to married people. The vote last night will not secure equal marriage as the government suggests; it will create two forms of marriage.”

Um, two forms of marriage? Marriage and, er, marriage? The two forms will be straight marriage and gay marriage which, eventually through the natural evolution of language, will become ‘marriage’. CP’s offer “virtually all the benefits”? From that we can infer that they don’t actually offer all the benefits then.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, however, went down the ‘death of society’ route (BBC News, 4th June 2013):

The traditional concept of marriage will be “abolished” under plans to allow same-sex couples to marry in England and Wales, the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned, ahead of a crunch vote on the issue.Speaking in a debate in the House of Lords on Monday, the Most Rev Justin Welby said that marriage was the “cornerstone of society” and that what was being proposed was “neither equal nor effective”.

The Archbishop denied that his opposition to the bill was a faith issue, insisting it was “about the general social good”.

Hmm, “cornerstone of society”, “the general social good”. It makes me so annoyed that my teeth itch. It’s simple arrogance, coming from the leader of a church that came into existence by an Act of Parliament because a monarch wanted to get a divorce. If marriage is the “cornerstone of society” then society, as a whole, is doomed. The divorce rate was 42% in 2011 and there were approximately 2 million victims of domestic violence according to the ONS, so Justin Welby’s ‘cornerstone’ is crumbling quite badly. Maybe it can be shored up with the addition of Same-Sex Marriage.

In Russia, the leader of the Orthodox Church is claiming that same-sex marriage, having been legalised in so many countries, is the harbinger of the apocalypse:

“This is a very dangerous and apocalyptic symptom… It means that people are on the path of self-destruction.”  

Not really sure where to go with this one. Russia has been recently criticized for its introduction of anti-gay laws and the recent imprisonment of four Dutch tourists for “spreading gay propaganda to children”.

The Lords of Orwellian Change

I’ve been taking a somewhat perverse delight in reading various articles about the Same Sex marriage debate in the House of Lords just lately. It appears, with the number of amendments being tabled, that many of the members have an inherent fear of change. These amendments even have a name now, “wrecking amendments”, specifically designed to wreck or seriously delay the SSM bill’s passage through Parliament. They also have one other thing in common. They seem to also be designed to place same-sex marriage below that of opposite-sex marriage, all the while maintaining the façade of equality.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has tabled an amendment to bring two tiers of marriage into play. This redefines opposite-sex marriages as “traditional marriages” and makes a distinction between opposite-sex and same-sex marriage. The amendment states:

“nothing in this Act could take away the right of a man and woman to enter a traditional marriage. A ‘traditional marriage’ is one where the basis of the marriage is the voluntary union of one man and one woman for life, to the exclusion of all others.”

What concerns me about this is that nothing in the act takes away the right of opposite-sex couples to enter into a so-called “traditional marriage”. It merely extends the meaning of marriage to include same-sex couples, giving them the right to call their union a marriage. Lord Carey doesn’t even bother to give same-sex marriage a label, as if it is beneath him. Also, if it wasn’t so serious, the part about “voluntary union of one man and one woman for life”  would have me laughing, when you consider the divorce rate in this country (42% in 2010).

So, two tiers of marriage then? Both offer exactly the same vows, both have exactly the same status in law, both legally cement the relationship between two people who love each other, both have the same benefits but, if this distinction from Mr Carey were to go into the bill, one would become slightly more equal than the other. To paraphrase George Orwell’s character, Napoleon, in Animal Farm:

“All marriages are equal, but some marriages are more equal than others”

Another amendment, tabled by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, would allow straight couples to enter into civil partnerships. Why? Equality? CP’s were introduced because the SSM bill either wasn’t finished or the government of the day were too scared to bring it in, so they came up with Civil Partnerships.  CP’s were supposed to be equal in law but could never be called marriages. It was another example of discrimination masquerading as equality. So Lord Mackey wants to offer straight couples the ability to join Rosa Parks at the back of the bus? Or is it because same-sex couples had something that straight couples didn’t? Or is it something more insidious? Lord Mackey also went on to say that “marriage should be for natural procreation”. Is there a hint of something there or is my imagination reading something more than is being said? Giving opposite-sex couples who cannot have children a less than equal marriage, maybe?

Probably the most damaging amendment, though, is the call for a referendum on the SSM bill in 2015. This would mean that, even if the bill passed through all stages ready to become law, it couldn’t become law until voters approved it on 7th May 2015, at the earliest. Now, I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I  don’t recall ever being asked if I wanted the country to join Europe, or being asked to vote on Universal Credit, or the Equality Act 2010, or any other bill which affects nearly everyone in this country to one extent or another, prior to them becoming law. So why is it so important that a bill, which will bring equality to a small minority of the country, leaving the majority unaffected, be voted on in a countrywide referendum? It isn’t going to cause the end of the world, nor is it going to cause the downfall of society, or cause a post-apocalyptic degenerative society to suddenly appear. Most countries who have introduced SSM seem to be getting on with things quite well, even the US states which now have it don’t seem to have broken down into chaos and disorder.

I can only hope that the Lords see sense and reject all of these ‘wrecking’ amendments and take another step toward a saner world.