The Myth of a Transgender Stonewall

by Dale Carpenter on March 7, 2002

Originally appeared March 7, 2002, in the author's "OutRight" syndicated column.

The recent death of Sylvia Rivera, an activist drag queen who threw quarters at the police during the Stonewall riot, has prompted much guilt-laden commentary about how the gay civil rights movement has pushed aside "the people who started it all." The commentary is dubious as a matter of history and wrong about the policy conclusions it draws from that history.

Here is the standard story: "On the night of June 28, 1969, the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar that included a mix of drag queens and lesbians. Led by the drag queens, the patrons fought back, igniting the gay civil rights movement. Yet the new movement soon became overly image-conscious and pushed these brave heroes to the back of the bus. It's high time we repay our debt by fully including transgender issues in gay causes, including proposed legislation."

This fictionalized account of Stonewall and its aftermath has been repeated so many times by gay and transgender activists it now goes almost unquestioned. Typical of the genre is a recent Village Voice column by Riki Wilchins, executive director of GenderPAC. Wilchins describes the Stonewall Inn in 1969 as a "sanctuary" for "genderqueers," who were "unwelcome at the city's tonier gay bars."

Wilchins asserts Rivera "helped [give] birth" to the gay movement at Stonewall. Similarly, in his book The Gay Metropolis, Charles Kaiser says Stonewall was "sparked by drag queens." Despite these contributions, transgender causes are now excluded from the movement because, as Wilchins puts it, gay organizations are "determined to project an image of normalcy."

This is politics-by-guilt-trip, and it has been undeniably effective in redirecting many gay groups' priorities toward transgender issues. The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force has even withdrawn its support of the only federal legislation that would prohibit anti-gay employment discrimination because the bill does not include "gender identity" within its protections.

The standard tale is error piled on error. First, it exaggerates the undeniable importance of Stonewall as a catalytic event. As the careful work of numerous historians has demonstrated, there was an active gay civil rights effort underway long before Stonewall. Gay activists had organized the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in 1950, and in other cities later; had supported an openly gay candidate for public office; had fought the closing of gay bars; had founded a national magazine, The Advocate; had marched in front of the White House for equal rights; and had picketed businesses that discriminated against gays.

Outside of New York, according to Stephen Murray in his book American Gay, gay activists initially paid little attention to Stonewall. Only through the annual pride parade commemorations that began a year later and spread significantly in the mid-1970s did Stonewall take on the singular importance in gay history it now enjoys. At the time it happened, however, the event simply did not carry the incredible motivating force we now attach to it.

Second, the centrality of transgenders to Stonewall is probably exaggerated. Eyewitness accounts of what happened that night vary, as they usually do, and we have no videotape of the event and very few pictures.

But one thing is clear. It is wrong to characterize the Stonewall Inn as having been a sanctuary for genderqueers (unless that term encompasses non-transgendered gay men). Murray writes that "men familiar with the milieu then insist that the Stonewall clientele was middle-class white men and that very few drag queens or dykes or nonwhites were ever allowed admittance."

But don't take Murray's word for it, consider what Sylvia Rivera herself told the historian Eric Marcus for his book, Making History: "The Stonewall wasn't a bar for drag queens. Everybody keeps saying it was. ... If you were a drag queen, you could get into the Stonewall if they knew you. And only a certain number of drag queens were allowed into the Stonewall at that time." The night of the Stonewall riot was the first time Rivera had ever even been to the bar.

If Rivera is right, it seems likely the Stonewall patrons who rebelled that June night in 1969 included many (perhaps mostly) middle-class, non-transgendered, gay white males. It's possible that the few drag queens present provided all (or most of) the rebellion while the others cowered. But there is no reason to make that assumption unless we indulge stereotypes about the timidity of gay men. So a description of the riot as an uprising of drag queens may be more politically correct, but as history it seems partial.

This point does not deny that drag queens participated in the riot. They did. It only makes the point that their centrality to the event likely has been exaggerated, probably for ideological reasons.

Finally, these historical disputes have no bearing - either way - on whether "gender identity" ought to be included in gay civil rights legislation. Even if Stonewall was the single casus belli of the gay struggle, and even if transgenders were the only people there kicking shins and uprooting parking meters, so what? And even if no drag queens were present that night, what difference would it make now?

If we learned the Stonewall police had busted up a meeting of gay white racists, instead of drag queens, we wouldn't say that should make us more attentive to the concerns of racists. These matters rise or fall on their own merits, not on the relative role groups played in distant and disputed events.

And speaking of the merits, drafting legislation is an immensely complicated task that involves putting together a coalition of supporters. Gay civil rights legislation would be stalled or effectively killed in many places if transgenders were included. The choice is often between a more inclusive bill that goes nowhere and a less inclusive bill that actually becomes law. It is not "transphobic" to make this point; it is pragmatic.

These are hard realities that some people do not want to hear. We should not feel guilty because we want to make progress, least of all because someone is telling us fairy tales about our past.

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