Stonewall, Fifty Years On

Well, it’s 28th June 2019 which means that it is exactly 50 years to the day since the Stonewall Riots, the event commemorated each year by the annual Pride celebrations. The Dublin Pride Parade is tomorrow, actually. My Facebook and twitter feeds have been filled with rainbows all week, and it is nice to to see so many people, straight and gay, celebrating diversity and equality. I’m a bit more cynical about the number of businesses that have tried to cash in on  Pride but even that is acceptance of a sort. It remains to be seen how many of them are fair weather friends. I’m sure I’m not the only person who sees the dark clouds of bigotry threatening the fragile and precious rainbow.

 

It’s all very different from the first Pride March I went on, way back in 1986. That was a much smaller scale event than yesterday’s, and politicians were – with very few exceptions – notable by their absence.

It was in the early hours of the morning of Saturday June 28th 1969 that the Stonewall Riots took place in the Greenwich Village area of New York City. There are few photographs and no film footage of what happened which, together with some conflicting eyewitness accounts, has contrbuted to the almost mythical status of these demonstations, which were centred on the Stonewall Inn (which, incidentally, still exists).  What is, I think, clear is that they were the spontaneous manifestation of the anger of a community that had simply had enough of the way it was being treated by the police. Although it wasn’t the first such protest in the USA, I still think it is also the case that Stonewall was a defining moment in the history of the movement for LGBT equality.

One of the myths that has grown up around Stonewall is that the Stonewall Inn was a place primarily frequented by drag queens and it was the drag queens who began the fight back against intolerable  police harassment. That was the standard version, but the truth is much more complicated and uncertain that that. Nevertheless, it is clear that it was the attempted arrest of four people – three male (cross-dressers) and one female – that ignited the protest. Whether they led it or not, there’s no doubt that drag queens played a major role in the birth of the gay liberation movement. Indeed, to this day, it remains the case that the “T” part of the LGBT spectrum (which I interpret to include Transgender and Transvestite) is often neglected by the rest of the rainbow.

I have my own reasons for being grateful for drag queens. When I was a youngster (still at School) I occasionally visited a gay bar in Newcastle called the Courtyard. I was under age for drinking alcohol let alone anything else – the age of consent was 21 in those days – but I got a kick out of the attention I received and flirted outrageously without ever taking things any further. I never had to buy my own drinks, let’s put it that way.

Anyway, one evening I left the pub to get the bus home – the bus station was adjacent to the pub – but was immediately confronted by a young bloke who grabbed hold of me and asked if I was a “poof”. Before I could answer, a figure loomed up behind him and shouted “Leave him alone!”. My assailant let go of me and turned round to face my guardian angel, or rather guardian drag queen. No ordinary drag queen either. This one, at least in my memory, was enormous: about six foot six and built like a docker, but looking even taller because of the big hair and high heels. The yob laughed sneeringly whereupon he received the immediate response of a powerful right jab to the point of the chin, like something out of boxing manual. His head snapped back and hit the glass wall of a bus shelter. Blood spurted from his mouth as he slumped to the ground.

I honestly thought he was dead, and so apparently did my rescuer who told me in no uncertain terms to get the hell away. Apart from everything else, the pub would have got into trouble if they’d known I had even been in there. I ran to the next stop where I got a bus straightaway. I was frightened there would be something on the news about a violent death in the town centre, but that never happened. It turns out the “gentleman” concerned had bitten his tongue when the back of his head hit the bus shelter. Must have been painful, but not life-threatening. My sympathy remains limited.

I think there’s a moral to this story, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide what it is.

Anyway, back to Pride. In a post a few days ago I referred to the view that since we now, for example, ave equal marriage then it’s basically all done, isn’t it? There’s now no discrimination. You can stop talking about LGBT+ matters and `just be a scientist’.

That, I’m afraid, is bollocks. We may have equal marriage but, though welcome, by no means represents some sort of utopia. Society is still basically a patriarchy, configured in a way that is profoundly unfair to many groups of people, so there are still many challenges to be fought. Hate crimes against LGBT+ – especially transgender – people have rocketed. The rise of fascism around the world is encouraging bigots to target minorities and other vulnerable groups with their agenda of hate. Unless we keep pushing for a truly inclusive society there is a real danger that the rights we have won could easily be rolled back. In fact, you could really say that it’s really just the start. We still need to stand up for ourselves just like the heroes of 1969.

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15 Responses to “Stonewall, Fifty Years On”

  1. There seems to be a problem with the link; try this: https://thestonewallinnnyc.com/

  2. the “T” part of the LGBT spectrum (which I interpret to include Transgender and Transvestite) is often neglected by the rest of the rainbow

    Why do you think that is?

    • telescoper Says:

      I wish I knew. Some claim that transgender rights are an attack on women’s rights. To me this is just a cover for bigotry. See the furore about a recent letter in the Sunday Times.

      • Something got cut off.

      • telescoper Says:

        I responded prematurely.

      • OK, link is there now.

      • That article uses “LGBTQIA+”. There is a sort of “mine’s longer” game played with such initialisms. In particular, “P” is left out more often than “T”, but whenever I mention this, no-one even wants to comment on it.

      • telescoper Says:

        The Gay Rights movement initially excluded Lesbians. Then the Lesbian & Gay movement excluded Bisexuals. Now there are LGB people who want to exclude Trans people. It’s all part of a pattern, but I think inclusivity will win in the end.

      • “I responded prematurely.”

        As long as it’s just “responded”. 🙂

      • “I wish I knew. Some claim that transgender rights are an attack on women’s rights.”

        My theory is that many people (both within and without the rainbow) just don’t “get” it. Not in the sense of “live and let live”, which sensible people should be comfortable with. I think that there is some confusion because the LGB community (rightly) campaigned for decades to get people to treat people as people, and not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference, etc, whereas to some it seems that the whole point of “T” is to be treated differently because of one’s adopted gender. Another issue is that many equal-opportunity (certainly a worthy goal) activists (including many from the LGB camp, of course) claim (without good evidence, in my view; I probably agree with Anton here) that all mental differences between the sexes are culturally induced, in other words that there is no such thing as a “male brain” or “female brain”. At the same time, the wish to transition because one has “been born in the wrong type of body” only works if there is such a thing as a “male brain” and a “female brain”. (Obviously, this concerns transgender; transvestite is probably a different kettle of fish and exists only because of stereotypical male and female dress, behaviour, etc—there are also other reactions to this, as those of us old enough to remember tomboys and dandys know.)

      • “It’s all part of a pattern, but I think inclusivity will win in the end.”

        Many people have pointed out that progress consists in part of widening the group defined as “us” as opposed to “them”.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip,

        My one question in regard to T=trans issues is:

        When someone with genotype XY and a penis and testes from birth declares “I am a woman/am female”, or someone with genotype XX and a vagina from birth declares “I am a man/am male”, what definitions of “man”, woman”, “male”, female” are they using?

        I am asking in good faith, ie because I don’t know the answer and I wish to.

      • “When someone with genotype XY and a penis and testes from birth declares “I am a woman/am female”, or someone with genotype XX and a vagina from birth declares “I am a man/am male”, what definitions of “man”, woman”, “male”, female” are they using?”

        Note that I am not an expert on this topic. Personally, I don’t see the point. (Note that the issue of intersex individuals—a very small minority—who choose to try to become one or the other of the traditional two sexes as much as possible is a different issue, so your caveats above are important.) If I chose to live as a woman, I doubt that I would do anything different from what I do now. I don’t think that I would behave differently, dress differently, etc. (Note that traditional fashions often deemed to be masculine or feminine usually have nothing to do with sexuality; despite some claims by squares to the contrary, the fraction of gays among long-haired hippies is probably no higher than in the general population.) Until they became too thin due to chemotherapy, I had hair down to my waist, deemed to be feminine in some circles. (I’ve also had a full beard for almost all of my adult life. Isaac Asimov once pointed out, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, that most people opposed to men with long hair are also opposed to beards.) Right now I am wearing sandals marketed as women’s sandals. Neither budges me from my heterosexuality. 🙂 Many trans people seem to go for exaggerated examples of masculine or feminine fashion: shiny leather shoes, short hair, pipe, or make-up, high heels, nail polish. In fact I find these silly even among heterosexuals. Of course, people can do what they like as long as no-one else’s freedom is compromised, but personally I find such fashions rather superficial, and not necessarily indicative of any transsexual tendencies (many tomboys and dandies are heterosexual).

        I think that this is part of what I mentioned above that many people just don’t get it; I include myself in that group. Of course, that doesn’t mean that such people should be treated any worse than others. I have no problem understanding homosexuality even though I am not gay, so perhaps it’s easier to sympathize. Personally I have no problem with trans people, but like fans of death metal, or obsessive sports fans, or drivers of SUVs, I just have little in common with them. This goes along with my personal taste of simple down-to-Earth tastes and an aversion to spending time and money on unimportant things.

        There are, of course, people who feel that they have been born in a body of the wrong sex, and thus might refer to themselves with the opposite of their born sex as a prelude to various methods of transitioning—surgery, hormones, whatever. This seems to be a genuine condition in a few people. But, let’s face it, there are people who start referring to themselves as members of the other sex and have no intention of any sort of actual physiological transition. As Lou Reed sang, ” Plucked her eyebrows on the way / Shaved her legs and then he was a she” (quite apart from the fact that there are many women who neither shave their legs nor pluck their eyebrows and a few men who do). Sure, whatever floats your boat, but I don’t see it as a sign of any sort of transitioning, probably because as an old hippie I’m not comfortable with the stereotypical roles assigned to men and women (which, of course, have changed over the centuries). There are people who are biologically male by all definitions but who see themselves as women and have no intention of physiological transitions; they are sexually attracted to women and hence refer to themselves as lesbians and are sometimes disappointed that not all lesbians are into male sexual equipment. I just don’t get it. (If I felt that I were somehow a woman in a man’s body, I would certainly have a problem with the fact that any sort of physiological transition is rather superficial and somehow “not real”. But that might not bother some people. Some heterosexual men are perfectly happy with a woman with silicone breasts, whereas I wouldn’t be.)

        I certainly don’t subscribe to the “sex is a social construct” idea. An interesting point of comparison is Rachel Dolezal; even she was too much for many of the “race is a social construct” crowd.

        Unless perhaps if I am sexually interested in someone, I don’t treat men any different from women. As I mentioned above, to some extent this seems to be the point of “T”, to be treated differently by society. Since I don’t make any distinctions anyway, it’s no problem for me, but I understand how it might confuse people when they are lumped in with L, G, B, etc. who, rightly in my view, have been campaigning for the goal that a person’s sexuality shouldn’t determine how they are treated by society.

        Things would be easier if people were just more sensible. As a famous philosopher once said, “Well, it’s nothing very special. Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

      • Of course, I’m just an old white cis heterosexual man (in some rankings somewhere between amoeba and algae); an article by a gay drag queen with a Ph.D. on Noel Coward is an interesting read.

        I’ve stumbled off several articles in Quillette over the past few months. It is a good antidote to many in the so-called left who seem to have become embarrassing caricatures of what progressive idealists should be.

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