Marguerite McLaughlin meets some of the activists who took part in the Stonewall riots, 50 years ago this summer
BY MARGUERITE MCLAUGHLIN. IMAGE LESBIAN HERSTORY ARCHIVES, WIKICOMMONS
“If one event still captures the spirit of Stonewall – an in-your- face, anti-establishment activism – this is it. No oats, no corporations, no motorised vehicles of any kind, no grand marshals, no permits… We just meet at Bryant Park and off we go down Fifth Avenue,” is the way Maxine Wolfe, lifelong New York activist and a founding member of the Lesbian Avengers, describes the annual New York City Dyke March.
“In New York it’s come as you are, so some women are topless. It’s not illegal to be topless. A friend of mine showed off her mastectomy last year. Everyone is welcome, we keep it peaceful and loving in New York,” she proudly explains, while busy preparing for the 27th march taking place within the context of the global Pride 50th anniversary celebrations.
Much will be written this year about the significance of the Stonewall riots. And much of it will be sentimental or romanticised accounts of what happened on that sweltering weekend in June 1969.
My intention is to give some background and a voice to a number of the surviving women, ranging in ages from their 60s to their 80s, who were active contributors to the birth of the gay rights movement in the US that then spread throughout the world.
I’ve discovered that their activism has continued throughout their lives.
“Many people from that era are gone now because of age, illness, suicide and even murder,” explains Jean, a member of Sage, the American organisation for LGBT elders. “It was a hard life for many people trying to avoid harassment and arrest, unable to get jobs. Places like Stonewall didn’t have women there, the women went to other bars,” she recalls.
In fact, the more I’ve researched the events leading up to the riot at The Stonewall Inn bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the more apparent it becomes that Stonewall was a ashpoint arising out of a growing grassroots movement.
“The events of that night weren’t at all sudden or shocking, they were made possible by many years of committed activism by the Mattachine Society and The Daughters of Bilitis, and other groups that helped create and sustain thriving gay communities and political awareness. They were made possible by the passion of activists who had gained expertise in the women’s movement, the civil rights struggle, the anti-war (Vietnam) movement and socialist and communist groups,” writes author andactivist Karla Jay in her fascinating book Tales Of The Lavender Menace: A Memoir Of Liberation.
It strikes me as ironic that the “intersectional” approach, which is the increasing and very welcome focus of modern international LGBTQI organisations, was there from the very birth of the gay rights movement. Somehow, it lost its way in considering women’s needs as distinct from those of gay men.
When I asked why the Dyke March had separated itself from the Heritage Of Pride march, Karla cited the reason as being “the erasure of lesbian issues” from what was becoming the mainstream march. “Until then, we marched and protested within the Pride march, and we resisted from within about the way the march was going,” Karla remembers.
“It strikes me as ironic that the ‘intersectional’ approach, which is the increasing and very welcome focus of modern international LGBTQI organisations, was there from the very birth of the gay rights movement”
In her book, written about her early activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Karla writes that the same concern was evident regarding the treatment of lesbians even then – this time by the early feminist movement: “Perhaps many have forgotten that silence – the conscious or unconscious erasure of lesbian issues – is a form of oppression.”
The original aim of the Dyke March, a model now taken up around the world, was to encourage activism within the lesbian community. The march continues to promote visibility, as well as being a public protest,
with annual themes identified by a democratic process within a year-round membership structure that also raises enough money to hold the March and contribute to other vital intersectional causes and needs.
The word “dyke” is inclusive and a matter of self-definition. Anyone who identifies as a dyke is welcome – cis or trans. Allies line the route and join in (one rather memorable placard read “Cocksuckers For Muff Divers”).
Maxine Wolfe issued this invitation: “If being a woman speaks to you as a dyke then come along!”
“Individuals bring their history of activism with them, the knowledge and skills they’ve gained are given to the Dyke March. The commitment is very strong, and enduring, and includes influences from the Gay Liberation Front, Redstockings, the Gay Activists Alliance, the early Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, Lesbian Avengers and Act Up,” Maxine explains.
“The organising committee is responsive ’til the last minute. This year’s themes include ‘No Dyke Left Behind’, ‘Dyke Power Beyond Borders’ and ‘Celebrate But Keep Fighting’ – and there will be plenty more.”
These activists know their rights and they have created a strategy
that guarantees that, specifically as a protest march, there is no legal requirement to conform to many rules in order to gain permits. There is no need to negotiate with the police, politicians or sponsors. “The Dyke March is about the women who come – that they’re safe in a way that ensures that we are free to protest… so pass it on!”
Maxine encourages and points out that the dykes now too old to march will gather at an agreed location for a “pass by” so marching participants can honour them.
However, it’s the Sunday 30 June corporate-sponsored parade that will capture the attention of the world. The oats, limousines, motorbikes, costumed dancers, and corporate- branded employees of a massive list of public services, companies and multinationals all needing to wear official wristbands will take up to 12 hours to move off from the starting point. Those lining the route will be unable to join in.
While writing this piece, I was reminded of a quote from former DIVA columnist Cerian Jenkins in the March 2018 issue, where they ask: “Have we lost our path somewhere along the way and replaced the political with the individual, the radical with the spectacle?” These are clearly ongoing issues for the LGBTQI rights movement, half a century old.
In 1969, New York’s oppressive culture for gay men, butch and femme lesbians, drag queens and trans people meant they had nowhere else to go than a few run-down venues with vastly inflated drinks prices. Queer people were brought together who would never have socially mixed due to class, race and gender differences. Only the very privileged had access
to safe, private clubs, escaping the Mafia-controlled dive bars and, in a pre-internet era, information was hard to come by about any alternatives.
Each bar had a Mafia employee charging an entry fee at the door and providing “protection”, although what he was protecting the bar from was the Mafia as much as from the police. Yet, police raids were frequent, with laws allowing arrests for same-sex dancing and “the wearing of clothing of the opposite sex”.
It’s no surprise then that few photographs of the bars exist, since police regularly used surveillance methods to gain evidence.
The resulting atmosphere of anger and resentment, fuelled by the growing awareness of the civil rights movement and the desperation over the damage done to people’s lives if they had a criminal record, Karla Jay describes as “igniting a spontaneous stand off”. If not The Stonewall Inn, then any one of a number of other bars would have experienced the same resistance that turned violent.
In 1970, the Gay Liberation Front rapidly gained strength and, on the first anniversary of the Stonewall weekend of resistance, a movement was born that saw rapid increases in participation from a wider range of the LGBTQI population of the city. By the mid 1970s, there was a kind of grassroots support for the march. Many people felt that, even if they did nothing else that was political throughout the year, it was important to march and to show strength in numbers.
In the 1980s, the march reflected the need of the community to recognisethe threat and then to respond to the realities of Aids, especially the need for practical support for those who were ill with no access to healthcare.
It was in the 1990s,particularly the 25th anniversary of Pride, that saw a distinct change from Pride as a community-driven tradition and demonstration of diversity and solidarity into a corporate-sponsored event that saw over one million people walk past the United Nations. Suddenly, there was a dazzling array of expensive commercial options – nightclubs, specialist tours for out-of- towners and official souvenirs.
At a time of improved legal rights and the resulting visibility of the LGBTQI community, debates began to rage in activist and campaigning organisations, friendship circles, bars and restaurants, and even within traditional families about the choices available to LGBTQI people. The major one being to seek to live like everyone else or to explore new, different and perhaps more appropriate ways to form relationships and families.
“It is interesting that many of the members of Sage who I’ve met call the president ‘Number 45’, because they do not wish to even say his name”
“We have a beautiful option,” reflects Karla Jay. “We can transform straight society. Just changing legislation can turn against us. And marriage and serving in the military don’t necessarily work for straight people, never mind us.”
“We’re proud of being different. I’m 82 and still active, still changing,” Nancy, another member of Sage, tells me. “Sage has what we call our first ‘mixed lesbian couple’ now – a lesbian and an out-and-proud trans woman. People at Sage are older but politically aware and involved, especially in fighting against Trump and keeping up with what he’ll do next.”
It is interesting that many of the members of Sage who I’ve met call the president “Number 45”, because they do not wish to even say his name.
I was shocked to learn that in 2019, the average life expectancy
of trans women of colour in the US is reportedly only 35 years, which cannot have improved much since the pre-Stonewall era. It’s telling and tragic that the vast majority of trans people mentioned to me in the course of researching this article are long dead, but their memory lives on in the many classic, as well as new, books and films – and in materials from the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Two very useful books to start with are In Search Of Stonewall: The Riots At 50, The Gay & Lesbian Review At 25, Best Essays 1994-2018 edited by Richard Schneider Jr, and Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked The Gay Revolution by David Carter.
The activists I have featured here are all very busy in the lead up to
the historic Stonewall weekend (28-30 June) and are also involved in an array of newer organisations, projects and campaigns including the reunion committee of the Gay Liberation Front, the Reclaim Pride Coalition’s Queer Liberation March (which is this year’s alternative to
the main march), the Old Lesbians for Change, BLAST, Black Lives Matter, queer doctors and nurses providing support in Mexico and Gays Against Guns.
“So much has been achieved, but there is always more to struggle against, and the invisibility of lesbians is still an issue”
Their energy, expertise and commitment are not only inspiring, but exciting – reflecting an inclusive approach to activism. “But we’ve always been asked why we need an only-lesbian group and then I get the sense that someone’s going to use the ‘S’ word – separatist. Luckily younger dykes don’t even understand the term… you can have a reason for organising with only lesbians and not be saying we’ll never do other actions,” Maxine Wolfe reflects in the excellent film Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too (available to watch on YouTube).
In the film, another founder member of the Avengers, Anne-Christine D’Adesky, speaks passionately about her need for a lesbian-only group. “I wanted to talk about what it’s like to be a lesbian, not just a social group,” she says. “I wanted to be able to respond actively when something upset me, and I’m constantly coming up against my own homophobia.”
When I listened to these decades – long lesbian feminists, I was struck
by the warmth in their voices and the glowing expressions on their faces
as they describe the joy of working alongside their sisters to improve the lives of women and gay people, as well as others experiencing oppression and exploitation.
So much has been achieved, but there is always more to struggle against, and the invisibility of lesbians is still an issue. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to join thousands of dykes to celebrate the past and to stride into the future on 29 June 2019.
As activist Marlene Colburn describes the Dyke March, it’s “a sea of lesbians, we just set off down the road – it’s like… magically going to Oz.”
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