Some recent history, and its mythical transformation
I was living in Los Angeles in the 1950s when Mattachine, the first significant homophile advocacy group was formed. I had other concerns in those days; getting through college and laying the foundations for my academic career. After having attended a few meetings, I finally joined the New York branch of Mattachine in 1968. Like many of my contemporaries I was energized by the events at the Stonewall Inn a year later. Not long after, I was became active in the gay committee of the American Library Assocation, and then became a founding member of the Gay Academic Union.
After I shifted from activism to gay scholarship, I realized that the history of the American gay movement needed to be written. I knew that the belief (still common to this day) that everything started with Stonewall in 1969 was mistaken. Accordingly, I journeyed to Los Angeles, where a number of the leaders of the original movement, which started in 1950, were still active. I was lucky enough to speak at length with such key figures as Harry Hay, Jim Kepner, Dorr Legg, and Don Slater. Over the years I have maintained a friendship with Billy Glover, a key figure in the early years who is still going strong in his late seventies in Louisiana. Billy is a kind of living record of those brave years.
I then gathered some biographical pieces on the early leaders, turning them over to the late Vern Bullough, who shaped them into an essay collection, entitled Before Stonewall (2002). This book is now the standard reference for the period.
I won’t rehearse any further my credentials in this area. I mention them because they are relevant to what I am now going to relate.
A strange new myth has arisen about the origins of the gay movement. This myth, fervently endorsed by some trans activists, holds that the gay and lesbian movement was, essentially and pivotally, the work of their group, the transgender people. The transgender folk were in the vanguard, gay men and lesbians followed meekly after. This bizarre claim in the opposite of the truth.
First of all, the term "transgender" is an anachronism, and as such revealing of the present-minded agenda of those who brandish it. To be sure, Christine Jorgensen had made headlines with her Danish surgery in 1953. Jorgensen, and the very few individuals who followed her example at the time, had little interest in gay matters, because they believed that they had truly become women. Jorgensen dated men and regarded herself as heterosexual. The same was true of Reed (formerly Rita) Erickson, a wealthy oil tycoon who helped fund several social-change organizations.
Let us then be honest. If we are to speak of a “transgender” contribution we must restrict ourselves to drag queens. They were the only transgender folks around in those days. None of them in fact made a major contribution to the movement.
It is true that Harry Hay sometimes donned a string of pearls, but that was as far as it went in those days. Among the lesbian stalwarts in Daughters of Bilitis, my friend Barbara Gittings was known occasionally to pull out her corncob pipe. Most of the time, though, Barbara wore a dress (gasp!). The demonstrations she and Frank Kameny organized annually in Philadelphia were known for their sartorial conservatism: dresses and skirts for women, and coats and ties for men.
The female impersonator Jose Sarria of San Francisco, who came along a little later, was the only exception in those early days. Quite a few years later Beth Elliott, a Bay Area male-to-female post-op, made a splash. Unfortunately and tragically, Beth was soon run out of the lesbian movement, for not being born a woman. Transsexuals remain controversial in the lesbian movement.
In reality, the “transgender” contribution was negligible in the early gay and lesbian movement. We started the French Revolution, so to speak, without these individuals. The claim of current trans activists rests, as far as I can see, on the slight foundation of two events, the Compton Cafeteria episode in San Francisco and the much more famous Stonwall Inn riots in New York City. (I will return to Compton's in a moment.)
As various accounts show, drag queens played a role in the Stonewall events--but only in the raucous aftermath OUTSIDE the bar. The actual patrons of the Stonewall Inn were for the most part gay men of middle-class origins (note Rivera's testimony below). For the real facts, see the definitive account in David Carter's 2004 monograph, Stonewall. Anyone who has not consulted this book does not know much about Stonewall. Some things just can't be "winged."
From the Greenwich Village event emerged a whole new cadre of leaders, who joined together to form the Gay Liberation Front. Not long after some of them seceded to create the Gay Activists Alliance. None of these leaders were in any way classifiable as transpeople.
There were, to be sure, two fringe individuals, the drag queens Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. While these two persons now enjoy iconic status among trans advocates, neither of them made a significant and lasting contribution to building the overall gay movement. They were pretty much doing their own thing. I knew both of them.
What then of the Compton Cafeteria event? One must step back a moment and realize that during the pre-Stonewall years confrontations with the police were routine. These stemmed from the vicious bar raids conducted by the men in blue. As a rule, one of two precipitating factors came into play: “cleanups” when an election was in the offing, and dissatisfaction on the part of the police that their payoffs (routine in those days) were insufficiently lucrative.
For the most part, the gay victims went quietly during these raids, resulting in a misdemeanor charge. These arrests could be career-ending, though. Doubtless this was one of the main reasons why the raids kept happening--to “keep the queers in line.”
In a few cases gays fought back. This was true, for example, of the Dewey’s restaurant raid in Philadelphia (1965), the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco (1966), the Black Cat raid in Los Angeles (1967), and the Donut shop event in Los Angeles (May 1969). Thus the Compton occurrence, now lauded to the skies by trans activists, was but one of a series. Compared to Stonewall, all these episodes were of merely local importance.
What happened at Compton’s Cafeteria so long ago? The riot occurred in August 1966 in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. On the first night of the disturbance, the cafeteria management summoned the police when some drag-queen customers became obstreperous. When a police officer attempted to arrest one of the cross-dressers, the individual threw her coffee in his face. At that point the riot began, dishes and furniture flew in the air, and the restaurant's plate-glass windows were smashed. Accounts of the event indicate that the rioting and subsequent picketing of the cafeteria were a joint effort of drag queens, hustlers, Tenderloin street people, and lesbians. This occurrence was by no means a “transgender exclusive,” as it is often portrayed nowadays.
On this slender foundation--a San Francisco episode of purely local importance and the flare up of drag queens at Stonewall--today’s trans activists have built a whole elaborate myth. We are asked to revere a gaggle of crazy queens as heroic pioneers who were responsible for the foundation and progress of the gay movement. As I have shown, this contention is simply nonsense.
FOOTNOTE. Here is 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." In fact, the night when the Stonewall riots began was the first time Rivera had ever even been to the bar, and then she only appeared outside the premises.
Labels: Gay history drag queens