Racialized communities have played a crucial role in the fight for LGBTQ liberation; let’s not forget that…
By Olivia Nuamah
The omission of the role of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and homeless street youth from the narratives of the beginnings of the LGBTQ movement has laid the groundwork for misunderstanding the connections between historical and contemporary violence. The role that slavery and the ensuing fight for civil rights played in the birth of the LGBTQ movement is crucial to understanding the pathway Black and Latinx communities carved in the fight for LGBTQ liberation.
The civil war in America was fought over slavery; when abolition of slavery failed to have the intended effect of uplifting Black lives, civil rights legislation was introduced to reinforce Black equality with federal oversight. The LGBTQ community was one of the most significant beneficiaries of Black and Latinx activism across America, activism that was fuelled by discrimination across race, sex and gender lines for almost a century before Stonewall.
At the time of Stonewall in 1969, the civil rights movement in the US was at its end, with legislation introduced five years earlier. From police brutality to employment and free speech, Black people were being mistreated and losing court battles, while the same laws yielded wins for white gays and lesbians. Across the country, riots had been started by trans, Black, Latinx and street-involved youth without the same countrywide calls for change or movement building momentum. Stonewall was no different in form and content from the incidents of civil unrest already happening across the country at the time: the only difference was the presence of a majority white, gay, male audience armed with legal wins, a countrywide network and a membership of thousands.
There is virtually no information about the lives of the Black and Latinx participants who were documented as inspiring the unrest at Stonewall. We know precious little about their families, their friends or their lives outside of The Stonewall Inn and riot. The narrative of Stonewall limits our collective past to the deeds of white gay men, while further silencing the historical role of Black and Latinx communities in the building of the LGBTQ movement. But in fact, slavery, emancipation and the civil rights era had a profound impact on the struggle for LGBTQ liberation: each attempt to equalize the life chances of Black people ended up paving the way to equality for some in the LGBTQ community.
We are still fighting those fights today. In 2020, US President Donald Trump attempted to turn back employment protections for trans communities; the Supreme Court found it prohibited under the Civil Rights Act 1964. Even in Canada, one of the first court wins in 1977 was the repeal of immigration law barring ‘homosexuals’ from entering Canada, and today our support for LGBTQ refugees is unrivalled. The key to winning key courtroom battles for the LGBTQ community has been race-inspired legislation which grew a nationwide network to organize and strategize the dismantling of policies that continued LGBTQ oppression.
A look back
Channing Joseph, a student at Columbia University, uncovered a headline in the Washington Post dated April 13, 1888, that reported, “Negro Dive Raided. Thirteen Black Men Dressed as Women Surprised at Supper and Arrested.” In what was the first documented case in the US, William Dorsey Swann was arrested for impersonating a female. Swann had been born into slavery in 1858 in Hancock, Maryland, and was made free when Emancipation was declared in 1863. Swann began organizing the first known ‘drag balls’ in Washington, DC, where all of the attendees were Black, male and former slaves, and came dressed in drag. The arrest was the earliest instance that could be found of anyone referring to themselves as the ‘Queen’ of a drag event, or ‘drag queen.’ A book about Swann by journalist Channing Joseph, called The House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens, is due out in 2021.
As Joseph describes it, “When the police burst through the door of the two-story residence in northwest Washington, D.C., just half a mile from the White House, they discovered dozens of black men dancing together there, wearing silk and satin dresses made ‘according to the latest fashions’ of 1888. Most of them were former slaves or the children of slaves.” As soon as the partygoers saw the officers, the dancing stopped and the men scattered – except for William Dorsey Swann, the self-proclaimed ‘Queen’ of the gathering. It was Swann’s 30th birthday celebration, and there was no intention of running away. Unlike the others, Swann – who, according to the Washington Post, was “arrayed in a gorgeous dress of cream-coloured satin” – ran frantically towards the officers in a vain attempt to keep them from entering the room. “The queen stood in an attitude of royal defiance,” The National Republican noted on its front page. Swann, “bursting with rage,” told the police, “You is no gentlemen,” and a brawl ensued.
In 1896, Swann was falsely arrested and convicted for running a brothel, but contested this conviction legally. This now stands as the first defence of the right for LGBTQ people to gather.
Does Swann’s example identify the start of the LGBTQ movement as beginning with a trans woman of colour born into slavery? If so, we need to revisit the whole history of when the movement began, where it came from, and who its leaders were.
Swann came of age at a time when an entirely new form of freedom and self-determination was being imagined: the first generation of Black people emancipated from slavery. Swann and guests were the first Americans to regularly hold drag balls, and the first to fight for the right to do so. Arguably, they laid the foundations of contemporary queer celebrations and protests. Most importantly, we see where we get the tradition of Black trans communities and drag queens coming together to affirm one another and, by extension, the whole community.
Civil rights protests open the door to justice
Just under a century later, in 1948-1950, the Mattachine Society began in Los Angeles. At the time, being ‘homosexual’ was illegal, and an arrest led to a loss of employment, social isolation, a public outing and a criminal record, all in the face of corrupt police practices seeking to make examples of men. The Mattachine Society was created by gay men so they could meet, share stories and develop strategies to protest and fight back. In 1952, the Society mounted a defence against the arrest of a senior figure in the group, and won. In 1958, One, the magazine published by Mattachine, fought an injunction that accused it of being“obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy.” Without hearing oral arguments, the Supreme Court decided that the magazine fell under constitutionally protected speech; withina few years, the Society had chapters across the country and a growing membership.
By the start of the 1960s, civil rights protests of Black and Latinx communities had spread across the US; Stonewall was the 60th of 63 riots between 1960-69. The first time the LGBTQ community rioted in the US was on the West Coast, at a 24-hour donut shop in LA called Cooper’s Donuts, a popular hangout for trans communities. In May 1959, police decided to check the identities of patrons to ensure they were not being “disorderly” by identifying as a gender not indicated on their government-issued ID; they arrested two gay male sex workers and two drag queens. When the police attempted to put all of them into the back of their car, the patrons began to protest; the unrest lasted hours.
Dewey’s Restaurant was a chain of hamburger restaurants in Philadelphia frequented by Black trans women and drag queens. The staff refused to serve them, claiming that they were driving business away. On April 25, 1965, 150 young Black and Latinx people, dressed in what they called “gender non-conformist clothing,” were turned away. Three refused to leave; the police were called, and they were arrested. Over the following week, Black LGBTQ youth of Philadelphia organized an information stand and picket at the shop’s doors, which led the owners to commit to ceasing their discriminatory practice.
In August 1966, unrest took place at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco. At the time, the presence of drag queens and trans people was probable cause to raid bars – so, instead of going to gay bars, the youth of the trans and drag communities frequented one of Gene Compton’s Cafeterias. In an attempt to deter trans women and drag queens, the staff would not serve them; they decided to picket. On the first night of the picket, restaurant employees called police, reporting that protesters had become loud and disruptive. Most of the protesters were part of the gay youth organization The Vanguard (the first known gay youth group), the majority of whom were trans or drag queens. The police arrived and attempted to arrest one of the trans women protesting. She threw her coffee in his face, and the peaceful protest instantly transformed into a riot.
By the late 1960s, the civil rights movement had inspired mass racial violence and rights-led protests all over the world. For Black trans women, Latinx, and street-involved youth, it ignited a real rage sparked by their historical unequal treatment, Stonewall was the end of this period, not the start.
Each example of unrest is a direct response to a society that sought to suppress both their race and sexuality while brutalizing them for being poor and street-involved. Violence against these groups surged across the US. Simultaneously, white gay men were winning courtroom battles in their fight against mistreatment by police and the rampant discrimination they faced in employment and in other areas of public life.
When the Mattachine Society won the right for gay men to drink in bars in 1966, The Stonewall Inn was one of the first gay bars to open its doors. Initially for men only, it eventually allowed drag queens and trans communities, but their presence was still probable cause for police harassment and regular raids. In a 1989 interview with Marsha P. Johnson, who played a key role in the Stonewall uprising, she talked about how the police would line people up, search them, throw them out and shut the bar down. Randy Wicker (another prominent gay rights activist in the ’60s who was being interviewed at the same time) playfully asked Marsha, “Were you one of those that got in the chorus line that would kick their heels up at the police like the Ziegfeld Folly Girls or the Rockettes?’ Marsha responded seriously: “Oh no, we were too busy getting thrown over cars and screaming in the middle of the street because they closed that place.”
Marsha P. Johnson’s dad, Malcolm Johnson Sr., was born in New Jersey in 1910 to parents who had fled southern states. Oppressive laws would turn Black people into the internally displaced, migrating to the northern and western reaches of the US in search of a better life. They did not find the lives they had hoped for, and by the late ’60s, if you were racialized anywhere in America, you most likely participated in some form of civil unrest. For Marsha and her family that meant belonging to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded on the principle of racial equality, to which she remained devoted all her life.
Another key activist following the Stonewall uprising, Stormé DeLarverie had a slave mother who worked for her white father’s family. Both Johnson and DeLarverie left home as young teenagers and remained poor and vulnerable all their lives, ultimately dying penniless. Without knowing the place of these two activists in the narrative of slavery and the Great Migration, the implications of their racial and sexual identities are erased from the story of the birth of the LGBTQ movement. They have been reduced to the people who got angry in the moment and sparked the majority white audience to protest, which then went on to inspire the worldwide movement.
Marsha revealed in a 1989 interview that she’d “been going to jail for like 10 years before the Stonewall. I was going to jail ’cause I was, I was originally up on 42nd Street. And every time we’d go, you know, like going out to hustle all the time, they would just get us and tell us we were under arrest.” Born in 1945, she would have been 14 years old when she started hustling on the streets of Manhattan as a drag queen. Marsha described what they were chanting the night of the Stonewall Riots. “We just were saying, ‘No more police brutality,’ and, oh, we had enough of police harassment in the Village and other places.” She was not talking about the bars of Manhattan because she wasn’t allowed entry there – she was referring to her sex work, where police would regularly harass and assault Black and Latinx people. Now and then in the interview, she alluded to a life outside of The Stonewall Inn and Greenwich Village but, sadly, we are only afforded glimpses.
The whole interview gives us clues as to how Marsha was treated by her white contemporaries. At one point there was a small accident and Randy, whose floor Marsha slept on for eight years, said to her, “God, you’re so dumb.” Marsha responded (half-sarcastically), “You think so?” In those few words, he summed up the condescension she was treated with while lauding her activism. These were his thoughts on Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR, the organization founded by Johnson and Sylvia Rivera): “It was a bunch of flaky, fucked-up transvestites living in a hovel and a slum somewhere calling themselves revolutionaries. That’s what it was, in my opinion. Now Marsha has a different idea. They had an apartment; they didn’t have the money to keep up the rent, and they began fighting over who was using drugs or who was paying rent or who was taking whose makeup. And, I mean, it got to be pretty lowlife and pretty ugly….”
David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, after much argument about the role of racialized trans and sex workers in the riot, had to make a public statement to clarify and correct his own error. He concluded that “most of the crowd in the vanguard on the Uprising’s first night were white men, though Marsha P. Johnson and Zazu Nova, both transgender, were black, and there was some black and Latinx youth among the homeless street youth who were the first to lead the charge against the police. Several Latinx men were also among the first to resist or attack the police. A Puerto Rican man named Gino [Castro] threw one of the first big objects outside the club, uprooting a large stone from the pit of a tree.”
When the audience was majority white and male with clear legal victories and the civil rights movement behind them, and a nationwide reckoning to affirm their action, they participated in civil unrest. When the most marginalized in the community rose in anger across the country, there was not the same sense of unity; those identities were as marginalized then as they are now. Tacitly, the part of the LGBTQ community who could see that the roadmap to broad acceptance was to be achieved by separating themselves from more marginalized members were right, and they achieved what they sought. But for the rest of us, the fight continues.
OLIVIA NUAMAH is a Toronto-based senior leader and advocate who has run organizations in the nonprofit and government sectors in Canada, the US and UK. She has extensive experience developing policies and programs to tackle social and economic exclusion with a focus on race, gender and sexual identity.