Remembering Again: Pride

We started working on the NOGO Arts’ website back in February. It was African American History month and we wanted to be sure and get even the briefest of posts up to acknowledge the labor of African Americans in the fight for recognition and equal rights. We posted a picture of Marsha P. Johnson and James Baldwin. It is now June and here in New York we are heading into Pride weekend and Johnson should be remembered again.

New York City Pride is officially produced by the Heritage of Pride who has been producing Pride events since 1984. Prior to 1984 it was the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee who organized a march from the Stonewall in up Sixth Avenue to Central Park. Starting in 1970, just one year after the Stonewall Riots, gay activists sought to build off the momentum of the original riots and push for visibility and liberation. That very first march ended in with a “gay-in,” men and women gathering in the Sheep Meadow in early summer.[1]

 Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "Gay "Be-In," Sheep Meadow, Central Park, New York, June 28, 1970 [1]" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 21, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-57c8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "Gay "Be-In," Sheep Meadow, Central Park, New York, June 28, 1970 [1]" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 21, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-57c8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

 

Remember Marsha P. Johnson? Well, she was at Stonewall. She was at Stonewall with many other people of color and people we now might refer to as trans. Remember that Stonewall was fought by these women and men of color and not just cisgendered white men? I have to admit that growing up my (mis)conception of Stonewall was a bunch of effeminate men who were distraught over the death of Judy Garland chanting in the street. If I did think of crossdressing men, they were already white in my mind. Fortunately, history is starting to catch up with itself and the whitewashing and male-washing of Stonewall falters as new historians and artists attempt to reframe what happened.  

There is a scene in the 2017 documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson that cuts between archival footage of the 1973 Gay Pride March and Johnson speaking about the treatment of trans identified people in the movement. She says:

As long as my people don’t’ have their rights all across America, there’s no reason for celebration. That’s how come I’ve been walking for gay rights all these years. And in 1973, they told me and Sylvia Rivera that we get to lead the Gay Pride march, the transvestites in the front of the parade. Honey, they chickens put all of the drag queens way in the back someplace. Honey, that was not the right thing to do. They don’t care if you were there at the beginning of the gay movement, demonstrating in drag with them. They don’t care.[2]

The footage shifts to a large rally at Washington Square Park and a stage directly south of the arch. Sylvia Rivera had been invited to speak, but the crowd was angry. They did not want a transvestite, as Rivera identified herself, to speak. The footage of Rivera standing down a crowd of gay and lesbian people is wrenching. Her nerves and anger still come through the black and white footage. The crowd shouts her down at almost every turn. She challenges the crowd saying that the incarcerated youth write to her and her organization:

They do not write women. They do not write men. They write STAR because we’re trying to do something for them. But you all tell me go and hide my tail between my legs. I will not put up with this shit! I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation. And you all treat me this way? What’s the fuck wrong with you all?[3]

STAR is the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a group founded by Rivera and Johnson, though Johnson says she was a distant second in command to Rivera’s vision. At the end of her passionate plea to a sea of antagonistic queers, Rivera offers this invitation:

Come and see your people [STAR]. The people that are trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white middle class club![4]

If you have ever wondered how clear the demarcation was between white gay liberation and everyone else, then this brief five minutes of footage will clarify it for you. History should not need spoiler alerts, but Marsha P. Johnson died under suspicious circumstances; her body was found in the Hudson near the Christopher Street Piers. Sylvia Rivera lived until 2002.

 http://lgbt-history-archive.tumblr.com/post/146407434177/sylvia-rivera-talks-to-activists-and-reporters

http://lgbt-history-archive.tumblr.com/post/146407434177/sylvia-rivera-talks-to-activists-and-reporters

 

You might be thinking, I thought Pride was supposed to be happy. I am far from the only person to point to the history of pride as yet another example of white America usurping a minority movement. To me, the horrible part about this history is that the transvestites and drag queens of 1969 and the early 70s were making room for everyone. It was the white gay community who took over the party and kicked them out.

2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Heritage of Pride’s website does now have a page called “Hidden Figures” that features, among other women, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

Writing this post has made me a bit sad. The trans community still suffers more (legally, socially, and as the victims of violent crime). It is forty nine years since Johnson and others stood up to police exploitation and brutality on Christopher Street. During that time Pride has become many things: a celebration of sex positivity, a commercial opportunity, a sort of topsy-turvy weekend in the city, a time when we have fun and maybe kiss more in public. It clearly is way past time to recognize where this all started and by whom this was started.

I do want to share one last thing. Pride has grown so much that the different boroughs in New York host their own local prides. My husband and I were having lunch in an outside café during Brooklyn Pride. I over heard what I assumed was a woman’s voice saying, in response to the waiter offering to different tables, “Oh, this is his day. I’ll let him choose.” I couldn’t resist; I had to see whose day it was. I turned my head to see a mother with her adolescent son who was decked in rainbow colors and carrying pride flags. It was his day and she was there for him. For all the darkness in our collectively queer history, seeing this mom with her queer/gay/who-cares? son did give me hope.

 

[1] Jason Baumann in “Christopher Street Liberation Day,” New York Public Library, June 21, 2008, available at https://www.nypl.org/blog/2008/06/21/christopher-street-liberation-day

[2] David France The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Public Square Films, 2017. 30:00-34:00.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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Todd Coulter