When I came across the original coverage of the Stonewall Riots, I expected it all to be absolutely terrible. Utterly horrendous. And it pretty much is. The New York Daily News piece isn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be, and surprisingly, isn't terribly worse than many pieces I report on now in 2014. That says more about us now than it says about 1969.
The headline is pretty awful, but unlikely to have been chosen by the piece's author, Jerry Lisker (you can read the piece in its entirety on the PBS website). Although it's possible he did write it, even today, it is fairly standard for headlines to be part of an editor's job. No, I won't pin that on Lisker. The problem with Lisker's writing, which could have been much worse, admittedly, is in the way he speaks about the identifiable members of the riot: those who are clearly gender variant. One with which he opens up his piece.
She sat there with her legs crossed, the lashes of her mascara-coated eyes beating like the wings of a hummingbird. She was angry. She was so upset she hadn't bothered to shave. A day old stubble was beginning to push through the pancake makeup. She was a he. A queen of Christopher Street.
"She was a he." How sensationalist. How purile. And how possibly wrong. Yes, I'm going to be presentist, because presentism is how we learn from the past. By pointing out the failings of those who came before us, that is how we learn from history and avoid repeating it. Presentism is how we counter excuses that a behavior was valid then, so it could be valid now. It wasn't valid then, and it isn't valid now.
Now, some of those identifiably gender variant individuals involved in Stonewall would have been drag queens, who we would now identify as cisgender gay men using drag for social commentary. But we also know there were transgender men and women, specifically women, who were very much involved in the riot right from the beginning, but we also know that neither Lisker nor the raiding police would have recognised any difference. Almost half a century on, we have the obligation to recognise that difference now. We probably all know Sylvia Rivera, but we should know the others, too, and a blogger known as Zagria has kept us aware of who these trans women were.
Tammy Novak, who had lived with Tony and Chuck, was admitted in female clothing. Désirée, a natural beauty who easily passed as female, spent time at the Stonewall, and took up there with Petey, a free-lance gangster. They moved to the suburbs to live as a heterosexual couple, until Petey, in a fit of jealousy, shot and killed her. Other trans women mentioned at the Stonewall were Tiffany and Spanola Jerry. Barbara Eden, who worked in the coat check, would turn up in full drag every now and then. Street queens who could not afford the entry fee in the Stonewall Inn were often found in the parkette across the street, which turned out to be an ideal place to join in the riot.
But back to Lisker's report, which does have a very taunting aspect. This is not just homophobia (a concept which did not even recognisably exist at the time), but is, in fact, something more. This is the intersection of misogyny and a hatred of gender transgression. The entire Lisker piece is full of what we call transmisogyny today. Throughout Lisker's writing is an overt distaste if not hatred for the femininity being expressed by drag queens, trans women, and who Zagria reports were called the "flash queens" (young gay men who dressed in male clothing but still styled themselves in overtly feminine ways). Although Zagria points out that trans men and drag kings were not uncommon, not to mention plenty of cisgender gay men, these masculine individuals never show up in Lisker's piece. Gee, I wonder why.
Perhaps because the image of drag queens and trans women is ever so much more humorous (and ever so much more threatening) to a world run by heterosexual cisgender men than the idea of trans men and drag kings showing up to the riot in three piece suits. Lisker is hoping to make a mockery of the riot, and having masculine individuals be part of that undermines the message he is trying to convey: these gay people aren't really a threat, they're silly, and we should laugh at them. However, by doing so, it only underscores the very clear insecurity caused by "men" who willingly live as "women."
Last weekend the queens had turned commandos and stood bra strap to bra strap against an invasion of the helmeted Tactical Patrol Force. The elite police squad had shut down one of their private gay clubs, the Stonewall Inn at 57 Christopher St., in the heart of a three-block homosexual community in Greenwich Village. Queen Power reared its bleached blonde head in revolt. New York City experienced its first homosexual riot. "We may have lost the battle, sweets, but the war is far from over," lisped an unofficial lady-in-waiting from the court of the Queens.
"We've had all we can take from the Gestapo," the spokesman, or spokeswoman, continued. "We're putting our foot down once and for all." The foot wore a spiked heel. According to reports, the Stonewall Inn, a two-story structure with a sand painted brick and opaque glass facade, was a mecca for the homosexual element in the village who wanted nothing but a private little place where they could congregate, drink, dance and do whatever little girls do when they get together.
Lisker's mockery is apparent in the way he refers to the feminine presenting individual as a "lady-in-waiting," making sure to mention her stereotypical "lisp," after defining her as part of a group "standing bra strap to bra strap." And again with the comment "congregate, drink, dance and do whatever little girls do when they get together." It's as offensive to cisgender women as it is to transgender women. Lisker sought not only to denigrate the femininity of the individuals present, but also femininity in general, making sure to use the juxtaposition of presumed male individuals with feminine behavior to mock interests, behavior, or expression normally associated with women.
The whole proceeding took on the aura of a homosexual Academy Awards Night. The Queens pranced out to the street blowing kisses and waving to the crowd. A beauty of a specimen named Stella wailed uncontrollably while being led to the sidewalk in front of the Stonewall by a cop. She later confessed that she didn't protest the manhandling by the officer, it was just that her hair was in curlers and she was afraid her new beau might be in the crowd and spot her. She didn't want him to see her this way, she wept.
You can well imagine that Lisker probably wasn't a big supporter of women's issues in general. In addition to his mockery of femininity, be it by who we would now term trans women or by cis women, he also sought to legitimise the raid on the Stonewall Inn in legal terms as well as moral terms.
Last Friday the privacy of the Stonewall was invaded by police from the First Division. It was a raid. They had a warrant. After two years, police said they had been informed that liquor was being served on the premises. Since the Stonewall was without a license, the place was being closed. It was the law....The police are sure of one thing. They haven't heard the last from the Girls of Christopher Street.
Both the police and Lisker were right about the Stonewall Riots. It wasn't the end. It marked a beginning of the modern American gay rights movement, and although obscured for decades, it was also the beginning of the fight for transgender recognition. Trans women were there, and although they went unrecognised, even by the very reporters who chose to mock them. We recognise them now, and we should not forget that a major objection to gay culture in the 1960s was the existence of the trans women who challenged their notions of what made a man and what made a woman.
Image and Quotes via New York Daily News/PBS.