SEPARATISM OR INCLUSION? STONEWALL & US
by Melanie Yarborough
The police burst in once again, and make the everyone line up against the barroom wall. The officers taunt the hapless queens as they frisk them, breaking or confiscating thier things." You, washroom!" they command some, meaning immediate removal of makeup. Matty, a young gay man just arrived in New York, challenges the police, saying "They're not hurtin' anybody, are they?" With a reply of "The only one hurting is you," one of the detectives smashes him in the face, bringing blood gushing from a broken nose and loosened teeth. The detective moves on to LaMiranda, a young hispanic Queen. "Well, if it isn't Holly-go-friggin-lightly," he sneers. "Washroom!' She refuses to comply. and as a result her head is shoved into a slop bucket of dirty water. Matty and LaMiranda are then hauled off to jail.
The next day they're bailed out by Bostonia, a tough black queen. She's furious with them for challenging the police. Maybe you think you were being tough, she told them, but warned them to never, ever do it again. "If we bleed, we don't win," she gravely intones. Matty defiantly replies "Maybe we need to make them bleed a little."
As portrayed in Strand Releasing's film Stonewall, directed by the late Nigel Finch, the persecution was all too real. Draconian laws still on the books could be pulled out at any time. For example, anti-crossdressing in public laws could be invoked: males were required to have on at least 3 items of recognizably male clothing. Liquor laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to homosexuals could also be used. And nightclubs could be raided on a pretty regular basis.
This is the central message of Stonewall: How do you deal with a society who encourages its citizens to hate you as faggots and queers? Who won't hire you for employment, making prostitution and crime the only way to support yourself? And whose police can beat you up or toss you in jail on a whim? Some may try to go along, hoping that if they lay low they'll be left alone once in a while. Others may try to work within the system to gain civil rights and legal protection for homosexuals. And still others may turn to violence in self-defense, or as the only language society seems to understand.
Conservative homosexual groups such as the Mattachine Society urged caution and legal means to gain rights. They implored the homosexual community to police its own ranks, to not be too in-your-face in public, and to respect the law. One character in the film, the English teacher turned gay activist Bruce Compton, argued that only those who work within the system can win.For a planned Gay Rights march in Philadelphia, marchers were instructed to present a palatable image. Gay men should appear in typical Middle America style: short hair, in suits and ties (solid colors please!) and with eyeglasses if they have them. Lesbian women should dress like June Cleaver, in blouses and long skirts. They precision marched with signs saying "Homosexual Citizens Deserve Equal Rights". By being as straight looking as the rest of society, they hoped to gain acceptance.
Some members of the Homophile society even took it a step further: they argued that if they presented Homosexuality as a mental illness, Americans could understand and feel sorry for their sickness. Pity, they argued, is better than hate.
Radical gay activists took their cue from the black power and antiwar movements. The system was too rotten to be reformed, and they sneered at the gullible or square sellouts who thought it could be. Violence would be met with justified counterviolence. Gay people would rise up in righteous wrath to claim the freedoms long denied them.
Between these two extremes were the Queens. While they believed in flash and bravado, they were cynical about all politics. Their ideology was neither reform nor revolution, just survival. It could mean taking the baton in the gut one day, or lashing out at your assailant the next. And ironically, the Queens were the ones who led at Stonewall.
But homosexuals weren't just divided along political lines. Among themselves, they were divided in other ways as well. Butch manly men looked down on effeminate Queens. "The Girls" saw macho gays as just as prejudiced and oppressive as straights, and felt that being feminine was the highest goal a man could achieve. And moreover, groups often divided along ethnic lines. Black queens stuck together: hispanic Queens had their own cliques; and white queens closed their ranks against the world.
Matty Dean himself was caught in the center of all of these struggles. A macho young hustler from down south, seeking freedom in New York, he found the same persecution. He was attracted to LaMiranda and moved in with her: but when he became involved with the more butch Bruce, he stutteringly introduced LaMiranda as his "roommate". He picketed along with the educated and politicized gay men, and went with Bruce to the man's beach on Fire Island. But he also did drag with the proletarian street queens and hung out at the Stonewall Inn. He was torn between his love for the queenly LaMiranda and his committment to virility and the movement. It was a struggle he never conclusively resolved.
Vinnie was also caught between two worlds. He was a stereotypical Godfatheresque Italian mobster, managing gay nightclubs and negotiating police bribes. He was in love with the beautiful black queen Bostonia, but could not risk expressing his love in public. He tried to strong-arm Bostonia into a sex change operation at the Palace of Dreams clinic, reasoning that he'd then have a wife and it'd all be normal. In the tough world he lived in, he simply could not risk being seen as a "faggot". He despairingly confessed to a priest his love for Bostonia, saying "The one thing I want, I have, but I'm not supposed to want to have it". Caught between his love and his world's demands for masculine aggressiveness, he became the ultimate victim.
"We had the civil rights riots, the anti-war riots, and now we had the Gay riots," said one observer. "As riots go, it wasn't much, just a few busted heads". But in time, Stonewall came to achieve a mythical status as the opening battle of the Gay Liberation movement. And because it was fought largely by minority Queens, transgender rights as well.
Most of those who fought at Stonewall never lived to see the changes it ushered in. They succumbed to drugs or alcohol or violence, and still later, to AIDS. At the "Stonewall 25" commemoration in 1994, they were pointedly excluded by gays seeking a more mainstream image. Although celebrated today in American film, they're still seen as another oddity, a fad to be replaced soon by something else.
The transgender rights movement faces the same issues that the Gay rights movement faced at Stonewall in 1969.Some Crossdressers just want to pass unnoticed in public, and some Transsexuals want just to melt into society as the girl next door or your typical bloke, after their surgury. Some seek transgender rights through group meetings and conventions. Others, thorugh the talk shows or the university lecture halls. Still others look to the courtrooms or the halls of congress. And some call for a need for more direct confrontation, in light of blatant transsexual murders such as those of Brandon Teena or Tyra Hunter. And sadly, it's still a Straight versus Gay world to many.
The transgender community is also divided amongst itself on several other levels. Transsexuals versus crossdressers. The closeted versus the public. Those who pass versus those who don't. Those who are disdainful of shock drag or queens who are too in-your-face. It's okay to want to look like a woman if it's an attractive mainstream passable one, but not a tacky outrageous parody of one.
The transgender movement is just as wracked by politics as the civil rights, antiwar or gay movements. Yet can't we accept that our war has many fronts, involving many different players and forms of struggle? It's not what differentiates us that counts, but what unites us: the commonality of Transgender.
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