Fifty Years of Queer Insurgency

M. E. O’Brien

Inside Stonewall 50, a struggle for the next half-century of queer history.

This June 28 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The story of Stonewall is familiar to many: following a routine police raid on a mafia-controlled gay bar in the West Village, queers fought back, with thousands rioting over the next four nights. The riots were initiated and led by the most marginalized of New York City’s working-class queers: homeless youth, Black and Puerto Rican trans women, sex workers, and visibly gender-nonconforming people. The riots catalyzed the most radical elements of the queer counterculture, previously rather marginal, and an explosive organizing energy spread across the country. Hundreds joined newly formed chapters of the Gay Liberation Front, and soon its spin-off and splinter groups constituted what became the modern gay rights movement.

Of the many militants who fought at Stonewall, a few names are often highlighted by those looking to challenge the whitewashing, gender-conformity, and political conservatism of contemporary gay politics. Immediately after the riots, in 1969, participants Sylvia Ray Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson cofounded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). STAR was an organizing and mutual aid project of trans sex workers and homeless queer youth. Later, Rivera and Johnson created STAR House, a group apartment and residence for their comrades in the East Village. The two were active in a number of New York’s early gay-liberation organizations.

Stonewall veterans like Rivera and Johnson offer lessons quite different from those found in the potted histories of Pride on offer from mainstream gay rights organizations. Rivera, in particular, understood trans rebellion as an integral part of left, anti-imperialist politics. In 1970, she brought STAR members to a rally organized by Puerto Rican revolutionary group the Young Lords. She tells Les Feinberg of the event:

The protest was against police repression and we decided to join the demonstration with our STAR banner. That was one of the first times the STAR banner was shown in public, where STAR was present as a group. I ended up meeting some of the Young Lords that day. I became one of them. Any time they needed any help, I was always there for the Young Lords. It was just the respect they gave us as human beings. They gave us a lot of respect. It was a fabulous feeling for me to be myself—being part of the Young Lords as a drag queen.

Rivera and Johnson were central to challenging the early contradictions of class and race present within the gay liberation movement. In one surviving video from the 1973 Liberation Day rally—the third annual protest commemorating the Stonewall riots, and what would go on to become the annual Pride march—Rivera faces booing from the audience as she forces her way to the stage. In a glittering one-piece, she challenges the attendees, confronting them with the story of her own experiences of violence:

You all tell me, go and hide my tail between my legs. I will no longer 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 the fuck’s wrong with you all?

The video has circulated in recent years over the internet, embodying decades of acrimonious, but often unspoken, tension around poverty, race, and state violence within gay communities and gay rights organizing, especially where it involves trans people.

Rivera disappeared from organizing for some years, spending much of her life homeless and in drug addiction. She returned to activism in the 1990s after the murder of trans woman Amanda Milan and the mysterious death of Marsha P. Johnson, supporting several organizing projects among working-class trans women of color. In the final months of her life, she publicly railed against the 2002 New York State gay-rights bill for its deliberate omission of trans people.

Rivera’s legacy offers an alternate history, a needed weapon for queer and trans radicals facing the behemoth of the Stonewall anniversary celebrations. Stonewall 50, as many call the anniversary, will be celebrated in New York City on an unprecedented scale. The Mayor’s office estimates six million participants in attendance, almost half the population of the city. More restrained estimates still expect over three million, making it easily the largest LGBTQ gathering in history. For the first time, World Pride is holding its 2019 celebration in New York. Every cultural institution in the city is organizing a talk, a party, a screening, or an exhibition, with well over a thousand events planned for the month. The celebrations are dominated by a narrow elite of white, wealthy gay men and major corporate sponsors, whose financial contributions enable, yet also constrain, the bulk of gay cultural and political work. Following the national legalization of gay marriage, these donors largely abandoned LGBTQ organizing. They have returned, however, in time to dominate Stonewall 50.

Despite this, the Stonewall anniversary has provided some opportunity for class-conscious left queers and trans people to raise critical debates on the police, on corporate dominance, on race, and on gender in LGBTQ life. In New York, a mix of ACT UP veterans and queer Democratic Socialists have recruited a substantial base to “Reclaim Pride,” banning both police and corporate float participants at a march planned for the morning of June 30. Black and immigrant trans women are spearheading the most critical public debates, acting as the leading voices of left queer politics. Despite the dramatic growth in national media representations of working-class black trans life, many trans organizers of color live in personal poverty and crisis. None of the progressive interventions in Stonewall 50 by left queers seem likely to leave lasting effects on the city’s dismal social-services infrastructure, its political organization, or the balance of political and class power.

Both mainstream and left queer responses to Stonewall 50 take place against the backdrop of radically changing sexual and gender politics. The majority of young people between thirteen and twenty-six do not identify as straight, according to a study conducted by anti-bullying group Ditch the Label. Unprecedented numbers of young people now, also, identify as trans or gender non-binary, including large numbers of children, provoking increasing panic among gender conservatives and “gender skeptics.” Such panic is bolstered by anti-trans journalism in the mainstream press. The near complete victory of legal, formal rights for gay people in Europe and the US is leaving anti-queer bigots reeling in search of new targets. In Britain, Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) are leading the way towards rolling back trans civil-rights gains. In mainstream media, trans people have made dramatic gains in visibility, with a so-called “tipping point” exemplified by television programs depicting working-class Black trans women, like Orange Is the New Black and FX’s Pose. Nevertheless, as devastating rates of trans poverty, HIV, and violence make clear, we are far from a utopia of real social equality. This has not comforted an anti-queer right confronting a world-historic transformation in how people live with their sex and gender.

Recent years have also seen a blossoming in the smaller worlds of queer communist and socialist politics. Though the scale of US gay rights organizing has atrophied since the victory of the gay marriage campaign, efforts to organize trans and queer people explicitly against capitalism, to think queer freedom alongside communism, are at their most vibrant since the gay liberation era of the early 1970s. Communism has inspired growing numbers of young working-class trans people raised on vicious austerity and chronic underemployment, on the one hand, and Tumblr social justice and meme politics, on the other. New forthcoming journals seek to engage queer communist theory: Invert in the UK, Pinko in the US.

These queer left voices have reopened a perennial debate on the relationship between the anti-capitalist left and queer and trans people. Most across the left political spectrum share a general disinterest in queer and trans issues, thanks to a vague sense that focusing on such matters leads to a politics of neoliberal individualism. TERFs have capitalized on this political confusion, attempting to win over cis socialists with only a shallow understanding of sexual and gender politics. A current of the reformist left is even more vicious, seeing trans rights as the embodiment of anti-materialist, culturalist, identitarian, and trivial concerns indulged by freaks who have taken the left hostage, sabotaging the opportunity to win over the normie masses to socialism. The trans and trans-adjacent militants battling this brand of left transphobia have developed deep suspicions of “anti-idpol” or “anti-identitarian” politics, growing in popularity among some sections of the far left. We need a communist politics of identity, these trans militants argue, not an opposition between communism and identity politics. Or, to borrow a phrase from Peter Frase, we need to keep socialism weird.

Pro-normie, socialist transphobia is an update on two centuries of anti-queer hostility within the left. Marx and Engels mocked the gay socialists of their day, treating them as evidence of the degeneration of the working class in the face of poverty and prostitution. By the late nineteenth century, a new workers movement had taken hold in industrializing countries, offering better-off white workers stability, respectability, and the vote. Their respectability—explicitly in opposition to poor people, queers, and sex workers—was built on the twin pillars of wage labor and the nuclear family. Obtaining stable, housewife-based, heterosexual families was a triumph for many working-class people, yet these victories mired socialist movements in implicit homophobia. Informed in part by progressive sexology emerging in Germany, the 1917 revolution in Russia broke with this family-driven logic, decriminalizing sodomy and offering gay rights, divorce on demand, and gender equality under the law. By the early 1930s, however, Stalin had instituted a full counterrevolution in gender, reimposing family norms.

Following the Stonewall riots, gay liberationists faced a still-contentious sexual landscape. Gender and sexual experimentation was widespread among young countercultural hippies, constituting a massive natural constituency for much anti-war and student organizing. Many radical political men, ambivalent about attacks on their own masculinity because of their opposition to the Vietnam military draft, took to calling all political opponents fags and distancing themselves from hippie masculinity. Hyper-masculine posture became popular among a brand of militants. Some gay activists adopted this posture, while others aggressively opposed it, celebrating trans femininities as a radical opposition to militarism. As the New Communist Movement won over growing numbers of young militants, its adherents adopted the nasty homophobia of Chinese Communism and the Soviet Union after Stalin: homosexuality, they argued, was a bourgeois decadence that would disappear in a communist society.

Grappling with the contentious relationship between queer radicalism and a straight- and cis-dominated left, today’s radicals still have much to learn from the political moment of Stonewall. Stonewall was one of an estimated 750 riots that took place in US cities between 1965 and 1972. These uprisings were often triggered by police violence. During the Holy Week Uprising of April 1968, Black youth rioted in over one hundred cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This massive wave of violent working-class insurgency fundamentally transformed the political landscape of the US. Driven by Black teenagers, the movement rapidly forced Civil Rights organizations and activists towards the new revolutionary horizons of Black Power, the New Communist Movement, and armed resistance. We have to place Stonewall in this broader wave of riots. Stonewall was a movement of queers, mostly queers of color, inspired and moved by the broader Black rebellion sweeping the country. Gay radicalism, white and Black alike, was made fundamentally possible through Black insurgency.

This was immediately clear to early queer radicals. The Gay Liberation Front, formed by those attending a meeting of a staid homophile-rights organization, the Mattachine Society, was inspired by the Stonewall riots and the Black Panther Party. GLF’s name directly references the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, then fighting against US forces. Through its diverse and raucous meetings, the GLF organized in solidarity with the Panthers, bringing contingents to multiple Panther rallies. Huey P. Newton gave an August 1970 speech, distributed as a letter, in support of gay liberation, challenging homophobia within the Party. “Maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary,” Newton writes. The following month, Newton welcomed members of the Gay Liberation Front at the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, recognizing that queers were part of the emerging revolutionary movements of the time.

The pro-gay solidarity shown by the Black Panther Party, far greater than that of their white, straight, left counterparts, echoes the rich connections between Black and trans organizing today. The constellation of organizations emerging out of the Black anti-police protests of recent years—BYP 100, Black Lives Matter, the Mobilization of Black Lives—are more visibly and emphatically pro-trans and trans-inclusive than any national gay rights groups. “Black Trans Lives Matter!” circulates as a slogan and as a practice, as many organize around the ongoing murders of Black trans women in the streets and in custody.

We can learn powerful lessons about solidarity, identity, and insurgency from revolutionary queer and Black politics of the years immediately after Stonewall, and from Sylvia Ray Rivera’s and Marsha P. Johnson’s organizing in particular. Our world has changed, of course, since 1969: we are four decades into a capitalist crisis that has fundamentally fragmented the workers movement. With neither the central force of the workers movement at its height nor the limited safety net offered by the social-welfare states of the sixties, future rebellions will need to forge new strategies for leverage and survival. Queer and trans people of color will, once more, play powerful leadership roles on the front lines of the coming riots. The legacies of Rivera and Johnson—in their fight against liberalism, against imperialism, and against the crushing dehumanization caused by poverty, white supremacy, and transphobia—will continue to shape the next fifty years of queer insurrection.