You only gave us rights because we gave you riots: thoughts on Pride

“You only gave us rights because we gave you riots. Queer Power”

“You only gave us rights because we gave you riots. Queer Power” (Click to embiggen)

I’ve had three partially-written blog posts about Pride sitting here in the queue for a few weeks, but kept changing my mind about which direction I wanted to go with it. Then over the last few days I’ve seen several more iterations of a question that drives me crazy, and some related stuff appeared on a couple of my usual news sits, which made the three ideas I had coalesce into one. First: never forget that the first Pride was a riot. And it wasn’t just one riot—the rioting continued for several nights. The quick summary: because (among other things) it was illegal for a bar to knowingly serve more the one openly gay person at a time, most of the places where gay, lesbian, trans, and other queer people were able to congregate were illegal bars, usually operated by the mafia. The cops occasionally raided those bars, just to remind the people operating them that they needed to keep bribing cops and other officials. Because it was also illegal for a man to wear clothing traditionally thought as a woman’s, and it was equally illegal for a woman to wear men’s clothes (stop and think about that a moment: it was a crime for a woman to wear slacks of a pantsuit in many states in 1969), in addition to shutting down the bar and confiscating the alcohol, the cops would always arrest everyone who was gender-non-conforming.

So, forget the lies that certain so-called religious people have started spouting lately: the cops were not rescuing underaged people who were being sex trafficked. The purpose of the raid was to insure that the mob paid it’s bribes on time, and to give the cops a chance to rough up some trans people, masculine-looking women, and effeminate men. That was it.

And for some unkown reason, part of the crowd started fighting back on that night. The cops were so overwhelmed that they had to barricade themselves inside the now-emptied Stonewall Inn and wait for reinforcements. Over the next six days, news spread and people gathered, rioting on at least two more nights. The people who led the fights were the outcasts: the street queens, the people of color, the homeless queer teens—the people least likely to blend in at some white middle-class event.

The New York Daily News, a bit over a week after the first riot.

The New York Daily News, a bit over a week after the first riot.

To the extent that the press covered the event, most of it was very condescending. Joe Jervis has been posting the full text of the New York Daily News’ story every June for a few years. If you want to see just how the so-called liberal press felt about gay people, go give it a read. To the extent that the media covered it at all, most of the coverage was either as disdainful and mocking as the New York Daily News, or they focused on the police version of the story.

The Village Voice put the phrase “Gay Power” in the front page!

Technically, the riots didn’t start the gay rights movement. There had been several organizations staging the occasional picket lines (with the men in suits and ties and the women in skirts), or other orderly protests for a couple of decades. In fact, some of the organizations that had been lobbying for gay rights for years issued condemnations of the riots. Second: But the riots did have a several important effects. while the mainstream press either ignored them or made fun of queer people, some of the alternative papers tried to show both sides. And these papers were read outside of the neighborhoods they served, especially papers like the Village Voice which was read by many professional journalists and academics far outside New York. Third, the news of the riots spread through social grapevines, and within weeks younger, less affluent queer people who had never ever heard of organizations like the Mattachine Society were gathering and forming groups like the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists Alliance, or the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

Fourth, by the fall of 1969 chapters of the Gay Liberation Front were being formed on college campuses all over the U.S. I know, because I happened to know a man who was a freshman at the University of Washington that year, who was not only a founder of the UW chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, he served as an officer for the next few years.

Fifth: Commemoration led to recognition. The next year, June 1970, on the anniversary of the first riot, a small group met to march in what was then called Christopher Street Liberation Day, but by the time the group reached Central Park, the march had swelled to thousands. And, interestingly enough, the same papers that had been so condescending a year ago were at least less disdainful: “There was little open animosity, and some bystanders applauded when a tall, pretty girl carrying a sign “I am a Lesbian” walked by.”

I mentioned the organizations that had been fighting for gay rights for years. There were enough of them that they had been holding regular conferences for some years before the riots. Several months after the riots the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations passed a resolution supporting the Christopher Street Liberation Day, though several groups abstained. And the only reason the resolution was under consideration was because a group called Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods had started working with the Gay Liberation Front, and brought some GLF members to the convention as guests. The New York Mattachine Society (the people who had been doing that staid picketing for years with no significant changes in the law or attitudes) was one of the organizations that opposed commemorating the riots. But that parade, and others held in other cities all over the country, happened anyway, and they have been growing ever since.

The Mattachine Society had been lobbying for gay rights since 1950 to virtually no avail. The more radical queers who organized after Stonewall made more of a splash: by the 1972 presidential election campaign, there were national Democratic candidates advocating for anti-discrimination laws to include queer people.

Since that first march in 1970, there have been people within the community who call for the parades to be less outrageous. Specifically, they ask people not to wear kink gear, or sexually provocative clothing. Every year I hear someone saying that such-and-such or so-and-so doesn’t belong at Pride. They argue that only if we show the world that we aren’t freaks will we get rights.

Bull.

I have a few more verbose responses:

First: if we all showed up with the men wearing suits and ties and the women in skirts, and walked calmly down the street the same bigots who claim we are sick and going to hell would still be screaming those lies. Because they did it for the two decades that groups like the Mattachine Society were playing the assimilationship card.

Stop ignoring the blatant sexuality of every day straight culture.

Second: have you ever been to a straight parade or festival? Because let me tell you, the first time I ever attended Seattle’s Torchlight Family Seafair Parade I was shocked at how just how many skimpy bikinis were being worn by women on the floats and how many sexual innuendoes other floats were designed to embody. The only reason why LGBT Pride Parades appear to be outrageous and not-family-friendly to people is because none of the sexuality on display is aimed at white straight men. There is no less sexuality being flaunted at most non-gay festivals, parades, sporting events, et cetera, than there is at Queer Pride Parades. None.

“No one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hand of the person they love.” —Barack Obama.

(click to embiggen)

Third: the whole point of liberation and equality is that everyone should be free to be themselves. No one should have to hide who they are to be treated equally before the law. If you’re trying to keep the kinksters, the dykes on bikes, the drag queens, the scantily-clad go-go boys out of the Parade, you’re on the same side of this battle as the anti-gay bigots. You’re helping our enemies, not us. And I’m not the only person who feels this way. Take it away Amanda Kerri, writing for The Advocate:

“I’m frankly too worn out from this stuff at this point to be nice about it anymore. Saying that kink has no place at Pride is a bad opinion and you should feel bad. First of all, kink was at Pride long before upper middle-class queers decided to take their kids to Pride…. As for those of you arguing about how a bunch of queers running around in collars, harnesses, and body tape over their nipples makes us look bad in front of the straights and supports their arguments that we’re all perverts, well you might want to sit down for this: the ones who think we’re perverts don’t care how we’re dressed.”

Fourth: Pride isn’t a celebration of being gay, it’s an assertion of our right to exist without persecution. What is being celebrated is the fact that we have survived and even thrived despite the oppression. What is being celebrated is the rights of each and every one of us to be who we are without shame.

Fifth: Have you been to a Pride Parade lately? Because most of the groups marching in Pride Parades of late are corporate employee groups. They are queer people usually dressed in matching t-shirts approved by some corporate flunky, along with shorts and sensible shoes. Yes, I think there is a lot we need to think about with the corporations who pretend to be gay friendly for marketing purposes while actively supporting our oppressors. And I would frankly have more respect for the people trying to exclude the kinksters if they also talked about the corporate coopting, but they don’t usually seem to be the same people. Regardless, my point here is that just as straight public events aren’t really any more family-friendly than most Pride events, the Pride events aren’t nearly as outrageous as some of you seem to think.

Bottom Line: Everyone who is there to celebrate Pride is welcome, including straight allies. I’m not saying that you have to show up in a g-string with rainbow glitter on your nibbles to participate. I’m going to be wearing a t-shirt and shorts and sensible shoes, carrying my bright rainbow parasol and looking every bit the short, old, queer, nerdy bear that I am. But not only are the street queens, the freaks, the kinksters, the butch dykes, and all of the other “outrageous” or non-conforming people welcome, they were our founders—and they sure as hell belong.

What doesn’t belong at Pride are oppressive attitudes.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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