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Stonewall’s Progeny

On the 20th Anniversary of Stonewall, there are any number of great places to find an account of the uprising that began on June 28, 1969, and lasted for some two weeks. I especially recommend Nan Hunter’s typically excellent post, which includes a bunch of useful links and an extended quote from the great writer Edmund White, whose pulsing account of events she quotes extensively.

I want to make a different point, though. Several years ago, a good friend of mine in Michigan was expressing his frustration with well-to-do, polite gays — almost exclusively white men — who cared little about the rights of people more on the fringe than they were. Here of course he was referring to gays and lesbians of color and gender non-conformists (including but not limited to the transgendered community). His admonition to the polite class: “If it’s not safe for the most outrageous drag queen, it’s not safe for you, either.”

Well, yes and no. In a theoretical sense he was right, because the oppression of any group enables the oppression of another; dehumanization and essentialist thinking are easily transported to new contexts, so that the group safe at the first pogrom might not survive the next. Here’s a brief comment that gets right at it from one of the readers of Pam’s House Blend:

“We are all gender transgressors in the eyes of society, either by loving the ‘wrong’ gender, or living as the ‘wrong’ gender. Pretty simple. But I’ve had arguments with boneheaded gay friends who insist ‘those people’ are ruining ‘our’ cause.

“It’s all one cause, people.”

Yet my friend’s admonition often fell on deaf ears, because the privileged class isn’t often on the receiving end of the worst kind of discrimination. Their efforts to maintain the status quo with the “tweak” of formal equality are less threatening, and more $1,000-a-plate-fundraising-dinner friendly, than the messier demands for the social equality that alone lead to good public health and welfare outcomes for transgendered people and other true outliers.

The other point my friend might have made is that the LGBT movement as we know it today simply would not have existed without the reckless courage of those same outliers; people still too often shoved to the margins in the march to formal equality. Having the least to lose and the most to gain, these radical queers sparked the revolution that today has the rest of us comfortably within the social mainstream. And they didn’t start in June of 1969; the transgendered community, working outside the sticky cocoon of a double identity that sheltered many more “passable” gay and lesbian folks, had augured Stonewall with an uprising of their own, four years earlier — in Philadelphia, at a place called “Dewey’s.” Kathy Padilla discussed this event, and provided a sketch of earlier TG visibility, as Pam’s guest blogger.

Because of these ground-breaking — doubtless trembling — efforts, we can argue with seamless confidence today for the full measure of legal equality that is surely soon to come. Even the Obama DOJ’s awful brief defending DOMA underscores rather than contradicts the point; a generation ago, the homophobic cant that the brief recites would have passed, unchallenged. Today it is a major embarrassment for the Obama Administration, which has been forced to respond by agreeing to meet with gay legal advocacy groups before filing the government’s brief in the other DOMA case, due in the Fall.  That’s progress.

And for those of us who congratulate ourselves for being “out,” it’s worth thinking today about the forefathers/mothers who made this possible; even easy, in some cases.

It’s often and accurately stated that the LGBT rights movement doesn’t have a true leader. But we do have pioneers, and Stonewall is an apt time to both remember them and the deep lessons of their courage.

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