50 Years On

Why Queer rights in Australia have a Black history

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Words || James Booth

In the early hours of the 28thof June, 1969, what had begun as a raid by New York City police on the Stonewall Inn transformed into an uprising. The events of this evening have come to be known as the Stonewall Riots or Stonewall Uprising, and are largely credited as being the foundation stone for the western gay rights movements. 50 years on, it is imperative that Queer Australia acknowledges the role Stonewall has played in our own fight for rights.

In 1960’s New York, as well as in most western nations, solicitations of same sex relations was illegal and the gathering of homosexuals was seen as disorderly by authority. As of 1966 LGBTQ+ patrons could be served alcohol in venues, but engaging in gay behaviour – such as holding hands, kissing, or dancing with someone of the same sex – was still illegal. This meant that police harassment still continued in gay bars. 

This also meant that many gay bars operated without liquor licenses, were run by the Mafia and did not ensure safety or functionality for their patrons. The Stonewall Inn was one such bar, which had been known as a seedy bar with watered down liquor – but offered a space for queer people to dance, and was one of the few bars which welcomed Drag Queens. It is important to note that many of our distinctions between the Trans+ community and drag artists which exist today, were not as prevalent in the early queer movements and many ‘Drag Queens’ in modern queer history would likely identify as trans women in today’s world.

This historical context is important, as the socio-political oppression of queer people worldwide is not as simple as people rioting against police for stopping their club – or as straight commentators claimed at the time, the result of Judy Garland’s death. To suggest either is to trivialise the anger and oppression, Stonewall was a rebellion against attacks on safety and expression of identities which did not fit into society’s documented norm. 

Who threw the ‘first brick’ at Stonewall?

This is the million dollar question, and in many ways where a lot of discussion around Stonewall has centred over the last few years. In some accounts a “very butch and tough” lesbian, Stormé DeLarverie, was the spark that ignited the uprising, and she is believed to have shouted at other patrons to do something about the raid while she was fighting back. DeLarverie never confirmed her role as the spark for the uprising, and in most accounts the first brick is believed to have been thrown by Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera. Johnson herself noted that she did not arrive until 2am, well after the riots were underway; in a similar vein, Sylvia Rivera has denied throwing the first brick.

As noted by Chrysanthemum Tran, a trans+ writer and poet, Stonewall was a “messy evening, and acknowledging the messiness of the evening doesn’t take away its importance.” We may never know who threw the first brick. However what we can take away from the Stonewall Uprising is; firstly that objects were definitely thrown, pavers were pulled up, shot glasses were thrown, and by the second day approximately 1000 people protested for their rights; secondly that the uprising was instrumental in igniting the formation of the Gay Liberation Front; and most importantly that the key figures of the riot were black. 

This final point is important to note as the three people associated with the beginning of the uprising were a half-black lesbian, and two black drag queens. DeLarverie is often refered to as the “Rosa Parks of the gay community,” and would continue her work as an MC, bouncer, bodyguard and street patrol walker for the Queer community. Johnson who is noted to have scaled a lamppost to throw an object at a police car window, would become a founding member of the Gay Liberation front, and until her death in 1992 played a significant role in supporting the community struggling with AIDS. Rivera until her death in 2002 encouraged gay leaders to be more inclusive.

Why does this matter in Australia?

On the 24thof June 1978, a march and protest through Sydney’s streets, dubbed ‘International Gay Solidarity Day’, would act as a similar catalyst in Australia’s Queer history. Before the glitter, the costumes, and the parties it is known for today. The first Mardi Gras was a protest against discrimination against homosexuals in employment and housing, an end to police harassment and the repeal of all anti-homosexual laws in Australia. 

Much like other colonised nations, Australia inherited its criminalisation of homosexuality from the British system. However much like the events in the United States, the police permit for the march was removed halfway through the march – people were trapped, and 53 people were incarcerated and beaten by the Sydney Police. Witnesses noted that you could hear the cries of pain from those beaten from the streets.

The protest was celebrated with another march the next year, in what would become known as the ‘Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.’ However in much the same vein the celebration of Mardi Gras has become far removed from the original intention, and it is very important for us to not erase the significance of the events in favour of celebration. As well as it is important for straight community to realise that it was only forty one years ago that the police were bashing queer people for protesting, so let us have our pride in being able to freely express who we are.

Perhaps the most important reason the history of Stonewall matters, lies in Australia’s historical lack of representation of Queer Trans+ Intersex People of Colour (‘QTIPOC’ – but you say it like “cutie poc”). We live in a nation where the Commonwealth Franchise Act prevented Aboriginal people and migrants from other nations from voting until 1949 reforms, and the 1967 Referendum. As well as one which implemented a ‘White Australia policy’ from 1949-1973, actively working to prevent migration from non-white nations. 

Our migration patterns have mostly followed on from worldwide conflicts, creating cultural ghettos within our major cities, and entrenching cultural beliefs in communities – meaning that queer People Of Colour often have to navigate both queerness and their community’s views of queerness. This has meant that Queer people of colour were not represented in our early rights movements in the same way that they have been in America, and has entrenched whiteness in our Queer spaces. For this reason, it is important to note that our fight for rights here is built upon the struggle for Queer rights, and the Black community in American’s role in championing and supporting those movements.

Race never leaves our narrative, don’t let it leave yours.

New York is building a statue of Johnson and Rivera to honour their roles in the Transgender and Gay rights movements, however it should be noted that they were largely removed from Gay movements. In the pride march of 1973, Rivera was repeatedly blocked from speaking and when she finally received the microphone she shouted: “If it wasn’t for the Drag Queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners,” and was booed off the stage. 

What Rivera speaks to here is something which has occurred in gay communities throughout the western world, and that is the failure to acknowledge that our rights have a basis in the work and labour of Black women and Black Trans women. Without the work of the historical Drag Queens we wouldn’t have had activism, and Queer rights could have easily died with the burning of the “Institut für Sexualwissenschaf” by the Nazi regime in 1933, eliminating years of Queer research and archives.

This is especially pertinent when on the night of Stonewall’s 50thanniversary, a black trans woman took to the stage of the Stonewall Inn to call on the community to support the marginalised Black Trans community. She was not listened to, rather she was booed by predominantly white patrons, music was played over her, and bar staff threatened to call the cops on her. On the anniversary of an evening where black trans people were on the frontline, white queers attempted to silence a black, trans woman for ruining their party. 

As cisgendered queers we need to pay attention to the struggles of the Trans+ community, and the oppressions we don’t suffer from – we need to support and elevate their voices. White queers, if I ask one thing of you it is to listen to QTIPOC when they speak about the differences in their oppression. Stop removing their colour from the queer narrative. I believe this goes for white members of the Trans+ community as well, note that the colour of your skin has not impacted your experiences in the community, and that gender and racial oppression are different intersections not comparative experiences of oppression. Don’t remove the colour from other queer people, and don’t speak for trans+ people of colour because they operate on different intersections than you do – elevate their voices instead. 

Our expressions of queerness in Australia have their roots in the hard work and activism of QTIPOC in America – we should never forget this, and in my opinion we should follow Sylvia Rivera’s wishes and include all voices in our spaces.