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50 Years After Stonewall, Sex Workers of Color Who Led the Riots Still Don’t Have Their Rights

By Melinda Chateauvert

Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson. Artwork reprinted with permission from Micah Bazant.

This year on the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall, I won’t be participating in the parties and parades that celebrate a movement for LGBTQ equality. It’s not JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out), really. I won’t be “gay” on June 25, because I want to honor the transwomen of color who started this protest and still haven’t gotten what they wanted. Stonewall was a riot. It was led by sex workers, street kids, drug users and hustlers, by marginalized African Americans and Latinx who were pissed off with police harassment and police violence. As World Pride approaches, I’m going to remember what caused that 1969 riot, and refuse to participate in the historical amnesia.

A very vocal younger generation are demanding the LGBTQ movement acknowledge that Stonewall was a riot led by sex workers of color against the police. It’s shameful that it has taken a half-century for LGBTQ leaders to only now begin to contemplate what a riot against police brutality means for queer activism. From the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March held in 1970, white gay and lesbian leaders have commandeered the event, whitewashing the actions of those courageous—and camp—queers of color who threw the first bricks while publicly reading those helmeted cops. Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major, with their fellow street kids and hustlers, had been harassed and fighting back for years. And Stonewall was not the first trans-led riot against the police: in 1966, transwomen in San Francisco’s Tenderloin smashed windows and burned a building outside Gene Compton’s Cafeteria after yet another night of harassment by the SFPD. And there were other riots even before that. Frankly, as observers noted at the time, “the Village’s established gay community” arrived rather late to the party, joining only after they “rushed back from vacation rentals on Fire Island” (and they were treated rather nicely too). The establishment may (or may not) have been mourning the death of Judy Garland, but the transwomen of color who later founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries were standing up for their murdered, imprisoned, and missing sisters and brothers.

Those victims of police violence and police indifference numbered in the hundreds, even tens of thousands. In the context of New York’s history of state violence, Stonewall was only one of many riots led by black and brown people. In 1712, enslaved Africans burned buildings and attacked white settlers while during the Civil War; white mobs hunted down and lynched black people in riots against the Union Army draft. Black folks rioted in 1935 and again in 1943 because of beatings by the police. In July 1964, Harlemites rioted for a week when fifteen-year-old James Powell was shot by a white off-duty officer. In nearby Newark, NJ, five days of riots erupted in 1967 when police arrested John William Smith, a black taxi driver, and rumors flew he had been beaten to death. Riots and “racial outbreaks” in large cities and smaller town were frequent in the long hot summers of 1966 and 1967. Amid the Kerner Commission’s extensive documentation of deaths, arrests, and destruction, was an indictment of the police violence that was the source of almost every riot. In this context, the Stonewall uprising—in which no one was killed, injuries were few, little was property damaged, and most of the arrests were for minor offenses—six nights of “riots” seemed to be rather orderly.

How did a riot, started by Blacks and Latinx fed up with police brutality during a decade that experienced more than a hundred major race riots, get reframed as a “gay rights” uprising? The deracination was a deliberate strategy. “Homophile” groups had been organizing for several years. They believed assimilation into “straight society” was key to acceptance and equality. The politics of respectability commanded that members distance themselves from public markers of “deviant” sexuality, including “transvestitism” in formal public spaces. (In fairness, black-led civil rights organizations made the same demands on its leaders.) They thought their strategy to show gay people as “heteronormative” rather than as sexual deviants and prostitutes was working. But it came at a price: the erasure of transwomen, of sex workers, drug users, street kids and hustlers, most of them black and brown. When Philadelphia veteran activists from the Mattachine Society allied with some New Yorkers as the one-year anniversary of Stonewall approached, they decided to rechristen June 25 as “Christopher Street Liberation Day” with a march up Sixth Avenue to Central Park.

The problem with respectability is that some queers and gender nonconformists will always be “out.” The “T” and “Q” in LGBTQ is almost never at the beginning of movement strategy. The construction of a heteronormative cis-gender appearance depends on both class aesthetics and the racial privileges of the able-bodied. Since the 1970s, lesbian and gay male leaders in the of the movement expected transwomen of color and other queers to follow to this “white picket fence” strategy, sometimes going so far as to discourage trans participation for political expediency (for example, the Millennium March on Washington for Equality). It is grossly unjust to expect transwomen of color to “pass” for their safety and freedom.

It is because of perceptions of “deviancy” or “freakishness” that transwomen remain always at the risk of civil vigilantism and police violence. The NYPD is under court order to change their practice of arresting transwomen on charges of prostitution merely for being on public streets at night. For Layleen Palcano, detention at Rikers on June 10, 2019 was her death sentence; the Department of Corrections has yet to explain why another Latinx transwoman died. The death toll is much greater: the murders and uninvestigated disappearances of transwomen of color that have yet to be reckoned with—including the unexplained death of Marsha P. Johnson in 1992.

For these reasons and more, an apology from Police Chief James P. O’Neill for the actions of the NYPD fifty years ago will never be enough. Will the Chief, along with the City of New York, apologize for the deaths of James Powell (Harlem, 7/16/1964)? For Eleanor Bumpurs (Bronx, 10/29/1994), or Kawaski Trawick (Bronx, 4/16/2019)? For other black and brown people killed by the NYPD? Where’s the apology for the “New Jersey 7”? In 2006, the NYPD arrested seven lesbian and gender-nonconforming women for “gang assault” after a man physically assaulted them and threatened them with “corrective” rape. For that matter, when will national LGBTQ leaders joining with #SayHerName, #BlackLivesMatter and #SexWorkersRightsNow to disavow the respectability politics of the past?

Stonewall was a riot. Police violence and police indifference to violent acts committed by homophobic and transphobic citizens won’t be solved with palliatives like “it gets better” or with “sensitivity training” for the police. What will work, what is working, can be seen in the next generation of queers who, in solidarity with their forebears, have disavowed respectability politics and gender conformity. They’re queers who don’t care about the liberal political agenda of national LGBTQQIA organizations, who critique proposed federal laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people on the grounds that only “respectable” citizens will benefit from them. That’s why I won’t be “gay” on June 25. I’ll be holding up a red umbrella for the rights of sex workers and a protest sign demanding the end to police violence. 


About the Author 

Activist Melinda Chateauvert has been involved in many grassroots campaigns to change policies and attitudes about sex and sexuality, gender and antiviolence, and race and rights. As a university professor she has taught courses on social justice organizing, the civil rights movement, and gender and sexuality. She is a fellow at the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk. Follow her on Twitter at @whorestorian and visit her website.