the start of the gay rights movement (or the birth of Gay Inc)
May 8, 2015
I want to provide some context to explain why I make this assertion. One of the most interesting things on Sylvia Rivera’s wikipedia page is this statement from Michael Bronski:
After Gay Liberation Front folded and the more reformist Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) became New York’s primary gay rights group, Sylvia Rivera worked hard within their ranks in 1971 to promote a citywide gay rights, anti-discrimination ordinance. But for all of her work, when it came time to make deals, GAA dropped the portions in the civil rights bill that dealt with transvestitism and drag — it just wasn’t possible to pass it with such “extreme” elements included. As it turned out, it wasn’t possible to pass the bill anyway until 1986. But not only was the language of the bill changed, GAA — which was becoming increasingly more conservative, several of its founders and officers had plans to run for public office — even changed its political agenda to exclude issues of transvestitism and drag. It was also not unusual for Sylvia to be urged to “front” possibly dangerous demonstrations, but when the press showed up, she would be pushed aside by the more middle-class, “straight-appearing” leadership. In 1995, Rivera was still hurt: “When things started getting more mainstream, it was like, ‘We don’t need you no more’”. But, she added, “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned”.
Encapsulated in this paragraph is such an important bit of context and history for understanding how we got from rioting in the streets to Gay Inc.
The way history is usually told, the ‘gay rights movement’ started with Stonewall. This paragraph reveals how this is a lie…
Instead we see how Stonewall veteran Sylvia Rivera was an active participant in the post-Stonewall organization and mobilization. Except… we see how her labour was exploited “It was also not unusual for Sylvia to be urged to “front” possibly dangerous demonstrations, but when the press showed up, she would be pushed aside” but the issues she advocated for pushed out of the ‘movement’ born in the aftermath of Stonewall: “for all of her work, when it came time to make deals, GAA dropped the portions in the civil rights bill that dealt with transvestitism and drag”.
And the key terms of how the GAA differed from the Gay Liberation Front – “reformist” and “increasingly more conservative” – because the “several of its founders and officers had plans to run for public office”, here we see within just a few years post-Stonewall, the language of the ‘movement’ shifts from ‘liberation’ to ‘rights’ and how the people and organizations themselves shift to a politics of assimilation.
Drag and trans women of colour cannot be a part of the ‘rights’ bill because we are ‘extreme’ elements. Trans women of colour and queens like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson are required to be on the front lines but not in the spotlight.
This is the true beginning of the ‘gay rights movement’. The year is 1971 and Gay Inc1 is formed using the exploited labour of trans women of colour while at the same time strategically and purposefully pushing us out. And so the formula and pattern for gay rights activism is set out… and repeated time after time thereafter (see also: Human Rights Campaign).
In other words, ‘gay rights’ has always been homonationalist. And homonationalism requires both the exploitation of twoc and our continual exclusion/exile. It depends on being perceived as working on behalf of ‘lgbt’ people in general while strategically working to ensure that trans women of colour are never included as actual human beings (only as tokens, as exploitable labour, as bodies, but never as fully human, complex people who require safety, care, and dignity).
The year is 2015 and nothing has changed for Gay Inc.
Stonewall UK just this year began to advocating for trans issues. And no sooner does this happen than white cis gay men claim that “the Stonewall riots were a violent reaction by gay men and lesbians… They were not led by representatives of the transsexual community”.
One of the reasons why I keep going back into the history of the early days of Gay Inc and teh ~gay rights movement~ is precisely this. The riots remain a contested site of history, with white gays and lesbians actively working to ensure the violent erasure of twoc from this revolutionary moment and its impact on the world (as well as our violent exclusion from the organizations they built on our labour and backs). This is also why I want the story to change.
The ~gay rights movement~ begins in 1971, not 1969.