(I am posting a speech I gave here in June as part of a Stonewall celebration night here in Melbourne.) Joan Nestle, June, 2009
As many of you know, I started my public queer life in the butch-fem bars of New York’s Greenwich Village in the late 1950s; in the intervening years, I have traveled through many cultural and political terrains, one of the culminating moments being riding up Fifth Avenue with Jonathan Katz and our lovers as grand marshals of New York City’s Gay Pride March on a hot day in July in 1999. Oh but how the wheel turns, and now on a cool winter July afternoon La Professora and I and our friend Pattie, a long time member of the lesbian community here, make our way out of Pellegrini’s, -- a Melbourne icon of a place where good coffee and quick dishes of home cooked pasta make their way over the counter to be eaten standing in most instances-- cross Bourke Street—we are “at the Parliament end of town,” my letter of invite reads, to join a growing crowd of gay people outside the Loop Bar for an afternoon of talks about the lesbian and gay rights movement in Australia and the USA. Once again, I cross the threshold of a dark bar—rows of worn couches, a small stage, a bar running alongside one wall—the room continues into more sitting space behind the stage. On a different continent, almost a life time later, I find myself at home. New friends, and old, like Pattie whom I have known for over ten years now, the young queer people of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (VGLRL) who have organized this event—I have had to learn a new atlas of Australian acronyms-- and around forty other people have made their way down the cobblestoned laneway into this den of history—where under the careful directions of Sally Goldner, whom I have also known for a few years now, a wonderful standup comic and long time transgendered activist, Graham Willett, one of the anchors of the Australian Gay and lesbian archives, Jean Taylor, long time lesbian feminist activist with tales to tell and myself will talk of Stonewall echoing through the years. Then in a fitting finale, we give the stage over to the younger generation: Hayley Conway and Stephen Jones, VGLRL coordinators, and Alyena Mohummadally, President of the Australian Gay Multicultural Council. This, I believe, is the rhythm of history forming history—we tell our stories, the happenings and our understanding of them, bring up the voices, span the decades and then, fully expecting displacements of certainties, take our seats, often in the honorable front rows, and lift our gaze to the speakers on and of the new stage of things—listening always to the voices of the present struggle who imagine the future we will never see, but who have seen our past. Let us hope our lives and our reflections about them can be of some help.
What I will do, through the use of my notes and news flashes that I carried with me on that afternoon in addition to Lee Hudson’s and Steve Hogan’s wonderful reference work, "Completely Queer: the Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia" (1998) that I carefully put on the stage in front of me, as if this history was a friendly weight, is reconstruct my talk in that most grassroots of places, a gay bar.
The Voice of Sally Goldner: First I want to respectfully acknowledge the Wurundjeri people as the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on today.
Thank you, Sally, and to the organizers of this event for inviting me with my American voice to be part of your celebration. By doing this, you have allowed me in a metaphorical way, to step off into the line of march, New York’s Gay Pride March, that just happened in the early hours of your morning in my city so far away. First, hot off the press, sent out by my dear friend Jonathan Katz, the newly released Stonewall Riot Police Reports, June 28, 1969 in which for the first time we learn the name of the much rumored butch lesbian woman who was among the first arrested on that summer night. [Here I am waving above my head the printout of the arrest record from OutHistory.] Her name is Marilyn Fowler, Marilyn Fowler, now is put back into our history. Then I want to put in the air the names of comrades, of pioneers in the American movement—Harry Hayes, Del Martin, Barbara Gitttings—who sadly have died and one other group of people, the students of SNCC (the Students’ Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) who in their civil rights marches through violent southern towns, sit ins at soda fountain counters and long days of voter registration in the back country of the American South, made the history I am speaking of today possible.
How grateful I feel to stand here with you today—you have given me a chance to revisit the existential energies of the most politically and culturally important decades of my life—the American 50s, 60s, and 70s. These were the decades of a people’s self creation, where the private became more and more, for African-Americans, for women, for queer people, actions in the street [here I paused and spoke of the images from Iran, indeed the images that seem to be propagating at such an alarming rate—columns of national militaries, like a devastating crop of malevolence, advancing on unarmed citizens the streets.] where national agendas of hatred and discrimination were challenged by people with the smallest amount of social power.
Now I know I was supposed to talk about the gay 70s in America but one of the other stories I would like to tell is what came before, to challenge in my own way, the idea that 1969, the Stonewall Rebellion, was the starting point of our emancipatory journey. Another point I want to make is that our journey, our queer journey—my own personal one and our larger international movements are deeply embedded in the histories of nations, of technologies, conflicts and social justice movements. Desire, shame, anger and ultimately rebellion—sometimes all at once—make this three decade period history so compelling, so rich. Throughout this talk I will be blending the personal with the political, a phrase born in the women’s movement in the 1970s, to give this history a body, a body alive with want. I am juggling so many worlds here—the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the gay rights movement—and they must be kept in the air together because they all created each other and sometimes, challenged the visions and strategies of each other.
Twenty years before the decade we are looking at today, queer peoples were reeling with oppressive legal, political and psychological restrictions, yes, but in the true dialectical way, many were creating ways to resist, to form communities of desire and protest, like so many marginalized people do when the world is closing down around them. I was 10 when I entered this most restrictive American time; Joseph McCarthy, the anti-communist campaigner and the subsequent House Un-American Activities Committee, were nourishing a culture of fear and intolerance of difference throughout the land—the killing air as I have called it. Growing up in a working class neighborhood in the Bronx in the 1940s, I heard the whispers and saw the shunning. On December 15, 1950, McCarthy expanded his public list of subversives to include sexual deviants. That morning Americans, queer and straight, found on the front page of their New York Times the report of the Senate Investigative Committee entitled, “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government,” followed by “Federal Vigilance on Perverts Asked: Senate Group Says They Must be Kept Out of Government because of Security Risk.” The first paragraph developed the theme: “The lack of emotional stability which is found in most sex perverts and the weakness of their moral fiber, make them susceptible to the blandishments of foreign espionage agents.” (Katz, 99)
Thus a decade of what has been called the witch hunting years began—with all the ironies history keeps in wait—think of Roy Cohn and FBI Chief J.Edgar Hoover, both of whom have been outed in the subsequent decades, leading the persecution of other homosexuals. Hoover announces in 1951 that his agency has identified and driven out over 400 sexual deviants in government service. Queers like other ideological enemies were a fifth column in their nation; note the language of security, deviance, threat, subversion, that chillingly connects to our world today, However, I, like so many others, was learning other histories as well. My working class Jewish mother, a bookkeeper in New York’s garment industry all her life, told me of the heroism of Paul Robeson, the African American internationalist exiled from America, taught me of the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire and the creation of the textile unions early in the 20th century, while her own working life taught me the power of bosses, and in these years, my body was on its own journey of subversion and by the end of this decade, the 1950s, I would be a weekend regular in the working class butch-fem bars of Greenwich Village, taking on, along with my bar comrades, Vice Squad raids and police harassment. Constantly bombarded with messages of why we should hate ourselves, our collective resistance was already well under way.
In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, gay people were organizing in groups to form the Homophile Movement for Equal Rights, men like Harry Hay (1912--) who, along with others, brought the Mattachine Society into being in 1950 and Del Martin, who sadly died last year, along with her partner Phyllis Lyon was creating the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil rights group, coded names yes, but listen to their voices as they create the possibilities of Stonewall, of a counter discourse in their conventions, publications, social gatherings--under FBI surveillance the whole time, we later discovered.
May 15, 1955: Resolution of the Mattachine Society: Be it resolved that the Mattachine Society does hereby appeal to parents, ministers, doctors and all those who come in contact with and have a lasting impression on the youth of this nation, to become aware of the sexual problems of all youths, to understand it and deal with it intelligently and with charity so this nation may have a coming generation of adults able to accept themselves and their place in the community and be prepared to deal with our problems as a nation with responsibility, strength and intelligence for the benefit for all mankind. (Ridinger, 44)
We were subverting the national discussion of that thing called the sexual deviant—our desires, our angers at social injustices, our belief in our own human dignity grew as the American 50s became more restrictive.
In the same year, 1955, Rosa Parks coming home from a long day’s work, refuses to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus.
The Voice of Del Martin, October 1956, speaking as the founder of DOB at a national meeting of Homophile Groups, which she describes as mostly for men with some involved hard working women: “The Daughters of Bilitis is a women’s organization resolved to add the feminine voice nd viewpoint to a mutual problem. While women may not have so much difficulty with law enforcement, their problems are none the less real—family, sometimes children, employment, social acceptance—the groundwork has been well laid in the five and a half years—Homosexuality is not the dirty word it used to be. It has only been in this 20th century through the courageous crusade of the Suffragettes and the influx of women into business that women have become independent entities, an individual with the right to vote and the right to a job and economic security. But it took women with foresight and determination to attain this heritage which is now ours. AND WHAT WILL BE THE LOT OF THE FUTURE LESBIAN? FEAR? SCORN? THIS NEED NOT BE IF LETHARGY IS SUPPLANTED BY AN ENERGIZED CONSTRUCTIVE PROGRAM, IF COWARDICE GIVES WAY TO THE SOLIDARITY OF A COOPERATIVE FRONT—If the let Georgia-do-it- attitude is replaced by the realization of individual responsibility in thwarting the evils of ignorance, superstition, prejudice and bigotry.” (Ridinger, 52)
And this is the struggle to which Del devoted her entire life.
By the end of the 50s, I had found my way to the public lesbian bar community, to the sex workers, passing women, my fem-butch comrades who schooled me in the my erotic and cultural rites of passage. As you may know if you have read my other writings, I carry their touch and their lives with me always.
I entered the next decade, 1960s—and I know the prefix American goes before all I am saying here this afternoon—leading two lives, social activist and teacher by day—and sexual deviant by night, a young fem dancing late into the evening to the velvet songs of Johnny Matthias and the wails of Teresa Brewer, drinking her 7 and 7s in the back room of the Sea Colony, prepared for police intrusions and wanting intrusions of another kind, hating the strictures of State surveillance which marked our lives particularly in these public private moments. Remember at this time the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was still defining homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.”
In the 1980s, during the Reagan years, I wrote, “Today the 1960s is a favorite target of those who take delight in the failure of dreams. For those who dabbled in social change or who stayed aloof from the passions of the times, the sixties has become a playground for nostalgia, a pot-filled room of counterculture adolescents playing with anger. But it is a sad cynicism that jeers at the defeat of courage and commitment and a selfish one too. [And simply wrong, I added on this afternoon, forty years later.] There is one group of Americans that cannot play with the 1960s, cannot give these years to mockery and disdain. In Alabama and Mississippi and Arkansas, in Watts and Harlem and Philadelphia, in luncheonettes and in movie theaters, on beaches, on school steps, and on buses, black Americans took their history into their own work-worn hands, carried it on their tired feet, until it became a different thing.” And now I add for gay people as well, who start the decade as sexual deviants and end it as gay liberationists. This decade, the 1960s was the most important ten years of my life—the sexual energies of it, the grassroots thrust of its social energies, the opportunity it gave me to seize history and mark it with collective actions. A decade of great struggles and great sadnesses: in 1963 Dr Martin Luther King delivers his “I Have a Dream Speech” in front of thousands in Washington, D.C., JFK is assassinated and Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique.”
From A Restricted Country (1987): I wore a double mask in those early sixty’s years, in those estaurants [here I explained how we conducted the sit ins in Baltimore’s segregated restaurants, with our black comrades picketing outside, while we, the white members of CORE infiltrated the restaurant.] My first deception was to the enemy; the pose of a nice white person who could be let in and would sit down and eat in quiet tones, pretending to ignore the battle for human dignity that was happening outside the windows.[Once again I was part of a fifth column.] The second was to my friends, my comrades, black and white, the pose of straightness, the invisibility of my queerness. They did not know that when the police entered, with their sneers and itchy fingers, I was meeting an old antagonist. Perhaps their uniforms were a different color, but in the lesbian bars of my other world I had met these forces of the state. I never told my comrades that I was different because a secret seemed a little thing in such a time of history.
The time for secrets, however, was coming to an end. Feminist and gay manifestoes were in the air.
The Voice of William Beardempl, 1966, in DOB’s publication, The Ladder: “You the respectable members of society have created these distortions in the lives of individuals, and then you disparage the results of what you have done. You turn with evil indifference on those you have maimed and sadistically hurt—and hurt again—and take advantage of the helpless fellow human being because they happen to be homosexuals? What are you going to do now? We will not accept compromise or tolerate injustice any longer. The way ahead for us has been plainly determined by the history of our country—We hear the drums of equality from the American Revolution. We hear the cannons of unity from our great civil war. Our banners shall read the same as for all men—Equality, Unity, Peace, Freedom. In our day to day existence, we still hear the catcalls of fruit, fairy, queer, faggot—all the reactions of subjective inequality still practiced by our neighbors and that continue to dwell in men’s civilized hearts. We demand our rights. If the police to not protect homosexuals as they have not done so in the past, then I can see in the near future a separate police force paid for and operated by the homophile community. Unless restrictive laws are changed, unless the courts uphold the rights of homosexuals, we shall have no alternative but to go to the Supreme Court and overturn those laws that all men are treated equally except for homosexuals. We ask no special favor. We want the ordinary rights like every other citizen of the United States—jobs, homes, friends, social lives, safety and security. Here is our challenge to San Francisco: Face Reality—Face Homosexuality! (Ridinger, 124)
I want to be linear in this telling but I can’t, too much was all going on at the same time, but let us know stop at that late warm night in June, 1969 in the Village right across from the 7th Avenue Subway stop, when a group of young gay people, some queens, some young cross dressers, one butch woman whose name we now know—Marilyn Fowler—and old bar regulars, touched by all I have mentioned—the growing strength of people’s movements demanding dignity and their own class evictions from the “good” life, decided this intrusion by the State was one too many. [I interrupt the telling here to say that this is only version of the story, that we are learning nuances all the time and that stories of mythic origins are ironically shifting things.] The police entered the Stonewall Inn, a rather dank place, thinking it would be a raid like all the others, hustling cringing queers onto the streets to await the police cars, to please the Mayor’s clean- up- the- city call, perhaps to punish an uncooperative Mafia connection. The story goes, “While the police waited for patrol cars to cart away the arrested suspects and the seized alcohol, the bar’s patrons began to resist. They refused to follow police orders. Men refused to show their IDs and men dressed as women refused to accompany female officers to the bathroom to have their gender confirmed. Those who weren’t arrested exited through the front door, but they didn’t get go far. Within a short time, the crowd swelled to an estimated 2,000. As police put the arrested into the wagons, the crowd threw what they had—pennies, beer bottles, trash cans—at the police and shouted ‘Gay Power!’” 13 people were arrested, four police officers were injured. The rebellion continued for six nights—on one of them I stood in the middle of the cordoned off road, the wet streets shining in the night, interrupted in my journey to the bar by the milling crowds. It is estimated that there 1,000 gay rights organizations formed within a year after Stonewall, and by 1972, over 3000. (Carter)
Gay liberation was one part of the journey I had to take, but as a woman, I am also forever grateful to the Women’s Liberation Movement—and to the world of lesbian feminism—even though I struggled with its rigidity from time to time—these collective voices of new imaginings and fierce actions allowed me, forced me, to confront the history of the normalized concept of "woman" and how this system of power relations fit into all the others--class,race, colonization and the other manipulated markers of human complexity. What heady days there were, not because my new comrades were better than my bar days community, but because together these discourses, these struggles for full human expression and for sexual freedom gave me the insights I needed to have a life, a life, now of almost 70 years, that has brought me to these shores where my history cpeaks to yours.
Something had happened from the mid 1960s on—women, straight and gay, educated by their work in the new left and the civil rights struggles but disappointed in their demeaning treatment by the men in the movements, broke away from what they called the “sexism” of their male comrades and through grassroots organizing and consciousness raising groups (I was in three, a Marxist feminist reading group, a lesbian feminist group and a Gay Academic Union’s women’s group out of which in 1974 would come the Lesbian Herstory Archives) put the slogan the personal is political into action. The development of feminist theory and actions transformed the 1970s—women’s shelters, Take Back the Night Marches, Anti-Violence Against Women Campaigns, reproductive rights marches, the equal pay for equal work campaign with the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) finally being passed in 1970, the birth of a feminist theater project starting with It’s Alright to Be A Woman Theater Group—simple, profound stories from the lives of women we recognized; then as the decade progressed, feminists like Betty Friedan grew frightened of the growing lesbian “menace” as she called it in the national women’s movement, which in turn inspired activist lesbians to stand up at a national women's conference and proudly reveal their self-identifying t-shirts announcing they were this terror, the Lavender Menace. (Note again how the use of the word "menace" is a holdover from the McCarthy 50s, and how subversive the fifthe column idea can be.) The next few years revealed the cracks within our own discourse: issues of separatism within the lesbian feminist communities, the conflicting visions of radical feminists and cultural feminists, of sex radical lesbian feminists and anti-pornography lesbian feminists—all these conversations going on as we created alternate women’s cultural, political and social communities.
All social change movements have their documents of principle, their manifestos and position papers, their chants and anthems and so did American lesbian feminism. In 1970, a group calling themselves the Radical Lesbians printed, at a community press, a small four page declaration that reverberated throughout the decade—“The Woman Identified Woman,” whose first lines were, “What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” I want to put this document, this ideological championing of the lesbian as the answer to centuries old domination and control of women next to that physical explosion in the streets of the Village six months earlier—both announced that another national social conversation about our queer and women’s bodies was about to begin. In my own bar fem way, I also knew I had a different kind of struggle within the movement ahead of me—desire had been my exploding force, portraying its richness my political and cultural motivation—my work, and the work of many other women, for many years was to enrich the anger with an honoring of pleasure, to keep queering my woman’s body without betraying it. I wonder at these words, still so alive with meaning for me when I am almost 70.
In December 1969, I joined the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) and entered the formal world of gay liberation in the old firehouse on Wooster Street with its treacherous metal twisting spiral staircase—ok for firemen but not for high heels of any gender. In April of the new year, the first all women’s public dance was held and standing here in the darkness of your bar, I can still hear the throbbing music, the shirts torn of sweating women’s bodies and breasts bouncing free as hundreds of lesbian feminists celebrated their new freedoms. Soon after, tired of what we felt was gay male trivializing of lesbian concerns, we formed the Lesbian Liberation Committee that organized Sunday afternoon cultural and political events for lesbians—this group would later by the next year turn itself into Lesbian Feminist Liberation, one of the longest lasting lesbian social and political groups in America. In May of 1970 the Second Congress to Unite Women is held in NYC and at the opening gathering a group of women stand up wearing their Lavender Menace t-shirts and protest the growing homophobia of the National Organization of Women.
In May of 1970, four students are shot to death by police on the Kent State Campus protesting the war. That image of the young man lying dead on his stomach on the campus walk, his face not seen, his rigid legs turned inward, a young woman kneeling by his side, her hands up to her face in disbelief, has stayed with me all these years. No place was safe from the anger of the State, a State that was turning on its own young.
In 1970, American soldiers are accused of murdering entire town of Vietnamese civilians.
The1970s in my country was a decade of firsts for us; we get a taste of power and a growing sense of ourselves as a national community; the decade will end with tragedy and our largest gay pride demonstration ever. In 1974, we are taken off the list of mental illnesses. Elaine Noble becomes the gay politician elected to office. I begin my participation in the yearly pride marches, lesbians, gays, march together out of the Village up Sixth Avenue to the strawberry fields of Central Park, until in the mid 1980s, business interests in the Village turned up in the opposite direction so the hundreds of thousands potential customers would spend their money downtown. In 1973, I helped form the Gay Academic Union to represent gay teachers, students and workers in the colleges and universities of New York City; our first conference is broken up by a bomb threat. Then in 1974, out of a GAU women’s consciousness raising group that included Julia Penelope Stanley and Deborah Edel, the Lesbian Herstory Archives is born—to honor the histories I have been talking about today and so many more. LHA is still going strong in its own home in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. The collection would live and grow for two decades in my upper West Side apartment, right down the street from Womenbooks, the first women’s bookstore in New York.
History is not a tale of continuous progression or disappointment; it is about engagements, broken promises, refusals and breakthroughs, power shifts and access to technologies and offered moments of change if we take them up. The 1970s were no different. One of the most vivid memories I have is the hundreds of us that stood in all weathers throughout the decade in front of the New York City Council Chambers meeting hall as the elected officials voted on the city’s gay rights bill—from 1972 on for fourteen years we stood, protested, testified, and each year this city of my birth and so many years of my life turned its back on us until 1986, when we were finally recognized as full citizens of New York. The decade that opens with the gay power shout and lesbian creative rage also features Anita Bryant and her antigay Save the Children national campaign in 1977 and towards the end of this year of great national coming out, in 1978 on November 27, Harvey Milk, a favorite gay son of San Francisco and his friend Mayor Mascone are shot to death by a Dan White whose lawyers argue the Twinky defense, sugar made him do it, for a lighter sentence. I know many of you have seen the recent film documenting these events—our history becoming national history.
Finally in the closing months of 1979, the archives collective, holding high its banner proclaiming “In the Memory of the Voices We have Lost,” joins over a hundred thousand people from every state and ten foreign countries to march on Washington, D.C. demanding respect be paid to lesbian and gay rights and in this last year of the decade I was told to bring to you today, the National Gay Task Force adds Lesbian to its title. From the small meetings of friends of Harry Hay and the women who walked up the long flight of stairs to the San Francisco offices of the Daughters of Bilitis, from the bar people who had risked their lives on dark streets to touch and love, from the women’s collectives and the endless meetings about how to change what gender dictates in this world and so much more—it now comes to you, you the younger ones, this long twisting skein of our queer human dreaming.
Thank you for listening to this American voice telling an American story.
Carter, David. "Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution." New York: St Martins
Hogan, Steve and Hudson, Lee. "Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia." New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.
Katz, Jonathan. "Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A." New York: Thomas Crowell Company, 1976.
Nestle, Joan. "A Restricted Country." San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1987,2003.
Ridinger, Robert B., ed. "Speaking for Our Lives: Historic Speeches and the Rhetoric for Gay and Lesbian Rights (1892-2000)." New York: the Haworth Press, 2004.