What is new that can be said about the Stonewall Rebellion, 50 years on, that hasn’t already been said? A lot, actually, although whether it’s possible to actually say it is a different matter.
The truth and the untruth of the event have somewhat been cross-pollinated into a partial myth, a myth which has repeatedly erased the credit due to those who were actually on the front lines, sparking the start of a 50-year (and counting) battle for our rights. Books, movies, articles — probably this one — posture at who ‘cast the first brick’, they remove queer bodies of colour from the equation, they replace femmes, trans folk, those of us who are non-conforming with, let’s face it, the real heroes: the white cis guy who had the lead in that shite movie which was imaginatively named Stonewall! What a tour de force…
…what an absolute win for our community! The problem here is that those who were responsible for the start of this revolution — a revolution whose molecules had been charging for decades prior that night in 1969 — were ‘unlikely heroes’. A blanket, catch-all term could be ‘drag queens’, but one must widen that definition to include many things we have a name for today, for which there wasn’t 50 years ago. This was a revolution started by trans men and women, non-binary folk, gender non-conforming people, butches and femmes of varying hardness and softness, and, yes, drag kings and queens, most of whom were people of colour.
But in the popular re-readings of this important history for the LGBTQIA+ community, we so often hear the voices of white, cis folk. In that aforementioned abomination of a film, the lead is literally a Hollywood hunk. Why? Because to make a history of oppression — a history of bad things done to us by you — digestible to a wider populace, it is white-washed, defanged, and made entirely anodyne and shiny because people can’t take what they’ve done to us. Because people need to see themselves in a history that doesn’t belong to them, in order to empathise with it. But that kind of empathy is valueless if it removes power from those who deserve it.
Because to be a hero — like one of the many for whom the Stonewall Inn was a safe place, like one of the many who fought for visibility and for our rights — you have to be fighting the hegemony, you have to have something to rise up against.
Instead of asking questions about what happened at Stonewall, and what it means for us today — which I’ll get to — I first want to ask what a real hero looks like? The orthodox Hollywood idea of the archetypal hero might see us worshipping a buff, white, rich, straight, chiselled man. But I can’t think of a single hero of that ‘calibre’ who has ever existed in reality? John Lennon, maybe? JFK. Hmmm. Tony Blair? …lol.
Really, there aren’t any straight, cis, white, hetero heroes. Because to be a hero — like one of the many for whom the Stonewall Inn was a safe place, like one of the many who fought for visibility and for our rights — you have to be fighting the hegemony, you have to have something to rise up against.
And, at a time when it was punishable by law to wear items of clothing that didn’t belong to your gender, of course the people who were fighting the hegemony were the femmes and the butches, queers and trans folk of colour — Marsha P. Johnson, Stormé DeLarverie, Sylvia Rivera, Reverend Magora Kennedy, hundreds of people who joined that rebellion in the three days following, sporting clothing and identities that were completely off-limits. You didn’t need I.D. to get into the Stonewall at the time, and so the crowd was populated by an intergenerational force of non-conforming queers who had found a place where they could be left alone, to their own devices, where they could dash down the street in a binary disguise, only to depart it on entry, to wear as many items of clothing that didn’t fit their genders as they wanted.
This is a decent metaphor for what we really want, still: for the most part we don’t want to assimilate, to move into a space where we can have what everyone else has. I don’t crave a world in which I can walk down the street and have people scream ‘yass queen’ as I do. We want to be given our own space to thrive and flourish, we want that space honoured and celebrated. I want to be respected — not abused or fetishised.
The fight for this simple thing continues — especially when you look at the high rate of closure of LGBTQIA+ spaces even in a queer metropolis like London, when you look at the revocation of our rights in places like Brazil, or the non-existence of them due to imported colonial laws and ideologies around the world. The fight to be left alone, to exist freely, to move safely, to be in love with as many people in as many ways as we want, continues. And that fight is so often undertaken by what, back then, might have been described as ‘drags’.
A lot of people ask where drag comes into this historic fight for our rights, and the answer is that drag has always been there — very much on the front lines, and it very much still is. The definition of drag here is much wider than the one we are shown on television — yes, it includes padded, perfected, powdered pageant queens, but it also means those who are generally gender non-conforming. The Stonewall Rebellion predates a lot of the contemporary terminologies we use today (non-binary, transgender, gender fluid) but so many of those who were regular punters at a place like Stonewall, so many of those who cast the proverbial first brick, were queers like us, non-binary like us, trans like us, drag kings and queens like us.
Good drag means working to uplift voices that aren’t heard or seen.
They are the people cited as leading the rebellion, and when that rebellion became assimilation-focused, it was queer black, brown and Latinx femmes and butches who continued to form spaces like STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, 1970) that carried out street actions across New York, that were funded primarily by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, mostly through sex work.
50 years on, and it’s still those who question the hegemony that are fighting in spaces to be seen, heard, loved, and left alone. It is still the drags, the people of colour, who demand more from the wider world and our community which, in so many parts has assimilated into that very same hegemony that rewrites our history.
What does drag mean today, then, when so many conceptions of it have been given a pass into the mainstream? Well, good drag means still fighting. Good drag means working to uplift voices that aren’t heard or seen. Stonewall, and the rebellion thereon, have provided us with visibility, a little more safety, better rights under the law in the west. But that law is still skewed against those marginalised, that visibility isn’t the same as freedom.
So it’s our jobs (and also definitely yours) to understand how we’ve been wrongly written through history, and it’s our job as queens, queers, non-conformists to continue a legacy of rebellion whether in tiny basements or giant stages. Good drag, as it did then, will keep on rebelling. And it’s among these rebels (even though I’m loathed to use a word that has literally been coopted by an alternative milk company) where you’ll find real superheroes.
Crystal Rasmussen is the author of Diary of a Drag Queen, which is out now, and will be hosting TURN UP! Live presented by Penguin Pride at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on 27 June. Book your tickets now.