In this year of anniversaries, this summer of rainbow flags flying in commemoration of what happened one steamy night outside a bar in Greenwich Village, we can pretend the politics of liberation can be tracked along clear lines marked Revolution, Betrayal, Progress, Mainstreaming; or we can remember that history is like desire. Complicated, socially shaped, alive in the creation and re-creation of the now.
Oh my! So many people say they were outside the Stonewall Inn the night of June 28, 1969, that anyone might have thrown the first brick at police, and in a sense what propelled that brick was the accumulated rage of not just those present in the streets but everyone whose experience of oppression made defiance inevitable. Twenty years ago in this magazine, a quarter-century after Stonewall, Andrew Kopkind wrote:
Somewhere in the existential depths of that brawl of screaming transvestites were all the freedom rides, the anti-war marches, the sit-ins, the smoke-ins, the be-ins, the consciousness-raising, the bra-burning, the levitation of the Pentagon, the endless meetings and broken hearts. Not only that, but the years of gay men and lesbians locking themselves inside windowless, unnamed bars; writing dangerous, anonymous novels and articles; lying about their identity to their families, their bosses, the military; suffering silently when they were found out; hiding and seeking and winking at each other, or drinking and dying by themselves. And sometimes, not often, braving it out and surviving.
There is not a more exquisite evocation of historical authorship.
Riots and storytelling being what they are, of course, someone is credited with throwing the first brick, and whether she did the deed or not, Sylvia Rivera symbolized the front lines that night and the battles ahead at home and abroad. Born Ray Rivera of a Venezuelan woman and a man of Puerto Rican descent, she left the violence of home at 11 to be schooled in New York’s streets. As Martin Duberman wrote, “Sylvia was from the wrong ethnic group, from the wrong side of the tracks, wearing the wrong clothes—managing single-handedly and simultaneously to embody several frightening, overlapping categories of Otherness.” With her friend Marsha P. Johnson, a black drag queen and cult artist, she became the fierce godmother of flaming creatures, impoverished young queers and trans people—the many-hued, multilingual, variantly presenting sea of humanity whose surge into the Village streets and down to the docks after every Pride parade asserts the permanent rebellion.
“There’s a price to pay for visibility.” Marsha P. Johnson was found floating near the Hudson piers in July of 1992. Her friends insisted it wasn’t suicide, for twenty years, until the NYPD finally opened a homicide investigation, as yet unresolved.