Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village used to buzz with noise. I wasn’t yet born, but I imagine that the streets of the neighborhood in the 1960s and early ’70s churned with bohemian types, like Beat poets, jazz musicians, writers, and other avant-garde artists in search of radical community. Queer people were there too, of course, doing their best to conjure a free existence, in spite of the myriad ways the state sought to criminalize them because of their differences.
By the time I found my way there as an early twenty-something in the late 1990s, Christopher Street was an open and animated queer space, a corridor that was alive in a neighborhood that was not yet dead. Back then, it was still home to the proud deviants who turned our status as social outcasts into declarations of the radical freedom that might come from living queerly.
By day, a collection of the not-to-be-forgotten assembled—sex workers, street kids, ballroom-house members, the houseless, the HIV-impacted, the punks, leather families. And at night, the loud chatter of these mostly black and brown queer people cascaded off the walls of the few low-cost pizza shops and porn stores along the streets. Gay bars like Keller’s and Chi Chiz were almost always packed with people, young and old, who looked like me, people who brought themselves and their cultures to the Village.
These bars, which were as popular as they were sordid, were places where strangers developed friendships over strong drinks, games of pool, and loud conversation. I would walk up and down Christopher Street for hours—always caught up in wanderlust as I moved between the Stonewall Inn on the eastern end of the street and the piers on the west. And I never felt lost while there, as I did in many of the other places where the strait-jackets of respectability, heteronormativity, and deep queer antagonism shaped how I maneuvered the streets.
This was before the area was transformed from a hub of black and brown queer life into a sanctuary of white, upper-middle class respectability. Before rezonings, real-estate deals, and cops on the “quality of life” beat took a neighborhood, still gutted by AIDS, and blasted aside the places and spaces so many of us called home, replacing them with coffee shops, luxury housing, and designer-clothing boutiques.
Now when I visit, the sole place that beckons is the Hangar Bar, a rare spot where queer people of color still meet up, drink, flirt, and bop to the sounds of old-school dance and house beats. Inside, I take in the survivors, people who outran the crushing wave of AIDS, members of a generation that has become largely invisible to a public fixated on youth-oriented queer cultures. When I leave, the glare of New York Police Department floodlights is often the brightest sight on Christopher Street.
To some, such swift changes in the neighborhood signal progress. For others, however, progress can feel a lot more like death—death of culture and spirit, death as a consequence of economic and political calculations that have pushed out the black, brown, working-poor, and middle-class people who once infused the area with energy.
These transformations—from an environment organized as a hub for queer life into one drained of queer vitality—offer one way to think about how complicated it is to talk about any form of progress among LGBTQ people 50 years after the Stonewall riots. What it says is that progress has not been fully realized in the lives of those who exist on the edges of the edges of the margins—the lives, for instance, of trans people of color and queer youths of color, sex workers, HIV-impacted folks, the working poor, and so many more. But the problem of who deserves and who is refused care is not new.
At the concluding rally of the fourth annual Christopher Street Liberation Day parade held at Washington Square Park in June 1973, just four years after the Stonewall riots, the Latinx trans activist Sylvia Rivera rebuked the mostly white crowd of cisgender queer attendees because of their disregard for the most vulnerable in the community. “I have been to jail. I have been raped. And beaten. Many times! By men, heterosexual men that do not belong in the homosexual shelter. But do you do anything for [me]? No,” she lamented. “The people are trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white middle-class white club. And that’s what you all belong to!”
A half century later, here I am, still riffing on the themes Rivera already made clear.
A few years ago, I stood outside the home of a dear friend who lives on Christopher Street, observing what had become an annual organized Stonewall celebration. I watched from the sidelines with a drink in hand while communing with the ghosts of elders like the trans activist Marsha P. Johnson and those of my dear friends who are no longer here who roamed the same street years before. There were more people assembled than I had ever seen. And there were more floats, more corporate investment, and more allies present. I was thrilled to see a contingent of marchers who donned Black Lives Matter shirts and banners. They disrupted the parade in an effort to call attention to the increased presence of law enforcement at the Pride march. I watched with deep admiration, but many parade attendees, all of them white, booed.
If only the paradegoers knew or remembered that what made their presence possible at the Pride event that day had everything to do with the courageous acts of those who resisted law enforcement at Stonewall 50 years before. I suspect, however, that some of those who harangued the radical queer truth tellers have obtained the types of comfort that anesthetizes memory and revolution. It is a sign that we have not yet traveled far enough to a destination that we might call collective freedom. And we shouldn’t be proud about that.