Ever since Stonewall, LGBTQ history has been whitewashing itself. It’s time we challenged that.
Winston Churchill once said that “History is written by the victors.”
When the Stonewall Riots occurred in 1969, the history of more than a century-long oppressed people finally got national attention. And, since that historical moment, the suppressed and closeted oral histories of our fierce and courageous LGBTQ brothers and sisters began to be documented—openly and uncensored.
Less than half a century after Stonewall, a new field of inquiry called queer studies began to tell our stories. As a young discipline, it’s still on a fact-gathering mission.
LGBTQ History Month is young, too. It’s a public month-long celebration and acknowledgment of our contribution to American History. Just 23 years old, it was first celebrated in 1994, as an outgrowth from National Coming out Day (October 11) founded in 1988.
As a community that can now openly gather, preserve, and archive our history, LGBTQ History Month affords us the opportunity to celebrate new voices and individuals to this newly emerging canon. The more diversified the LGBTQ historical canon becomes, a more robust and accurate picture emerges of the shakers and movers of a century-long civil rights movement predating Stonewall.
However, the whitewashing that’s showcased during this month with the usual renown figures like James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin thrown in as tokens of inclusion does a tremendous disservice—not only to the intention of the month-long celebration, but also to the importance of the historical record attempting to climb out of a queer closet now open.
Both Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March similarly omit from their month-long celebrations trailblazers whose lives should be acknowledged. Queer studies addressed the once deliberated and hidden omission of Rustin from the historical annals of the 1960s Black Civil Rights Movement, and put the legendary nonviolence advocate in his rightful place as a key figure. Usually mentioned as merely a footnote, we can no longer accurately talk about the historic 1963 March on Washington without mentioning Bayard Rustin. He was the strategist and chief organizer of the March that catapulted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. onto a world stage. Sadly, he’s still largely an unknown due to the heterosexism that canonized the history.
Queer histories, however, are not without their blind spots, too.
For example, African American LGBTQ communities have existed in Harlem since this former Dutch enclave became America’s Black Mecca in the 1920s. The visibility of Harlem’s LGBTQ communities, for the most part, was forced to be on the “down low.” But gay Harlem, nonetheless, showcased its inimitable style with rent parties, speakeasies, sex circuses, and buffet flats as places to engage in protected same-gender milieux.
And let’s not forget Harlem’s notorious gay balls. During the 1920s in Harlem, the renowned Savoy Ballroom and the Rockland Palace hosted drag ball extravaganzas with prizes awarded for the best costumes. Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes depicted the balls as “spectacles of color,” while African American ministers railed against these communities as they continue to do today.
While we have come to know of gay and bisexual male literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance like Alain Locke, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, and Richard Bruce Nugent, to name a few, we know too little of the LBT and queer-friendly feminist women writers. Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Nella Larsen, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and other African American feminist writers of the era used issues of sexuality and gender nonconforming identities as artistic influences in their literary works.
The invisibility of LGBTQ and women of color is not because there is a paucity of us that exist or made history; our invisibility is evidence of how race, gender, and sexual politics of the dominant heterosexual cultures—black or white—are reinforced in white queer, too.
It leads you to believe that the only shakers and movers in the history of people of African descent in the US were and still are heterosexuals, or white. And because of these biases, the sheroes and heroes of LGBTQ people of African descent—like Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, and Bayard Rustin—are mostly known and lauded within a subculture of black life.
Deceased African-American poet and activist Pat Parker, in her book Movement in Black, talked about how society did not embrace her multiple identities. “If I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to say to one of them, ‘No, you stay home tonight, you won’t be welcome, because I’m going to an all-white party where I can be gay, but not Black.’ Or I’m going to a Black poetry reading, and half of the poets are antihomosexual, or thousands of situations where something of what I am cannot come with me. The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution.”
The Stonewall Riots was a revolution. And, it wasn’t just white! The historical facts are not all gathered. For example, the 2015 film Stonewall is the most disturbing of accounts of the rebellion because of its apparent whitewashing of a moment that turned into a movement. When I look back at the Stonewall Inn riots, as a young teen in the riots, I could have never imagined its future importance.
On the first night of the Stonewall Inn riots, African-Americans and Latinos were the largest percentages of the protesters, because we heavily frequented the Stonewall Inn. For black and Latino homeless youth and young adults who slept in nearby Christopher Park, the bar was their stable domicile. The Stonewall Inn being raided was nothing new—gay bars in the Village were routinely raided in the 1960s—but many believe the decision to raid Stonewall that fateful night happened because the police were increasingly incensed by how many LGBT people of color hung out there.
That June in 1969, those riots in Greenwich Village started on the backs of working-class African-American and Latino queers who patronized that bar. Those brown and black LGBTQ people are not only absent from the photos of that night, but have been bleached from its written history. Many LGBTQ blacks and Latinos argue that one of the reasons for the gulf between whites and themselves is about how the dominant queer community rewrote and continues to control the narrative of Stonewall.
LGBTQ History Month can be a public acknowledgment of correcting the record.
Reverend Irene Monroe is a speaker, theologian, and syndicated columnist. Read more at irenemonroe.com
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.