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Recovering Our History

If we fall into the trap that our history is not known, we lose sight of what has been recorded and uncovered from the dustbins of history and where our struggles need to be directed toward today. Much of trans and queer militancy and insurgency has been swept to the side, but it is still there to be seen if we look hard enough for it and find ways to resurface it to a collective consciousness.

I want to highlight just a few key moments in history of queer insurgency against the state and against policing and incarceration. These moments are not meant to be highlighted as the most monumental, as we shouldn’t look at our history for the most important occurrences. Rather, we need to look at these “moments” in our history with the same sense of urgency today. We need to understand these moments as crucial organizing practices by trans and queer people, primarily black and indigenous trans and queer people who lived and worked on the street.

These we’re not stand alone or one-time occurrences, nor were they individual moments of revolt and insurgency. These points need to be understood in a wider context of white supremacy, class oppression, transphobia, and reformism

1. Vanguard

Vanguard (San Francisco’s Tenderloin District 1965-1970) was a group of gay and transgender youth who were primarily street-based sex workers. They spent much of their time at Compton’s cafeteria, an all-night dinner. It became a safe place for them to hang out and spend time with one another. The night manager was gay and sympathized with the street youth, however, when he was replaced, the new manager began harassing and removing them from the space if they stayed too long or did not spend enough money. They began to discuss this mistreatment through regular meetings.

In June 1966, Vanguard held a “street sweep” as a form of protest against San Francisco Police Department’s regular “sweeping” of gay neighborhoods. About 50 queer and trans people “swept” the streets.

“Every year or two or so, San Francisco would go around and crack down on homosexuals. And they sent out the paddy wagon, and anybody that looked [like] homosex- uals or hang [sic] out in front of places where homosexuals hang out were just arrested. I mean, you talk about police state, it was one of them.” Vanguard member Joel Roberts, 1989

We can see this as a critique of the police tactic to “sweep” and “clean” the streets free of queer and trans people who were synonymous with being “dirty,” or trash that needed to be swept away—often being swept away resulted in jail or prison time. 

A month later, in August 1966, Compton’s management attempted to remove Vanguard forcibly and a riot broke out when the police were called and one assaulted a queen. The next evening, Compton’s banned drag queens entirely and a second protest was organized. These two nights of rioting at Compton’s mark the first collective protest against police violence and harassment in the queer and trans community.  (See “‘Street Power’ and the Claiming of Public Space” in Captive Genders)

These two examples of early trans and queer insurgency illuminates a collective dedication against discrimination, not only discrimination and repression by police, but also a resistance to the state’s violence ensued on poor, criminalized, and economically marginalized queer + trans communities. Vanguard is an example of queer insurgency, and an early example (pre-Stonewall) of Black and Indigenous queer + trans people at the frontline of the gay liberation movement.

2. Stonewall

Sometime on the night of June 27 into the early morning of June 28, 1969 police raided the Stonewall Inn, began checking for three pieces of “gender appropriate clothing” on the patrons” and quickly started dragging people to the street to be arrested. Outside on the streets, bystanders and others began to throw change at the officers, then bottles, then bricks. With the majority outside of Stonewall, they had forced the cops back into the building. A tactical team came to rescue those inside, but a street battle continued to rage for 2 more nights.

“In a blast of radical collectivity, trans/gender-non-conforming folks, queers of color, butches, drag queens, hair-fairies, homeless street youth, sex workers, and others took up arms and fought back against the generations of oppression that they were forced to survive” Eric A. Stanley, Captive Genders

Christopher Street Liberation Day, One Year Anniversary of Stonewall

One year later on June 28, 1970 there was a march in celebration of Stonewall. As they marched, their numbers grew. One destination was the Women’s House of Detention (Joan Bird and Afeni Shakur there at the time – two of the defendants in the infamous Panther 21 Conspiracy case. It was also where many queer and trans street queens would be held for petty arrests), and as they marched by they chanted “Free our sisters! Free ourselves!”

This incredible historical retelling illuminates how queer and trans radicals understood the necessitation of an anti-prison liberation politics. They understood that the struggle against police, prisons, and other forms or state violence was coterminous with the struggle for their own liberation.

3. STAR – Street Tranvestites Action Revolutionaries

“We raised a lot of hell back when STAR first started, even if it was just a few of us. We ate and slept demonstrations, planning demonstrations. We’d go from one demo to another, the same day. We were doing what we believed in. And what we’re doing now, the few of us who are willing to unsettle people and ruffle up feathers, is what we believe in doing. We have to do it because we can no longer stay invisible. We have to be visible. We should not be ashamed of who we are. We have to show the world that we are numerous. There are many of us out there.” Sylvia Rivera

STAR formed in 1971 out of the Weinstein Hall (NYU) demonstration, a sit in that was performed when queer dances were canceled at NYU. Members of STAR (including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera) were growing increasingly frustrated with the gay liberation movement and its refusal to defend itself and be committed to a struggle against police and policing. While STAR’s immediate concerns were food, shelter, housing, money, and safety, a central organizing concern was sharing skills on how to protect themselves and each other from police and state violence.

“They were poor, gender-variant women of color, street-based sex workers, with confrontational, revolutionary politics and, in contrast to the often abstract and traditionally political activists of Gay Activists Alliance, focused on the immediate concerns of the most oppressed gay populations: “street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at that time” (Sylvia Rivera in conversation with Leslie Feinberg) from STAR zine

These were also the same collective of people who a year before, demonstrated for their sisters freedom at the House of D, and were consistently on the frontline of the gay liberation movement, again they often the ones who had direct confrontation with the police.

In 1973, at a pride event at Washington Square Park, feminist lesbians were offended by transvestites and transgender people for wearing women’s attire/fashion/make-up and they did not want drag queens performing. Sylvia stormed the stage and protested this as she was asked to speak prior to the event. After this, Sylvia would leave the movement for many years and STAR would stop organizing as well as they were fed up with the direction the gay liberation movement and how no one was really dedicated to end their oppression.

“Because for four years we were the vanguard of the gay movement, and all of a sudden it was being taken away.” Queens in Exile, Sylvia Rivera

4. the George Jackson Brigade

We’re not all white and we’re not all men
said a white male member
of our collective
to a liberal masked media man

Why struggle with
arms, tools, commie Q’s?
dykes niggers cons
when you could slip away with
left support action
or vague mass movement construction

I can love
I can slip into class, bitch privilege
love don’t mean unity with another
privilege doesn’t change alienation
both mean slipping into darkness
alienation is masses of couples buying
coca cola and grapes at safeway
and owning own stereos t.v.’s and cribs

Just like slumlords pimps I.T.T.
organized us
We will dis organize
learn struggle and skills
move ment action new ways

Not the vague vanguard
We are a collection
of oppressed people turning
inside out with action
this united few breaks
barriers of
race class sex
workers and lumpen
all going together
combating dull sameness
corporations, government
and the established rule of
straight white cocks

I cannot be one
acting alone with my
little toe outside the line
its both feet
whole body
ain’t no turning back now
no more mass meetings stale mating action

Loving learning laboring
with a few comrades
oh won’t you harbor me?
joining you sistah brother
in freedom, Sue, Assata
George, Jill, Martin
new family being sane
small, not like charlie’s
leader ship

We are cozy cuddly
armed and dangerous
and we will
raze the fucking prisons
to the ground

[signed by hand] Love and Struggle, GJB

Urban guerrilla group mostly based in the Seattle area, 1975 – 1978. Their first collective action was in 1975 when they bombed the department of corrections in Olympia in solidarity with those imprisoned in Walla Walla State Prison. They were an explicitly militant group composed of queers, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and working class people. Trained in both community and prisoner self-defense styles, they were prison activists who supported revolutionary struggles both inside and outside of prison cages.

“I won’t give the mainstream gay organizations the satisfaction of keeping us down.” Sylvia Rivera

Considering the histories discussed earlier, we can and should be critical of the direction that the LGBTQ movement has taken today, and have a broader understanding of the fact that our liberation will not be handed to us by the state. Through an abolitionist framework, we can see this as a defanging of the militant uprisings to fight back against police and state violence against queer and trans people.

Many “progressive” organizations like Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force have taken the Stonewall uprising and used it as the pinnacle moment in which the movement for queer/trans liberation was born, thus turning the movement into one which cooperates with the police and law-making institutions that ultimately encourage more policing (primarily in poor, BIPOC communities).

“There is nothing new about police enforcing racialized gender norms with deadly violence, but as criminalization and imprisonment have drastically expanded in the last decades, we have needed to respond in new ways to calls for “law and order” that sometimes pretend to operate from a concern for protecting women, queer, and trans people from violence. We are confronted with a significant task of articulating a politics that refuses invitations to be included in laws and policies that supposedly promote the value of our lives, but actually operate to expand systems that we know target queer and trans poor people, people of color, immigrants, and people with disabilities.” dean spade, queering prison abolition, now?

Some examples of forced state-cooperation for inclusion are hate-crime laws, marriage equality efforts, and encouraging gays to join the military. We must understand that these reforms do not make us safer, rather they ultimately work to expanding the power of the state through the prison and military industrial complexes.

It is easy to fall into the trap that hate crime laws work to keep us safer, and often it is one of the few ways we feel like the state is acknowledging our existence. But, inclusion into this system continues to hold us back from true liberation. 

“What have we learned from hate crimes legislation? Are we safer? Is the violence diminishing? No. Anti-queer violence—especially for queers of color (including immigrants and Indigenous people); queers who are poor, homeless, and low income; and transgender and gender nonconforming people—remains a depressingly consistent, though seriously underreported, feature of the political and social landscape and of efforts to place our safety in the hands of the very criminal legal system that is a major perpetrator of anti-LGBTQ violence.” queer (in)justice

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