It is reported that on the night of June 28, 1969, transgender revolutionary Sylvia Rivera, infuriated and exhausted with the way the queer community had been treated, took off her shoe and flung it at the heads of the NYPD officers arresting her community during their raid of the Stonewall Inn.
That soaring shoe – and the ensuing riots and acts of violent resistance that went on for two days – were soon to become the iconic spark known as the Stonewall Riots, believed to be the international clarion call to arms for LGBTQ liberation worldwide.
What Stonewall means for Lebanon
The events of that night are something that LGBTQ activists in Lebanon, and the wider Arab World, recognize all too well.
In our imagination, demonstrations aimed at liberation often start the same way Stonewall did: Police brutality and corruption reach intolerable proportion, they target the most vulnerable, the people are fed up, and all that legitimate anger and frustration spills onto the streets and crescendos to a sweeping riot.
The Arab Spring unfolded in much the same way, as did the August 2015 YouStink protests and the December 2018 Anti-government protests in Beirut.
Even Rivera’s soaring shoe is something we recognize, having witnessed its comrade being flung at the head of then US president George W. Bush in a Baghdad press conference 10 years ago.
Even in a region of the world much maligned as antithetical to queer liberation, the Stonewall Riots are something that we wholeheartedly understand, and the majority of us respect.
Stonewall was a dream deferred
For many of us, what happened at Stonewall has become something of a dream deferred, especially as it stood in stark contrast to the type of homophile activism popular in the USA back then which concentrated on assimilating (mostly gay and lesbian people) into the fold of existing American society.
It was a successful example of street action yielding results, and it prompted its own line of questioning. When will we have our own Stonewall? When will we say enough is enough and stand our ground and fling our own shoes? When will we celebrate and lionize our Silvias and Marshas?
And when will we taste victory over those who have oppressed our community for so long?
I had spent a disproportionate amount of time thinking about these questions, trying to map and predict what the trajectory of the LGBTQ liberation movement in Lebanon might look like.
When will our spark of outrage come? And if it doesn’t come organically, how can we induce it?
The path to LGBTI equality isn’t the same for all
The fierce urgency of Stonewall continued with me for almost a decade and would not have relented had it not been shattered a few years ago in a chance encounter in New York City herself. I happened to be attending a conference reception there when a respected senior US activist engaged me in conversation and inquired about the state of affairs in Lebanon.
‘You know what, he offered, gay rights in Lebanon today reminds me of the USA in the 1960s – the movement is still behind but you will get there for sure – it is only a matter of time don’t you think?,’ he said.
His patronizing tone made me boil and bristle.
The idea that LGBT liberation was a linear timeline, of which various nations and peoples were lagging behind a triumphant West, was deeply offensive to me and quite typical of activists of that era, albeit others were probably more careful in hiding it. Did this man know his country’s still lagging performance on LGBTQ rights?
Was he aware of how queer liberation has been appropriated by the diplomacy of his own State Department and used as an excuse for foreign intervention?
Is he even aware of the rich history of sexual diversity in the Middle East prior to colonization and its legislative oppression? And does he really think he can present the achievements of his predecessors, most of whom remain vulnerable and marginalized trans people and people of color, as his own and dangle them in front of me as incentive for action?
A Lebanese Stonewall
My livid thoughts would have continued into indefinite indignation were they not simmered by the realization that this man and I actually thought alike.
His expectations (probably kindly meant) of what successful activism looked like were all too similar to the ones I had already set for myself. I, too, subscribed to this linear mode of thinking as I combed through future timelines for a sign of a Lebanese Stonewall.
The promise of that night in 1969 had stealthily colonized my own thinking – and turned what was an impromptu and inspirational act of defiance nestled in a specific space, time, geo-political and socio-cultural context to a global standard expectation.
Truth be told, there have been multiple Stonewalls in the world prior to 1969 and multiple Stonewalls after it, only they look and manifest completely differently.
In my country, the police raid that inspired the birth of queer organizing and the creation of Helem, the Arab World’s first LGBTQ rights organization, occurred in a totally different country – after the raid on the Queen Boat in Cairo, Egypt in 2001.
The first time a rainbow flag was raised on Arab soil was not in a pride parade, but in a massive public march against the US invasion of Iraq in Beirut in 2003.
In reality, some of our Stonewalls are very different from the one we are commemorating right now.
Some are filled with lawyers arguing cases and case workers creating rainbow railroads. Others are made up of students queering spaces, historians uncovering forgotten diversity, and activists creating spaces for engagement.
For many of us in the global South, Stonewall is a quiet progression, or a rekindled tradition, or perhaps an even more volcanic form of defiance.
Everyone’s Stonewall is different
On its 50th anniversary, I choose to commemorate the courageous revolutionaries of Stonewall by remembering that their defining legacy lies in their ownership over their own liberation, in a manner legitimized by their own lived reality and experience.
That event’s significance was not necessarily its potential as a blueprint for revolution, but more so for the universal lessons of community, autonomy and agency it so explosively embodied. It is a reminder for us in the global South that the trajectory of our liberation is a unique product of our own contexts and our own ownership of the work.
When we decolonize our success, we open up hidden pathways for change, and Stonewall becomes part of a legacy that has always been there and will always remain.
Stonewall 50 Voices
Gay Star News will be marking this 50th anniversary year of the Stonewall Riots. Our Stonewall 50 Voices series will bring you 50 guest writers from all around the world. They will focus on the diversity of our global LGBTI community. They will be discussing the past, present and future of our struggle for love and liberation.
Tarek Zeidan is a sexual and bodily rights activist from Lebanon and is the Executive Director of Helem, the first LGBTIQ rights organization in the Arab World.