Ever since Stonewall, LGBTI history has been whitewashing itself. It’s erased the lives and contribution of people of color. It’s time we challenged that.
Winston Churchill said ‘History is written by the winners.’ The Stonewall Riots in 1969 brought national attention to the history of a long oppressed people.
It sparked our efforts to document the histories of our fierce and courageous LGBTI brothers and sisters. For so long, society suppressed and closeted those stories – now we we started to tell them openly and uncensored.
Queer studies – a new field of inquiry – came to life to tell those stories. And, as a young discipline, it’s still on a fact-gathering mission.
LGBT History Month is young, too. Held each October, it’s a public month-long celebration and acknowledgment of our contribution to American history. Our community first celebrated it in 1994, as an outgrowth from National Coming Out Day (October 11) founded in 1988.
LGBT History Month is one of the tools we can use as we gather, preserve and archive our history.
Civil rights hero Bayard Rustin
However, we see plenty of whitewashing during this month. People add figures like James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin as tokens of inclusion. But the telling of a mainly white LGBTI history does all of us a tremendous disservice. It betrays the purpose of LGBT History Month. And it does a disservice to the importance of building a historic record as we climb out of the queer closet.
Both Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March often miss important trailblazers too. For example Bayard Rustin was left out of the historic annals of the 1960s black civil rights movement for years because of his sexuality. At best he was a historic footnote.
It was queer studies that gave him back a place in history at all. Now people are starting to realise we can not accurately talk about the historic 1963 March on Washington without Bayard Rustin. Rustin, inarguably, is one of the tallest trees in our forest. He was the strategist and chief organizer of the March that catapulted the Rev Dr Martin Luther King onto a world stage. Sadly, he’s still largely an unknown due to the heterosexism that canonized the history.
The speakeasies and sex circuses of Harlem
Similarly, queer history has long failed people of color.
For example, African American LGBTI communities have always existed in Harlem. They’ve lived here since this former Dutch enclave became America’s black mecca in the 1920s.
Harlem’s LGBTI communities, for the most part, had little choice but to exist on the ‘down low’. But gay Harlem, nonetheless, showcased it inimitable style with rent parties, speakeasies, sex circuses, and buffet flats. There were plenty of safer spaces to engage with people of the same-gender.
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’. Of course, African American ministers railed against these communities as they continue to do today.
How women are excluded from our history
Women are all too often missing from our history too.
We have come to know of gay and bisexual male literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. You may have heard of figures like Alain Locke, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman and Richard Bruce Nugent, to name a few.
But we know too little of the lesbian, bi, trans 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 non-conforming identities as artistic influences in their literary works.
The invisibility of LGBTI and women of color is not because there is a paucity of us that exist or made history. But gender and sexual politics are at play in the white-dominated queer world too.
Creating a misleading history
It all leads you to believe the only shakers and movers in the history African Americans were and still are heterosexuals. It makes you think all LGBTI historical figures are white.
And because of these biases, the sheroes and heroes of LGBTI people of African descent are mostly known and lauded within a subculture of black life. People like Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, and Bayard Rustin simply don’t have the fame they deserve.
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.’
From Stonewall to LGBT History Month
Stonewall was a revolution. And, it wasn’t just white.
I was a young teen caught up in the first night of the Stonewall Inn riots. Back then, I could have never imagined its future importance.
But when I saw the white-dominated 2015 film, Stonewall, I didn’t recognize the real history on screen.
On the first night of the Stonewall Inn riots, African-Americans and Latinos were the largest percentages of the protesters. Back then, we heavily frequented the Stonewall Inn. Black and Latino homeless youth and young adults slept in nearby Christopher Park. So the bar was their stable domicile.
The Stonewall Inn raid was nothing new – cops routinely raided gay bars in the Village in the 1960s. But many believe the police decided to raid Stonewall that fateful night because they were increasingly incensed by how many LGBTI people of color hung out there.
The Stonewall riots of June 1969, in Greenwich Village started on the backs of working-class African-American and Latino queers who patronized that bar. Those brown and black LGBTI people are absent from the photos of that night. And historians have bleached them from its written history.
Many LGBTI 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.
LGBT History Month can be a way to correct the record.