I often wonder what we can learn from one of the pivotal moments in the history of global LGBTQI struggles, especially so from our neighbours to the north. We tend in Jamaica not to respect history overall and more so LGBT timelines and how they help to or ought to help inform us today. Young mostly poor and disenfranchised LGBT persons in 1969 decided enough was enough in a crammed section of New York City in as far as protracted police homophobia was concerned they spontaneously launched a broadside in rebellion.
The riots also was the catalyst to push for the adaptation and use of the rainbow flag as the symbol for LGBT rights and identity, it was present the very night in a different version then and came to represent the fact that race meant nothing that night and sexual orientation disappeared for a moment; everyone just came together as a collective to respond to the longstanding pressure from the cops and by extension general society as similar to now in Jamaica. Despite the training exercises geared towards police (mostly new recruits) we still hear of police abuse, attempted extortion and undo pressure occasionally. Despite the strengthening of corruption investigating arms the cases that do get investigated sometimes fizzle as impacted individuals do not or feel no need to follow up in court to a final resolution of said matters or are patient with an already creaking justice system.
The mob who ran Stonewall knew that the poorer trannies, drag queens and gays would not have the means, money or be scuffed at at the other gay clubs for more uptown patrons especially as one goes to Manhattan’s side. So mostly young LGBT who seemed to have nothing to lose who patronize that joint and they took matters into their own hands as the breaking point came. I had the opportunity to have spoken to and subsequently watched the PBS documentary involving one of the living participants some time ago who was at the club that faithful June 28, 1969. It felt good to be in touch with history. Some have said in Jamaica we need our version of a Stonewall moment to try to defuse the nationally entrenched homo-negativity and effemophia out there as years of multi-generational resistance needs to be broken.
The police would enter the club repeatedly in one night so much so that the patrons and staff developed a signalling system; no sooner had the cops in uniform or the known plain clothes officers who would entrap drag queens and gays as the law then allowed for such arrests, the club lights would be switched on and everyone would stop dancing, music muted and patrons separate from each other. This catch us if you can coordinated response went on for some time but persons just got tired of it and I can understand as an event planner and DJ having to engage police over some near twenty years. The nearby parked freezer trucks at Stonewall would become sweaty sex shops for orgies, cruisers and quickies which the cops some in plain clothes would pretend to be gays as well and then entrap and or arrest or abuse men who were caught; drag queens and early trannies as they were called then in particular had a hard time as an anti cross-dressing piece of legislation was used against them. The glory-hole phenomenon in both public bathrooms at the club and club stalls were targeted with sometimes not so convincing cross dressed undercover cops who would pounce, a nearby downlow club to Stonewall for married men specifically was also targeted and the photos of those arrested would be splashed across the press pages especially when requested bribe demands were not met.
Trouble is the Jamaican sub groups who would be the ones as in the Stonewall riots; the lower socio-economic groups are not sufficiently driven yet I feel, and the homeless populations are scattered too much for a cohesive or collective resistance; not to mention that they are effectively sedated with tokenism by so called NGOs who thrown crumbs to keep them interested in the form of sodas and dry biscuits and such married with workshop after workshop after workshop at hotels then they have to go right back to the makeshift shelters from tarpaulins, how long can the trick continue? The privileged, protected sections of the populations aren’t interested in such a move of real interventions which is dirty work, JFLAG and now joined by others still do not want to get their hands dirty directly with such populations but are quite prepared to use them as poster material for social media smooth-overs and public relations campaigns. The defragmentation may never yield a Stonewall like response with truth, depth and meaning as weapons to breathe life into the resistance and not the farce of a unity that now obtains. The public are not fools and they are well aware of the class divide. Only recently on a radio talk show during the rainbow flag fiasco after the Orlando shooting several callers to a show on Newstalk 93FM mentioned the (not sure if because one caller mentioned ‘uptown gays’ others call in and follow suit) class divide that they have been seeing, members of the public do pay attention to the social media sites of JFLAG and others and have been making a note. Dane Lewis, Executive Director of JFLAG physical size and even skin colour has not gone unnoticed sadly as the two Jamaicas class divide problem plays itself out. He has been compared by homophobic callers to the fat politicians in power who are comfortable and who do not have to do much but take pictures and make appearances but are in fact ineffective otherwise and comfortable. But who pays attention to public sentiments when one is comfortable or feel immune from the common classes?
I have often said revolutions are not paid for with rose water and at some point there is going to have to be some whether proper organised resistance or some spontaneous event not the softy placard holding at Emancipation Park with police protection or some so called pride event held well away from the public or during peak hour times in the middle of the public, then marketed as bold. Jamaicans are not fooled by that as the background of the many of the photos tell the truth as to what is at stake. Such observations have not escaped the notice of persons and one talkshow host some years ago questioned the authenticity of the LGBT advocacy or sections of it as a farce which just feeds into an already disbelieving, disapproving and dismissing cynical public; many of whom claim that the collective we are all liars and are playing on foreign support to impose homosexuality on the nation. Maybe the variables are not close together as they ought to be to create some spark for our Stonewall moment. Legal reform and the more coordinated resistance is the least of our problems more so than the changing of hearts and minds nationally. I raised such a concern in a previous post on the 12th anniversary of the death of Brian Williamson, the struggle feels so splintered and rudderless than as a cohesive movement; Ian Boyne alluded to it in a Gleaner article where he described the arrogance and intolerant view of intolerance which I could not agree with more.
The underground railroad route via asylum is only bleeding the bodies for the fight too so we may never see our Stonewall at all.
The resistance in New York that faithful June did not have the fluff of well dressed privileged gays, NGO executives, preppy lawyers and volunteers from academia, they were in their pristine clubs left alone as bribes kept the cops at bay, oh no it was ordinary folks, poor whites, homeless gays and drag queens and poor gay/bisexual masculine types who led the charge into battle knowingly or unknowingly, who knows a similar occurrence may be here. As the PBS documentary which upon preparation of this post I suddenly cannot find online as before but from memory, one of the survivors said it with words to the effect that himself and others never knew that they would be the spark at that time in the struggle towards change. They suddenly realized they had power they never knew on the outside of the club when they started to shout words such as 2, 4, 6, 8 is that copper really straight and so on as they took on the police physically. Sometimes I wish I was there, that moment when persons who felt alone felt part of a meaningful collective with a suddenly realized defined purpose with your enemy in sight and the response is powerful.
The US struggle which seem to have defined the global push for LGBT rights is ongoing despite the gains made such as the SCOTUS gay marriage ruling, transgender visibility and understanding, some bisexual visibility though more is needed, push for true tolerance and legal reforms but challenges are there such as the recent transgender bathroom push back and murders that go unsolved in African American communities. The poorer classes are still overlooked or their issues are poorly attended to which is the lesson Stonewall has shown me at least. The class divide gives the appearance that the privileged are the ones who want rights to continue their cementing of said privilege while those on the fringes stay there, their issues are just materials for studies, cocktail party discourse, and academic fodder and such as persons pat themselves and each other on the back. Where is the real unity?
The class divide in the US is clear today as ever as before, grass roots transgender activists for example cry foul repeatedly as more executive heavy supposed NGOs pay attention to bureaucratic red tape that real issues namely homelessness and murder rates spiraling in black transgender populations especially. Mostly white run powerhouses while gaining much valued political power the emphasis is on prepping up bureaucracy that real advocacy, they worry more about maintaining such bureaucracies in order to keep their doors open and well paying jobs with emoluments more than the respective sub community challenges and sadly; the recent UN position on HIV and marginalized groups showed up the status quo quite clearly and the threat of Global Fund’s pull from Jamaica by 2018 is the other example as many are fretting about their jobs than the target populations challenges. The basic aims of the struggle are effectively lost in translation and more egregiously the newer generations already ignorant to how we got here have only added a more individualistic component to the already murky mix. There is just too much fluff blocking the thrust that would be needed for our Stonewall type moment(s) truth of self is the key devoid of any noise and layers; with social media adding another element of distortion of said truths with narcissistic mirroring and falsified bettering of self how can enough anger and displeasure spontaneously turn into a quickly coordinated response?
Peace & tolerance