Yesterday afternoon I participated in a roundtable discussion commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. My paper, below, attempted to think with the grain of an unusual echo in a phrase of Sylvia Rivera’s, in an essay/statement she published in 1972. At the core of the very short essay is an attempt to reckon with a couple of historiographical problems. First, with the attempt that we witness in the present to erase trans history entirely - an attempt that has forced trans people apart from the rest of the LGBTQ community in a number of places. And second, with the attempt to install Stonewall as a singular origin point for an American national narrative of gay civil rights - an installation that simplifies the event, its origins, and its immediate consequences. I will say that the rise of terfism as a political force is quite frightening to witness, and a lot of my time at MLA has been looking at the complete absence of trans women, and experiencing just a deep sense that the conference has been, in no way, organized on the basis that trans people might show up. We will keep showing up, though, and keep telling stories like this one. Love and solidarity to all in these very disturbing times.
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Trans women, so the story goes, cast the first stone at the Stonewall riots. The story in question is an account offered by Silvia Rivera, writing in Come Out!, the periodical newspaper of the Gay Liberation Front published in the aftermath of the riots. Rivera contributed a piece to the Winter 1972 number, entitled “Transvestites: Your Half Sisters and Half Brothers of the Revolution,” in which she confronted anti-trans prejudice among the New York gay community, while drawing connections and asserting solidarity between the two groups: “Remember the Stonewall Riots?” Rivera asks at one point, answering “The first stone was cast by a transvestite half sister June 27, 1969, and the gay liberation movement was born.” Rivera’s words have been repeated so often, contested and elevated into a slogan, in the subsequent fifty years, that their oddity doesn’t strike as hard as it could have in 1972, but Rivera must have intended her readers to hear an echo of the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 8, Verse 7, in which context Jesus interrupts the juridical killing of an adulteress to insist that only “he who is without sin” be allowed to cast the first stone, whom, when nobody is able to comply, Jesus forgives. The verse, as well as Rivera’s submerged citation of it, draws attention to the hypocrisy of those who seek to punish sexual nonconformity, while benefiting (whether materially or imaginatively) from its instantiation in other bodies. Yet if the Biblical echo amplifies the hypocrisy of cis gays’ ambivalence around trans women of color like Rivera and her comrade Marsha P. Johnson, it also introduces a couple of anxiegenic paradoxes. First, the most notable consequence of Christ’s injunction is that nobody cast the first stone; the injunction protects the body of the sexualized woman, and no stone ends up cast. And second, that in the analogy implied by Rivera’s echo of the verse, it is not the hypocritical male observer who is endowed with a weapon, but the spectacularly sexualized woman herself.
Each of these rhetorical nuances might consequentially reorient the way we read and recite Rivera’s injunction. Through rerouting the historiography of the Stonewall Riots through the genre of Biblical epic, Rivera undoes what we might understand as the ostensibly forensic reconstruction that the statement appears to perform. That is, if in some sense we are encouraged to think that (in the analogy’s referend) nobody cast the first stone, we might find our course deflected from the very search for origins that we had, perhaps, expected to find ourselves engaged in. Rivera seems to anticipate - though, at fifty years remove, how could she - the degree to which trans women’s role in the Stonewall Riots would be, for decades, suppressed, and still, trans women of color are excluded from many cis histories of an event that has become, for some, no more or less than the moment of institutional becoming of gay liberalism. The analogy, though, orients us away from the kind of queer reconstruction that joins the debate on the terms of those who would exclude trans bodies not merely from the Stonewall, but from history as such, and contends the possibility of a trans historical subject on the grounds of a painstaking debate about who threw what at whom. Rather, Rivera suggests, the riots are still yet to happen - we are still in the process of becoming the rioting subjects who will birth a movement of liberation. Thus, in the next sentence, Rivera turns the verb tense from a historical past towards a prophetic future: “remember that transvestites and gay street people are always on the front lines and are ready to lay their lives down for the movement.” The stones have yet to be thrown in that fight, and the confrontation of history with the future hinges on the figure of an armed militant body in a position of militant potentiality, “ready.”
The second reorientation shifts the familiar dramaturgy of the Biblical scene, in which a juridical action is interrupted by the laying down of a critical law, whose claims supersede those under which the adulteress has been sentenced to stoning. In this case, it is the equally violent depredations of the police state whose legitimacy is contested by appeal to a higher law. Rivera’s article begins: “As far back as I can remember, my half sisters and brothers liberated themselves from this fucked up system that has been oppressing our gay sisters and brothers–by walking on the man’s land, defining the man’s law, and meeting with the man face to face in his court of law.” Here, Rivera frames legal authority as such as “defin[ed]” by trans people, “sisters and brothers.” How could it be? Rivera’s argument positions the law of sexual segregation, which is to say the socialization of the contingent practice of psychic sexuation, as the essential foundation of legal authority as such. In that sense, Rivera is not merely opportunistic but depicting a post- juridical, decolonial utopia, when she speaks her resistance and that of her trans siblings as “walking on the man’s land,” thus establishing a bond of faith between trans resistance to the patriarchal state and the resistance of the Lenape people, on whose unceded land the Stonewall Inn stood and stands.
What to do with this? We live in a moment of history where the contempt for trans women Rivera described is poisoning LGBTQ communities. The establishment in Britain of an “LGB Alliance” advocating the removal of civil protections for trans people is only the latest event in a contest that, of course, predated the riots at the Stonewall Inn. Yet perhaps the mobilization of a mass movement to vilify and ultimately abolish trans women, is a new development too - distinct from the slack, recumbent prejudices of the past and now organizing around a legislative platform, especially the forced detransition of incarcerated trans people, the removal of long- established protections for trans workers, and the suspension of healthcare for trans children. At the center of the world-view of the so-called “gender critical feminists” is the literally preposterous view that trans people have only started existing in the last decade or so, or that realist demands for viable, binary sex changes are a recent fantasy. Rivera’s short essay proves them wrong, as does Marcia Johnson’s 1972 interview in which she expresses her own sense of difference from the mainstream gay movement: “The only transvestites [gay brothers] were very friendly with were the pmts that looked freaky in drag, like freak drag, with no tits, no nothing. Well I can’t help but have tits, they’re mine. And those men weren’t too friendly at all. Once in a while, I get an invitation to the Daughters of Bilitis, and when I go there, they’re always warm. All the gay sisters come over and say, “Hello we’re glad to see you,” and they start long conversations. But not the gay brothers [...] Of course I can understand why. A lot of gay brothers don’t like women!” In such a historical context as ours, one characterized by the suppression and vilification of leaders like Marcia Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, it would feel - perhaps “reassuring” is too strong a word, but a basic necessity - to reconstruct events, brick by brick, in which trans women participated as coeval subjects, instigators, militants, and leaders. Sylvia Rivera, on the other hand, points us to a more radical possibility: that the first brick has yet to be thrown, and that the work has yet to start.