Does the Stonewall Commemorative Plaque Erase Trans People's Role in Riots?
New York City is currently considering installing a plaque at the site of the historic Stonewall Inn, the Greenwich Village bar where in 1969, bar patrons — including trans women, lesbians, drag queens, and gay men — fought back against continued police harassment, leading to a riot that lasted three days and, by most estimations, started the modern LGBT rights movement.
Commemorating the riots and the location is undoubtedly a laudable goal, but the actual words that will be included on the plaque have stirred up controversy within New York's LGBT community. The Stonewall Inn itself has already been recognized on the National and New York State Registers of Historic Places, and as a National Historic Landmark.
Gay state Sen. Brad Holyman, who represents the neighborhood that houses the Stonewall Inn, first proposed creating a commemorative plaque earlier this summer, but the effort was derailed when the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center's organizers neglected to include anyone who had actually been at the 1969 riots in the planning process.
So Sen. Holyman shelved that proposal and reorganized, teaming up with out City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick to establish a process where community members could provide input on the placement and wording of the plaque. But even at the first meeting of the local Community Board's Landmarks and Public Aesthetics Committee on October 15, tensions over allegedly exclusive wording was plainly evident.
Gay City News reported the initial wording of the plaque as it was introduced in the Community Board 2 meeting:
53 Christopher Street
Here on the early morning of June 28, 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar. What followed were six days of sporadic riots by hundreds of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, demanding an end to police harassment, arrests and raids on gay establishments. The Stonewall Rebellion is widely regarded as the catalyst for the modern LGBT liberation movement and was noted by President Barack Obama in his 2013 inaugural address, the first time a president referred to gay rights in such a speech."
Among those most upset over the draft language are members of Stonewalling Accurate and Inclusive Depictions, an educational project that aims to bring attention to "the ongoing pattern of trans erasure, whitewashing, misgendering and problematic messaging spread in numerous media portrayals, political establishments, and educational institutions regarding the history and multi-movement building surrounding the Stonewall Riots of 1969," according to SAID's website.
"Many who took part in the Stonewall Rebellion died way before their time, like my sisters Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson," explains Miss Major, a SAID organizer, executive director of the TGI Justice Project in Oakland, Calif., and a trans woman of color who was inside the Stonewall Inn the night the riots began. "The ongoing whitewashing of those days of struggle put a blemish on the memory of those trans women of color and those still living — mentally, physically and spiritually. I pray this plaque uses inclusive language to honor the sacrifice we as trans women displayed by taking back our power."
Ashley Love, another organizer with SAID who is a journalist and transsexual and intersex advocate, cut straight to the chase on why her group is displeased with the plaque's draft language.
"LGB decision-makers shouldn’t misrepresent less privileged communities by repeatedly using exclusive and nonaffirming language that marginalizes and misgenders Americans with a transgender gender identity or a transsexual medical condition," Love tells The Advocate. "Misusing 'gay' as an umbrella term erases the many heterosexual and non-gay identified people in the Trans* coalition, and confuses the already ignorant public. This is a chance to responsibly depict history by ensuring this plaque honors all diverse communities who kickstarted the Stonewall Rebellion."
Sen. Holyman's chief of staff confirmed that the specific wording will be discussed and revised at next month's meeting of Community Board 2's Social Services and Education Committee. That meeting will take place on November 19, which happens to be one day before the International Trans Day of Rememberance, where trans people and their friends and allies gather to remember all those lost to anti-trans violence and bias around the world in the past year.
*Editor's Note: Love's use of an asterisk after the word trans is a political statement intended to convey that not everyone encompassed by the umbrella term "trans" identifies as transgender, or transsexual, but rather aims to reflect the vast diversity of identities and experiences of individuals who identify as trans, intersex and gender-nonconforming.