Credit: Nick Lachance/Xtra; Francesca Roh/Xtra
10 min

How social media–savvy youth became the unofficial keepers of queer history

There’s a vast queer history that goes beyond Stonewall and marriage equality. Schools aren’t teaching that, so young people on the internet are doing it instead

On Aug 6, 2015, the queer internet was at war. The trailer for Stonewall a film dramatizing New York City’s June 1969 riots outside the eponymous gay bar — had just been released. And instead of a trans woman of colour at the centre of the story, Stonewall positioned a cis white male as its hero — an Indiana transplant named Danny Winters.

Danny Winters does not exist, nor was he based on a real-life activist. But in the film he’s shown sparking the riots: he is the first to throw a brick during the police raid of the Stonewall Inn, in effect framing him as the primary symbol of resistance. Erased were the real-life trans women of colour, namely Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson, who helped lead a movement that culminated with Stonewall, widely considered the watershed moment in the modern LGBTQ2 liberation movement.

In response, a disparate network of Twitter and Tumblr users seized the chance to spread a more accurate recounting. Rivera and Johnson were far from household names, but the efforts of social media users helped propel them to a newfound status in popular culture.

Users launched a #NotOurStonewall campaign on Twitter that emphasized the essential role that trans people and people of colour played during the riots. People on Tumblr plastered on their dashboards a photo of Johnson wearing a multi-colored flower crown. Ten of thousands signed to boycott of the film. A tweet from @NotOurStonewall summed up the tenor of conversation: “Stonewall was a trans uprising. It was a Black uprising. It was a Latinx uprising. Liberation is for all of us, not just white cis gay men.”

Young people online, in other words, were whisking essential queer figures out of the confines of academic and historic literature — where they had been known for decades — and sharing them with a rising generation of queer people who never had the chance to learn about those who came before them.

Of course, the politics of who actually sparked the riots at Stonewall are complicated, and the exact timeline and entire truth of what occurred during the multi-day riots remains unknown. Johnson and Rivera have each denied being the instigator of the riots. Yet there is little doubt that trans women of colour played a key role in the queer liberation movement both before and after Stonewall.

The dangers of forgetting our history are real. Younger generations, as much as they may want to learn about the past, have little access to the history of their ancestors. Because queerness is not commonly passed down among families, there is no transmission of generational knowledge in our homes; queer youth lack a built-in, widely accessible way to learn about their pasts. In the US, only two states — California and New Jersey — require that LGBTQ2 history be addressed in school, while no such rule exists in Canada. And this April in the UK, after significant controversy, the education secretary affirmed that there is no requirement to teach LGBTQ2 history in primary schools. So, in the absence of family stories or lessons in school, the rare mainstream representations, such as a Hollywood film like Stonewall, have the potential to skew queer people’s conception of their history.

In response, many young, queer social media users have taken to spreading a more complete version of this history online. As Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr have become a source of communal knowledge, young people have pieced together a history that tethers their own identities to the past while recapturing the initial radicalism of the queer movement.

The reaction to the Stonewall trailer was one piece of that. Over the last several years, young amateur historians have been combing through history books and archives for forgotten stories of radical queer activists. A group of queer history accounts, like Making Queer History, FuckYeah LGBT History, LGBT History Archives, and lgbt_history, have disseminated information about Gran Fury, an artist-activist group created in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, the trans man named Lou Sullivan who shaped modern transitioning laws, or the way the Black Panther Party supported the modern queer movement. Others have condensed this history into comics: one Tumblr user posts illustrated histories of people like José Sarria, a Latinx drag queen who ran for office in San Francisco more than a decade before Harvey Milk and was the first to articulate ideas about the importance of involving queer people in politics, well before Milk.

Others have focused on the representational value of the past, sleuthing out figures who, decades earlier, thought about their identities along the same lines as they do. For people who belong to communities that are unacknowledged even in the present — such as queer and trans communities of colour — locating others like you in the past holds particular power: without knowing what came before, you are forced to think of yourself as the first.

In finding themselves in the past, young people are also discovering that early queer activists had much more daring ideas than a strictly linear view of history might suggest. They’re seizing on the radical energy of the pre-Stonewall movement in order to reinvigorate the movement today.

A fundamental truth of queer movements are that they shift with each generation. Because queer communities are not tied together by ancestry and because histories of LGBTQ2 people are rare, each generation has had to cobble together its vision of queerness based on fragments. Respected LGBTQ2 historians like Lillian Faderman, Susan Stryker, George Chauncey and Leila Rupp have spent tireless decades compiling the queer past, but their work so easily trickle into the mainstream.

At least in the public consciousness, little of the queer past is retained. This means that identity categories are caught in flux. The word “queer,” for instance, has mutated dramatically: in the early 1900s, “queer” was a widely used term to describe gender-normative homosexuals; yet by the 1940s, a new generation dismissed “queer” as offensive, claiming it differentiated homosexuals from the rest of the society. They seized on terms like “gay” to the point where, in the words of George Chauncey in his book Gay New York, “younger gay men were chastising older men who still used queer, which the younger men now regarded as demeaning.” At the height of the AIDS epidemic, the terms switched again: younger people embraced “queer,” while older generations still tend to regard it as a slur.

Knowledge of LGBTQ2 history also helps to put into context how the tenets of the movement have, like language, undergone frequent revision. Today’s queer activism, which counts same-sex marriage as its marquee achievement, looks very different from the gay movement following Stonewall, which listed the abolition of the nuclear family as one of its top priorities. In his 1969 paper “A Gay Manifesto,” activist Carl Wittman argued that “traditional marriage is a rotten, oppressive institution” and that gay people should seek alternatives to marriage that included freedom “for people to live alone, live together for a while, live together for a long time, either as couples or in large numbers.” Dozens of gay groups, such as the Los Angeles–based Lavender and Red Union and the Toronto gay newspaper The Body Politic (established by Pink Triangle Press, which owns Xtra), vocally supported socialist policies.

In 1971, the group Third World Gay Liberation published a list of demands of the queer movement that included free birth control, 24-hour childcare centres, public housing, abolition of the death penalty, “an immediate end to the fascist police force,” criminal trials decided by juries who come from the same racial and sexual backgrounds as the defendant, a free “non-compulsory education system that teaches us our true identity and history” and gender-affirming surgeries on demand.

Joan Nestle, a lesbian activist and scholar whose Lesbian Herstory Archives became the first major attempt to document the queer past in 1974, has described these generational influences as “the fragility of lesbian culture”— the idea that once-popular understandings of queer culture are quickly lost to history. In her essay “A Fem’s Feminist History,” she noted that she decided to put together a queer archive after seeing “how easily each generation’s markings had been swept away.”

Nestle saw queer history as a way to connect the burgeoning lesbian-feminist movement of the 1970s to the butch-femme culture of the 1950s that she grew up in. “I would pull out photographs of butch and fem[me] women from decades past and show them to young women still exploring their sexuality,” she wrote. “Without denying the present-day lesbian feminist movement, I could honour the differences of the past and make living connections to the present.”

The point is not that the past is unrecognizable, but that its differences can enrich our understanding of queerness as a whole. Not only can it help young queer people orient themselves into a larger context, but it can also reinvigorate the initial radicalism of the queer movement.

The push to recognize this past is spreading: the TV series Pose, which features several queer and trans actors of colour, highlights the many iterations of family that existed in the Black trans ball scene of the 1980s, while Gentleman Jack gives space to the lesbian world of the 1800s. The book When Brooklyn Was Queer by self-taught historian Hugh Ryan, meanwhile, challenges basic assumptions of what makes a homosexual by acknowledging the fluid sexual space in which many early Brooklynites existed. Together, these books and TV shows demonstrate that the queer past was far more dynamic and complex than hindsight suggests — and there is plenty it can teach us today.

But these books and series alone can’t possibly account for the vast diversity of queer history. That’s where social media is filling some of the gaps. After discovering that no mainstream academic was researching the history of asexuality, for instance, a loose network of young social media users decided to do it themselves. In recent years, they have combed through 19th-century feminist texts to identify figures like Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, who discussed asexuality long before the identity became officially defined. They’ve pinpointed an “asexual aesthetic” in fashion movements — like those of the extravagantly dressed male 18th-century fashionistas, called dandies, who often discussed their distaste for sex. Social media sleuths have even found instances of the explicit use of terms like “asexual” as a label dating back to the 1970s, decades before many people assume asexuality became a widespread queer identity.

That renewed interest is tied to the fact that almost one-third of Generation Z identifies somewhere on the queer spectrum, and many are choosing identity labels that aren’t typically well-represented, like non-binary and asexual. That makes uncovering the queer past all the more imperative. For those have grown up hearing of queer history as merely “Stonewall” followed by “marriage equality,” with little awareness of what came before or in-between, this archival material is a reminder that the richness of our up-and-coming LGBTQ2 generation is not necessarily new — and we can learn from those who fuelled it decades ago.

Without these retellings of queer history, we start to see queer identity as fixed and the gay movement as one with a stable set of goals throughout time. The only way to understand where queer communities should go next is to track its permutations throughout time. Schools won’t teach that, so young people on the internet are doing it instead.