Pop Quiz: What is the significance of June 27, 1969? A few weeks ago I was sitting in on a discussion on the equal marriage campaign at Carleton University’s GLBT Centre. We were debating whether or not the campaign would be successful. As the discussion branched off to the topic of queer history, I was struck that only three people out of 15 knew the significance of Stonewall.
Just to keep score, three people knew what Stonewall was about, two others knew that it was connected to the gay and lesbian movement but weren’t quite sure how, and the other 10 were surprised to learn that we weren’t talking about our local queer bookstore.
After clarifying the differences between Stonewall and After Stonewall, the discussion turned back to gay marriage. It got me thinking though: How much do queer youth know about gay and lesbian history? And does it still matter?
So much of queer identity is rooted in the history of the gay and lesbian movement. It surprised me when I learned that “butch” and “femme” were more than descriptive labels. Interestingly, these terms came out of the period when the queer community existed underground, when we were still largely invisible.
“Butch” and “femme” were a reaction to systemic oppression. The butch-femme dynamic existed so that queers who went to the underground gay bars could more easily rearrange themselves into opposite-sex groupings in case of a police raid. It also helped hide queer activity, especially when people were dancing in pairs, because police weren’t able to tell which genders were dancing together. The butch-femme dynamic fooled the eyes of outsiders into seeing a man and a woman dancing instead of noticing two women or two men dancing together. While “butch” and “femme” designations are used as labels or badges of pride nowadays, the concept has a historical significance that touches upon the way gays and lesbians lived and interacted.
Some of the symbols and labels of our community are common knowledge: pink and black triangles – symbols imposed by the Nazis akin to the yellow Star Of David that Jews were forced to wear; rainbow flag – unity in diversity with textured colour-coated meanings. A few might even recognize that the word drag was a vaudeville term short for dressed-as-girl.
Other symbols and labels, such as the butch-femme thing, are not as well known but are perhaps more significant as they open a window into the history of gay and lesbian people.
Some say the gay and lesbian movement came of age during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and is still sometimes haunted by that ordeal by fire. Though we learned to mobilize in the 1980s, it was not so much to defend equality rights, establish collective identity or even challenge societal norms as it was about survival. Unlike other groups, queers are neither a classically defined “people” nor do we make up half the population.
Our common points of reference tend to be people rather than events. We reference icons such as Judy Garland, Cher, Boy George, RuPaul and Ellen DeGeneres. Perhaps it is because our identity is invisible that our heroes are often well-known people who have come out, adding to our numbers and reducing our isolation.
We even take a revisionist approach when we adopt figures like Alexander The Great and King Edward II, claiming them as gay despite the fact that “queer” as an identity was created much, much later.
Insofar as queer culture is not genetically passed down to our children, there is some truth to the idea that we do not reproduce, we recruit. We don’t have a queer country of origin nor do we have long-standing cultural traditions. As a result, queer culture is constantly being reinvented. Every new generation of queer youth adopts symbols and icons, making them their own.
Answer to the quiz: Jun 27, 1969 was the date of the Stonewall riot – the same day as Judy Garland’s funeral. The passing of a gay icon upset many in New York’s gay community. Queers went to their local, the Stonewall Inn, and in the early morning of Jun 28 the crowd was faced with a police raid. But this time the patrons stood up for themselves.
The riot was a confrontation between the patrons and the police. The police responded with brutality and violence. This incident became highly publicized and it caused people to pay attention to the way gays and lesbians were being treated. Stonewall was credited as the symbolic birth of the US gay-rights movement.
Another quiz: What happened that same month in 1969 in Canada?
If we don’t make a conscious effort to retain our history, we risk forgetting it as our community reinvents itself.