Jeanne Cordova

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The Metaphor of Stonewall; Never Concede Defeat

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(Speech given at the 40th Anniversary Celebration of Stonewall, West Hollywood, CA, June 2, 2009, panel with Lillian Faderman, Mark Thompson & Don Kilhefner)

The Stonewall Riots, which took place on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969, is an event that has become a metaphor for radical change in the history of our tribe.

Although thousands of feminist identified lesbians look to the birth of the Lesbian Feminist Movement to the 1970 publication of the manifesto, “Women Identified Women,” I believe that genderqueers of every stripe and persuasion can look to Stonewall -- the metaphor -- as a time between 1968 and 1970, when the energy of our people shifted from one of imploring and passivity to one of anger and confrontation. This LGBT shift in consciousness became a key part of a new American voice that believed we could change the world.

Karl Marx wrote that political and cultural revolutions take place when a certain historic moment in time collides with certain historic figures to produce a spark that signals a qualitative leap in society. And that this tipping point makes history after this collision forever changed from those centuries that came before.

For LGBT people, the seeds of our historic moment were sown by three other social movements that were training grounds for our activists: the Civil Rights struggle in the South, the anti-war movement in America, and the call to arms of radical feminists who called upon women of the world to rise up against the patriarchy.

These three movements for social change ignited a new thought in the minds of those at the Stonewall Inn that night – the genderqueers, transsexuals, drag queens, and stone butches – the so-called riff raff of the gay world – that NOW was the time to rise up against the status quo (in the form of police who came to assault us just one time too many times that night.) And instead of going quietly to the police station, where they were often beaten, and sometimes raped, they said, “No!” to the cops. “Free us or jail us! We’re not going take this anymore!” And they began to fight back by hurling bricks, high heels, and their fists.

And this spark of rebellion became the loud queer cry of gay liberation.

In 1971, on the 2nd anniversary of Stonewall, I stood as a 22 year old with Morris Kight, one of the godfathers of gay liberation, on Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles as we planned the route of the Christopher Street West gay march. Back then we didn’t have gay ‘pride.’ We had no floats. We had no money, no pretty boys in bathing suits, no chic lesbians in lipstick, no permits from the police. No, back then we just had our bullhorns and our rage. So Morris and I, and others, decided to start the march on the sidewalks as the police commanded us to do. But then, we decided, we’d jump off the sidewalks and onto Hollywood Blvd, in the middle of traffic, and take over the street. So that’s in fact what we did, daring the cops to arrest us.

Two years later, in 1973, I organized a small group called Lesbian Activist Women that brought 2000 lesbians to the campus of UCLA for the first National Lesbian Conference. All of Lesbian Nation’s historic figures were there. Women like, Kate Millett, Rita Mae Brown, Jean O’Leary, Ivy Bottini, Carmen Vasquez of San Francisco, Margaret Sloane, African American editor of MS Magazine, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons, and Sally Gearhart who would later stand with Harvey Milk. We all gathered to speak to each other and to plot a political agenda for the national lesbian movement.

Today, we are caught up in a great battle called “marriage,” but this word is only a metaphor for where the LBGT struggle is stuck this year. The battle cry called “same sex marriage” is really the herald, the battle cry for our full equal rights.

Yesterday our President Obama proclaimed June, the month of Stonewall, as LGBT Pride month. All of us wait and hope that in the short tomorrow he will stand up for us in ways that are not easy or merely symbolic.

Sisters and Brothers, sometimes my heart aches because we have been fighting this battle for a very, very long time.  It was 38 years ago that I stood with Morris Kight on Hollywood Blvd. I am now sixty years old. Morris Kight is long since dead.

Last week, the day after the California Supreme Court repealed their six month old decision to allow us to marry; I gathered a new group together, a small handful of Chicanos, lesbians, gay men, and transgendered people to commit civil disobedience. We named ourselves MUJU, the Marry Us, or Jail Us Action Alliance,” and we marched over to East Los Angeles and into the County Recorders office and demanded an application to be married.

And when the plain-clothed Sheriff Officer opened the door to the Recorder’s Building and said, to my unmarried partner of 20 years and our two other couples, “Now you people can go in, but you will come out right away, understood.”

I nodded and said, “Sure thing, we’ll do just as you say.” Knowing full well that we had no intention of being obedient, knowing that we might well spend the night in jail. And we stayed inside, shutting down business and refusing to let them issue marriage licenses to straight people as long as they refused to give us queers the same license.

And finally we realized that the police were too clever and had no intentions of arresting us because the LA Times was with us in that tiny office and they didn’t want Southern California to read that gays were arrested for demanding the right to love.

As we came out into the sun-shine three hours later, my first thought was, “Haven’t I been here before? Hasn’t our struggle taken a very long time?”

And I looked at a young African-American sheriff who held the door open and I wanted to reach out and hug him, and ask, “Does it have to take a lifetime to get to the front of the bus?”

So I want each of you to recognize that you too can be change-makers. I want us to see Stonewall as a metaphor for the belief that a small handful of people really can rise up and change the world. This is what Stonewall means to me. It’s a call to arms, a cry of outrage. It’s knowing full well – that in America, yes, it does take a lifetime. But Stonewall means never concede defeat.

 

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