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Many of them were people of color. This was a familiar scene. They started throwing donuts, then coffee. The police fled to their squad car and called for backup. In the minds of many, Stonewall represents the beginning of a movement. Yet the activists at Stonewall built on decades of activism, and this activism was geared not merely toward the liberation of gay men and lesbians, but also toward the liberation of a wider group of queer people: trans and gender-nonconforming people, queer people of color and queer sex workers.
In addition, due in large part to the limited economic options available to out queer people at the time, many of the participants at Stonewall and in the uprisings that made Stonewall possible themselves sold sex. Those fighting for the liberation of queer people today, and marking the 50th anniversary of Stonewall this June, should know the radical origins of the LGBTQ movement and the debt they owe to sex workers.
Riots like the famous one at Stonewall had an extensive genealogy. Throughout the s, queer people set up picket lines, engaged in sit-ins, marched down boulevards and rioted against police harassment in New York; Philadelphia; Washington, D. One summer night, as the cops began manhandling a queen, she threw coffee in his face and a riot immediately broke out.
Perhaps 50 or 60 patrons overturned tables and smashed windows and beat the police with heavy purses.
Sex workers participated in nearly all of the iconic queer uprisings of the era. Indeed, they helped create the conditions that made such uprisings possible.
In San Francisco, for instance, a group of street youth — largely trans and queer kids, many of whom sold sex in the Tenderloin — came together in to form a new organization called Vanguard. By publishing a revelatory newsletter, meeting with city officials and organizing actions, marches and speeches, members of Vanguard raised awareness about the conditions faced by those on the streets. Though the group dissolved the next year, its members remained active in local campaigns to combat homophobia, transphobia and the mistreatment of sex workers, and they contributed to a revolutionary spirit and discourse in San Francisco during these years.
As the historian Susan Stryker has argued, transgender women—among the most marginalized members of the queer community—were often the instigators of the uprisings. Trans women had remarkable trouble finding employment or housing in this era, which left them inordinately vulnerable to police harassment or abuse, forced many to sell sex at one point or another, and eventually led many of them to rebel. But many of the queers who threw bottles, bricks and garbage at the police that night were hustlers, hookers and other sex workers.
Indeed, Marsha P. In the years following Stonewall, Rivera and other sex workers united in the Gay Liberation Front and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, from which they launched organizing campaigns to combat discrimination, demand acceptance of gender and sexual nonconformity, and ultimately call for the overthrow of capitalism. Yet the erasure of sex workers from Stonewall began almost immediately. Only in the last couple years have several of these groups begun cautiously embracing calls for decriminalization, but even that remains tentative.
A full ing of the history shows what such an approach is missing. The uprising at Stonewall was a fight for the rights of trans people, gender-nonconforming people, queer people of color, homeless queer people—and queer sex workers.
Scott W. at letters time. By Scott W. Get our History Newsletter. Put today's news in context and see highlights from the archives. Please enter a valid address. Please attempt to up again.
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Sex Workers Are an Important Part of the Stonewall Story, But Their Role Has Been Forgotten