Friday, 25 September 2015
Thankyou, Martha Shelley, for Drag Queen Lib!
Martha Shelley deserves our gratitude for a number of things. First, for being one of participants in the Stonewall Rebellion — an historic riot that took place near the Stonewall Inn in 1969 and marked the birth of modern queer liberation. She also holds the distinction of speaking with singular eloquence (in a speech on September 20) on the political situation of gays and lesbians in North America.
Martha is also one of the founders of the GLF (Gay Liberation Front) in the United States. And her recent speech is a welcome reminder that although gay and lesbian marriage is now legal in the United Stages and Canada, the gay liberation movement has fallen far short of its original goals. Original GLF demands included “reproductive rights for women, freedom to get high, and freedom not to have your ass drafted and shipped to Vietnam. Our demands included an end to racist oppression. They included economic justice.” Martha goes on to remind us that although gay and lesbian activists have secured many civil liberties, they have ignored the original GLF demands and substituted assimilationist rhetoric. And, of course (and perhaps, consequently) reproductive rights for women are still under attack, the United States and Canada still engage in imperialistic wars, we have not seen an end to racism, and the distance between rich and poor gets wider every day.
But there’s another very important way in which Martha Shelley reminds us of our true history. In her statement about the Gay Liberation Front she says: “GLF was a coalition of radical gays from those mainstream organizations, gay radicals from socialist organizations, and street queens and dykes who’d never been organized before.”
Notice the absence of the word ‘trans’ — a term often used to describe participants at Stonewall. Instead of ‘trans’ Martha utilizes the term ’street queens.’ That’s because there were no ‘trans people’ at Stonewall. This is because trans did not exist - in the modern sense of the word — back in 1969. ‘Trans’ simply meant a ‘transexual’ — a person who had undergone gender reassignment surgery.
These days trendy queer theorists suggest Oscar Wilde was not gay because ‘Back in the 1800s there was no such thing as gay.’ So why do people talk about ‘trans people’ at Stonewall when no one was using the word ‘trans’ at that time in its modern, more inclusive definition, i.e. meaning ‘transgender’?
Because those who call the heroic, effeminate, flamboyant men who participated in the Stonewall riots ‘trans people’ are trying to erase drag queens from our history.
Drag queens are getting a bad name. Recently I did a lecture at a high school and mentioned that I was a drag queen. One of the teachers said “You’re very brave to say that.” I asked - “Why?” She said: “ We had a meeting about inviting members of the GLT community to our school, and someone mentioned inviting a drag queen, and a gay member of our committee said it would not be a good idea to invite a drag queen, as he and many other members of the community disapprove of them.”
When I tell queer people that I am a drag queen these days, I often get hostility. Not from feminists (which is where the opposition used to originate) but from gay men, and from some people who identify as transgendered.
But our history cannot and should not be erased. Drag queens were an important presence at Stonewall in 1969; and they are still an important part of our community today.
Thankyou, Martha Shelley, for reminding us that we must never be ashamed of our drag queens!