The Lesbians Who Started it All

On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we should take up the call of the women who fought on the front lines of the LGBTQ rights revolution

‘I had a dream of women running their own lives, and running the machinery of the world,’ the pioneering filmmaker Barbara Hammer remarks in the opening scene of Sisters! (1973), as a female mechanic slides under the chassis of a car. When Hammer died this March, aged 79, she left behind an archive of boundless joy: films of women dancing and marching, embracing and making love. These were the first works of avant-garde cinema by an openly lesbian filmmaker to explore lesbian identity. Tender, sexy and audacious, their power hasn’t diminished in five decades.

Hammer came out and made some of her first films in 1969, the year of the Stonewall Riots. This June, millions are expected to fill the streets of New York to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that uprising, credited as the birth of the gay rights movement. But when the riots began in the early morning hours of 28 June, after police began a routine raid on a gay bar in Greenwich Village, gay activism had already been around for a long time. It spread east from Los Angeles with the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 by Harry Hay, a labour organizer and member of the Communist Party. Mattachine’s sister organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, founded in 1955, helped lesbian members achieve economic self-determination in the conservative 1950s, which they viewed as their best escape from male oppression – a right still not guaranteed to women in the US, who often work the same jobs as men for less pay.

Popular accounts of the riots rarely acknowledge that they were incited by a lesbian of colour. While freed patrons milled outside the Stonewall Inn watching cops shove their friends into paddy wagons, Stormé DeLarverie, a butch performer in Harlem clubs, resisted arrest. As she repeatedly slipped through officers’ grasps, she turned to the crowd and cried: ‘Why don’t you guys just do something?’ It was a call to action that, within months, would come to sound more like an admonition.

Even before summer began, 1969 was a watershed year for American culture, as Lucy Ives argues in this issue of frieze. In January, 25-year-old Shulamith Firestone, at work on her classic book The Dialectic of Sex (1970), co-founded Redstockings, a Marxist feminist group that emphasized female ‘class-consciousness’ and advocated for the elimination of sex categories altogether. A few months later, one of its members, Carol Hanisch, penned the phrase ‘the personal is political’. A radical collective called The Feminists staged the first LGBT marriage-related protest that September – not for but against the institution. ‘We can’t destroy the inequities between men and women until we destroy marriage,’ they proclaimed, as they picketed the New York City Marriage Licensing Bureau. Rita Mae Brown had been a Redstockings member, but left the group because she felt it did not represent the interests of lesbians. She quit the Gay Liberation Front, too, after facing entrenched misogyny among gay men. In January 1970, she founded the Radicalesbians, who declared that ‘a lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the  point of explosion.’ They detonated male supremacy, both straight and gay, by insisting that lesbianism could be a political choice. This contrasts starkly with the essentialist rhetoric favoured by gay men that prevails today. The refrain ‘Born This Way’ – popularized by Lady Gaga in her 2011 song – reflects the legal logic of protected classes, while reducing a fluid spectrum of sexuality to a binary with little room for individual differences.

How did lesbians 50 years ago already see our identity crisis coming? Their revolution had only just begun, yet their notions of sexuality – structured around the principles of self-determination and political empowerment – were far more meaningful than any advanced in the debate on same-sex marriage. As a marginalized subset of the ‘second sex’, they understood that sexual liberation depends on the emancipation of all genders, races and classes. They knew, as Andrea Dworkin wrote in her 1976 book Our Blood, that ‘to be equal where there is not universal justice, or where there is not universal freedom is, quite simply, to be the same as the oppressor.’

I wonder what the feminist writer and anti-porn crusader would have thought of the flurry of new books and exhibitions celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, which mostly consign lesbian separatism to a footnote while celebrating the kind of equality she decried. There are notable exceptions: a portrait of Hammer by Mickalene Thomas opens ‘Art After Stonewall, 1969–1989’ at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York, her red, pleated top and makeup at once radiant and raw. At the Brooklyn Museum, in ‘Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years after Stonewall’, L.J. Roberts’s installation Storme at Stonewall (2019) acknowledges the woman who started it all.

With the news so full of abusive men these days, it’s hard to blame the separatists for trying to cut them out of their lives entirely. It’s made me question my own responsibilities as a gay man, and whether I’ve allowed my own privilege to lull me into a sense of compla­cency. Like most bourgeois gay life, Pride parades in the US and Europe are a corporate affair, sponsored by banks and lifestyle brands primarily targeting men with disposable income – and they’re sure to bring ugly class and gender divisions to the fore even as they unite the LGBT community in celebration. This summer is the perfect moment, then, to honour the women who birthed a movement and their just vision of liberation. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 204 with the headline ‘Point Of Explosion’

Main image: Peter Hujar, Gay Liberation Front Poster image, 1970, vintage gelatin silver print, 46 × 31 cm. Courtesy: Peter Hujar Archive, LLC and Leslie-Lohman Museum, New York 

Evan Moffitt is associate editor of frieze, based in New York, USA. 

Issue 204

First published in Issue 204

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