As a queer person, I also want to member those heroes of spirit that have supported me in my life now. I think we queer folks often do not remember our history, lacking family lines to one another to pass down these stories orally. This Samhain, I would like to remember Sylvia Rivera, Ruth Ellis and Harvey Milk, all of whom loved courageously and lived with dignity. They were activists whose work changed the world, bit by bit, for the better. What follows is small tribute to these powerful people.
In the early morning ours of June 28, 1969 the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar frequented by black and latino gay men, often drag queens. Just few years earlier, it was illegal for a bar to serve 3 or more queer people and a bar could lose its liquor license. Although gay bars were technically legal, police harassment was still common, and transgendered folks or people cross-dressing were often targeted. Queer people were often beaten and arrested simply for the crime of coming together in community.
Angry and unwilling to accept this treatment, the patrons of Stonewall rioted. There are many different reports on what exactly was the spark. Some say it was a lesbian, others say it was Syliva Rivera who threw a beer bottle. Whatever the cause, the crowd turned and attacked the police. Word quickly spread through the neighborhood and the police were forced to barricade themselves in the bar. According to Wikipeida, throughout “the night the police singled out many transgender people and gender nonconformists, including butch women and effeminate men, among others, often beating them.” A crowd gathered, estimated at over 2000, throwing bottles and stones and chanting “gay power.” While a gay rights movement existed before Stonewall, this event is credited as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement in the US.
Prior to Stonewall Sylvia Rivera was peace activist, protesting Vietnam. She was also a feminist, working for full and equal treatment of women. Both before and after Stonewall, she struggled with substance abuse, often homeless. Even through this, she was an activist for transgender rights and worked to feed queer homeless youth.
Another advocate for queer youth, a bit closer to my home, was Ruth Ellis. Born in 1899, Ruth lived to be 100. A pioneer throughout her life, she graduated from high school in 1919 in time where less than 7% of black Americans graduated from secondary school. She met her partner in the 1920s and moved the Detroit area in 1937. She became the first woman to own a printing business in Detroit, selling stationery, fliers and other printed goods from her home. Supporting the gay community, Ruth and her partner open up their home for the gay and lesbian community to gather as early as the 1940s. A tireless advocate, she manifested her activism through an open door and by living a life with her head unbowed.
Another queer ancestor that I would like to honor is Harvey Milk. The first time I heard of Harvey Milk was in gay and lesbian studies group I was participating in college. He was the first openly (depending on the source quoted) gay person to serve in political office. One writer, John Cloud remarked that "[a]fter he defied the governing class of San Francisco in 1977 to become a member of its board of supervisors, many people—straight and gay—had to adjust to a new reality he embodied: that a gay person could live an honest life and succeed." One of the things that he did was put in placed one of the most comprehensive city ordinances protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. Sadly, his political career was cut short. He gave is life in his pursuit of gay liberation. He was killed by a former city supervisor and his killer was acquitted of murder on the now infamous “Twinkie defense” – where the jury (from which gays and other minorities were excluded) accepted the argument that his killer was out of his mind due to eating too much junk food. (His killer was convicted of the lesser crime of manslaughter.) Harvey Milk continues to be a venerated figure in San Francisco politics and an important ancestors for queers everywhere.
Here is a link to one of his speeches:
Last night, I invited Sylvia, Ruth and Harvey into my home, remembered their activism and thank them for daring to love and for refusing to be anything less than a full human being. May Sylvia bless me with the pure grit never to stop fighting, may Ruth bless me the willingness to open my home and heart to others and may Harvey bless me with the ability to weave connection between all people.
I will thank them, and thank all the queer folk whose names I do know, but who fought for the freedom and tolerance that I now enjoy. May we all dare to love and to live with passion. May we never accept anything less for ourselves, for each other and for our descendents.