Tuesday 30 June 2009

Men in frocks

Writing of the police raids that led to the Stonewall riots that marked the dramatic beginning of Gay Liberation in the United States, Colin recalled that “it was the drag queens who led the resistance”. Indeed it was, and looking back at that event in the light of the consolidation of transgender identity during the past four decades, Trans people have begun to ask the question, ‘were those drag queens the precursors of those who nowadays would identify as the T in LGBT, rather than as Gay?’

This sort of question is often asked about ‘our history’ as LGBT people, whether it be ancient history or more recent times. Gay historians look at certain behaviours in an earlier culture or society – like the Berdeche, or ‘two spirit’ people in the Native American Indian past - and say, ‘Hey, those people were definitely lesbian or gay’. Then along comes a Trans-aware historian who says, ‘Hang on a minute, these people weren’t gay or lesbian at all - they were Trans!’

The problem is that the categories and labels by which we define ourselves now, and which we band around so freely, were not available in times gone by, so we have to be careful not to impose our concepts where they may not apply.

The Stonewall riots, however, were a defining moment for gay liberation, and what has followed, including the whole LGBT spectrum, so maybe there are continuities here worth exploring, and yet, the differences between then and now seem vast.

The Stonewall drag queens were, apparently, into ‘radical drag’ – in other words they were not entertainers, like drag queens on the commercial gay scene today, (though no doubt they were entertaining to be with). What they did was mix masculine and feminine behaviours and presentation in an attempt to subvert the rigidities of the gender binary. Remember that these events took place when radical feminism was also on the march, and there were dreams of creating a new society liberated from patriarchal oppression.

In England, in the early 1970s this radicalism was embodied in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), some of whose members did adopt drag in the subversive spirit of Stonewall to shock the Establishment and to make sex (and gender?) more political. The Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), by contrast, had a more subtle approach to change, working with the structures, rather than challenging them, though some members of that ‘camp’, notably, Roger Baker, were very interested in the history and significance of drag, and cross-dressing in general. (Baker was the author of Drag: the history of female impersonation in the performing arts).

Whether we be LGBT or heterosexual, queer or straight, most people want to be accepted in society, and to fit in, but we also need the nonconformists, and the misfits, who challenge the status quo, and highlight the injustices which so many of us take for granted. In Christian culture, people like that, who inspire our longing for a better world, are called prophets, and forty years ago in New York, when the police kept picking on a gay bar in Greenwich Village, they were ‘men in frocks’, God love ‘em.


  1. Thank you for your posts, Christina, it's really important that we explore the T's more. Too often lgbt is being used as a synonym for Gay and Lesbian!

  2. Back in 1969 the word gay was used for all members of the queer continuum, and many transgender folk are indeed gay. I would suggest that the butch-femme roles are transgender to.

    But I do see what you are saying and yes, as Erika implies, trans people are too often sidelined by the more visible gay and lesbian activists. But this may be in part to the phenomena of stealth, which means many of us simply have no wish to be distinct from other folk, due to a desire to remain free from prejudice and violence.

    So in part the less visible trans part of LGBT can be put down to self-occultation. Especially here in the UK it seems, as the States has a thriving and highly visible trans activist network.

    I would also point out that a whole three years before Stonewall was a more trans-involved protest at Compton's Cafeteria in San Fransicos Tenderloin district. This was definitively transgender.

  3. I remember when I was in my late teens in San Francisco there was a bar named the ¨Black Cat¨ in North Beach...I didn´t ever go there on purpose but would sometimes be swept along with a group of Sunday afternoon bar hoppers...there was a ¨gender f*ck¨ male entertainer who sang selections from female roles in Opera who was very popular with little campy monologues inbetween *numbers* and tons of eye makeup...that was the first time I ever saw anyone ¨cross anything¨ (except for Milton Berle drag on his show on Television and Liberace in everyday life). There also was a famous night club in North Beath/Broadway named Finochio´s that catered to straight people and was a all-male-drag review...that was in the early 60´s, I never went there but it went on successfully for decades...quite a tourist attraction (I think that crossdressing folks quite often used their talents ¨at hand¨ being practical folk who wanted to stay alive).

  4. Come to think about it, why is it that straight people often LOVE crossdressing entertainment? Is it anything more than just startling and often funny? Do crossgender people ¨touch¨ a chord of deeply seeded desireability from heterosexuals? Or, is it just the fun of seeing, in person/real, what it might be like if ones gender were of the opposite sex? Maybe all of it and maybe a little ridicule thrown in to make some folks feel better about themselves.

  5. As a co-founder of NorthEast Two-Spirit Society (www.ne2ss.org) here in NYC, berdache is a very offensive word for honored people with my community. I am also un-easy folding our community under the big 'T' in LGBT. For I firmly believe it should be LGBT(TS)!

  6. Thank you very much everyone for these kind and interesting comments. In this piece, and the earlier one 'A Black Man or a White Woman' I am beginning to set out my (T) stall on this blog - and will make mistakes - not that I know exactly it is going to look like either! My apologies, Harlan, if I caused any offence with regard to terminology. I simply wanted to convey the turf-wars that have arisen between G and T historians and in fact I would agree with you that it is not a good idea to make too quick assumptions about where people/groups sit on the current spectrum. Stealth is an interesting topic in itself, and then there is the whole power/class thing around gender and cross-dressing. Shakespeare understood the fascination of the latter and Western culture can be seen as a huge celebration of androgyny (Paglia). I love the historical details too in Leonardo's first comment.