Several months ago, I reported on a growing schism between parts of the gay and trans communities regarding the history of the 1969 Stonewall riots, the seminal event of the gay-rights movement.
LGBT and trans advocates called for a boycott of the movie “Stonewall,” complaining that trans women and people of color were the true heroes of Stonewall, not the gay, white men depicted in the Hollywood version. Although opponents of the film offered almost no historical evidence for their claim, the boycott worked, and “Stonewall” performed miserably at the box office.
That is not the end of the story. This past week, a petition emerged on the website Change.org calling for the removal of the T (for trans), from LGBT. “Drop the T,” as the petition is known, criticizes more than the trans community’s appropriation of Stonewall’s legacy. The author of the petition also attacks how the trans movement treats children and its aggressive and authoritarian style of discourse, which does not allow people to question its claims.
The petition, which has more than 1,200 signatures at the time of this writing, was written by an anonymous gay man. I tracked him down, and he agreed to be interviewed. Clayton (not his real name) asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from the trans movement.
The following interview took place via email on Saturday. It has been lightly edited for length and house style. Thus far, two of the five organizations to which the petition was addressed (Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and Human Rights Campaign) have responded. Both responses are short, dismissive, and fail to address the concerns of Clayton and the other signatories.
Federalist: How big a role did the Stonewall controversy and the appropriation of the Stonewall story by the trans movement play in your decision to start this petition?
Clayton: It was a very important role. I was a history buff as a child and eventually majored in history in college; when I hit puberty around 11 years old and realized I was gay, part of coming to understand myself was through reading as much history as I could find about gay men and women; naturally, the subject of the Stonewall riots loomed large.
The majority of rioters were young, gay white men, with a handful of black and Latino men, some lesbians and a few drag queens. When the brouhaha over the film “Stonewall” first ignited, I was stunned to see the transgender crowd taking sole credit for it; even more frustrating was the fact that gay/lesbian media, such as The Advocate, Out, HuffPost Gay Voices, and their journalists who should know to check their facts (and these are easily verifiable facts), allowed this myth to flourish.
It was maddening and frustrating. The identity of the individual who threw the first brick isn’t (and probably won’t ever be) convincingly confirmed, though it is acknowledged that it quite possibly was Marsha P. Johnson, a transvestite, who, it should be noted, still identified as a gay male at the time; and it should also be pointed out that the handful of drag queens who were present at the riots were not transgender as we know them today—straight men who have transitioned to presenting as women. Statements I’ve seen such as “the gay rights movement owes its existence to transgenders” are completely false.
Federalist: I was at the Stonewall twenty-fifth anniversary march in 1994, and at that time we all thought we had a pretty good idea of what had happened at Stonewall. The Stonewall veterans— mostly gay, white men—were viewed as heroic. In the new version of events, the gay, white men at the riot are presented as weak followers, not primary actors. Why do you think so many established gay outlets have so easily accepted this narrative that echoes some of the worst stereotypes about gay men?
Clayton: I wasn’t able to go, but I remember the day clearly—I gathered with friends to watch it all day on C-Span and celebrate. It was wonderful. And, yes, we had a specific perception of Stonewall that has been massively altered by the media, although the historiography remains the same.
It’s difficult for me to say why gay media has allowed this history to be re-written this way; we always acknowledged the role of the drag queens and the lesbian who called out for help for everybody else to fight back—but it seems as if this aspect has become the predominant theme, the story ends there and the fact that the white gay street kids DID start fighting back gets underplayed or thoroughly ignored.
I think there’s a general desire to find heroes in the past that aren’t the usual white guy, and I understand that completely, as a gay kid looking to find gay heroes in a heteronormative history myself. But you can’t alter history to make you feel better, and doing so by twisting a narrative so that heroic men become weak, dithering non-actors in an event is disrespectful to them and ultimately to yourself.
Federalist: Do you believe there are a significant number of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals who are uncomfortable with being associated with the trans movement, but who fear the social repercussions of saying so?
Clayton: Absolutely. Any attempt to rationally discuss issues that gays/lesbians/bisexuals are concerned about regarding the trans movement is met with unparalleled vitriol, harassment, death threats, and silencing—demanding that the person commenting contrary to the trans narrative be banned from forums, for example.
I know that lesbians have for several years been the object of attack from trans activists for their (rightful) desire to enjoy exclusively lesbian and women-only events such as the now shuttered Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, in the wake of the Stonewall brouhaha as well as the recent proliferation of stories about effeminate boys and masculine girls being directed by their parents and health professionals into the trans identity. So many gays and lesbians were “sissies” and “tomboys” as kids, I think they see themselves in these children and are concerned about them being directed down an inaccurate path.
Federalist: Do you then see a distinction between the gay rights movement, which has traditionally argued for acceptance of individuals as they are, and the trans rights movement which argues that hormones and surgery are often needed to fully transform a person into who they really are? Are these two basic arguments at odds with each other?
Clayton: I think this is an absolutely important distinction that has not been discussed at all. Gay/bisexual men and women just ARE—we don’t need medicine or surgery to help us become who we believe we are, which is the case with the trans community.
To take it further, the first is about sexual and affectional orientation, who we are sexually attracted to and who we choose to share our love with; the latter is about gender identity, and altering one’s body to fit what one’s mind believes it should resemble. They are two very, very different ideas, and the problem that develops when we are all under the same umbrella is that so many of our enemies see us as one and the same—that Caitlyn Jenner, for example, is a “homo,” when that is not the case.
This is why I think the two groups should separate and fight for our respective rights on the more sure footing of our own ideas rather than conflating two divergent concepts.
Federalist: What kind of feedback has the petition been getting? I saw the tweet in favor from Milo Yiannopoulos and several tweets in opposition. Have people flagged the petition as inappropriate?
Clayton: Based on comments I’ve seen at various forums around the net, I’m certain that it has been flagged, though I’ve not been notified of it. Articles about the petition have popped up on various gay blogs such as JoeMyGod and Gay Star News and, frustratingly, they are negative, although many of the comments are supportive.
A tweet by Milo Yiannopoulos (Nero) is probably what brought more attention to it, as he is a widely followed gay conservative columnist—which is ironic, since I’m not conservative in the least. I’m a socialist atheist gay man who is pro-choice, against the death penalty, and hoping we get real gun control.
To me, the LGB movement, with its celebration of all types of gay men and women, such as bears, leather daddies, drag queens, diesel dykes, lipstick lesbians, etc., has always been about expanding and re-defining concepts of gender; the trans movement, on the other hand, appears to be about re-asserting and codifying traditional concepts of gender.
Federalist: The gay rights movement made the great strides it did in no small part by emphasizing normalcy. The focus on marriage and adoption was a kind of “we want what you want” approach that was very successful. Do the more radical claims of trans advocates threaten that normalcy by placing everyone in boxes based on varying difference and levels of oppression?
Clayton: It’s quite ironic to me that a generation that allegedly objects so much to labels has turned around and created the most expansive collection of labels there are: transgender, bigender, pangender, agender, genderfluid, genderqueer, etc. And then these self-applied labels are used to create a competition of oppression, where one wrong word can lead to a spewing forth of vicious invectives by the so-called oppressed.
Gay men and women succeeded partly because we expressed the desire to be treated equally—so that we could serve in the military, so that we could marry the people we love, etc.—and because we came out to our friends and families as what we are, just regular people trying to get through this journey called life; however, we did occasionally get pretty radical, too: the “zaps” of the 70s transformed into the absolutely necessary actions of Queer Nation and ACT UP in response to the AIDS crisis of the 80s.
But the important factor there was that the activists were, again, simply demanding that we be treated equally and the hetero audience could, in the end, understand that. My concern is that trans activism, which does not align with that of the larger gay/lesbian/bisexual community, is so radical and alienating—the insistence on access to women’s private spaces, the transitioning of young children who likely are just gay/lesbian/bisexual kids—that it will harm the community as a whole.
I wish no harm to the transgender community; I wish them all the happiness that life can offer. But our communities, linked together in such a slender fashion, no longer have a common ground, if we ever did in the first place.