All Power to the People:A Gay Liberation Triptych
The person in the photograph looks Native to me. I stare at the black and white photo for a long time, trying to pick up clues to their identity. They look light brown, and have long dark hair pulled into a partial ponytail. They stare directly at the camera, holding a poster board that reads, "GAY POWER/BLACK POWER/WOMEN POWER/STUDENT POWER/ALL POWER/to the/PEOPLE."1 They are wearing a floor-length prairie-style dress, with a ruffle a few inches above the hem, with rickrack trim. It looks like they are also wearing a high-collared, long sleeved blouse, but it's hard to tell because the protest sign covers them from their shoulders to below their waist. They wear what looks like metal earrings in some kind of sunburst design. I imagine them as sliver. In their right hand, they hold a cigarette. Police are gathered on the right side background of the picture, and in the distant background is a presumably white man with a beard. I don't imagine any of them as Native.
The photograph was taken by Diana Davies in 1970 as part of her documentation of the Gay Liberation movement. For years, while researching the photo off and on, I believed it was from a protest at Weinstein Hall at NYU in 1970, because of the caption on the New York Public Library's digital archive label. While writing and researching this article, however, I realize that this is incorrect, and that it a photograph of a protester at an action organized by Sylvia Rivera as part of what was "Street Transvestites for Gay Power," which would become STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. The October 5, 1970 [End Page 44] event was a "roving rally beginning at NYU's Loeb Student Center at noon, proceeding to Bellevue Hospital, and concluding at Loeb that night."2 Sylvia and others were protesting both NYU's treatment of queer/trans folks as well as Bellevue Hospital's (affiliated with NYU) psychiatric torture and imprisonment of queer and trans people.3
I'm not sure where I first saw this photograph, but I've seen it for years. And I've always wondered if this person is Native, if they're a Two-Spirit person, [End Page 45] and what their name is. They look Native to me, even though I find my own reading of Indigeniety here problematic. I don't know their ethnicity—they could be Latinx, and may or may not identify as Indigenous, and they may not be transfeminine and/or Two-Spirit, but I deeply want them to be.
I want to recover the memory of this person, perhaps contact them and talk with them if they're still alive. I've emailed authors, organizers with the Gay Liberation Front, people who were at the Weinstein Hall protest, and archives, but nobody can identify them. Antoniette Bebe Scarpinato writes me to say that she recognizes them, but doesn't remember anything about them, and that "She didn't stick around in the movement long."4 Karla Jay responds to an email and says, "No one seems to remember the woman in the photo—one woman vaguely knew her, thinks she went to NYU, but does not recall her name."5
Stonewall was certainly a major rupture in systems of power that gave rise to queer and trans movements. But it wasn't just the Stonewall uprising, it was the intentional organizing afterwards that was just as important to our movements. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was instrumental in building the LGBTQ+ movement. After Stonewall, members traveled across the United States and into Canada to help start GLF chapters. Organizations such as Third World Gay Revolution and Red Butterfly emerged out of GLF. The Gay Activists Alliance split from GLF because of GLF's support for the Black Panthers, forming a much more conservative, white, middle-class movement dominated by men.6
Where were the Indians at Stonewall and in GLF or STAR? Is the person in this photograph Native? I want to imagine our history as Indigenous people into the Stonewall Riots and the organizing that took place afterwards.
And certainly Stonewall helped to create the conditions for organizations like Gay American Indians to be formed by Randy Burns and Barbara Cameron in 1975 in San Francisco and American Indian Gays and Lesbians in Minneapolis in 1987. Lisa Tatonetti, in "reading backward" into the genealogies of queer Native literatures, remedies that post-Stonewall organizing and Red Power are "two concurrent political movements rarely spoken of together."7 I've never heard of a Native person being at the Stonewall riots or being involved with GLF in New York or its constituent activist groups afterwards.8 And maybe we weren't there, but I find that hard to believe.
I'm thinking about my own desire as I examine the photograph: Why do I want so badly for this person to be Indigenous and Two-Spirit? I do know why—I want to read Native people into these particular moments of Gay Liberation. I'm longing for a different memory of Stonewall. [End Page 46]
The person in the photograph looks Native to me. I stare at the black and white photo for a long time, trying to pick up clues to her identity. She looks light brown, and has long dark hair pulled into a partial ponytail. She is marching behind Sylvia Rivera, who is partially obscuring the poster board she carries that reads, "GAY POWER/BLACK POWER/WOMEN POWER/STUDENT POWER/ALL POWER/to the/PEOPLE."
There are a few photographs of this same person scattered through Davies's contact sheets in the NYPL digital archives. It is through examining the contact sheets that I realize that this is the Bellevue Hospital protest organized by Rivera, and not the Weinstein Hall protest that took place a month earlier.
I imagine this person's dress as dark blue. It reminds me of a tear dress, which is considered "traditional" now for Oklahoma Cherokees, but wasn't designed until the late 1960s. It looks like she is wearing Mary Jane shoes and a high-collared, long-sleeved ruffled blouse. She wears what looks like metal earrings in some kind of sunburst design. I imagine them as gold.
[End Page 47]
I read her as Indigenous—I look for signs of Indigeneity. It's a problematic reading practice, really, and it's also a deeply mixed-race and deeply Indigenous and deeply queer and deeply trans reading practice—looking for our relatives and people like us in photographs. It's the same as my everyday life, and the lives of a lot of mixed and Indigenous and queer and trans people I know who, consciously and unconsciously, read bodies to find each other in spaces where we aren't imagined to be.
I've been time traveling a lot. As I am trying to identify the person in this photograph, I'm mentally imagining what is what like to do trans organizing in 1970 and to be a part of organizations like GLF and STAR. I don't know the material lived experience that people went through, but remember the struggle of organizing in rural Colorado in the 1990s, and I'm shuttling through time again—it's a superpower those of us who have survived trauma have.
When I started organizing in rural Colorado, I'm not sure if we—as queer and trans kids—actually lived in a "post-Stonewall" reality. "Gay Liberation" didn't come to small towns in the West. It certainly made it to cities in Colorado—Denver and Boulder in particular—but not into the lives of queer and trans young people in rural areas.
In 1992, when I was 17, Colorado voters approved Amendment 2, which prevented people with a "homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships" from claiming discrimination.9 During the lead up to the election, there was statewide, and national, organizing against Amendment 2, and queer and trans issues were suddenly at the forefront of conversation and activism. Small local businesses in my hometown—which was fewer than fifty miles from Aspen, one of the towns targeted by Amendment 2—sold buttons calling for the Colorado Supreme Court to strike down the amendment.
At the same time, the AIDS crisis was on the news and images of "Gay and Lesbian" people were on TV—usually, in my memory, as vectors of disease. This is one of the ways Amendment 2 was able to pass in the first place—panic about AIDS hit at the same time as the Religious Right was working nationally to undo any law and policy that would protect queer and trans people from outright legal discrimination.
When Focus on the Family began to organize to pass Amendment 2, arguments about "Gay Rights" were everywhere in my hometown. As high school students, we fought and argued about these issues with each other and with our teachers. I remember doing work in a classroom with our speech and drama teacher, whom I loved, who said she was going to vote for Amendment 2 and another student and me arguing with her. She thought gay people wanted "special [End Page 48] rights," that without Amendment 2 that gay people would have more rights than straight people—that was the entire rhetoric of the time. Even though it sounds like such transparent nonsense now, it didn't then.
I also remember being in a classroom with a student who was wearing a "Yes on 2" t-shirt that read "Fag Free in '93" and included a silhouette caricature of a limp-wristed man with a large red "no" symbol over him. In this case, thankfully, the teacher—who was friends with perhaps the only out gay man in town—told him it wasn't allowed in her classroom.
So, when I "came out" after my first year of college, it was into a reality in which queer and trans people were under siege, daily, and organized despite the real risks to our lives. And the other queer/trans young people I knew created our own support systems, helped other kids get away from abusive families, kept people off the streets, and watched each other's backs. It wasn't romantic, it was life and death.
And so I'm time traveling. I find that my experiences are much more inline with queer and trans people from a generation or two before me (in some ways—I was too young and too rural to experience the direct losses of the first waves of the AIDS crisis, though doing queer organizing to me was also doing HIV/AIDS prevention work and safe-sex education).
We really need to tell our own stories, we need to "make our own history," as Kelly Wooten and Lyz Bly call us to do.10 And I'm sure this is why, in part, I have a particular longing to know who the person is in this photograph—it's a way of imagining our stories, my stories, as connected to these first waves of queer and trans protest and resistance—a movement that understood that "there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives."11 And I want to make sure we don't forget the people who were involved in this work, even if—let's imagine—this person never was part of another protest again, they were there, then, and their image now circulates in our texts, online and offline—it's an image that is doing something for us and to us now, that is placing a particular politic, in a particular time and place, by a particular person, and is using the image as a warrant, as we say in rhetoric, an unstated argument or assumption understood by our audience.
My assumptions about this image are based on my own desires and longings to uncover the presence of Indigenous Two-Spirit/trans folks within a history of Stonewall, GLF, and STAR that—really—may not be necessary and also could eclipse the realities of this particular person. And it matters who this person is because they were there and the memory of their presence at the protest is marked only by the existence of a few of Davies's images. As we, as activists and scholars, ensure the memory of these moments are returned or continued, I [End Page 49] worry that the assumptions that Indigenous people weren't part of this organizing means that we will be "unseen" and "unheard."12
The person in the photograph looks Native to me. Maybe she's Puerto Rican, and I'm recognizing her Taíno ancestors. I stare at the black and white photo for a long time, trying to pick up clues to our identities.
In this photo, she isn't holding the sign, but you can see another woman holding it off to the side, while talking with a comrade. In this picture, you can see that she's wearing a dark knit or crocheted shawl that is pulled tightly around her shoulders. Her arms are crossed, and she looks chilly. She wears what looks like metal earrings in some kind of sunburst design. I imagine them as silver. She is looking slightly up and to her left, to what I'm guessing are the faces of white, straight men (and a few women) inside the building—you can see them gawking in other photos. I imagine her making direct eye contact, consciously staring back. She is marching behind a young Black man who [End Page 50] holds a sign that reads, "N.Y.U. and BELLEVUE OPPRESS MINORITY PEOPLES."13
Marsha P. Johnson is in some of these photos as well, and images of other people of color whom I don't recognize from research, whose lives have not been upheld within larger queer and trans community memory.
I romanticize Stonewall. I unconsciously—and consciously—turn Stonewall into a symbol of a multiracial Queer and Trans radicalism that followed the uprising. I want the most radical parts of post-Stonewall organizing—the vision for an immediate future in which all structures of power and oppression are brought down. I want the names and lives of the people of color who were present at these events to be known and remembered. I want "ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE," where "the people" is understood to be committed to decolonization and Indigenous sovereignty and self-determinations.
STAR's manifesto envisions this:
We want a revolutionary people's government, where transvestites, street people, women, homosexuals, puerto ricans, indians, and all oppressed people are free, and not fucked over by this government who treat us like the scum of the earth and kills us off like flies, one by one, and throws us into jail to rot. This government who spends millions of dollars to go to the moon, and lets the poor Americans starve to death.14
I want to imagine that Indigenous people were part of organizing in those specific locations and times, in solidarity with other queer and trans people of color. We probably were. There are always "Indians in unexpected places," as Philip J. Deloria says.15 We are—after all—everywhere. But, you know, maybe I'm wrong.
Stonewall isn't the whole of our revolution. In some ways it doesn't matter if Indigenous people were organizing with GLF or STAR. In other ways it matters terribly. We stare directly at the cameras, holding a poster board that reads, "GAY POWER/BLACK POWER/WOMEN POWER/STUDENT POWER/ALL POWER/to the/PEOPLE."
So, perhaps, finally, this article is a call to those of us who are working to continue and recover the histories of Stonewall, GLF, STAR, and other radical movements that followed, to think carefully about our own desires and own assumptions, to acknowledge our own memories or lack of memories as we write and rewrite these stories in the process of this kind of memory work.
I'm not giving up on identifying the person in the photograph. I'm hoping to do archival research in New York, and I'm still emailing people to see if they recognize or remember this person. I do hope that, soon, I find out the name of the person in the photograph. I hope they're alive. I hope they'll correct everything I've imagined, tell me I got it all wrong. Tell me more about how and why they [End Page 51] were at the demonstration, if they ever did other activist work, and what kind. Tell their own story for themselves without it being filtered through my, or our, imaginings, memories, and desires.
ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE. [End Page 52]
Qwo-Li Driskill is a non-citizen Cherokee, Two-Spirit, Queer, and Trans writer, activist, and scholar of African, Irish, Lenape, Lumbee, and Osage ascent. They are the author of Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory (University of Arizona, 2016) and Walking with Ghosts: Poems (Salt Publishing, 2005). They are an associate professor of Queer Studies in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University.
Wado to the Multnomah people, whose land this article was written on. Wado to the activists, scholars, and archivists who have communicated with me and talked to friends and colleagues to try to identify the person in this photograph: Morgan Ahern, Scott G. Brown, Stephen L. Cohen, Karla Jay, Tal Nadan with the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library, Antoniette Bebe Scarpinato, Saskia Scheffer with the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and Martha Shelley. Wado to Michael Floyd and H. Rakes for their feedback and support on this article.
1. Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections, The New York Public Library, "Protestor at Weinstein Hall demonstration for the rights of gay people on campus," http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-57d9-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
2. Stephan L. Cohen, The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: "An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail" (New York: Routledge, 2008), 121–2.
3. Ibid., 122.
4. Antoniette Bebe Scarpinato, Facebook message to author, February 14, 2019.
5. Karla Jay, email message to author, January 22, 2019.
6. Emily K. Hobson, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (Oakland: University of California, 2016), 30–31.
7. Lisa Tatonetti, The Queerness of Native American Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 61–62.
8. Tatonetti points out that the emergence of queer/two-spirit Indigenous literature is, in part, a result of the creation of Fag Rag, which came out of GLF organizing in Boston and published the work of Maurice Kenny. Ibid., 30–31.
9. Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/517/620/.
10. Kelly Wooten and Lyz Bly, eds., Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century, (Sacramento, CA: Litwin Books, 2012).
11. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 138.
12. Malea Powell, "Blood and Scholarship: One Mixed-Blood's Story," in Race, Rhetoric, and Composition, ed. Keith Gilyard (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1999), 6.
13. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, "Weinstein Hall demonstration contact sheet 4," New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-c6c2-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
14. Cohen, The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York, 37.
15. Philip J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004).