(Above Photo: Sylvia Rivera (L) and Marsha P. Johnson, in a photo by Diana Davies.)
Queer Liberation Must Be About More Than Love In Order To Win
In 1973, Sylvia Rivera, one of the most notable figures in gay rights history, gave a rousing speech at a pride parade celebration the Stonewall Uprising, which occurred four years prior in Greenwich Village. Rivera, indignant and audacious, chided the audience for their callous dismissal of her radical politics and failure to present a respectable image.“Y’all tell me to go and hide my tail between my legs. I will no longer put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation. And ya’ll treat me this way?!” she exclaimed at an incredulous audience. “I believe in the gay power. I believe in us getting our rights or else I would not be out there fighting for our rights!”
Rivera named other queer folks still incarcerated before adding the location of STAR house (Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries) which housed homeless transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the city, stating that they were, “The people that are trying to do something for all of us and not men and women that belong to a white middle class, white club, and that’s what y’all belong to!” She’d fought to appear at this gay pride rally, as the organizers refused to let her speak, as the crowd did not want to hear from a transgender woman, particularly one that was involved in sex work. Rivera, who passed away in 2002, was appalled at the assimilating politic of cisgender gay men and women in the early 1970s; this queer acculturating politic would transform the mainstream with the win for gay rights that failed to bring about a revolutionary reorganization of society for poor queers of color.
Since the fight for gay-marriage became a prominent aspect of LGBTQ activism in the millennium, the slogan, “love is love” served as the go-to catchphrase for the movement. The trouble with the “love is love” is that it fails to articulate the political and economic policies within systematic oppression seeking to criminalize queer people. Instead of campaigning for the abolition of policing and prisons (which target Black and Latinx queer folks), the decriminalization of sex work (which Black queer folks are a part of), health care in poor communities, and housing, the slogan waters down forty years of radical queer activism, simplifying it down to “love”. Such whitewashing of a powerful queer legacy reinforces respectability politics by ignoring queers who are at the margins of society, fighting to be heard in a mainstream dominated by white cisgender gays and lesbians with an infinite number of resources. The slogan directly contradicts the revolutionary politics of Sylvia Rivera and her fellow trans comrade, Marsha P. Johnson, both whom worked tirelessly in the streets to fight off police and attacks on the street.
"The trouble with the “love is love” is that it fails to articulate the political and economic policies within systematic oppression seeking to criminalize queer people."
It wasn’t “love” that Rivera and her STAR comrades were fighting for. It was the end to a white-supremacist-capitalist-hetero patriarchy that viewed them as disposable. Their fight for liberation was for resources, autonomy, and dismantling of repressive policies that kept them fighting for their lives. It wasn’t for respectability, contrary to the vigorous re-writing of queer history. Melinda Chateauvert, a grassroots activist, remembers the gay liberation movement as anti-respectable, without historical erasure of its radical roots. “The story of one June night in 1969 in Greenwich Village doesn’t often mention how the outlaws and outcasts who patronized the Stonewall Inn made their living,” she recalls. “Instead, the mainstream LGBT rights movement prefers a ‘politically correct’ version that celebrates the defiance of ‘gays’ and ‘lesbians’ without mentioning that these queers were also sex workers, transgender people, hustlers, tricks, drug users, and drug sellers.”
The fight for gay marriage is over, but it is not sunset for queer liberation. Honoring Rivera’s legacy and those who fought against the police and white cis-heteropatriarchy means understanding that this is about more than love; it is about revolution.