27 June 2010

When You Can't March, You Can Still Follow In Their Footsteps

I'd wanted to go to the Pride March today.  But I got sick:  Something I ate last night didn't agree with me, or with something else I ate.  My condition would have been utterly incompatible with marching.

I feel a little sad about that, mainly because I got a bit of a rush from marching in last year's procession.  Then again, that was a special march, for the LGBT community as well as me personally.  Last year, we marched on the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.  And I was "counting down":  Only nine days stood between me and my surgery.

Maybe it was a good thing, in a way, that I couldn't go this year.  Would  following, or trying to follow,  the footprints of a memory have been a good idea?  Perhaps that works collectively, but for me personally, it usually doesn't work very well.  

Here's a definition of frustration:  I am a person who holds on to, and treasures, memories.  But doing something "for old time's sake" usually has disastrous consequences for me.  Or, at least, it has unintended consequences.

This year is the 40th anniversary of the first march.  I guess that's significant, but it doesn't have quite the same resonance as the anniversary of the rebellion.  Maybe it's because last year's march passed in front of the Stonewall.  Of course, nearly all of us stopped, or at least slowed down, there.  Many marchers, of course, had firsthand memories of the event.  All I had was what I've read about it, and my imagination.  All I could think about was the story, perhaps apocryphal, of Sylvia Rivera tossing out her red patent stiletto-heeled shoe at the cops as they were about to storm the tavern.

With that toss, or whatever else she did that night, she helped to launch the gay rights movement as we know it.  And she became one of its first victims.  Perhaps, in a way, that's not surprising, as rebellions and revolutions have a way of cannibalizing themselves.  

Even though she and other transgendered people played important roles in the Rebellion and the early days of the LGBT rights movements, they were left behind or tossed under the bus, depending on who's narrating the history.  It didn't take long for LGBT organizations--indeed, the entire community--to be dominated by white professional gay men.  Marginalized as they were, they still had much more wealth and influence than lesbians, let alone transgendered people.  

I met Sylvia Rivera once, briefly, not long before her death.  Plenty of people were put off by her, and I could see why.  For one thing, she was very loud and often combative, if not belligerent.  Plus, she lived a hard life and didn't age well:  No one was going to do a fashion shoot with her.

But there was something else, which I have not been able to articulate until now:  She not only used the seductive rhetoric which succesful movements generate in their early days (Think of "Power to the People!"); she helped to make the rhetoric--and, in turn, was shaped by it.  Even after the battles are won or lost, or at least changed, it's hard to give up those slogans and chants of one's youth, even if they are no longer the lingua franca of the people for and by whom revolutions are fought.  

There's a prof in my department who, in that sense, reminds me of her.  He still refers to female students and colleagues as "sistas" and their male counterparts as "brothas."  When he introduced me, at a poetry reading, as "Sista Justine," I was, in a way, flattered.  But at the same time I felt sorry for him (even if he has tenure!).  The battle has not been won; rather, it has moved on and re-formed.  Yet he still talks about people--and movements--as if Huey Newton and Stokey Carmichael were running the show.

Likewise, in some way, Sylvia never moved on from those heady early days.  In one sense, I can understand why:  It could be argued, and I would agree, that the direction the movement took benefited a relatively small part of the community.  Sylvia was not one of those who benefited, just as I would not have been.  

I can't help but to wonder what her role--and, more important, what kind of person she would be now.  Although she was born only seven years earlier than I was, there is more than a generation's remove between us.  When she was igniting the Rebellion, I was unaware of it:  I would not learn of it until many years later.  She was fighting battles that I and others are just beginning to learn how to fight, much less win.  

And, I sometimes feel that she's shadowing me, or that I'm following her shadow:  I met her at the end of her life, and attended her funeral just as I was starting toward the life I lead now.  And, she died at the same age at which I had my surgery.

While I wish I could have marched today, I am still following in her footsteps, and those of other Stonewall veterans.  That, I suppose, is the best homage I can pay to them.