Recovering Stonewall: gay liberation, trans activism and historical truth

by Phil Duncan

This past week has marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Stonewall Inn riots in Christopher Street, New York, the event generally regarded as kicking off the gay liberation movement.

Quite a few articles have been published recently on the riots, but many of them have adopted an unhistorical – and factually inaccurate – view of who was involved in the rioting.  Most particularly, the articles refer to the significant presence of trans women in the rioting.

But trans women were not leading participants – indeed the term itself is wrong and ahistorical in relation to the Stonewall rebellion.   The self-identified “trans” category did not exist at the time or for several decades after.

Marsha P. Johnson was, and identified as, a transvestite and gay man, NOT a trans woman or transgender

The people the articles refer to were transvestites and drag queens. These were mainly gay men who dressed and presented as over-the-top stereotypes of women, but did not claim to be actual women.

‘Trans women’ are a much, much newer phenomenon, being mainly straight men who claim to be actual women; indeed, many – complete with their penises and girlfriends – even claim to be actual lesbians! They then invade women’s spaces, including lesbian spaces, and claim superior rights over actual women, including actual lesbians.

Stormé DeLarverie: an actual lesbian, not a trans

Moreover, while gay men and drag queens such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera* have been misrepresented as ‘trans women’, Stormé DeLarverie, the black lesbian whose scuffle with the cops was central to sparking the Stonewall rebellion, has been largely overlooked in the same new articles.  After all, she is merely an actual lesbian.  Sure, she often dressed in what was then seen as conventional male attire but she categorically did not pretend to be an actual male – she was, and identified proudly as, a ‘butch lesbian’ and drag king, not a ‘trans man’.

Lastly, the Stonewall rebellion founded the gay liberation movement, not an LGBTQI+ movement.  Not a bunch of floats that could be sponsored by corporates on a camped-up version of the Santa Parade.  And the transvestites and drag queens and drag kings of Christopher Street founded STAR (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries), not a transgender group to try to walk all over women and invade women’s hard-won spaces.

Why do so many well-meaning radicals have such a poor grasp of history that they keep dehistoricising stuff and projecting today back into the past?

Johnson, Rivera and others identified as transvestites not as transgender and not as trans women.  Why not respect the fact they were transvestites and respect the fact that they did not attempt to impose themselves on actual women?  Why not respect the lesbians who were right upfront at the Stonewall rebellion?  Why not respect the gay men who were right upfront?  Why try to impose something very new on something very different from 50 years ago?

My guess is that the transactivists end up stealing other people’s history because they lack a history and credibility of their own.  It’s about trying to confer historical legitimacy for themselves by erasing others, others who were actually there.  This necessarily involves trying to undermine, and even disappear, women, especially lesbians – lesbians being seen as a particular obstacle to their claims.

Respect for Stonewall and the original gay liberation movement that emerged in 1969 and the early 1970s means telling the truth regardless of whether it fits with some new orthodoxy which a tiny layer of entitled straight males are trying to create in the early 21st century.

50 years after the Stonewall rebellion, isn’t it time people on the left stopped disrespecting gay male, lesbian and transvestite history by prioritising the absurd claims of narcissistic straight males?

*It is unlikely that Rivera was even present on the night the rioting began.  See:


  1. In addition regarding Marsha P Johnson..It disrespects Johnson’s work in the Gay Liberation Front and work with homeless gay youth to make up stuff. According to her friends and interviews she conducted she always was proud of being a gay man.

    • I remember Marsha Johnson as a real pain…A total egotist who rambled on and on at meetings and got hysterically angry when people wanted to get business done…

      • Thank you Kurt, it is always good to hear from people who actually knew Johnson. My point was intended to be that the re writing of history is totally false – that Johnson was “trans” and led the Stonewall Rebellion and thereforeStonewall would not have happened without trans women of color. I did know that she joined GLF and that Marsha/Malcolm had a horrendous upbringing and was afflicted mentally As a result of her life.

  2. Cheers for these comments Kurt and Ann. Helps round out the picture. I think there are a lot of people who get romanticised over time and their actual behaviour is forgotten.

Comments are closed.