Highkixx has civil rights on the brain today, and one cannot speak about civil rights without talking about the contribution the drag queen constituency has made to various political battles over time.
Certainly, their mere presence at the Stonewall Inn riots in 1969 dressed up the media photos to clarify that these were not well-raised boys who were dabbling in a little touchy-touchy that could be ignored – no, no, these were men in cuffs and corsets mugging for the camera! (See LINK for a further discussion about the controversy regarding the historical role of drag queens in the Stonewall Riots)
In addition, it is true that Harvey Milk, now lauded as a key civil rights leader, would never have made it to office in the late 1970s had he had to depend on the gay political machine of the day. Indeed, Harvey was new to the gay political scene of 70s San Francisco and not likely to be propelled upward through the ranks until proving himself, which he could never do since he wanted to go further than they did.
As he wrote in a column in the Bay Area Reporter, “Masturbation can be fun but it does not take the place of the real thing….It is about time that the gay community stopped playing with itself and get down to the real thing. There are people who are satisfied with crumbs because that is all they think they can get when in reality, if they demand the real thing, they will find that they indeed can get it.”
According to Randy Shilts in his book “The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,” after realizing he would not get the critical political endorsement of the Alice Toklas Democratic Party, Harvey Milk turned to the outcasts – a group that absolutely included the excluded drag queens. The endorsement he received through Jose Sarria, a juggernaut queen and political activist in his own right who founded the international imperial court system, gave him traction early on when he needed it most. And the rest, as they say, is history.
During this same time Sylvia Rivera, a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), struggled with and against the mainstream gay movement to include transgender and, for that matter, drag queen issues in their effort.
After Stonewall, at which she was present, Rivera worked with GAA on its campaign to pass the New York City Gay Rights Bill. However, GAA began eliminating drag and transvestite concerns from their agenda as they sought to broaden their political base.
Author Susan Glisson writes in “The Human Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement” about a particularly telling instance in which Rivera was kept from speaking at the fourth annual commemoration event for the Stonewall Riots (the Christopher Street Liberation Parade) by Jean O’Leary, a founding member of the Radicalesbians, who held that the “presence and participation of drag queens and transgender people was detrimental to ‘the movement.’”
In response, Sylvia famously said, “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”
Reflecting to some degree where we’ve come on transgender rights, the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets in Greenwich Village was recently renamed “Rivera Way” to honor Rivera’s organizing work.
Thanks to our civil rights leaders of every color, creed, and gender ID, we’ve come a long way since the beautiful-outcast-suffering world films like Paris is Burning unveiled. Think of it. Just over the last year, a statue of MLK Jr. is now standing on the National Mall keeping a close eye on both Jefferson and Lincoln, the ban on gays in the military was finally lifted, and a drag queen has a hit show about drag performance that airs on both LOGO and MTV.
Here’s the bottom line: We’re supposed to have flying cars and robot maids by now, but perhaps where we are is equally miraculous given where we’ve been.
In honor of MLK Day and January as Drag History Month: Thank you Martin Luther King, Jr. Thank you Harvey Milk. Thank you Sylvia Rivera. And, thank you to countless activists then and now who labor every day to make our world a more wonderful and FABULOUS place to be.