Sunday, February 15, 2009

This Is How Whitewashing Us Out of GLBT History Begins

Last February over at the Bilerico Project I wrote a post for Black History Month about the 1965 Dewey Lunch Counter Sit-In Protest in Philadelphia. which is the first documented evidence of an organized African-American GLBT civil rights protest.

The significance of this is that it happened four years before the June 1969 Stonewall Riots that kicked off the modern GLBT rights movement, and I wrote an October 2007 TransGriot post about it. I was sent the heads up by Dr. Susan Stryker, who does a yeoman's job compiling transgender history and thought I'd find that tidbit interesting.

I wrote this paragraph in my February 2008 Bilerico post on the Dewey's Protest.

The interesting aspect of this campaign is not that it happened during the height of the 1960's Civil Rights movement. It was an African-American GLBT production.

Little did I know that drama was going to start over that paragraph and the following one in my original TransGriot post.

On April 25 more than 150 kids in 'non-conformist clothing' showed up at Dewey's in protest and were turned away by Dewey's management. Three teenagers (two male, one female) refused to leave after being denied service. They were arrested along with a gay activist who advised them of their legal rights, were charged and later found guilty of misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Almost immediately one who calls himself Tom started the 'challenging and silencing' tactics.

From your picture you aren't old enough to have been there but the man who offered to get legal help and was arrested was the Janus President, Clark Polak
(,+Clark?f=print ). He wasn't African American. The quote you have is from the old Janus newsletter. I still have a copy along with the flyer that was handed out. It was covered in the old Drum magazine too - there's a few photographs in that article. You can see it wasn't primarily an African American protest from the photos & talking to those who were there. Though I'm sure it was inspired by other lunch counter protests that were primarily African American.

Dewey's had several locations and gays - and always drag queens - hung out there. Usually late night - they were open all night. They wanted gay people to use the one on 13th Street only and kicked people out. The protest wasn't just one day - it was over 5 days - my old newsletter says 1500 of the flyers were handed out and it was on the local television.

Of course, I wasn't backing down and this was my response.

Dr. Susan Stryker and Marc Stein say otherwise.

And what you posted is an example of the 'whitewashing' of GLBT history. Here's an event that was predominately a FUBU production, that predated the Compton Cafeteria Riot by a year and Stonewall by 4. and here cone the comments that, "the advisor was white." etc.

It's the same modus operandi that changed the Stonewall Riots from a transgender and peeps of color event to having literally no mention of people of color participating in Stonewall.

If you want African-American participation in the GLBT movement, you have got to have concrete examples of our participation in it so we feel we have a stake in it as well.

Brynn Craffey got it, and rebutted Tom's comment.

Monica, thanks for sharing this story! I'm not well read on our history and I'd never heard of the incident.

Tom, go back and re-read the entry: Monica never said that she was there. And while the question of whether or not the arrested legal advisor was white or African-American is an important historical detail, it doesn't change the fact that Dewey's was a hangout for African-American LGBT kids, the protest was influenced and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, and African-American LGBT folks played a prominent role in it.

I agree with Monica: the way you jumped in and tried to contradict those facts is indicative of a dynamic that is far too prevalent, namely, the erasure by whites of African-Americans, LGBT folks, Native-Americans, women, progressives and other minorities from history.

Once that was dismissed, the new attack line emerged courtesy of Timothy Hulsey, and it's a meme that whitewashers use to erase transpeople out of GLBT history.

At the same time, this article goes too far in the other direction, not only by erasing or dismissing the involvement of non-African-American persons, but also by defining "drag queens" and butch lesbians as necessarily Transgender.

Brynn pointed out once again what I already knew as a transperson.

defining "drag queens" and butch lesbians as necessarily Transgender.

Excuse me, Timothy? I've got news for you, they ARE transgender.

The comments thread after this initial February 2008 exchange lay dormant until January 13. Chris Bartlett then chimes in with more 'evidence' that the unnamed advisor in my Dewey's post was the late Clark Polak.

Dear friends,

First of all Monica thanks for posting this important piece of LGBT history. It is a huge service to all of us.

I want to mention, however, as a long-time Philadelphia activist, that Clark Polak, the advisor mentioned in your article above, was not African-American. It just isn't so.

I mention this not to white-wash history, because there were African Americans there and at Dewey's in general, and they are a proud part of our LGBT history in Philadelphia. I mention it because Clark Polak is an unsung hero in Philadelphia's gay history-- publisher of Drum, unabashed sex radical, and courageous confronter of the status quo. He was a natural ally to the trans people and people of color who were there that day. He took a stand when many others wouldn't.

I would agree that it is often the white people who end up in history-- because they often wrote the history in the past-- and Clark wrote a lot of history in his magazine. I will also not deny that Philadelphia has a long and shameful history, both in its LGBT communities and in the broader community, of overt racism that has made the stories of Black LGBT folks in this city invisible.

The answer is not to deny Polak's participation-- and willingness to both be arrested and defend the folks there-- but to interview those who were there to hear the stories of the black and trans folk who participated.

My friend Kevin Trimell Jones has started the Black LGBT Archivists Society of Philadelphia and is doing that work of collecting the stories, photos, and artifacts of Black LGBT Philadelphia. I'll be sure to post the link to his website here when he has it up and running. I'll also ask him whether we can seek Dewey's stories from African American participants.

My answer to that comment was:

I find it hilarious that you wish for me in this article that brings to light an all FUBU production of GLBT history, and now you want to in the name of 'historical accuracy' want to claim that a white person was 'an advisor'.

Did white gays like yourself concerned (yourself) about 'historical accuracy' when Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major and the other transwomen who kicked off the Stonewall Riots weren't given their full credit?

This is the insidious nature of whitewashing history' and how it has erased POC participation in building the GLBT movement. First it's a 'white advisor', then next it will be claims 'The Janus Society helped plan it', then 20 years from now we'll be hearing this revisionist story about the Dewey Lunch Counter Sit In Protest that will have no African-Americans in it.

Nope..not today, not on this post

When we POC complain about being edited out of the historical record, this is an example of how it happens. I find it interesting that Chris erroneously tried to claim that I mentioned that Clark Polak was the advisor. Nope, all my post says is that a 'gay advisor' was arrested, and I got that from Mark Stein's 2000 book City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia 1945-1972.

The critics IMMEDIATELY assume it was the late Clark Polak, a long time Philadelphia gay activist. Thanks to unacknowledged white privilege, it never entered the minds of the people that challenged my post that maybe the arrested gay advisor could be Black, especially in light of the fact that the Dewey's in question was an African-American GLBT hangout and the incident in question involved African-American GLBT kids. It's also insulting because it implies that there weren't Black GLBT people or Black allies in general capable of organizing the protest.

Chris may not have meant as he says in his comment to me to whitewash history by harping on Clark Polak's possible participation in this event, but that's the effect of it.

Since it's your assertion that Clark Polak was the advisor arrested and you're so keen on 'historical accuracy of GLBT history', then it's incumbent upon you to go research the Philadelphia Police Department arrest records for April 25, 1965 and see if his name pops up.

My Dewey's post was simply talking about the event from an African-American GLBT perspective. It STILL doesn't change the fact that despite all this distractive quibbling over a minor point, the larger message is being lost that this was a predominately GLBT African-American protest that occurred four years before Stonewall, organized on 60's Civil Rights Movement principles, and was one of the first examples of a protest organized about and centered on transgender issues.

But it speaks to a larger problem in the GLBT community. For the longest time the historical record on what happened in the GLBT community was written by white people, with the predictable results of GLBT people of color and transgender people being erased from it.

Even in the transgender community, I see that happening, and it needs to stop. One of the things I discovered two years ago when I started suggesting POC names on a transgender activist Yahoo list in the wake of The Advocate's glaring omissions of transgender people for their '40 Heroes of the GLBT Movement' article, the reaction I received was a 'who are they'?

But that's the insidious nature of how the whitewashing of GLBT history (and history in general) happens. First it's trying to seize on a minor point, then it's changing the story to insert white people into this event, then 20 years later as with Stonewall, it's a Brooks Brothers riot.


Anonymous said...

I recently watched online, an old Charlie Show from 1994; the topic: Stonewall.

One of the guests, Martin Duberman said something very telling:

Now that Stonewall has become an international symbol, it's not surprising that alot of people want to assign the credit to a particular constituency that represent their own lifestyle or views.

How right he was (is?): Not only are people have sought to write out the Transgenders, but now have gone so far as to disqualify, as if there were some episode of Survivor: LGBT, "any small subculture within the gay community, which unfortunately, due to the beliefs of the majority, give the gay community a bad name."

That quote is from another gay website, written by a gay man. Similar comments have been expressed throughout the blogosphere.

It's disgusting and rephrensible.

Dennis R. Upkins said...

Fascinating read and unfortuntately I can't say I'm surprised by this.

This all goes back to something I've discussed on my blog on many a day: the rampant racism in the LGBT community.

It's been my experience that the racism in the LGBT community is far worse than that in mainstream society.

As bad as it is in mainstream society, at least it gets called out on occasion.

When blacks or other POCs point out the rampant bigotry within the gay community, we get accused of being too sensitive or being divisive and told to get over.

It seems that because the racist gays are technically minorities, they have an all access pass to qualify their bigotry.

And that bigotry is aimed at: POCs, trans, bisexuals, the elderly, and anyone else who doesn't fit the gay mafia's ideal.

Many of my white brothers and sisters get it and they understand the issue and like myself, they weren't surprised by the Prop 8 fallout.

But even now when I explain to some of the others why the racism led to the LGBT community's defeat, they look at me like I'm speaking Swahili.

As much as we're whitewashed out of the media, we shouldn't be shocked that we're being whitewashed out of history as well.

Excellent post.

Monica Roberts said...

Nelson, Dennis

I was aware that this happens, but to see how quickly opposition to the logical notion that this was a predominately AA GLBT transgender themed protest shocked me.

But it shouldn't have, since one of the things Sylvia Rivera and I talked about in May 2000 was this same subject, an i now wish I'd had a tape recorder on me for that conversation we had.

delux said...

This is a great post. And I think this makes a step by step illustration of how any people of color can get written out of their own history.

Liz said...

Thank you! This makes so many connections, so perfectly!

- badgerbag

whatsername said...

I love Susan Stryker's work, seriously. We used her "Transgender Reader" for a class I took last semester, she's fabulous. We didn't learn about this protest, but we did do a day on Compton's. I couldn't believe, growing up in the Bay Area, in a family of gay friendly folks, with a sort of activist father, that I'd never heard of it. But of course I'd heard of Stonewall. And of course I thought that was a white gay male rebellion.

It's silly to people still try and work in a white person... Don't we (white people) all know there were some of us around in these events? I mean, white gay people (read: men) have got a couple mainstream movies about them's ok to let everyone else have a shot at telling their stories.

BiNet USA said...

hey, you don't have to tell us, bi-identified people are now SO consistently "Gaywashed" out of LGBT history that there is even a term for it, "Bisexual Erasure" that comes complete with scientific studies and research about the subject

and we couldn't help but notice that over the years, that the actual Stonewall Uprising, many of who's major participants were the West Village's fabled "Pier Children" (do the names Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson ring any bells . . . hmmm?) and who more closely resembled the people chronicled in "Paris Is Burning" has conveniently been morphed into an event conducted by and for proto-HRC members

Gina said...

George Santayana's famous quote about remembering the past doesn't take into account that most of what counts as the "past" has been purposefully forgotten for political reasons. Yes, and this is an issue I have with the film "Milk," it paints a very whitewashed portrait of the gay liberation struggle and I know that's not how it was.

Monica Roberts said...

Painfully aware of that. In fat any participation of peeps of color has been erased by the neo-Mattachine gays.