In a world where once innuendo passed for identity, code phrases and invented monikers provided an alibi of convenience to anyone looking to hide, and yet live. For the longest time, gay men sported a single earring in an incriminating ear, or left a red handkerchief teasingly visible on a back pocket, and referred to themselves (in clandestine circles) as friends of Dorothy. Those in the know, would know what that meant. Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, was immortalized on celluloid by Judy Garland in a blue gingham pinafore and a white blouse with puff sleeves.
As she pranced along the yellow brick road, she took along with her a motley crew of outsiders—the one without the heart, or the one without the brain, or the one who was queer. High-camp screen persona aside, Garland cut a tragic figure in real life, and an identification with her almost exquisite suffering endeared her to millions of gay men. It has been said that hours after her funeral, mourners at a seedy West Village gay bar, decided to fight back against a police raid in June 1969.
That sparked the Stonewall Riots, which is widely regarded as the beginning of the gay rights movement. In a pivotal scene in Nigel Finch’s film version of the events leading up to the riots, a drag queen refuses to silence a jukebox playing a Garland song during a police raid, declaring “Judy stays.”
As Time Magazine summarized it, decades later, “The uprising was inspirited by a potent cocktail of pent-up rage (raids of gay bars were brutal and routine), overwrought emotions (thousands had wept at the funeral of Judy Garland) and drugs. As a 17-year-old cross-dresser was being led into the paddy wagon and got a shove from a cop, she fought back. [She] hit the cop and was so stoned, she didn’t know what she was doing-or didn't care.”
In a 2010 obituary for Seymour Pine, the police inspector who led the raid, The New York Times reported the basic facts of the incident, “200 people were inside. When the officers ordered them to line up and show identification, some refused. Several transvestites refused to submit to anatomical inspections. Word of the raid filtered into the street, and soon hundreds of protesters gathered outside, shouting ‘gay power’ and calling the police ‘pigs’.”
For several years, June has been chosen as the LGBT Pride Month in the United States to commemorate the Stonewall riots. This idea of ‘pride’ can be easily understood against the backdrop of the shame and derision that still continues to be associated with homosexuals in most parts of the world, including India. This year’s pride month was flagged off by a Presidential Proclamation from Barack Obama, which said, “we understand that LGBT rights are human rights, we continue to engage with the international community in promoting and protecting the rights of LGBT persons around the world.”
On cue, the American consulates around the world have charted up their own pride month calendars, which can sometimes seem like politically correct PR exercises, or more lip service from a government that took the better part of its tenure to repeal the draconian Don’t Ask Don’t Tell anti-gay military policy, or even come out strongly in support of gay marriage. That be as it may, last week, the American Center in Mumbai organized its own pride event-a screening of Kate Davis & David Heilbroner’s 2010 documentary, Stonewall Uprising.
Details of the event were not as widely circulated as their usual press releases, with the Center reaching out primarily to gay advocacy agency Humsafar, and scraping together an audience from amongst its ranks of activists and scene regulars. In hindsight, hooking on to other gay networks would have buffeted the attendance considerably and included many more who continue to live under the spectre of repression in the world’s largest democracy.
This reticence may have something to do with the American Consulate’s experience in Pakistan last year, where as a reaction to the Pride Month celebrations, Islamists took to the streets for public protests against the US government’s ‘social and cultural terrorism’ by way of a ‘homosexual propaganda’. This time around, the Center was perhaps not willing to provide easy fodder to the hardliners although India’s intransigence on these issues can hardly be compared to what transpires across the border.
The American Center is located in the remote outer reaches of the Bandra Kurla Complex, within a maze of corporate high-rises and luxury hotel ramparts, but as with any gay-themed event, it was possible to arrive at the destination of choice not by asking directions from people around (no, that would give you away), but by following someone who registered on your ‘gaydar’.
Once you arrived at the Center, there were security checks and several doors to swipe through, almost akin to entering a state penitentiary. Finally you arrived at a seminar room where a welcoming crew lay await with broad smiles and little pamphlets. Tea and biscuits were served in what seemed increasingly like a polite excursion, far removed from the excesses of pride events organized by gay people themselves that are usually irreverent, boisterous affairs. The screening was punctuated by a Center employee who clicked several images of the historic events unfolding on the white screen, no doubt to pretty up the in-house newsletter where the event would acquire some pat-on-the-back significance.
The documentary was a veritable treasure trove of archival footage from the riots. Policemen and civilians alike appeared before the camera to recount their impregnable impressions of what happened that fateful night at the Stonewall Inn.
The screening was followed by a panel discussion. One of the panellists, veteran scribe Kalpana Sharma said, “The film manages to document, without pushing an agenda, something that mainstream media, left to itself, would erase from the public discourse. It re-reports history with the whiff and flavour of everything that permeated that day.” Indeed, there were moments of raw power, that several people in the audience could immediately connect to, despite being removed from the events of 1969, by time, geography and a couple of generations. There are certain aspects of the gay experience, especially the doggedness of the inherent struggles involved, that are truly universal. Which is why when there was a call to arms in the film, it felt almost as if the bugle had been sounded for each one of us.
What is interesting is that Mumbai is undergoing a particular intense spell of culture policing. The indefatigable ACP Vasant Dhoble, due to retire in three months, wants to clean the city of its ‘vices’. Parties have been shut down, venues obliterated, massage parlours spring-cleaned, hookah aficionados smoked out of their dens, and inevitably gay people, for whom the party scene is an inexorable part of the urban expression that they have now embraced, have felt the pinch.
The iconic gay bar from the late 90s, Voodoo’s, has shut down recently and several party organizers are following suit, hoping to weather through a few months in the wilderness. Riding a crest on this prevailing sentiment, activist Ashok Row Kavi, also on the post-screening panel, spent several minutes talking to Dhoble, which caused several attendees to keep looking back to check if the offending figure had indeed deigned to attend a screening of a gay film in which the policemen were at the receiving end. Of course, he wasn’t there, but Row Kavi had brought home the point that even in India, we are not totally impervious to the kind of circumstances that may have led the clientele of the Stonewall Inn to the end of their tether in a reprisal almost waiting to happen.
For those in the audience married to the cause of non-violence, Row Kavi joked of how his world-view has never aligned with that of Gandhi (an allusion to the infamous Nikki Bedi episode).
In these post-377 times, Row Kavi, who has once never imagined that there would be a gay rights movement in India, now wondered if we were going to see the gradual bourgeoisification of gay activism.
This was ironically underscored during the session itself. People brought up a recent altercation between the gay community and the police. A trouble-maker had sought to shut down a fundraising party. Thirty odd party-goers made the trek to the police-station to talk to the police in self-righteous indignation. There was some sentiment that this was a Stonewall moment. It is really debatable whether the gay New Yorkers who were treated worse than scum, who were congregating in rat-infested mafia-run watering holes, had anything really in common with the Mumbai party jet-setters, with their educated veneers resolutely above the surface, whose secret lives have so much more to do with the closet that many choose to remain in, than some kind of inordinate oppression that they face (or not) on a daily basis. Not to say that there aren’t gay men and women out there who live lives of extreme repression, but a veritable Stonewall is not where they will pitch their battles or find their deliverance.
As Row Kavi put it very succinctly, the real gay movement is being waged by the women—there are unending stories of lesbians who would commit suicide rather than be parted from each other, of women who run away together defying social norms, women are are leading from the front. We can take a literal reading from Stonewall Uprising and talk, in these polite genteel gatherings, of a call to arms against Dhoble and his ilk, but really, there is much more prescient fervour within those events that should inform the manner in which we choose to lead our lives instead.
The writer writes on queer community issues
The Stonewall riots were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of New York City. The demonstrations are frequently cited as the first instance in American history when people in the homosexual community fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted sexual minorities, and they have become the defining event that marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.
About the film
Stonewall UPRISING is a 2010 American documentary film examining the events surrounding the Stonewall riots that began during the early hours of June 28, 1969. Stonewall Uprising made its theatrical debut on June 16, 2010 at the Film Forum in New York City. The movie features interviews with eyewitnesses to the incident.