In 1969 I lived at home with my great grandmother while I was in undergraduate school in Boston, a city overrun with monuments to revolutionary heroes. I read three newspapers every day and counted my heroes (in addition to my great-grandmother) as Dr. King, Nelson Mandela and Fannie Lou Hamer. I scanned all the news all the time so there was no missing the miniscule item about the gay people who fought off the police who raided the Stonewall Bar in New York City.
But I hardly considered sharing what I read with either childhood friends from my worn out, rubble-strewn neighborhood or newer friends at school or work. Not that there was much to share—the article about the ‘homosexual riot’ was barely one column inch long. I cut it out and put it in my diary for a while then threw it away, afraid someone would find it and know I was gay too.
In the fall of the same year Native Americans from many different tribes occupied the abandoned Alcatraz Island which had been a Federal prison infamous for being the final home of gangster Al Capone. The takeover was enacted as part of an 1868 treaty which declared that all ‘out of use’ federal land should be returned to Native people who once occupied it.
I did share this clipping with my great grandmother who’d been born of an Ioway father and had married a Wampanoag. She didn’t say much but she kept the newspaper and more than once I saw her rereading the piece which was just as tiny as the Stonewall article. She looked up once and said “The government will kill them, if they don’t watch out.” It tried.
That those events happened in the same year and that the Civil Rights Movement was also in full bloom sparked bright hope in me. And the East Coast didn’t even know that the ‘riots’ at Compton Cafeteria had already signaled change in Gay rights in California three years earlier. Later I found more detailed information on both revolutionary actions–Stonewall and Alcatraz–but mainstream media analysts were oblivious to the significance of those acts and their proximity. And even sadder: the activists in each movement seemed invisible to each other. It didn’t matter to me how many gay people ended up in jail or that the Native people were able to hold onto Alcatraz for only nineteen months. What did matter was that each group had acted! Their actions were almost synchronized and unexpected by the authorities. And they acted as sovereign entities.
I understand that the U.S. was started by religious extremists who tried to commit genocide on the original inhabitants and others. Consequently the need Eurocentric Americans have for heroic myths is great even hundreds of years later. Most citizens, remain ignorant of what really constitutes a hero. In the Boston area alone there are at least 11 statues and memorials to soldiers of the war for independence from England. While there remains only one statue in all of Massachusetts of Massasoit, Chief Sachem of the New England Wampanoag tribe for whom the state was named.
In keeping with the multiplicity of my identity, Stonewall and Alcatraz are forever linked for me along with the heroic actions at Civil Rights sit-ins and the Suffragists at Seneca Falls. Until more of us recognize and strategize around that connection I fear we shall not overcome.
Whenever I despair that social change is impossible (a sporadic dip I experience ever since the election of the 45th and current president of the United States) I meditate on my amplified number of heroes. I now also think of LaNada Means War Jack, one of the first to occupy Alcatraz and one of the last to depart the island. Co-organizer of the takeover, she was the author of most of the messaging about the occupier’s goals. And I think of Puerto Rican drag queens in glitter, tank tops and broken high heels who, in the face of police violence in the West Village, refused to back down. I’ve always fantasized about a statue of those heroes. New York City is finally proposing a monument to Transactivists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and, I’ll be there in full glam for the unveiling!