Carrying on the riot
I can’t recall when I first heard about the Stonewall riots, but I do recall what I heard.
Queer legend had it that one that fateful night in 1969, after one police raid too many on a now iconic down at (high?) heel gay bar, the regular patrons, distraught by the death of their beloved icon Judy Garland kicked back.
I remember hearing of a drag queen throwing a drink in a cops face with a ‘That’s for Judy!’.
Since I heard that, I have investigated the Stonewall ‘legend’ more and I don’t know if it’s true. I do know, I still think that it’s beyond fabulous.
Flashback to the mid-90s and I am secretly watching a movie in my teenage bedroom, the 1995 queer classic, Stonewall, directed by Brit Rikki Beadle-Blair.
Cut to 2007 and I am playing the lead drag queen in Rikki’s own stage adaption of his Stonewall film and while doing the show in Edinburgh, I meet an LA actor Michael Anthony Nozzi, then in his late 50s.
Michael and I stay in touch on social media and years later he messages me to tell me he was actually present on the night of the riots. I hadn’t known this previously, and how as a 17-year-old boy on his first night out in New York he got caught up in the middle of it all.
He asks me if I’d like to use his story as the basis for one of my shows. Of course I jump at the chance. I knew it would be a beautiful opportunity to find out more about one man’s truth and his recollection of a much wider, legendary, notorious and seeped in queer urban myth, monumental queer landmark moment.
The show that came to be, created around Michael’s generous offer, was Riot Act, directed by now good friend and collaborator, Rikki.
As a playwright and performer, all of my plays deal with challenging and hard-hitting LGBTQ issues. I also make sure they are all funny. There is a lot of humor in my work. As there is in Riot Act.
In fact, it’s pretty outrageous at points. God knows we need a laugh at the moment. With hate in Britain now legitimized and the, some may say inevitable, pushback against the advancement of our community’s rights and societal placing, we need to stay strong.
Fighting back against homophobia
In 2017, when I was interviewing another of the three Riot Act subjects whose exact words would eventually form this verbatim theatre piece, I spoke to renowned AIDS activist Paul Burston.
He delivered a prescient warning concerning the future of our community. These words form the closing part of Paul’s monologue.
I found his words alarming and urgent in 2017. I didn’t realize that two years down the line, I would feel they are even more so, with queer people attacked on public transport, some sections of wider society feeling emboldened enough to demand their children’s schools erase our very being, or as faded political figures wade in to attack us with yet more outdated notions.
I’ve recently reported a hate crime in the street. It isn’t always easy and it can take a lot of energy and of course, in challenging and squaring up to such behaviour, we must never put ourselves at further risk.
But that Sunday morning in Carnaby street at 11am as family’s with their kids walked past, I didn’t feel like ignoring the man who had made it his job to shout endless homophobic abuse at anyone who passed by.
I knew he would be there for hours, too. He was having too much fun to stop now. I didn’t feel like ignoring or dismissing his actions and letting him get away with it. I’m tired of that.
I was happy with how the police dealt with him. I think he learnt a lesson, that we can and will stand up for ourselves. Why should we be seen as weaker and willing to be bullied?
‘We need to be kinder to each other’
As Pride season approaches, I think we have lots to think about. We need to think about where we have been and where we are going. I hope we reach out to older perhaps isolated members of the community, the trailblazers.
There is also work that can be done with vulnerable queer youth. I feel that we, as gay men often need to be kinder to each other, even if its looking at how we treat each other around dating. We are not disposable.
We are more than our bodies and the latest uploaded post-gym pic. I desperately want gay men to stop taking their own lives; intentionally or accidentally through drug abuse.
We need to acknowledge that there are members of our community who need a voice, need to be seen and need a platform; lesbians, the trans community, people of color, those from working class backgrounds, etc. There is more than one story that needs to be told.
I want the wider community to realize that adding in a couple of extra colours to our pride flag may make some marginalized members of our community feel more welcome and we need to realize that doing so doesn’t take anything away from the rest of us.
There is plenty to go round. To paraphrase a ’60’s phrase; the times they are still a changin’. Let’s make it for the better.
Gay Star News is commemorating 2019 as the 50th anniversary year of the Stonewall Riots. Our Stonewall 50 Voices series will bring you 50 guest writers from all around the world. They will be discussing the past, present and future of our struggle for love and liberation.