Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Revolution 8/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Variously called a riot, a rebellion, an uprising, the events at the Stonewall Inn down on Christopher Street in New York City in June 1969 were momentous. As historians note—and as Jack Halberstam underscores in their essay 13/13: Unbuild The World! —there had been political organizing much earlier, at least since the 1950s, a whirlwind of radical thinking going on, and many precursors to Stonewall, including riots in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and sit-ins in Philadelphia during the 1960s.[1] But for New Yorkers whose view of the world is famously depicted in the New Yorker cover of March 29, 1976 by Saul Steinberg—and I count myself as one—the uprising at Stonewall sparked the revolution. Perhaps, as Edmund White suggests, in the same way that the taking of the Bastille became a symbol of the revolution that followed. Regardless of what sparked it, though, the social transformation was real and has had remarkable effects. Those early uprisings triggered what is often called “the Gay Revolution” and its progeny, including all the social movements to protect and advance the lives of LGBTQ people and to proliferate the categories within the meaning of LGBTQ—“to become numerous,” in the words of Che Gossett, who gave us the title for our seminar.

At Revolution 8/13, we will be reading and discussing the histories, interviews, and oral accounts of the LGBTQ Revolution, of ACT UP, of Stonewall and other uprisings, of the social movements for trans* lives and #BlackTransLivesMatter—and more generally, we will explore with Che Gossett and Jack Halberstam the possibilities of a future that is “genderless, gender variable, gender optional, gender hacked,” in Jack Halberstam’s words.[2] In this short introduction, I would like to propose a hypothesis, note a paradox, and emphasize one inextricable link.

When Praxis Generates Praxis

The hypothesis first. In reviewing our readings, as well as histories of the LGBTQ uprisings, what strikes me is that the vanguard of these social movements were often persons who were deeply involved in other social movements, such as the Civil Rights and peace movements, and who rose up against the oppression of LGBTQ persons as a subsequent matter, which felt perhaps even more compelling.

Sylvia Rivera had been involved in the Black liberation movement and the peace movement.[3] As Rivera explains, she had been involved in a lot of other movement work, but when she got down to Stonewall that night, she felt finally at home in revolution: “It was, like, a godsent thing,” Rivera says. “I just happened to be there when it all jumped off. I said, ‘Well, great, now it’s my time,’ Here, I’m out there being a revolutionists for everybody else. I said now it’s time to do my thing for my people.”[4]

Kiyoshi Kuromiya had been active in the Civil Rights movement, marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., and others—as Che Gossett documents. Kuromiya had been involved in sit-ins in Maryland in 1962 and other protests as part of the Civil Rights movement, and those activist experiences contributed to Kuromiya founding the Gay Liberation Front in Philadelphia in 1969.[5] Those experiences also contributed to his later work with ACT UP. Chris Barlett notes that Kuromiya “brought what he learned from the Civil Rights, Gay Liberation and other movements to all of the work he did, and wherever people struggled for human rights and dignity, he was there.”

In other words, it was praxis that sparked praxis.

It is difficult to identify a particular manifesto or declaration or founding text that operates in the same way as Marx’s Communist Manifesto or, as we were discussing last seminar, George Jackson’s Soledad Brother. What seems to have been the spark of the LGBTQ revolution, at least at the incipient stage of Stonewall and other uprisings, was the experience of other protest movements. It was protest coming home in a way.

Now, in the 1970s and with regard to the progeny of the gay revolution—the development of queer theory and now the theorization of gender variability, including for instance Jack Halberstam’s Trans* and Paul Preciado’s Testo Junkie and Counter-sexual Manifesto—those were heavily influenced by texts such as Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble.[6] But my hypothesis for now is that the early moments of the LGBTQ revolution were more deeply connected to earlier revolutionary praxis than they were to manifestoes and the written word.

This may be a case of praxis generating praxis—which may be somewhat unique among the radical movements we are exploring this year at Revolution 13/13. It’s a hypothesis we might want to come back to in the seminar.

The Problem of Normalization

Second, a paradox. I was struck by Randy Wicker’s original response to the Stonewall uprising, in his interview with Marsha P. Johnson and Eric Marcus. Wicker had been an early activist and member of the Mattachine Society of New York, and his first reaction to Stonewall was deep concern that it was setting back the gay movement. Wicker recounts, when he first heard about Stonewall and the activists forming a chorus line and kicking their heels at the police:

I was horrified. I mean, the last thing to me that I thought at the time they were setting back the gay liberation movement twenty years, because I mean all these TV shows and all this work that we had done to try to establish legitimacy of the gay movement that we were nice middle-class people like everybody else and, you know, adjusted and all that. And suddenly there was all this, what I considered riffraff.[7]

This passage raises the constant tension, in the gay rights movement, between the strategies of normalization and its opposite, recognizing or emphasizing difference. This was especially true during the same-sex marriage debates when many gay-friendly critics objected to the normalizing tendencies involved in equalizing towards marriage—rather than say, for instance, abolishing the institution altogether. This also ties importantly to the question of respectability politics.

I was reading this morning Dwight Garner’s appraisal of P.J. O’Rourke, the conservative commentator, on his passing, and I was struck by the statement O’Rourke made, speaking of himself, that “the weirder you’re going to behave, the more normal you should look.”[8] There’s definitely something to that—and I have taken advantage of that many times, donning a suit and tie when I need to defend some of my more extreme positions. In the death penalty context for instance, I’ve always felt more persuasive and powerful arguing abolitionist positions when I am dressed more conservatively than the prosecutor or judge. It’s almost as if it is a way to outflank your opponent. I’m sure it is included, somewhere, in Arthur Schopenhauer’s brilliant Art of Always Being Right.

Perhaps because of the dimension of sexuality and because of the phenomenon of the closet, the temptation to normalize, instead of embracing difference, was maybe more acute in the context of early gay activism than in the later LGBTQ revolution and other struggle contexts. And it likely was effective in mainstreaming what had previously been considered and treated as mental disorder—as soon as psychiatry emerged as a field in the nineteenth century and in the mid-twentieth when homosexuality and other “perversions” were officially diagnosed as mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

It is precisely this tension that Che Gossett emphasizes in their discussion of Kiyoshi Kuromiya. Gossett starts from Kuromiya’s insistence that the movement not replicate the systemic biases of the “white middle-class outlook,” as some of the early moments of the movement did, but instead center the experiences and stand in solidarity “with the poor, with women, with people of color, with the antiwar people,” in Kuromiya’s words, to “bring the whole corrupt thing down.” Che Gossett, drawing on Kuromiya, strenuously rejects the strategy to normalize, in part because of the inextricable link between the history of LGBTQ oppression and the carceral state (which I address next).

The tension is also reflected in Jack Halberstam’s suggestion in Trans* that the term queer in the 1990s and 2000s was intended to be a critique of assimilationism, and that today, the term trans* “marks a politics based on a general instability of identity and oriented toward social transformation, not political accommodation.”[9] That notion of social transformation versus accommodation is precisely the tension that has been at the heart of much of the LGBTQ revolution. It is, perhaps, the tension we see in other contexts between reform and abolition (as we studied last year in Abolition Democracy 13/13), or more generally, reform or revolution (as in the debate between Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg that we discussed with Amy Allen in Revolution 5/13). We may want to explore that tension, and any differences, at our upcoming seminar.

Integral to Abolition

In their essay on Kiyoshi Kuromiya’s legacy, Che Gossett underscores the inextricable link between the historical criminalization of homosexuality and the structural racism of our criminal legal process. This link is clear in the life, for instance, of Marsha Johnson. You can hear it in her interview with Eric Marcus, when Marcus asks Johnson “were you afraid of being arrested” at Stonewall. “Oh, no,” Johnson responded, “because I’d been going to jail for, like, ten years before the Stonewall. I was going to jail ‘cause I was, I was originally up on Forty-second Street. And every time we’d go, you know, like going out to hustle all the time they would just get us and tell us we were under arrest.”[10]

In their essay, Che Gossett traces the deep and long-standing imbrication of the LGBTQ movement and struggles against the carceral state, taking us to the Walla Walla and Angola prisons that were the locations of the George Jackson Brigade and the “Self-Help Alliance Group” (SHAG) respectively, in 1977 and 1984, both aimed at combatting sexual violence against LGBTQ persons in prison. This relationship is integral to understanding both abolition and the urgency of queer and trans issues today, and it too may be part of our discussion at the seminar.

We turn, then, in Revolution 8/13 to the revolutionary praxis of LGBTQ movements. I could not be more honored and humbled to be joined by two brilliant critical thinkers whose work and writings and praxis lie at the very heart of these matters: Che Gossett, Racial Justice Postdoctoral Fellow at the IJS at Columbia, and Jack Halberstam, Professor of English and Gender Studies at Columbia University.

Welcome to Revolution 8/13!



[1] See generally Jason Baumann, “Introduction,” in The Stonewall Reader, ed. Jason Baumann (New York: Penguin, 2019), xv.

[2] Jack Halberstam, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), 21.

[3] Sylvia Rivera in The Stonewall Reader, 141.

[4] Sylvia Rivera in The Stonewall Reader, 142.

[5] Kuromiya in The Stonewall Reader, 238.

[6] Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, trans. Bruce Benderson (New York: Feminist Press, 2013); Paul B. Preciado, Countersexual Manifesto, trans. Kevin Gerry Dunn (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018); Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990); Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

[7] Randy Wicker interview in “Marsha P. Johnson and Randy Wicker,” in The Stonewall Reader, 139.

[8] Dwight Garner, “With O’Rourke, Readers Were in the Right Hands,” New York Times, February 19, 2022, p. C4.

[9] Halberstam, Trans*, 50.

[10] Marsha P. Johnson in The Stonewall Reader, 138.