Dismissed Trans Heroes: Lee Brewster

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I’ve noted before how TERFs inspired the violence inflicted upon Stonewall hero Sylvia Revera. Until now, I wasn’t aware that their cruelty was extended to the transperson who coordinated and paid for overturning anti-gay NY laws:

Women in the GLF were uncomfortable referring to Rivera—who insisted in using women’s bathrooms, even in City hall—as “she.” Pressure mounted. The year 1973 witnessed clash that would take Rivera out of the movement for the next two decades. Her lifelong friend and fellow Stonewall Veteran Bob Kohler recalled, “Sylvia left the movement because after the first three or four years, she was denied a right to speak.” It was during the Pride rally in Washington Square Park after the Christopher Street Liberation Day March.

To the dismay of Lesbian Feminist Liberation drag queens were scheduled to perform. As they passed out flyers outlining their opposition to the “female impersonators,” Rivera wrestled for the microphone held by emcee Vitto Russo, before getting hit with it herself. Rivera explained, “I had to battle my way up on stage, and literally get beaten up and punched around by people I thought were my comrades, to get to that microphone. I got to the microphone and I said my piece.” Rivera complained that the middle-class crowd cared little to nothing about the continued harassment and arrests of street drag queens. Bleeding, Rivera sang, “You Gotta Have Friends,” screamed “Revolution Now!” and led the crowd in a chant of “Give me a G, Give me an A, Give me a Y…What does it spell?” Barely audible, her voice breaking, “GAY POWER,” she groaned.

- Benjamin Shepard, “Sylvia and Sylvia’s Children: The Battle for a Queer Public Space,” That’s Revolting! (ed. Matt Bernstein Sycamore)

Apparently after Sylvia left the stage, bloodied by the folks she fought for at Stonewall, a TERF took the stage to talk about how trans folk need to be ostracized from the queer rights movement. Here, the story picks up with the anti-trans RadFem, Jean O’Leary taking the stage:

O’Leary took in the unruly audience as she walked to the front of the open stage. Some men were hissing and booing, drag queens were cursing at her, and she could see men and women jostling each other in the park. Russo, [the event MC] a slight and soft-spoken man, pleaded for calm, his voice quavering: “Listen to her!” he said. “You’ve listened to everyone else. That’s the least we can do for her.” The crowd quieted. O’Leary recounted how the Lesbian Feminist Liberation had negotiated for ten days for a chance to speak. “Because one person, a man, Sylvia, gets up here and causes a ruckus,” O’Leary noted, the lesbians had finally won their spot. “I think that says something,” she said. She proceeded to read the statement, attacking men who “impersonate women for reasons of entertainment and profit,” saying they “insult women.” There were more hisses and shouts from the audience.

Any hope that giving a moment to Jean O’Leary and Sylvia Rivera would end this squall disappeared the moment Lee Brewster took the stage. He, too, was in full drag, with thick eye makeup, a lush blond wig tumbling over his shoulders and a queen’s crown resting on the wig. “I cannot sit and let my people be insulted,” Brewster said. “They’ve accused me of reminding you too many times that today you’re celebrating what was the result of what the drag queens did at the Stonewall. You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches”—he gestured to the lesbians—”tell us to quit being ourselves.” Vito Russo walked over to Brewster, slipped his arm around Brewster’s waist and whispered into his ear, but Brewster pushed him off.

“Gay liberation,” Brewster declared, “screw you! I’m going into my closet!” With that, the queen cast his crown into the audience, which by this point was in near-brawl.

- Out For Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, 2001, pp 171 – 172

Lee Brewster staged a number of actions designed to bring a case against NY so that Brewster could have NY’s anti-gay laws overturned. Have you ever wondered where the Mattachine Society’s money came from? That was Lee Brewster. Ever wonder where the cash came from to have the early 1960s national queer meetings? That was Lee Brewster. The cash for challenging anti-gay laws came from Lee too.

A strange new myth has arisen about the origins of the gay movement. This myth, fervently endorsed by some trans activists, holds that the gay and lesbian movement was, essentially and pivotally, the work of their group, the transgender people. The transgender folk were in the vanguard, gay men and lesbians followed meekly after. This bizarre claim in the opposite of the truth.

First of all, the term “transgender” is an anachronism, and as such revealing of the present-minded agenda of those who brandish it. To be sure, Christine Jorgensen had made headlines with her Danish surgery in 1953. Jorgensen, and the very few individuals who followed her example at the time, had little interest in gay matters, because they believed that they had truly become women. Jorgensen dated men and regarded herself as heterosexual. The same was true of Reed (formerly Rita) Erickson, a wealthy oil tycoon who helped fund several social-change organizations.

Let us then be honest. If we are to speak of a “transgender” contribution we must restrict ourselves to drag queens. They were the only transgender folks around in those days. None of them in fact made a major contribution to the movement.

- Author of the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, Wayne Dynes, 12/16/2009

Folks like Dynes and TERFs ensured that trans heroes were erased from history. Instead of being regarded as being the tip of the spear – or, at the very least, an equal partner – the narrative suddenly became that trans folk were riding on the coat tails of the gay community. Thanks to that narrative, trans folk lost access to healthcare options, we were excluded from equality laws like ENDA (and even the NY equality laws Lee fought for – see below) and by 1993, we were told that we weren’t welcome at the March on Washington. Folks like RadFems have robbed trans folk of so much; let us never again forget trans heroes like Lee Brewster.

Queens Liberation Front
Queens Liberation Front (Transgender Archive, Houston, TX)

 


NOTES:

TVs Excluded From Gay Civil Rights Bill

After a three-and-a-half-year battle, a bill to ban discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, and public accommodations was voted out of New York’s City Council’s General Welfare Committee.

The measure won approval of seven of the eight committee members on hand after an amendment was approved relating to transvestites. This was the fifth attempt to get the bill out of committee. The amendment stated that nothing in the definition of sexual orientation “shall be construed to bear upon the standards of attire or dress code.” The amendment was key to committee passage and the wording had been worked out carefully by Theodor S. Weiss and Carter Burden.

Bebe Scarpie, Director of Queens Liberation Front, met at City Hall with the sponsors and QLF’s attorney, Richard Levidow, a week prior to the voting on the bill. Ms. Scarpie and attorney Levidow submitted to the above wording as an alternative to getting the bill passed. The clause, according to Mr. Levidow is unconstitutional and won’t hold up in court because of the “equal rights” protection of the US Constitution. “QLF gave in on being included in this piece of legislation because politicians were using the transvestite as a ‘scapegoat’ for not passing the bill,” says Lee Brewster, former director and founder of QLF.

Queens Liberation Front won’t issue a formal statement on the bill until it is either passed or defeated, which looks possible as we go to press.

– Drag Magazine, 1973

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