CULTURE

Countering the Whitewashing of Pride: NYC Honors Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the city of New York has announced that they will commemorate two seminal LGBT rights activists, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, in the form of a public monument.

Marsha P. Johnson

Netflix

On Wednesday, the city of New York announced a permanent monument honoring gender non-conforming and trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

The Times reported that the two statues are proposed to be installed in the Ruth Wittenberg Triangle, a block away from where Johnson and Rivera played a key role in the seminal Stonewall Uprising––the 1969 resistance (initiated by Stormé DeLarverie in response to a police raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar) that paved the way for the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.

As pioneering figures in the fight against racism, sexism, and transphobia, Johnson and Rivera were both drag queens afflicted by homelessness and cultural hostility at a time when trans rights were hardly recognized. In 1970, they worked together to found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a group that advocated for homeless gay youth (the term transgender was not widely used at the time).

This is not the first time the city has set out to commemorate the formative Stonewall uprising in a public memorial. In 1992, the city erected a set of statues in Christopher Park, featuring four seemingly cis-gender figures painted white. The monument, while probably made in good faith, was criticized for its failure to depict specific figures or include transgender women or people of color. In fact, it's been widely noted that the narrative of the gay rights movement often involves the erasure of trans women and POC activists. The statues of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera will hopefully go a short way towards combating that trend.

popdust marsha johnson statue Stonewall statues / Christopher Park Alliance

"The LGBTQ movement was portrayed very much as a white, gay male movement," New York's First Lady McCray told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday. "This monument counters that trend of whitewashing the history."

While the monuments are ostensibly a step in the right direction, this gesture can't undo the years of systemic violence against the trans community, particularly towards its POC members, by the city of New York. Despite Greenwich Village's storied past of gay rights liberation, the neighborhood has since become increasingly gentrified, rendering it financially, and perhaps culturally, inaccessible to many. Considering Johnson and Rivera's struggles with the erasure of marginalized trans bodies from the broader gay liberation movement, Greenwich Village's history is fraught with privilege and exclusion.

That being said, this announcement does demonstrate the city's effort to address New York's blatant gender gap in its public art. Among the hundreds of statues across New York City's five boroughs, only five depict historic women. The city says this monument to Johnson and Rivera will be one of the world's first for gender non-conforming and trans individuals.

Zelda Williams

This weekend, Eric Trump gleefully shared a video of the late Robin Williams making fun of presidential candidate Joe Biden that bore the caption, "Robin Williams Savages Joe Biden."

Zelda Williams tweeted in response, "While we're 'reminiscing' (to further your political agenda), you should look up what he said about your Dad. I did. Promise you, it's much more 'savage.' Gentle reminder that the dead can't vote, but the living can."

Robin Williams, who would have turned 69 last month, had certainly poked fun at Joe Biden. In the clip shared by the younger Trump, Williams quips, "We still have great comedy out there, there's always rambling Joe Biden, what the f***... Joe says s*** that even people with Tourette's go, 'No. What is going on?'" He continued, "Joe is like your uncle who is on a new drug and hasn't got the dosage right...I'm proud to work with Barack America — 'He's not a superhero, you idiot — come here!'"

His comments about the current president were far more incisive and far-reaching. For example, in 2012, he referred to Trump as "a scary man" and "the Wizard of Oz" because "he plays monopoly with real f***ing buildings."

Of course, these jokes are based in very real calamities. Many of Trump's real estate projects and business ventures have notoriously fallen through or crash-landed completely, landing him in massive debt. Yet time and time again he was bailed out by his father, Fred Trump, who paid millions to keep his son's delusions of glory alive. He was also bailed out by a variety of banks (and still owes Deutsche Bank an outstanding $350 million). In some ways, it's no surprise that Trump will leave America sick, in debt, and in crisis.

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CULTURE

Why Alyssa Milano's "Sex Strike" Won't Work to Fight Abortion Bans

Historically, a sex strike is an effective form of activism—but not in the U.S.

Twitter

Activists all over the world have historically used sex as a weapon to further their agendas.

In 1600, Iroquois women gained the power to veto their tribe's decision to go to war by withholding sex. In 2009, women's movements in Kenya and the Philippines banned sex to stop political violence and in-fighting; in both instances, violence reduced and the local governments stabilized within weeks. In 2017, singer Janelle Monae told Marie Claire there should be a sex strike to support the women's rights movement, saying, "People have to start respecting the vagina. Until every man is fighting for our rights, we should consider stopping having sex." A sex boycott didn't follow the celebrated 2017 Women's March. But recently, in the wake of Georgia's radical new law banning abortion, actress Alyssa Milano took to Twitter calling for a sex strike to protest restrictions on a women's right to choose.

Last week, Georgia's governor, Brian Kemp, signed into law the most radical abortion ban in the country. Dubbed the "heartbeat bill," HB 481 criminalizes abortion after about six weeks, the point at which a fetus has a "detectable human heartbeat." The state's law is an alarming step to restrict women's access to abortion, and it's sparked widespread confusion as to whether or not a woman could be prosecuted for murder for "self-terminating" her pregnancy or even for having a miscarriage. Luckily, there are existing laws that protect women from being prosecuted for losing their unborn children; however, until the law goes into effect on January 1, 2020, it remains to be seen if prosecutors will use elastic interpretations of HB 481 to penalize women for aborted pregnancies (which happened in a 2015 case).

In response, Milano tweeted on Friday: "Until women have legal control over our own bodies we just cannot risk pregnancy. JOIN ME by not having sex until we get bodily autonomy back." The 46-year-old actress followed up with a post about the history of effective sex strikes, such as those in Kenya and the Philippines. "History shows that a #sexstrike is surprisingly effective," she wrote.

However, she also linked to a 2017 Quartz article about sex strikes being a "surprisingly effective strategy for political change"—and the entire argument of that piece is why a sex strike could never work in the States. Historically, successful sex strikes have taken place in relatively small and very homogeneous communities, where women were united by very specific and focused demands. Critics have long argued that the demographics of American women are too diverse and U.S. politics are too divisive for a sex strike to unite people in a similar way.

But fundamentally, how does a sex strike work? Isn't a call for women to treat their bodies as commodities they can withhold just as objectifying as laws telling women what to do with their bodies? Wait, what even technically counts as "sex?" If you're boycotting sex to protest an abortion ban, then doesn't that imply that all sex involves a woman's vagina? Aside from the dubiousness of condoning women using sex as a weapon, recognition of queer identities complicates that logic. After all, how do gay men and women participate in a sex strike to effect change? If we treat sex as political, then sexual orientations become politically charged as well; that's risky because doing so suggests that orientations are held in some hierarchy of power. Does straight sex hold more political power than queer sex? The rabbit hole doesn't seem to end, and it doesn't result in political change.

Accordingly, critical responses on Twitter ranged from condemning sex strikes as treating women like bargaining chips to pointing out that striking for "reproductive rights" misses the underlying issue of Georgia's abortion ban. Writer Kristi Coulter responded, "Living under patriarchy has already robbed me of safety, autonomy, opportunities, and trust in our institutions. Now I'm supposed to give up sex, too, and play into the fiction that it's just a bargaining chip/transaction for women? Love you, but nope."


Oddly, some supporters of Georgia's law agreed with Milano's suggestion, but they pointed out that it lacks a clear target. Lila Rose, president of an anti-abortion organization called Live Action, responded, "I'm totally with you, @Alyssa_Milano, on not having sex. But the issue isn't 'reproductive rights.' The issue is reproductive responsibilities & fidelity. No one should have sex until they're ready to embrace the privilege & responsibility of lifelong commitment & raising a child."

On Saturday, Milano defended her strike to the Associated Press, saying, "We need to understand how dire the situation is across the country. It's reminding people that we have control over our own bodies and how we use them." Despite her good intentions, the best way to protest people telling women what to do with their own bodies probably isn't to tell women what they should do with their own bodies.


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.


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