Page 3 of 4
Nicole Murray-Ramirez presides over the International Court System, which hosts drag shows through its roughly 70 chapters in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. The 60-plus drag queen won't disclose his precise age, but he says he hasn't forgotten those days. "You've got to remember the atmosphere in society," he says. "Shock treatment was given to many. And it was all sanctioned."
After living through that, Murray-Ramirez appreciates the anger that boiled over in 1969 when, on a warm night at the end of June, police raided New York's Stonewall Inn. Police told the press that they'd stormed the Stonewall because it was selling liquor without a license. There were additional factors. Cross-dressing remained illegal. Same-sex dancing was also a prosecutable offense. Police harassment was common. But this time, rather than going quietly into the paddy wagons as they had so many times before, butch women threw stones and the queens took off their high heels. They fought back.
Police reports indicate that one female cross-dresser in particular escalated tensions. Some speculate that Storme DeLarverie, the lone king in a drag queen troupe called the Jewel Box Revue, was the troublemaker. DeLarverie expressed no remorse when remembering that night in an interview with the Stonewall Veterans Association years later: "A cop said to me, 'Move faggot,' thinking that I was a gay guy. I said, 'I will not' and, 'Don't you touch me.' With that, the cop shoved me. And I instinctively punched him right in the face."
Four police officers were injured the first night of the uprising. Thirteen people were arrested. The riots continued for six nights, signaling that LGBT people would no longer submit to harassment from the police or anyone else. Gay rights groups sprouted across the country in the months after Stonewall. A year later, New Yorkers marked the anniversary of the uprising with the country's first gay pride parade. "Our revolution and our Boston Tea Party," Murray-Ramirez says, "was started in many ways by drag queens and butch dykes."
The fresh slate
University of Montana Women's and Gender Studies department co-chair Elizabeth Hubble recalls it was a fall day in 2008 when a student approached her after class and said, "'I might be trans. I didn't even know such a thing existed.'"
"It brought tears to my eyes," Hubble says.
The sudden disclosure came after a female-to-male transsexual spoke to Hubble's class. Prior to that moment, the young student, from a small town in Montana, didn't have the vocabulary to express one of the most fundamental parts of who he was. "If you don't have the language to even talk about yourself, that's very dehumanizing," Hubble says.
The language and culture is out there now. It's just a matter of finding it. What happened in Hubble's classroom that day reflects a slow shift that is reshaping the way Western civilization thinks about gender. In the '70s, mainstream attitudes that directed women to be weak and submissive and men to be strong and stoic began to change. Androgyny came into vogue. Pop icons such as David Bowie, The New York Dolls and Patti Smith consciously worked to steer mainstream culture from traditional notions of gender. Smith, for instance, appeared on the cover of her 1975 debut album, Horses, in a white collared shirt, black slacks and a suit jacket slung over her shoulder. Her neck-length dark hair and angular face are neither feminine nor masculine. Smith said she was "beyond gender."
In the '80s, women for the first time began forming drag troupes in New York and San Francisco. This provided an outlet for a handful of butch women to express artistically their masculine sides. In 1989, Diane Torr began her New York-based "Man for a Day" workshops, giving king culture a significant boost. She taught women the basics: how to bind breasts seamlessly and apply natural-looking facial hair, as well as the most practical way to "pack." (Torr recommends a condom stuffed with cotton wool.)
Torr also used performance to poke fun at the implied power of masculinity. Adopting one of her many male personas, Jim Cross from the American Society of Men, she explained the body language one must have to be truly manly: "Don't let anybody enter your space...Don't be intimidated. Everything you look at, you could own, or you do own. That is the sense you want to convey...Rule number two: stop smiling. When you smile, it's an act of friendliness; you're conceding territory. It could make you open for exploitation. It's very nice to see women smiling; it makes them appealing, unthreatening. But as a man, it's important that you allow no way that somebody can permeate you..."
In the 1990s, a new wave of academics ushered in a fresh school of thought that gave a larger vocabulary and broader perspective to the rules governing gender. University of California, Berkeley professor Judith Butler was among the earliest academics to discuss "queer theory." In her 1990 book Gender Trouble, she chronicles a problem with the status quo: most people see biological sex shaping gender, which naturally leads to desire for the opposite gender. Butler argues that that doesn't fit many of us, saying there are infinite combinations of gender and sexuality. In an interview with The Believer magazine, she contended that limiting gender expression does significantly more harm than good. "Our notions of what a human being is problematically depends on there being two coherent genders," she said. "If someone doesn't comply with either the masculine norm or the feminine norm, their very humanness is called into question."