On July 4th, 1965, gay activists gathered in Philadelphia for the first “Annual Reminder” picket line. Craig Rodwell, a member of the Mattachine Society (the first gay organization in the United States), organized the Annual Reminder because he wanted to say, loudly and in public, that a large group of Americans were denied “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
It may be hard to understand in 2016, but these demonstrations were tremendously courageous. It took guts to go out in public carrying a sign with a slogan like “15 Million Homosexual Americans Ask for Equality, Opportunity, Dignity.” The people who marched were risking their jobs, families and safety. The Annual Reminder was a truly historic undertaking. That, however, is not why I’m writing about it.
The Annual Reminder has a very different meaning for transgender people. To me, I see it as an early example of homonormative respectability politics — and the sort of politics that have lead to trans exclusion. Let me explain:
The Annual Reminder, at the behest of activist Frank Kameny, adopted a dress code. Men were required to wear suits with jackets. Women wore dresses. Kameny wanted the protestors to look “presentable” and “employable.” In practice, this meant that gender nonconforming people, including trans people, swishes, femmes, and butch women, were not welcome at the Annual Reminder.
Martha Shelley, a white lesbian member the Daughters of Bilitis (the lesbian sister organization to Mattachine), described the tenor of these demonstrations: “A few of us would get dressed up in skirts and blouses and the guys would all have to wear suits and ties. And, I did not like parading around while all of these vacationers were standing there eating ice cream and looking at us like we were critters in a zoo.”
Dick Leitsch, president of the Mattachine Society of New York, explained that a strict dress code was enforced: “We wore suits and ties because we wanted people, in the public, who were wearing suits and ties, to identify with us. We didn’t want to come on, you know, wearing fuzzy sweaters and lipstick, you know, and being freaks. You know, we wanted to be part of the mainstream society.”
The Mattachine society’s decision to distance themselves from feminine gender non-conformity, from what they associated with “freakishness,” reflected a larger strategy of respectability politics. While the Mattachine Society had radical roots, by 1969 conservative leadership had been in power for more than a decade The political aims of the Mattachine Society are well reflected in the text of a flyer distributed during the 1960s: “Homosexuals are different, but. . .We believe they have the right to be. We believe that the civil rights of homosexuals are as precious as those of any other citizen. . .we believe that the homosexual has the right to live, work and participate in a free society. Mattachine defines the rights of homosexuals and tires to create a climate of understanding and acceptance.” Stating openly that nothing was wrong with homosexuality was a bold political stand, but Mattachine’s political program was a strictly a single-issue civil rights agenda, and one that specifically excluded transgender people.
Puerto Rican Trans Woman Activist Sylvia Rivera commented on the approach of Mattachine saying this: “. . .you had to be what they called themselves the “normal homosexuals.” They wore suits and ties. One of the first demonstrations that they had, lesbians who’d never even worn dresses were wearing dresses and high heels to show the world that they were normal. Normal? Fine.” Rivera had tremendous contempt for organization who chose respectability at the expense of her community.
The Annual Reminder pickets took place every year until 1969. That year was the last, because the Stonewall Riots had taken place just a few days later. The Stonewall Riots were the opposite of respectable. They erupted when police raided a seedy bar frequented by street youth. Femmes and homeless gay people lead the fight against the police. Mattachine activists pleaded for calm, but the riots continued. The next year, the Annual Reminder was over, replaced by what would become Pride celebrations.
So, what do trans people take from this history? Two things stand out to me. First, the history of our community’s exclusion is long. Second, when respectability politics are abandoned and trans people fight back, we all win.