Queers Built This is our project about queer inventiveness and DIY culture then, now, and tomorrow.
Whether we're creating, sustaining, or defying the culture, queer people have always turned to our own bodies as the most potent tools in our arsenal to effect change. This is because queerness—whether it’s a queerness of sexual attraction, or a queerness of gender identity and expression—starts with accepting the truth of the queer body.
Queer people have historically offered up our bodies to force the reality of our existence on a society that did everything it could not to look at us. From these physical confrontations, new art forms were created, people protected one another from violence and bigotry—and, occasionally, justice was served in the face of political discrimination. Here is a timeline of just a few instances in which LGBTQ people put their bodies on the line for the sake of queer rights, culture, and liberation.
Aleshia Brevard, c. late 1950s
LGBTQ people have turned to their physicality to create the lives they wanted for themselves, making it easier for later generations to find more accurate ways to live in their own bodies, too.
In the late 1950s, a young woman named Aleshia Brevard left the farm and her life as a boy behind her and moved to San Francisco in order to live her life as the woman she always knew she was. After spending some time in the drag scene as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, she realized that working as a drag queen wasn’t the life she wanted. To move closer to a truthful existence, she self-castrated in order to force a doctor to undertake her transition. She went on to become a television actress, Playboy bunny, and eventually a theater professor, creating art and living in the body she knew was hers, even if she had to go to extreme lengths to get anyone else to see her that way. We live in a time when the medical community understands and accepts transgender identity in a way Aleshia could only dream of in her youth, but she was one of many who put her own body in front of the world of medicine and forced the people in it to contend with her existence.
Compton's Cafeteria riots, 1966
In the summer of 1966, three years before people threw bricks at, pushed back against, and even joined a chorus-girl kickline to mock police at the Stonewall Riots, a group of drag queens, gay men, and trans women routinely convened late at night at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, to the owners’ consternation and disapproval. The group was often harassed by the cops and told to move on by the owners, but they stubbornly insisted on meeting in their own safe space, and did their best to ignore the harassment by continuing to congregate at the all-night cafeteria in order to check in on one another.
One August night, the cops came into Compton’s and did what cops often did when they saw trans or queer people together: They started harassing the LGBTQ group of friends and ordering them to leave. But one person among them had had enough of it when a cop grabbed her. Instead of allowing herself to be physically removed, she grabbed a cup of coffee and threw it in his face, thereby setting off the now-legendary Compton’s Cafeteria riots, in which queer folks shattered windows, set fire to trash cans and newsstands, and roared their fury into the night. Queer people, but especially trans and gender non-conforming queer people, learned in the years leading up to Stonewall that they were more powerful and capable of bolder acts of defiance when they huddled together in groups, letting their own bodies shield each other from the consequences of their rebellion.
Stonewall riots, 1969
Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, 1973
Two legendary mothers of the LGBTQ, and specifically trans, rights movements who participated in the Stonewall riots were Marsha P. Johnson (who was said to have thrown her shot glass at the bar mirror while screaming, “I want my civil rights!”) and Sylvia Rivera.
A few years after Stonewall, Sylvia stood up at the 1973 Christopher Street parade and tore into the crowd for promoting a safe, white, cis assimilationist movement. When she broke down crying while screaming, “GAY POWER” at their complacency, they booed and jeered at her. It became obvious to Sylvia and Marsha that the nascent gay rights movement was not going to center or even acknowledge the trans women who launched the movement, so they formed the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries to provide safe spaces and legal service to their trans siblings.
With no outside resources, they raised funds through sex work, eventually securing housing using the one tool so many trans women without employment prospects were forced to use to survive: their own bodies.
Voguing at Rikers Island, c. late 1970s
It’s notable how much of our queer culture and history was developed in response to incarceration, or the threat of it. Notable, but perhaps not surprising, given how most queer expression or existence was literally against the law for most of the 20th century.
In the late 1970s, a group of queer Black inmates at Rikers Island were said to have developed a form of physical combat that prevented actual contact: a way of asserting themselves in an impossible situation, where they had no power, no rights, and no ability to defend themselves from guards or other inmates. Because they were queer and Black (and most likely trans, in some cases), they were at much higher risk of violence than any other group at Rikers and risked much greater backlash—if not death—by fighting back. Using their bodies to express themselves and institute a hierarchy, they devised a new form of queer expression through movement. Taking inspiration from dance, gymnastics and fashion photography, this new form of expression made its way to the streets and then to the ballroom community, which eventually dubbed it “voguing.”
Robert Mapplethorpe, 1978
In a world determined to sideline them, ignore them, or even destroy them, LGBTQ bodies existed as art, as well as political forms and protective ones.
In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, legendary gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was exploring themes of queer male desire and identity, manifested most famously in his Self-Portrait with Whip, which depicted him in a pair of chaps, back to the camera and bent over, with the handle of a bullwhip inserted in his ass.
Robert thrust the most private and taboo aspects of queer male sex and desire into the rarefied world of art galleries and museum spaces, forcing the mainstream to look at our queer bodies, daring the world to call them art.
Stormé Delarverie, c. 1970s and 1980s
On the level of the streets, fighting often meant pushing back against harassment and violence individually.
Stormé Delarverie was a biracial drag king who toured with the Jewel Box Revue for several years, posed for photographer Diane Arbus, and then found herself in the thick of things when the Stonewall riots broke out.
Long referred to in legends and oral histories of that night as the butch lesbian who punched one of the cops and turned to the crowd to implore them fight back (a story she tended to play down or refuse to acknowledge), Stormé spent the decades post-Stonewall as a wandering set of fists in the East Village, offering up her own tough-as-nails body as protection for her less adversarial queer siblings on the streets; a drag king father figure, protecting her chosen family with her own body. At a time when LGBTQ people were only tentatively starting to demonstrate a willingness to fight their oppressors on a community-wide level, Stormé was literally out in the streets, using her tough, butch self to show them they worth fighting for; in her own way inspiring other queer warriors like Bash Back! and ACT UP to stand up and fight.
Philip Mills and Vegas in Space, c. 1980s
At a time when most queer people were seen by the public as perverts at worst and deliciously alluring deviants at best, sex work was often the only way many of them could survive, let alone effect change or create art.
In the 1980s, Philip Mills, a San Francisco drag queen who went by the name Doris Fish, had a passion for creating an homage to the sci-fi b movies of the 1950s. With a script, a cast composed entirely of fellow drag queens, and a director in place, the only thing the project needed was money.
Over the course of its seven-year stop-and-start production, Vegas in Space was largely fueled through Mills’ side career in sex work. “No one ever told me you couldn’t make a feature film on a prostitute’s salary,” he joked to his castmates.
The film went on to become a cult classic, inspiring an entire generation of drag queens, but Mills himself would not live to see its release. He died of AIDS complications just before the premiere in 1991.
The Lesbian Avengers, 1988
Appalled by the conservative turn of their government, a group of lesbians in the UK known as the Lesbian Avengers smuggled ropes and rappeling equipment into the public gallery of the House of Lords and stormed Parliament.
They threw their ropes over the balcony and abseiled into the chamber to protest the outcome of the vote on Section 28, which restricted the promotion or teaching of homosexuality in schools—literally throwing their bodies in front of an anti-queer action.
Section 28 had already passed before they plummeted into the proceedings, and caused decades of damage to queer rights in the UK, but the Lesbian Avengers made headlines and passed into legend with their protest, inspiring future queer activists who spent decades working to get it repealed, which they finally accomplished in 2003, finishing the work a group of bold and brave queer women started when they threw their ropes over the balcony.
Barbara Vick and the Blood Sisters of San Diego, 1988
Around the same time their British sisters were acting like superheroes, Barbara Vick turned to the lesbian community in San Diego and rallied them to donate blood at the height of the AIDS crisis, knowing that their gay brothers were prevented from doing so, even as the need for transfusions became dire.
Barbara organized the Blood Sisters of San Diego, a group of queer women who laid their bodies down, stuck out their arms, and gave of themselves to help their fellow gays live a little longer.
Peter Staley, 1989
On September 14, 1989, Peter Staley, a 28-year-old AIDS activist, committed to getting the public to see how much people with AIDS were being ignored and allowed to die.
Peter, along with fellow members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), climbed the stairs to the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange and chained himself to the railing, in order to protest the exorbitant prices of the only drug available to AIDS patients at the time, AZT.
Within a week, Burroughs-Wellcome, the manufacturer of the drug, dropped its price by 20 percent, solely because of the public outcry.
Queer Nation's Oscars kiss-in, 1991
We can watch aspirational and accurate portrayals of queer lives on TV and film now because people threw their bodies in front of the dream-making machine of Hollywood and forced it to examine its prejudices, too.
In 1991, the group Queer Nation staged a kiss-in at the 64th Academy Awards, barring attendees from entering the ceremony by mashing their faces together and making out in front of Hollywood in order to protest its long history of portraying LGBTQ people as psychopaths and deviants, and to specifically call out the nominated films Silence of the Lambs and JFK for their egregiously transphobic and homophobic depictions. Transgender representation would continue to remain terrible for some time to come, but gay representation shifted dramatically in the 1990s, a decade which ended with Will & Grace and the newly out Ellen DeGeneres on major network television series.
Our queer identities and our queer bodies are completely bound up in one another and cannot be separated from our shared history. To thank for our lives and freedoms—for our art, and our culture—we have generations of bravely fierce queer activists and artists. At a time when the spirit of protest is alive in the streets, when Black people, trans people, and their allies are marching and screaming, inhaling tear gas and taking physical blows from police—facing down shields, and batons and pepper spray; when they are throwing their own bodies in front of their oppressors just to get the world to see that their very lives matter: Take a moment to raise a fist, a flower, a voice, or a shot glass in honor of the bodies who pushed their way through, in the most physical senses they could, to create a path for our own bodies to keep pushing on today.
Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez are the publishers of their eponymous website, TomandLorenzo.com, and the authors of Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life. Follow them on Twitter.