Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

Sometimes poetry is necessary

I read at the Stonewall Riot Fortieth Anniversary concert this afternoon and I am told that it went quite well - I need to get used to working with a microphone though, because I am too used to small audiences in bookshops...I'll talk about the rest of the day in another post, and the rest of the concert come to that, but this bit is all about me and my stuff. So there.

Except to say that one of the origins of this post was a response to a whole string of memorial pieces which try to write trans people out of the riot (like this one here by redefining various people who were in fact trans as cis because at the time they were not necessarily wearing full drag. That piece is particularly egregious, in that it misgenders both Sylvia Riveira and Marsha P. Johnson; oh! and also by lying about various other people...

Anyway, I got into an exchange of letters with Susan Stryker, eminent trans historian, and ended up not with the polemical piece I had planned but with something else instead...




when there is a riot
is like
when there is a crisis
in a lot of lives.
It is when a hinge creaks,
when a hinge moves,
and things change.

The place
where there is a riot
where there is a crisis
That wasn't important
'til it was important.
Important for what happened there.

Was just a bar
Where gay men
and some dykes
went to drink
Or to get laid.
It wasn't a bar
You went to
If you were
Too poor, too queer, too young, too brown.
It was a bar
Down the street.

One night
it was the place
where things changed.


You have to remember
you have to imagine
you have to feel

how things were,
back in the day.

Some nights you went to a bar
And your life changed
Not for the better.

The police would come in
Because no one had paid them
Or just cause they could.
And the police dragged you out

You stood in night court
Or lay in a cell
with drunks, hoods and thieves
who knew you were queer
and worse than they were
and no-one heard you scream.

The press took your name
And printed your name
And that changed your life.

You lost
Your job
Your home
The marriage where you hid
Your childen and your future and your hope.

And people went to bars
For all the reasons people go to bars
To drink, or to get laid.
And sometimes their lives changed.

That night
At the Stonewall bar
lives changed
and some for the better.


We don't know all their names
The people in the bar
when the police went in
And then things changed.

So make them up.

Harold was there
After the symphony,
Or after La Boheme -
He'd have to check...
He keeps his diaries still.
You don't call him Harry,
Or Harriet,
He's Harold. Still.

He went there
Because he wanted a drink
and wanted a fuck
and Judy had died
and he wanted a friend.

Arnie was there
He worked construction,
He wasn't queer -
He told himself.
He wanted a blow job
And not to have to pay.

And Harold spoke to Arnie
And Arnie had a beer
And Harold had a white wine
And then the police were there.

And Harold relaxed
And was sad about Judy
And dreaming of the man who got away
And Arnie thought well
I'm fucked
If this gets out.
On the construction site.

So Harold shouted fuck off pigs
And Arnie shoved a cop
And somebody hit Harold in the head
And Arnie said don't hit my friend
And then it all kicked off.

Or, it wasn't quite like that.
It was Betty
Who taught school
Out in the suburbs
And was talking to Dean
Who had an Elvis quiff
And could fix your bike better than any man.
And a cop told Betty he could fuck her better
And ran his fingers up and down her spine
And Dean said, fuck off pig
And then it all kicked off.

Or it was Baby Val
There for her birthday
She was just eighteen.
The first time she’d been out
Wholly in drag – and she just cried and cried
The pigs had ruined her birthday.
So she cried
And then it all kicked off.

And so the police, they dragged
Harold and Dean
And Betty and Arnie and the rest
Out of the bar and out into the street.

And then it all kicked off.

And they held Baby Val
Inside for questioning
And someone screamed
The pigs are beating Val in the back room
And then it all kicked off

The riot was the bar
The riot was the street.
The street where people lived
The street where people walked
Too young, too queer, too poor, too brown.

Looking for handouts
Or daddies for the night
Or cheap street drugs
In drag and out of it.

The people with nothing to lose.

I know their names
Because they are my kind

Marsha P.Johnson - Present
Allyson Allante - Present
Tammy Novak - Present
Zazu Nova - Present
Birdy Riveira - Present
Storm Delaverie - Present
Miss Major - Present
Holly Woodlawn - Present
Sylvia Riveira - Present - Probably
In spirit anyway
So print the legend -
Sylvia was there
And maybe threw
The bottlesmash we hear around the world

And all the rest
Drag queens and street queens and hair fairies and gender illusionists and Warhol superstars
Street Transvestite Action Radicals
- but that was later
- still they were all there

In jeans that looked like you could peel them off
like fruit skin
like peach skin
like grape skin
In eyeliner and eyelashes and paint
So thick it didn't crack
so thick it didn't run
tear gas made no impression on that slap.
And showgirl stockings

And their hair fluffed up.

Hurling dustbins
in high heels
screaming screaming screaming queens
We are the stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We braid our pubic hair

And they were all so young
Sylvia was seventeen
Sweet seventeen
Allysson was fourteen
Parents threw trans kids away
So young back then
Marsha was twentyfive
The oldest oldest lady on the street

And it kicked off
And Tammy ran away
Hid in Joe Tish's flat
But she'd been there

And it kicked off
And Holly got there late
In time to throw a brick
But she was there

They were the stonewall girls
They wore their hair in curls

They are my sisters, so I sing of them
Like Homer did dead heroes
And they're dead, the most of them.

Sylvia's liver went
When she was fifty
Marsha - she was found
face down and floating.

Allyson's still here, married again,
and Holly, just about.
Sometimes trans folk make old bones.

The stonewall girls
Their hair in curls

Don't no-one ever say they were not there.


This much we know
That night everything changed
And they were there
All of them, they were there.

The ones I know because they are my kind
The ones I know because I made them up

They changed their lives
They changed all of our lives

The hinge creaked
When the door opened
The police came out of the bar
Into the street
And we came
Out of the closet
Into the street
Out of the closet
into the street.
Out of the closet
into the street.

Of course, I got people to shout out Present in the right place - old Italian partisan memorial thing, is apparently where I got it from, who knew? - and I actually sang the Stonewall song first time, which I did not know I was going to until I did it. And the chant at the end goes on as long as you can get it to, not very long this afternoon, miserable bunch...

Anyone, everyone seems to like it - various friends have read various drafts and one friend told me to trim down the first section, and was right. My thanks to everyone who helped because it takes more than one person to write a final draft of a poem.

And I may even get to do it again, possibly at Wotever.

I amended the original version to include the story of Baby Val
Tags: poetry queer lgbt trans
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