The New York Times published a flurry of articles in June celebrating pride month with a particular focus on transgender women of color. Some of the reporting, however, suggested that history and facts don't really matter when it comes to atoning for the "erasure" of marginalized groups.
Take, for example, the notion that Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were prominent transgender activists who led the Stonewall Riots, a seminal event in the history of the gay rights movement. The two are being honored with a statue in New York City—among the first such monuments in the world—for the leading roles they allegedly played at Stonewall.
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That notion came up in a recent Times article on the efforts of trans women of color to "[share] fully in the gains of racial justice [and] L.G.B.T.Q. activism." The article initially stated that "Transgender women of color led the uprising at the Stonewall Inn." It has since been edited—without explanation—and now reads: "Transgender women of color were leaders in L.G.B.T.Q. activism before, during and after the uprising at the Stonewall Inn 51 years ago." The article still asserts, however, that Johnson and Rivera "were key figures in the Stonewall uprising."
A separate Times piece honoring pride month also asserted that "the Stonewall liberation was led by trans women of color, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two activists whom city officials decided last year to honor with a monument." Journalist Andrew Sullivan, who is gay, denounced the claim as "patently untrue" and asked whether the Times employed fact-checkers or simply believed that "‘narrative' [was] more important that reality."
Who is right? When it comes to the specific claim that Johnson and Rivera were "key figures" in the Stonewall uprising, historians don't really know for sure. Numerous accounts cast doubt, however, on the prevailing narrative that Johnson and Rivera were among the first to physically confront the NYPD officers attempting to raid the Greenwich Village bar, throwing the first brick or Molotov cocktail. By one account, Rivera was passed out on a park bench after taking heroin the first night of the uprising.
Chrysanthemum Tran, a queer and transgender Vietnamese-American poet, attempted to set the record straight in a 2018 article published in them, which pointed out that according to their own accounts, Johnson and Rivera were not on the front lines of the uprising:
In addition to crediting Marsha P. Johnson with throwing the brick that started it all, historical accounts often cite Sylvia Rivera as the person who started the Stonewall riots. But it's critical that we listen to the words of Stonewall's vanguard activists, and how they contextualize themselves within history.
Both Johnson and Rivera denied being the first to fight back against the police during the uprising. In an interview from the 1970s where Johnson recalls the events of the historic night, she confirms "the riots had already started" by the time she arrived at the bar. Similarly, Rivera delivered a speech in 2001, clarifying, "I have been given the credit for throwing the first Molotov cocktail by many historians but I always like to correct it. I threw the second one, I did not throw the first one!" These personal accounts are further complicated by Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who said that she did not see either Johnson or Rivera on the first night of the riots.
Judging by the lengthy editor's note appended to Tran's piece, the article sparked considerable backlash for daring to question a popular narrative. The editors apologized for the original headline, "It Doesn't Matter Who Threw the First Brick at Stonewall," which was "flawed," saying they did not intend "to erase the contributions of those who were [at Stonewall], including Sylvia Rivera [and] Marsha P. Johnson."
Sullivan's suggestion that prominent publications such as the Times tend to view "narrative" as more important than reality certainly isn't a baseless one, given how many journalists have become increasingly antagonistic toward the concept of "objectivity."
On a separate but not entirely unrelated note, one of the authors of the stealthily edited Times report, Isabella Grullón Paz, honored the 50th anniversary of Che Guevara's death in her college newspaper in 2017. In that article, she noted that Che's life could serve as an inspiration to those seeking "a betterment of human rights."
At the risk of challenging a popular narrative, Che was in fact a racist murderer who put gay people into concentration camps. Sometimes the narrative wins, which is why you can purchase an array of "LGBT pride" apparel with Che's face on it on Amazon. Just what the socialist revolutionary would have wanted.