Alright, Nellyarda, this one’s important. It’s all about how we communicate — or, how we did. Today, we’re going to talk about Polari. Polari was a secret, coded slang language (or “cant language”) that was used by gay men (and also, only occasionally, by lesbians) in England up until the late 1960’s. A way to hide who you were and what you were talking about when out and about in public places where it wasn’t legal to be openly gay.
Now, if you’re sitting there wondering who “Nellyarda” is — that’s a good sign you live in a place where these hidden languages aren’t still in use. “Nellyarda” isn’t a person, it’s a verb — it just means “listen.” Fortunately, in much of the world, talking to other gay people about gay things isn’t a crime and you don’t need to speak in code (although we still have a lot of slang that leaves people in mainstream culture scratching their heads. To be honest, sometimes even I scratch my head — what the heck is a “squirrel friend” anyways?) But while we delve into the history of Polari, I want you to keep in mind that there are places in the world today where these coded languages are not history — where they are still used but are still vital to the survival of the underground LGBTQ+ culture there. Bahasa binan is still spoken in Indonesia; in South Africa and Zimbabwe gay English-speakers are probably familiar with Gayle language, while Bantu speakers are using IsiNgqumo. Those are just a couple examples, but there’s a whole lot of these types of languages which people examining queer language (otherwise called “Lavender linguistics“) might want to take a look at. I promise to touch on more of them in the future.
Anyways, back to Polari. The roots of Polari can be traced back to 16th century — to the traveling entertainment troupes of commedia dell’arte — a really old form of professional, kind of vaudevillian theater that originated in Italy. While traveling around Europe, entertainers developed a sort of jargon of their own, which they called “parlyaree” from the Italian word “parlare” meaning “to talk.” Parlyaree expanded a bit, started to get used by sailors — and as it expanded it picked up words from other places — thieves cant, backslang, etc; and other languages from all across Europe too, including Yiddish, French, Shelta, and others. It became popular amongst all of the undesirable parts of society — criminals, Romani travelers, prostitutes….
And, of course, “undesirables” also meant “the gays.” Most likely it was traveling gay entertainers that brought parlyaree to Britain, as a version of parlyaree was commonly used in Punch & Judy puppet shows. Many of the words were innately sarcastic or sexualized in their meanings. Speakers would often pick campy nicknames for themselves, gay men often using names that were effeminate. The language created a cultural attitude that was strong and resilient in the face of brutal abuse and discrimination. Polari was particularly useful for two things: gossip and finding men to hook up with.
Polari, coming full circle, found its way into British entertainment — adopted by the Punch & Judy shows that had brought it to the British Isles to begin with, and — much much later — in the radio comedy series Round the Horne which began airing on March 7, 1965. Round the Horne was wildly popular, and the characters of Julian and Sandy — the two characters who spoke simplified Polari — were especially popular. The good news is that they helped British society become more accepting of homosexuals. That said, gay sex was still a crime and it was certainly not great for the gay community’s safety to have the mainstream culture, including members of law enforcement, hearing their hidden language on the radio each week. This was probably one of the early contributing factors in the decline of Polari. By 1967, anti-sodomy laws in the UK began to be repealed, which meant the necessity of Polari significantly decreased.
By the 1970s, Polari had fallen so out of favor that the gay magazine Lunch called it “ghettoising”. By 2000, when Paul Baker of Lancaster University surveyed 800 gay men, roughly half of them had never even heard of Polari. But Baker was just ahead of a resurgence of interest — a curiosity from both linguistic scholars and from queer people looking at their own history. In 2003, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, collaborating with Tim Greening-Jackson (AKA Sister Matic de Bauchery) created a Polari translation of the Bible. Although it’s available online (see that link in the previous sentence!) a leatherbound copy was displayed in a glass case at John Rylands Library in Manchester. In 2012, that copy was read aloud in the world’s longest reading of the Polari Bible — performed at a Manchester art gallery.
Despite being essentially a dead language, the more recent ties to religion have stirred up a lot of controversy. In 2017, Wescott House — a college that trains priests for the Church of England — held an evensong entirely in Polari, led by trainees from the college. The intent, according to the trainees, was to sort of “queerify” their evening prayer service, to make room within their faith for queer people. That’s a noble intent, but of course not everyone appreciated the way it was done (particularly because in Polari, “the Lord” translates to “the Duchess”) and ultimately the Church of England issued a public apology calling the event “hugely regrettable.”
Although it’s technically considered a dead language, there are some words and phrases that were definitely part of the Polari vocabulary that we still commonly use today — “drag” and “trade” are still part of our popular slang with their meanings virtually unchanged, “zhoosh” meaning “to style”, most recently popularized by Carson Kressley in the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy television series. Polari was a constantly changing language, and as such it’s difficult to research and there’s no complete dictionary of terms anywhere. I think that makes it more important to preserve the words we still know were used — so I am going to try to make a complete dictionary for this site. Stay tuned!
Arr, me hearties! Let me spin ye a yarn about some high seas homosexuality! Okay, I’m giving up on talking like a pirate. Too much of a land lubber, I guess! But we’re still going to talk about pirates. I’ll admit, I’ve been on a little bit of a “Golden Age of Piracy” kick and why not? Pirates are fantastic — swashbuckling adventurers, sailing across the ocean! And the thing is….they’re also pretty queer. Like, queer coded in movies and such, I mean.
But it turns out, pirates were actually pretty queer. A lot of it can certainly be chalked up to “situational homosexuality” — so much so that in 1645 the governor of Tortuga imported 1,650 prostitutes so that he could get the pirate men to sleep with women — but that certainly doesn’t explain all of it. For example, pirates also had something called “matelotage” which was essentially same-sex marriage. Now, there’s a lot of debate about whether or not matelots were sexual but its generally agreed that at least some of them definitely were. And even those that weren’t were very much like marriage, in terms of legal rights. If you died, your matelot got all of your share of the plunder, and any death benefits a captain might have offered to his crew. If you moved to a different ship, your matelot went with you. And matelots were frequently symbolized by gold rings worn by both parties. I mean, I know married couples that don’t sound this married.
Many pirate captains kept excellent records. Unfortunately, that’s excellent records of their plunder and not so much of crew relationships. Nevertheless, we do know something about a relationship between two pirates: that of Captains Robert Culliford and John Swann.
Culliford was born in England sometime around the year 1666. By 1689, he had found himself a member of the crew of the French privateer crew of the Sainte Rose. He was one of seven British people aboard — including William Kidd and Samuel Burgess. After they heard word that there was a war going on (the Nine Years War or — as it was called then the War of the Grand Alliance), the crew staged a mutiny and wrested control of the ship from its captain, Jean Fantin. Kidd was elected captain and the ship was renamed the Blessed William. If that less-than-subtle name change made you a little irritated, try living on the ship. It must not have been particularly awesome (despite making a whole lot money in privateering) because a year later, in 1690, Culliford led another mutiny against Kidd. Afterwards, William Mason was elected captain.
Mason and his crew (Culliford included) did some fairly standard piracy in the Caribbean — you know, attacking towns and ships and stealing booty. Then they scooted up the coast of North America to sell their ill-gotten gains in New York. While they were there, Mason procured a letter of marque from the acting governor Jacob Leisler — basically, giving them official permission to engage in piracy. (Which made them “privateers” not pirates.) So they sailed up to ransack two French-Canadian towns…but like, officially, on behalf of New York, and then they captured a French ship called L’Esperance.
Mason gave L’Esperance to Culliford, officially making him a pirate — I’m sorry, privateer — captain. He renamed the ship the Horne Frigate because nothing says “this is my first boat” like putting the type of ship it is in the name of the ship. The ship didn’t stay in his command long, and the two ketches that were carrying most of Mason and Culliford’s loot ended up getting attacked and stolen by French privateers. Mason and Culliford ended up having to return pretty much empty-handed to New York aboard a different French ship they managed to steal, the Jacob. In December of 1690, Mason and his crew — with Culliford now serving as quartermaster — left New York aboard the Jacob once more.
By 1692, the Jacob had made its way to India. They robbed the people of Mangrol in the state of Gujarati, but the authorities were not putting up with this at all. Culliford and seventeen of his crewmates were captured and held in a Gujarati prison. Culliford was held there for four years before he made his escape, with a handful of his comrades. They made it to Bombay, and signed onto the crew of an East India Company ship called the Josiah. The ship made it as far as Madras (still in India — not far at all!) before Culliford led his crewmates in hijacking the ship. They sailed for the Bay of Bengal, and began engaging in piracy again.
Unfortunately for Culliford, most of the crew of the East India Company ship liked, y’know, not being pirates. So they retook the ship and left him stranded on an island near the Nicobar Islands. Ralph Stout, captaining the Mocha, found Culliford and rescued him. He was dead within the year and Culliford became captain of his ship. (Half the reports on his death say he was killed by natives of the Laccadive Islands, and half of them say he was killed by his crew when he said he wanted to retire from piracy. I’m not saying I’m suspicious, but I am going to point out that Culliford had mutinied before. Draw your own conclusions.) After this point, the ship is sometimes still called the Mocha and sometimes is called the Resolution so Culliford may have changed the name, but I can’t tell you for sure when that happened. I think the reason for the inconsistent use of the name Resolution is because there was another pirate ship sailing around in other parts of the world with the same name — but that ship is also totally inconsequential in regards to this article, so I’m going to take to calling the ship by its new name that doesn’t make me want a coffee.
Culliford sailed alongside the Charming Mary for a time, but ultimately Culliford broke off the partnership to go ransack ships on his own. That was going fine, until he set out to loot the British ship the Dorill. The Dorill, however, was not some defenseless ship and instead opened fire and broke off the Resolution‘s main mast. Culliford turned tail and headed for Île Sainte-Marie off the coast of Madagascar to lick his wounds — on the way, he still managed to plunder a French ship for a cargo worth £2,000 (which, according to my sources, would be over 400,000 American dollars today) despite his ship being fairly crippled and only having a crew of about twenty people.
Anyways, by this point Captain Kidd had turned from piracy into pirate hunting. And he also headed to Île Sainte-Marie, knowing it sometimes served as a refuge for pirates. He found Culliford there — and I’m sure he was delighted, given their history. There’s two differing accounts of what happened next: in one account, Kidd made peaceful overtures towards Culliford — acting as though he still considered him a brother, trying to lull him into a false sense of security. In the other account, Kidd thought that Culliford had a full crew and hid from him until two more ships full of reinforcements arrived. Kidd’s crew jumped ship (literally) to join Culliford’s crew. (The score is now Culliford: 2; Kidd: 0.)
This new, large crew set off in June of 1698 to leave Kidd, his thirteen remaining crewmen, and his ship (which had been ransacked of anything worth value) abandoned on Île Sainte-Marie. Culliford joined forces with Captains Dirk Chivers and Joseph Wheeler and in September they took down the ship the Great Mohammed in the Red Sea — taking for themselves treasure worth £130,000 (which is the equivalent of over 23 and a half million US dollars today.) Captain Nathaniel North of the Pelican also claimed to take part in this, but the other three captains refused to share the plunder stating that he and his crew hadn’t actually participated. Afterwards, Culliford and his allies parted ways, with the Resolution heading back to Île Sainte-Marie (and taking down another ship on the way).
Either because of his now pretty incredible wealth, or because he was seriously wanted at this point, Culliford decided to lay low and settle down on Île Sainte-Marie. Living with him, as his consort, was the little-known, pretty much inconsequential pirate captainJohn Swann. (See, we got to him eventually!)
Now, okay, here’s the thing. So John Swann was — in my opinion — undoubtedly Culliford’s lover. But that is — of course, as always — a matter of some debate. Swann is referred to as a “great consort” of Culliford’s in the deposition of a pirate named Theophilus Turner. Now, “consort” was also used to refer to pirate captains or crew that sailed together on separate ships, so lots of historians insist that no, this was just a platonic relationship. I don’t think that’s what “consort” means in this context for a few reasons — first of all, in that definition of consort, Culliford’s “great consorts” would be Chivers and Wheeler who helped him against the Great Mohammed. A score for which Swann was not present. Secondly, Swann and Culliford weren’t sailing together, they were literally settling down on land together. And, in fact, Swann was retiring from piracy altogether. So, while I agree that in piracy terms, “consort” doesn’t always mean lovers, I just don’t see the other use of the term applying here.
A number of Culliford’s crew left Île Sainte-Marie to go settle in Nassau. Swann may have been among them, traveling under the alias “Paul Swan.” Which is, frankly, a pretty terrible alias. Other testimonies, which I’m more inclined to believe, claim that Swann was still on the island when four British warships arrived, offering royal pardons to all of the pirates there. Swann and Culliford both accepted, and then made their way to Barbados where they parted ways. At that point, Culliford decided to return to the open sea and headed back to the Indian Ocean. He was arrested shortly thereafter, and sent to Marshalsea Prison in London. His royal pardon was promptly thrown out because the ransacking of the Great Mohammed was, apparently, not actually included in the pardon he’d received (tricky legal loopholes, I guess) and he was all set to be hanged from the neck until dead….until Captain Samuel Burgess — former crewmember of Captain William Kidd — was arrested. Culliford testified against Burgess in exchange for a pardon, and then completely disappeared. Rumors indicate he may have settled in Boston, Massachusetts, though that has never been confirmed.
With both Swann and Culliford dropping off the grid, this story leaves us with more questions than it answers. But I think the best question we can ask is….why isn’t this a movie yet?
I want to apologize for the lack of posts the last couple of weeks, my computer is….let’s just not cooperating (I’m writing this on my phone which is not ideal) So I’ve had to order a new one. There will be new posts once that’s here!
In the meantime it is not an expense I was expecting so I’ve added a donate button on the sidebar just for the time being — if anyone wants to help offset that cost, I’d be very appreciative!
You’ve seen 2017’s Call Me by Your Name, right? Or at least read the book that came out in 2007? Okay, even if you haven’t I’m sure you’ve heard about the peach scene — it’s famous. Or infamous, I guess. So, if you haven’t, basically the gist is that Elio (played by Timothée Chalamet) masturbates into a peach, and then his like brand-spanking new lover Oliver (played by Armie Hammer) goes to eat it, and then they fight, and then they cry and…anyways, it’s emotional and sexy and kind of silly, and a lot of things all at once but it is for sure very gay. I don’t know if André Aciman, who wrote the original book, even knew exactly how gay. I can’t tell you if he knew that “pleasure of the bitten peach” was a euphemism for gay love in ancient China….but I can tell you that it was. And, of course, I can tell you how that came to be.
Our story starts with a young man named Yuan who was the son of Wei Xiang Gong — or Duke Xiang of Wey — and a low-ranking concubine. So low-ranking I can’t find any trace of his mother’s name. Anyways, Xiang dies without saying which of his kids from which of his concubines is his heir apparent. One of the lords, Kong Zhengchi, conferred with oracles of I Ching and with a spirit, and determined that the next reigning duke (or gong) should be Yuan. So, Yuan rose to power and took the name Wei Ling Gong or Duke Ling of Wey in 535 BCE. (Like I said, literally ancient.)
The only real major event I can find during his reign was a rebellion in 522 CE, caused by his brother Gongmen Zhi being awful and abusing his power. The rebellion was led by some members of his court named Qi Bao, Beigong Xi, and Chu Shipu and was successful enough that Ling fled to Siniao. While he was in this exile, Ling admitted to not being a very good ruler. Guess that’s kind of a fair assessment of things.
Now, Ling appears in Chapter 15 of the Analects of Confucius, asking Confucius for military tactics. Presumably that was because of this admission. (Of course, Confucius doesn’t know about battlefield strategy, and like, why would he? Of all the people to ask….) Anyways, Ling got to go home and continue being a not very good ruler because one of Beigong Xi’s people accidentally assassinated Qi Bao and ended the rebellion. Oops. Ling continued ruling as duke of the state of Wei until his death in 493 BCE.
Over the course of this 42 year reign, Ling married a woman named Nanzi and they had a few sons together. Ling also, reportedly, had a male lover named Mizi Xia. Unlike Ling, who we have actual historical records of, Mizi Xia’s existence is first recorded in Han Feizi by the philosopher Han Fei — so take this story with a grain of salt. Especially since Han Fei wasn’t even born until a little over 200 years later — about 280 BCE.
Mizi Xia had to have been very attractive. Like, I guess the kind of attractive where nothing they do matters, they’re perfect, you’ll never say anything bad about them. Because they shut off your brain. We’ve all seen people like that — at least on Instagram, right? So, when Mizi Xia found out his mother was sick, he forged permission from Ling to take the duke’s carriage so he could get to her quickly. Totally understandable but also totally, y’know, illegal. But Ling was just delighted about it, praised Mizi Xia for his loyalty to his mom, and then — in some versions — gave him blanket permission to take the carriage whenever.
On another occasion — and pay attention here because this part is like the actual main focus of this whole post — Mizi Xia was eating a peach that was apparently just super super delicious and decided to give half of it to Ling. And the duke thought this was the sweetest thing. Which I kinda get, like that’s cute right? Sharing your food? Adorable.
Anyways, time went by and Mizi Xia did the unthinkable — he started to age. As his looks went, Ling suddenly found all of this was not so cute after all. He accused Mizi Xia of stealing the carriage, and claimed that he had insulted the duke by giving him a half-eaten peach. Which are both, y’know, kind of valid ways of looking at the situation if that’s how you’d looked at them at first. Kinda late to change your mind, right? Well, not if you’re the duke. (It’s good to be the duke.)
Anyways, Han Fei wrote this story as a warning about how fickle nobility could be, and how you should be wary about getting too close to your rulers. I can also see it being a story about how you shouldn’t rely too heavily on your looks to get what you want. But that is not how it got interpreted by…..well, pretty much anyone else. Everyone pretty much just focused on the part where they shared the peach and Mizi Xia’s name, along with the “bitten peach” became a poetic turn of phrase for homosexuality — showing up in the works of Ruan Ji, and later Liu Zun. Liu Zun’s poem even states “Love of the half eaten peach never dies” which makes it pretty clear that they did not finish reading the story.
Mizi Xia is even cited as a famous homosexual in the document “Poetical Essay on the Supreme Joy” by Bai Xingjian. (I’ll give you a hint what the “Supreme Joy” is — it’s sex. Like all kinds of sex. Every kind of sex, everywhere.) In the part of this document focusing on gay sex, Bai Xingjian cites a bunch of other ancient Chinese homosexual relationships from legends and historical documents from all over China. This was written some time shortly after the year 700 CE but the references make it clear that all of these names and stories would have been at least recognizable to his readers, if not well known.
Even as late as the 12th century, Mizi Xia’s name was used as a symbol of homosexuality — however, negative attitudes towards male prostitution and the “passive role” (bottoms) in gay sex were beginning to become pervasive — it’s believed that was the result of backlash to male prostitutes becoming increasingly common in China at the time. Mizi Xia was referred to in a pretty derogatory manner by author Zhu Yu — who believed Mizi Xia was a prominent example a male prostitute, that he’d sold his body to Ling for influence in the court and material possessions. And, of course, everyone assumes that Mizi Xia was the bottom. (Which makes a certain amount of sense if you consider what we all use that peach emoji for.)
These negative connotations only increased as Western attitudes about homosexuality and gender roles infiltrated China, and when the Qing dynasty rose to prominence gender roles became quite strict. The name Mizi Xia all but vanished from China until the 20th century, and even then it only appeared in obscure literature and literature about China written by Westerners (such as Sexual Life in Ancient China by Robert van Gulik). Meanwhile, the phrase “the pleasures of the bitten peach” became something of a code word, a euphemism, known primarily to a queer community that was being driven underground.
These days, the Bitten Peach is probably best known as a queer pan-Asian cabaret based in the United Kingdom. You can find them on Instagram and you really should. So, the next time you’re dropping that peach emoji on Grindr….just remember you’re continuing a grand tradition that goes back a lot further than Call Me by Your Name. And if you happen to be sending that emoji to a duke….try to stay pretty.
Queer history, as we all know, can be difficult to track down. Sometimes that’s because the language we use now didn’t exist, so it’s hard to identify queer people. Sometimes it’s because people actively tried to suppress the information. And sometimes, unfortunately, its because no one was paying attention. The Sydney Cliff Murders are one such instance — even today, this doesn’t even have a half-assed Wikipedia page. (Yet. I’m betting that will change after this though. Fingers crossed anyways.)
The Sydney Cliff murders were a string of murders from the 80’s through the 90’s against gay men in the of Sydney, Australia which may have had as many as 90 victims — primarily in Marks Park at the top of the Bondi Beach cliffs, which was a popular cruising spot for gay men, but also in some other areas that were popular “gay beats”. The police hardly ever investigated the crime scenes, just took a cursory glances and declared them suicides or accidents. Those weren’t totally off-the-wall or impossible suggestions, but let’s be honest: the police would have actually investigated them anyways if it weren’t for who the victims were and where the victims were. According to retired High Court justice Michael Kirby, the police viewed gay men as low level criminals (even though sodomy was decriminalized there in 1984) and thought that homosexuals should pretty much expect to be hurt or killed.
But it wasn’t a rash of suicides plaguing the gay community of Sydney. It was murder. And, no, it wasn’t a serial killer on the loose or anything nearly that dramatic — it was groups of violent, homophonic teenagers who knew that crimes against gay men would never be taken seriously by the police. For the most part they were right — only a handful were arrested for the murders specifically, though a number were arrested for other crimes and then later were discovered to have been involved in a murder at Bondi Beach. “Poofter bashing,” as it was called, was something of a sport.
The earliest one of these deaths that I can find is that of David Williams. He was found, naked, at the bottom of the cliffs in the area of Manly. His clothes were neatly folded at the top of the cliffs. No investigation was made, no coroner made any report about his body.
Scott Johnson was a 27 year-old American “brilliant” mathematician (some of us can do math! Not me, but….some of us!) who had graduated the University of Cambridge and moved to Sydney in 1986 to be with his partner Michael Noone. He had applied for permanent residency and had nearly completed his PhD at the Australian National University by the end of 1988, when his naked body was found at the bottom of the North Head Cliffs in Manly. His clothes were in a folded pile, with his student ID, a ten dollar bill, and his watch nestled on top of them. Police called it a suicide. Neither Michael Noone or Scott’s brother Steve believed that for a minute and made sure the police of New South Wales knew it.
On July 22, the following year, Ross Warren — a discreet but not exactly closeted television news anchor — disappeared. His car was found near Marks Park, and his keys were found in rocks at the top of the cliffs. Police reasoned he must have accidentally fallen off the cliff into the water, and on July 28 they announced they expected his body would wash up soon. It didn’t. Nevertheless, police declared that his death had been accidental, there was no foul play, and he also hadn’t faked his death. His mother Kay began writing frequently to the police, insisting they actually investigate his disappearance. Warren’s body has still never been found.
On November 23 of 1989, John Russell — a local Sydney bartender — was found dead at the bottom of the cliffs on the Bondi Beach side of Marks Park. Police investigated enough to discover he had a high concentration of alcohol in his system, and ruled he had accidentally fallen off the cliff. Not quite a month later, on December 18, Alan Boxsell was attacked by a group of teenagers in Marks Park. He managed to flee his assailants and even, surprisingly, reported the attack to the police. He identified some of the bashers. Days later on December 21, David McMahon was assaulted by a group of teenagers in almost the same place where Russell would have fallen from — one of the attackers even suggesting “Let’s throw him off where we threw the other one off.” McMahon managed to escape, and identified some of his assailants to police. Some of them were the same people identified by Boxsell. None of them were arrested due to a “lack of evidence.”
In 1990, a Thai man named Krichakorn Rattanajurathaporn was attacked with a hammer and knocked off the cliff. This one — as a nice change — was investigated and three teenagers were arrested. They would be known as the “Tamarama Three.” Despite the fact that one of those teenagers was reported saying to the police “The easiest thing with a cliff is just herding them over the edge” the police didn’t begin investigating the rash of murders.
Five months later, in December of 1990, eight boys discovered a phone number written in the toilets in Alexandria Park, and used it to lure Richard Johnson to the park after dark. There, they beat him to death. The eight boys — who would be called the “Alexandria Eight” were arrested and eventually convicted of the crime. Homicide detective Steve McCann secretly recorded conversations the boys had with each other and other inmates — they bragged about killing gay men at the cliffs at Bondi Beach. Despite this, only McCann was interested in looking into the deaths of gay men in that area. His investigation was hampered by resistance from his fellow police officers. He turned to lawyer, and official liaison between the New South Wales police and the gay community, Sue Thompson for help but even so there was only so much they could do. Through their investigation they learned that “poofter bashing” was something of a widespread sport — a gang of at least thirty teenage boys and girls, called the “Bondi Boys” frequently engaged in it as a form of initiation.
As an aside, there’s a lot of victims or possible victims here. I could not talk about them all while also talking about the police action (or lack of action, as the case may be) and keep this post to a relatively reasonable size. But I don’t want to overlook them, as so many of them have been continuously overlooked. So I am promising that there will be a follow-up post (posts?) about the victims. All 88 if I can find all of their names. I’m still making working on that list. Anyways, back to what the police were doing….
By 2000 — after eleven years of hearing from Kay Warren — one of her letters (which contained copies of all of her previous letters) caught the attention of the police. It was handed off to Detective Steve Page. He noticed what McCann had noticed — a lot of gay men were dying or disappearing around Marks Park. He picked up where McCann’s investigation had left off. Page was able to prove, through reenacting the scene with a dummy on December 9 2001, that John Russell was thrown from the cliff he was found at the bottom of — there was nothing accidental about his death after all. This opened the doors on many more closed “investigations” (if you can really call them that). Revisiting these cases was a major undertaking, and so it became a full-fledged project named Operation Taradale. The task force interviewed the Tamarama Three and the Alexandria Eight — all of whom denied any involvement in killing John Russell, Ross Warren, or any of the others
In 2012, at the request of Steve Johnson — now a wealthy former AOL executive — and his family, an inquest was made into the death of Scott Johnson. It was determined that the original investigation had not been thorough, and that the death should be re-investigated. As a result of this, the New South Wales police began Operation Parrabell, a review of 88 investigations into various deaths of gay men — trying to determine if the crimes should be classified as hate crimes. That list of 88 deaths is based on recommendations by Sue Thompson and criminologist Stephen Tomsen going as far back as David Warren’s death, but Parrabell met criticism — even from Sue Thompson — for their methodology. Of the 30 unsolved deaths in that list, she and Tomsen found compelling evidence of foul play in 22 cases. The Operation Parrabell task force for unsolved homicides accepted eight of those as potential anti-gay hate crimes that needed to be investigated. Those eight did not include Scott Johnson.
In 2015, another inquest into Scott Johnson’s death was made — also recommending the case be investigated again, as a homicide. In November of 2017, a third inquest formally declared that Johnson had been the victim of a hate crime. As a result, the following month a reward of one million Australian dollars was offered by the Australian government for any information leading to conviction. With no information forthcoming, the Johnson family doubled the reward in March 2020 — and in May, a man named Scott Price was finally arrested for the murder of Scott Johnson.
These cases inspired a television miniseries in Australia called Deep Water. A documentary was also made that year, to go alongside the fictionalized show, called Deep Water: The Real Story.
As of now, 22 of the Sydney cliff murders remain unsolved. A parliamentary inquiry regarding the New South Wales police’s response to hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals in Sydney between 1970 and 2010 is currently underway. We may never see justice for all of those many queer individuals who were lost in these murders, but I take some comfort in knowing that, finally, there are at least some people who are trying.
Okay, I’m going to admit that I just learned about this one this week and I’m pretty excited about it. Almost all of the information available comes from two — Channing Gerard Joseph, who is writing a book The House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens about this topic but the book isn’t out yet, and Netisha Currie — who dipped into some archives to verify the story. What I’m saying is, I’m not going to pretend to have one hundred percent of the information. Just wanted to throw that disclaimer out there first. I was really going to wait for the book to come out but, like, I’m kinda too excited to wait until it comes out next year and then I read it to tell you about this.
So, today we’re talking about William Dorsey Swann. Swann was born somewhere in Maryland sometime around 1858. He was a slave in Hancock, Maryland for the first several years of his life — because Maryland was not part of the Confederacy, their slaves weren’t freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and Maryland didn’t free its own slaves until 1864, only a couple of months before the 13th Amendment was ratified. Swann was thankfully freed before then — thanks to the intervention of Union soldiers. Swann is known to have developed friendships with other queer former slaves, including Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall, two formers slaves who are documented to have been in a relationship.
By the 1880s, Swann had moved to Washington D.C. In 1882, he was arrested for stealing books from the Washington Library Company and from Henry and Sara Spencer — who employed Swann at the Spencerian Business College. Swann pled guilty and was sentenced to six months in jail. In October, having served only one month of his sentence, Henry and Sara Spencer petitioned President Chester A. Arthur to pardon Swann. Both the judge who had sentenced him and the assistant US District Attorney even supported the petition — pointing out that the theft of books was only an effort to educate himself. It’s unknown if the pardon was granted.
At some point in the 1880s — before or after his previous arrest we’ll never know — he began hosting what we would now call drag balls, of the sort that had begun in Harlem in 1867 with the Annual Odd Fellows Ball. Of course, those balls — while not, perhaps “acceptable” were charity events hosted by relatively wealthy, elite African Americans who could get away with things that poor freed slaves could not. Swann himself was regularly dressing in fabulous gowns, which his brother made, and calling himself “the queen of drag” — well before the term “drag” was being used much outside of theaters and certainly before the term “drag queen” was coined (which doesn’t become popular until the 1920’s). Swann was arrested at one of these balls in January of 1887 — which had both black and white guests in drag. Even so, Swann wasn’t exactly breaking new, unheard of ground, but was definitely pushing at its edges.
Until April 12, 1888. One of Swann’s balls was held in a two-story home near the corner of 12th St and F St. And it was raided by police. The guests made a mad dash for the exits — but Swann made a charge for the police themselves. He was supposedly a large, imposing man who — that night — is described as having worn a cream-color satin gown. Swann physically fought the police to prevent them from entering — with no success. This was, however, one of the first times queer people fought back against police oppression.
13 black men, including Swann, were arrested, charged with “being suspicious characters” and made to pay fines or spend 30 days in jail. Their names were published in various papers – although those lists of names weren’t the same in every paper so that’s a fun mystery for someone else to solve. The list of names that were the same in every paper were: William Dorsey, John Smith, Jacob Byard, Charles Myers, Samuel Jackson, James Waters, James Howard or Laura Howard, James Taylor, and Benjamin Moore. Some papers also listed Jacob Lewis, Samuel Lewis, Lewis Jackson and Albert Lee. Nearly all of those arrested made bail — Swann was bailed out by his employer. This was reported in both The Washington Post, The Washington Critic, and The Evening Star on April 13. The Washington Critic, notably, called the event a “drag party” which may have been one of the earliest uses of that phrase.
Swann managed to avoid having any of his balls raided again until New Years Eve of 1895. That ball was barely starting when police came in — they arrested Swann and three of his black guests — letting his three white guests go, although they were later summoned as witnesses. The three black guests were charged with vangrancy but Swann was charged with “running a disorderly house” — that’s a term I’ve talked about before, but essentially it means they were accusing him of running a brothel. The witnesses testified that they had danced and drank alcohol — hardly damning, I don’t think, but it also didn’t exactly help. Swann was sentenced to ten months imprisonment — the judge didn’t think that was enough and stated: “I would like to send you where you would never again see a man’s face, and would then like to rid the city of all other disreputable persons of the same kind.”
The trial went by very quickly — Swann was convicted three days after being arrested. Three months into serving his sentence, he decided (correctly) this whole thing was unjust and that there was something that could be done about it. He filed a petition for pardon with President Grover Cleveland. He stated that he would never engage in the crime again, that he was a hard worker and an upstanding member of the community. Thirty of his friends signed the petition. However, the US District Attorney, A.A. Birney, was not on board this time, writing: “This petition is wholly without merit. While the charge of keeping a disorderly house does not on its face differ from other cases in which milder sentences have been imposed, the prisoner was in fact convicted of the most horrible and disgusting offences known to the law; an offence so disgusting that it is unnamed. This is not the first time that the prisoner has been convicted of this crime, and his evil example in the community must have been most corrupting.”
In July, Swann’s friends began pushing harder — stating that conditions in jail were bad for his health. I don’t know if these claims were true, but a doctor who had examined Swann in March and said he was healthy diagnosed him with a heart condition in July, claiming that being held in prison could potentially be deadly. Now, knowing who Grover Cleveland’s sister was, one might imagine he would be somewhat sympathetic to the plight of queer people in the US. One would be very wrong. Grover officially denied the pardon on July 29, 1896 — proclaiming that the concerns for Swann’s health did not outweigh the “character of the offense.”
Although the petition was unsuccessful, this does mark the first time in the history of the United States that anyone attempted to take legal action to defend the rights of LGBTQ+ people to assemble. Swann did survive the prison sentence, but retired from drag (unsurprisingly, I would say). His brother continued making dresses for men who wanted to participate in drag balls, which were a tradition that continues even today.
Sadly, there’s no actual images of Swann — he often gets paired up with pictures of this incredible drag performers but this is actually Mr. Brown from the Vaudeville duo Gregory and Brown, who introduced the “cake walk” dance to the world. That’s no small thing either but it is a story for another day.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of fairly recent events and people in LGBTQIA+ history — heck, I just wrote about two people who are still alive. In a row! So, to veer away from people with Instagram accounts, I’ve decided to go much further back. After all, one of the reasons I’m doing this is to detail queer history back to the beginning of human history. I’m not going quite that far back today though.
Fernandez is not by any means the first intersex person in the world — intersex people appear in Sumerian mythology that predates written language and is consistently mentioned as being a thing that exists in virtually all societies thereafter. But Fernandez is one of the earliest intersex people who’s name has survived in records to today.
Now, Fernanda Fernandez was born in 1755 in either Baza or Zújar — but definitely in Granada in Spain. There is nothing written or discussed about her childhood up until she took her vows to become a nun of the Capuchin Poor Clares in April of 1774 — at which time she was either seventeen or eighteen, depending on who you ask. It really depends on what month she was born in, but there doesn’t seem to be any decisive record of that.
In 1787, Fernandez began noticing that she appeared to be becoming more masculine in some ways and was starting to get sinful lustful feelings for her fellow nuns. Fernandez was a devout believer, was not trying to rock the boat, and just wanted to do right by society and God. So she reported it and asked to be separated from the other nuns. At first, everyone assumed she was going crazy. Nobody did anything.
Worried she wouldn’t be able to resist the temptations she was feeling, she started actively avoiding the other nuns. She also started a routine of strict penitence, flagellating herself spiked chains. (I guess there is kind of a case to be made that she was going crazy, but it’s probably only because people thought she was going crazy.) Doctors, to help her deal with the craziness, prescribed regular bloodletting. Let’s just take a moment to be thankful that nowadays, doctors who incorrectly think someone is going crazy usually just prescribe pills.
Within the next several years, Fernandez started becoming visibly more masculine. So an investigation was begun. She was isolated from the rest of the nuns. Doctors were called in, theologians, even the archbishop. She explained again what was happening, but this time they actually listened (kind of). A midwife examined her and discovered what she’d been telling everyone all along — that she was developing male characteristics. Including a functional, albeit small, penis. They declared her a man and took steps to make that declaration formal and legally binding.
On January 21, 1792 Fernandez was expelled from the nunnery — technically, this is what she’d asked for back in 1787, but she certainly wasn’t happy about it. She actually liked being a nun. On February 11, she was formally released from her vows and sent back to her parents, who were definitely living in Zújar at that time. (What’s kind of amazing is, this is all pretty well documented except for like who are the parents?) She was forced to change her name to “Fernando” and required to begin wearing exclusively male clothes. Despite this, she continued to occupy her time with the duties and skills of women of the time, and missed her life in the nunnery. Nothing else is recorded about her after 1792, so it’s a little tough to say, but it seems like she identified as a woman, and was likely pretty freaked out about growing a penis in her twenties. I’m sure none of what she went through helped with that.
What’s interesting is the follow-up. There are other cases in Europe and even Spain where medical examinations revealed similar findings, and it was argued that the person in question was committing fraud, pretending to be something they weren’t, and had always been the sex that was uncovered. But no such arguments were made in Fernanda’s case — it was widely acknowledged and accepted that she had been a woman and changed into a man. This is something doctors of the time widely stated was impossible. But they never denied that it happened to Fernanda Fernandez and given where medical science was at the time, that was pretty open minded of them.
Aside from how important queer representation in the media is, it’s also something that fascinates me. And part of that discussion, routinely, is who gets to play these characters. In an ideal world, where any queer person would be considered evenly for any role alongside cisgender and straight actors, that shouldn’t matter. But that’s not the world we live in. It stands to reason, that if transgender actors wouldn’t get considered for cisgender characters, the the reverse should be true. That’s often not the case even now. So, let’s take a moment to consider what it must have been like to be a transgender actor in the 1970’s.
Carol Byron was born in Balmain, New South Wales, Australia on September 2, 1943. She was assigned the male gender at birth and named “Richard” by a mother who ultimately abandoned her four months later, placing her child in the care of a woman named Hazel Roberts. Her new mother enjoyed teaching her song and dance routines. At eleven years old, however, her mother Evelyn came back into the picture with a new husband, and took custody of their son. This new stepfather physically abused their kid. Carol dropped out of school at 15 years old, and began working, taking a job putting makeup on mannequins and arranging the displays at David Jones. A year later, she ran away from home to avoid the abuse — but continued her job. At the age of seventeen, she took on the name Carol and began transitioning to live life as a woman.
She was arrested for crossdressing, but actually beat the charge based entirely on being flippant. Not a strategy I recommend, but when she came before the judge she asked what the “offensive behavior” was — the judge explained, dressing as a woman. And she responded, “You have a wig and robe on.” The case was dismissed.
She took on the stage name Carlotta, apparently from Empress Carlota of Mexico (who I will admit I know almost nothing about) and set about establishing herself. About this time, Lee Gordon — an promoter with a resume that included names like Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland — was opening what may have been Australia’s first drag club, the Jewel Box Revue Club in King’s Cross, Sydney. They hired Carlotta as a performer. Before too long, the club changed its name to Les Girls Restaurant and kept Carlotta on for its Les Girls caberet act. The cast was advertised as exclusively men in drag, though some — like Carlotta — were transgender women. Carlotta quickly became the star of the show. Because of that, she earned the nickname “Queen of the Cross”. Although Gordon was no longer one of the owners at this point, he continued helping Carlotta as her manager.
In 1970, she had her first film appearance — credited as appearing as herself in a movie called The Naked Bunyip. This wasn’t exactly a big break, but it did open some doors. The movie was, apparently, fairly influential. One of those doors was for her to be cast as Miss Robyn Ross on a show called Number 96 — a show that had already broken ground with gay character Don Finlayson (played by Joe Hasham) the year before. The character of Robyn Ross was the new girlfriend of character Arnold Feather (played by Jeff Kevin), and appeared in four episodes in 1972. Ultimately, it was revealed that she was a transsexual showgirl — a fact which led to the end of the romance, and the end of her storyline on the series. Here’s her “coming out” scene — the language is, obviously, not what we would currently use. To keep this scene, and the end of this storyline a surprise, her scenes were all shot on a closed set and she was initially credited as “Carolle Lea“.
Four episodes, of course, doesn’t seem like a big deal. Especially on a soap opera, which churns out new episode practically every day. But these four episodes were a very big deal because they were the first time that a transgender person played a transgender character on television anywhere in the world.
Afterwards Carlotta decided to undergo sex reassignment surgery (also known, now, as a gender confirmation surgery). Prior to the surgery, a board attempted to cure her — putting her through torturous testing including electric shock therapy on her, though she tore the wires off of her. She also, reportedly, threw a shoe at the doctors engaging in the tests. The feisty outburst worked and she was able to get the surgery. She was not, as is sometimes reported, the first person in Australia to have the procedure. She was, however, the first person in Australia that was publicly reported as having the procedure.
Some time afterwards, she was invited to do a drag performance in London. She jumped at the opportunity, the show was hugely successful, but found she didn’t enjoy it and soon returned to Australia. Where she married a guy who’s name is nowhere to be found but since I see some places where her name is reported as Carol Spencer so I’m guessing his last name was Spencer. She tried out a life of “domestic bliss” as a housewife, but it doesn’t last too long.
Carlotta showed up on film again in 1982 playing Ron in a movie called Dead Easy. I don’t know if that character was transgender or not, it’s a fairly minor role and I haven’t seen the film.
In 1987, she toured New Zealand with a touring production of Les Girls. Short after that, her marriage ended — she left him so that he could have the opportunity to become a parent. So she resumed working at Les Girls until 1992. With her off and on career with them, she had performed with them for an impressive 26 years.
In 1994, she published her first book — He Did it her Way: The Legend of Les Girls with James Cockington. That was the same year the iconic movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was released. Carlotta was one of the inspirations behind the movie — and it, in turn, inspired her. She attempted to start her own show: Carlotta & Her Beautiful Boys which launched in 1996. This was a popular show but not a financial success and ended up bankrupting her after three years.
But Carlotta is not a woman who can be kept down. In 1997, she began appearing as a recurring panelist on the show Beauty and the Beast. (I’m linking to the Wikipedia page on this one because, personally, I was a little confused when that didn’t have to do with fairy tales and talking furniture.) On the show, the panelists answer letters from viewers and Carlotta’s life up to that point made her invaluable to the show. Kids, particularly queer kids, from all over Australia wrote the show specifically in the hopes of getting her advice. Here’s a clip of her on the show in 2001 (not talking about queer issues though, I can’t find any clips of that.)
She was popular on Beauty and the Beast and that led her to more appearances as a television personality. In 2003, she appeared on the short-lived comedy talk show Greeks on the Roof. She also published another book, entitled Carlotta: I’m not that Kind of Girl. Two years later, Carlotta launched a show that was a half-million dollar production based on her recent book Carlotta’s KingsX. She subsequently appeared on Good Morning Australia and on the music quiz show Spicks and Specks.
Also in 2005, the cast of The Naked Bunyip reunited for a short video “In a Funny Sort of Way” which discussed the movie and its impact on Australian cinema. So, 2005 was a very busy year for Carlotta. In 2006, she appeared in four episodes of the documentary series 20 to 1. That was also the year that Australian National Portrait Gallery purchased a portrait of Carlotta and incorporated it into their collection.
Carlotta later launched a touring one-woman show called Carlotta: Live and Intimate. In 2013, she began appearing as a regular guest panelist on the morning news show Studio 10. The following year, a made-for-TV movie about her life was made called Carlotta. The film was criticized for only hinting at the harsher parts of Carlotta’s life as a transgender woman. Carlotta was played by cisgender actor Jessica Marais and while I would like to criticize that choice, but Carlotta was actually involved in the casting.
In 2018, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Her doctors caught it early, performed surgery, and she made a full recovery and jumped right back into her career. In 2019, she continued touring with her musical revue Carlotta: Queen of the Cross which features a wide variety of music, especially from other queer artists like Peter Allen (whom she had been friends with) and Stephen Sondheim.
On January 26, 2020 she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the LGBTQ+ community and to the performing arts. Although this is the most recent and most impressive recognition Carlotta has received for her decades of work, she’s also been recognized with the King’s Cross Award, the Drag Industry Variety Award (in 1997) and a Australian Club Entertainment Lifetime Achievement Award (in 2018). That last one may have to get given to her again, as Carlotta is still performing, and no doubt has much more that she will achieve.
Last June, as you may recall, I did a whole series on the Heroes of Stonewall. Obviously, it was a massive riot, I couldn’t cover everyone who was there in just a month. I left out someone incredibly important (several someones), and I can’t think of a better time to cover the story of another transgender person of color who heroically led us at the Stonewall Riots, and afterwards, than right now — when the Trump administration is attacking the healthcare rights of transgender people.
MissMajor Griffin-Gracy was born in Chicago on October 25, 1940 in the south side of Chicago at St. Luke’s Hospital. She was assigned to the male gender at birth. It didn’t last too long — while she was still fairly young, she discovered the drag ball scene and began participating regularly. She later explained that, without the terminology we have today existing, she did not realize that she and her peers were questioning their gender identities. But they were, and Miss Major was fairly open about it. Her parents attempted to curb this, but eventually just kicked her out.
Afterwards, she was homelessness — getting by as best she could through sex work and the occasional theft. She transitioned, using hormones she purchased on the black market — something that became a booming business following the very public transition of Christine Jorgensen. She briefly had a job as a secretary for the Mattachine Society, but even that didn’t last too long.
After a run in with the law, and a six month bout in a mental institution, Miss Major moved to New York City. She became a performer at the famous Jewel Box Revue, as well as the Cherries and the Powder Puff Revue. (As an aside, I’m definitely a 90’s kid because I definitely first thought that was “Powerpuff” but it isn’t.) During these years she experimented with a handful of names, but settled on the one her parents had given her: Major. She simply added the word “Miss” in front of it.
Although many of the gay bars would not let her in, Miss Major became a frequent customer at the Stonewall Inn — probably at least in part because of her and Stormé DeLarverie‘s shared association with the Jewel Box Revue. She was there on the night of June 27, 1969 and stayed late enough to be present when the police raided the bar. She participated in the rioting on that first night, until she spit in the face off one of the police officers — he responded by knocking her out. She awoke the next day in a prison cell. While she was in police custody, her jaw was broken.
After the riot, Miss Major was deeply changed by the murder of a Puerto Rican transgender friend of hers known as Puppy. Despite plenty of evidence, the police ruled the murder was a suicide. She realized that transgender women of New York could not depend on anyone but each other — she began to build a network so that they could help protect each other. This was especially true of sex workers, who started trying to get their “johns” to exit the cars so that all of the girls could see them — just in case a girl never came back from a job.
She was arrested in 1970 for burglary after a safe-breaking job went wrong, and spent four years at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. He had a great deal of respect for Miss Major, and her gender identity, and he talked to her about how she could help her community. She spent a good amount of time in solitary confinement — she was imprisoned with men, and every time a fight broke out between her and any other inmate, she was the one who was punished. She was paroled twice — but both times the parole was revoked when her parole officer reported her for deviant behavior (once was for adopting a more feminine appearance by shaving her face, and the second time was for “entering a deviant bar.”) While incarcerated, she communicated regularly with Frank “Big Black” Smith — who had been in charge of security at the Attica Correctional Facility Riots of 1971. When she was finally released in 1974, she took those lessons to heart.
In 1978, Miss Major’s long-time girlfriend gave birth to their son Christopher. Miss Major decided the life she’d built in New York was not one well-suited for raising a child, she secured sole custody of Christopher and moved to San Diego. She would eventually adopted three other boys — runaways she met at a park. This was the start of a growing chosen family that still rallies around Miss Major to this day. She started working at a food bank and attempted to help transgender people who were in prison or recovering from addiction, but as the AIDS epidemic began to ravage the queer community of California, Miss Major turned her attention to helping provide healthcare and performing funerals. The silver lining for the epidemic, Miss Major later recalled, was that many transgender people — especially women — were able to find legitimate, legal jobs for the first time, even if that job was the heartbreaking task of providing healthcare to doomed queer people no one else wanted to touch.
In the mid 90’s, Miss Major moved to San Francisco. She continued her HIV/AIDS activism, including serving with the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center (TARC). As part of that organization, she ensured they had a refrigerator available so that homeless people could store food and medications at the center. She fought for them to acquire a washing machine and a dryer so homeless people in the community could do their laundry.
In 2003, Miss Major — who’s activism was returning more to its original focus on incarcerated transgender people — joined the newly founded Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project), and became the Executive Director. In this position, she is one of an estimated five people in the United States that is working full time towards equal transgender rights in prison. She has testified about human rights violations towards transgender people in prisons before both the California State Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. One particular focus of her activism is on the healthcare that transgender inmates receive — they are sometimes denied everything from hormones to routine medical examinations. But, as she notes, transgender inmates face abuse in almost every aspect of prison life, and are overrepresented in prison populations (where they are typically housed with the incorrect gender).
She has decried the gay rights movement for ignoring the plight of transgender people as they fought for equality — a sentiment that was shared deeply by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. (And frankly, shared by me too. It’s hard to argue with.) But Miss Major herself has continued to fight tirelessly for those the rest of society wanted to ignore. She’s known to have said: “Just because there’s this umbrella, LGBT, we’re all grouped together. But guess what? Someone poked a hole in the umbrella and the girls are still getting wet.”
And recently, although those sentiments still largely hold true, Miss Major herself has finally been getting attention for her decades of work. In 2014, Miss Major was made the Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Pride Parade. In 2015, the documentary MAJOR! was released, following Miss Major’s life as an activist.
More recently, in 2018 Miss Major has relocated from California to Little Rock, Arkansas. There, she has founded the Griffin-Gracy Historical Retreat and Educational Center — also known the House of GG. On July 4, 2019 Miss Major suffered a stroke — but survived and is recovering well enough that she has been engaged in Black Lives Matters protests within the past month according to her Instagram. If you want to help with her continued recovery or with her continued activisim for transgender and gender non-conforming people, a website has been set up for donations.
While articles about Miss Major’s life and activism are plentiful, they all have anecdotes of Miss Major saving lives by simply being there, lending an ear, or offering advice and a good book. It’s little wonder so many have rallied around her, now often calling her “Mama Major” or “Grandma Major.” Janet Mock, a writer, director, and producer — one of the creators of the TV show Pose, once said, “Without Miss Major’s contributions and work, I would not exist.” There are countless transgender people in this country who say the same. That’s a tremendous legacy, but when asked what she hoped her legacy would be in a 2018 interview she said: “If ain’t right, fucking fix it, whatever it takes.”
And if that’s not a mantra for the whole world to adopt, I don’t know what is.
(PS, Miss Major also has a Facebook page you should totally follow.)
As I’m sure you all know, if you’ve been reading this site for a while, there’s alotofriots in queer history. Today, I’m going to tackle another — the White Night Riots of May 21, 1979.
I do have to start with a little backstory, so let’s rewind a bit. There’s a whole long very gay history going back to the founding of San Francisco but I’m not going to go back there (today, anyways) — suffice it to say that San Francisco was considered something of a haven for LGBTQ+ people in the United States, particularly gay men. An estimated 25% of the city’s population was LGBT. That didn’t change the laws of the country, though, and being openly gay in San Francisco still led to being arrested, losing your job, etc — it just meant there was a louder, larger community that had your back if those things happened. Which, of course, meant that there had been more than a couple mostly peaceful conflicts between the police and the queer community of San Francisco.
In 1972, Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco and opened Castro Camera, and — with political expertise and a lot of charisma — quickly became one of the leaders of the gay community of the city, which was centered in the Castro District (and I believe still is). In that position, Milk ultimately made himself very unpopular with the police — after one incident on Labor Day in 1974 where police beat dozens of gay men on Castro Street, and arrested 14 of them for “obstructing the sidewalk”, Milk hit them with a lawsuit for $1.375 million. In 1977, Milk won an election to the city Board of Supervisors (making him the first openly gay person elected to any office in the United States, yes, and I’d focus on that more but really it needs its own post.)
Also on the Board of Supervisors was Dan White — a former police officer who now owned a restaurant. He was a conservative in a city that was turning more and more liberal, and his restaurant was having serious financial problems. He resigned on November 10, 1978. Shortly after that, he met with the Board of Realtors and the Police Officers’ Association — both organizations encouraged him to ask for his position back, correctly realizing that his vote was essential in preventing more liberal policies that they opposed from being implemented in the city. So White asked for his position back — the liberals on the Board of Supervisors did not want him to get his position back. Milk and Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver led them in encouraging Mayor George Moscone not to reinstate White. And ultimately, on November 26, Moscone announced that he had agreed not to reinstate White. On November 27, White broke into the city hall through a basement window, went into the Mayor’s office, argued with him and then shot him three times — twice in the head. He then went to his former office, called for Milk to join him there, and shot Milk four times — twice in the head. Their bodies were found by city supervisor Dianne Feinstein.
White was arrested, obviously, for the double homicide. The prosecutor, Thomas Newman, sought charges for first degree murder with special circumstances, so he could ask for the death penalty. Meanwhile the San Francisco police and fire departments raised $100,000 for White’s defense, and they attended the trial wearing shirts that said “Free Dan”. As this was going on, police attacks against the gay community began to gain momentum. In March of 1979, drunk off-duty members of the police squad attacked a lesbian bar called Peg’s Place in the Richmond District of San Francisco. Tensions between the city’s LGBTQ+ community and the police had never been higher.
The defense attorney, Douglas Schmidt, played a recording of Dan’s confession to the jury where he ranted about the amount of pressure he was under — which some members of jury actually cried after hearing — and had a psychiatrist stated that White had diminished capacity due to a poor mental state. The evidence of this poor mental state was the amount of junk food he’d been eating — something which came to be known as the “Twinkie defense”. The jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison with the possibility of early release.
News of the verdict reached the Castro Distract. Activist Cleve Jones announced the news to a crowd of about 500 people, saying “Today, Dan White was essentially patted on the back. He was convicted of manslaughter—what you get for hit and run. We all know this violence has touched all of us. It was not manslaughter. I was there that day at City Hall. I saw what the violence did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.” The people there were fairly convinced that the prosecution and the police had worked together to ensure White would not have a severe sentence (although Newman denied this until his death and no proof has ever come to light of such a conspiracy.)
The crowd started marching, shouting “Out of the bars and into the streets” down Castro Street. Each time they passed a bar, people answered the call. They circled through the district until the crowd had roughly tripled in size — and then they started towards city hall. By the time they got there, the crowd was about 5,000 people. There were only a handful of police and they had not dealt with a crowd this large and angry before — they attempted to hold the mob back but to no avail. The crowd started vandalizing city hall, tearing gilded ornamental work off of the iron gates of the building and using them to bust open windows. Some activists attempted to calm things, including Milk’s longtime partner Joseph Scott Smith.
Police reinforcements arrived, attacking the crowd with nightsticks. (Absolutely exactly the wrong thing to do. This is ten years after Stonewall, they really should have known better.) The crowd started setting police cars on fire — ultimately, thirteen police cars and eight other vehicles would be set ablaze. As the last of the police cars was set on fire, the man who did it told a reporter on the scene “make sure you put in the paper that I ate too many Twinkies.”
These burning cars became such an iconic symbol, that the punk rock band Dead Kennedys used a photograph of a burning police car from that night as the album cover of their debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables in 1980. Members of the crowd also stole tear gas cannisters from these police vehicles, and threw them at the police. The crowd pulled down the cables for the trolleys, disabling them.
Inside city hall, Police Chief Charles Gain — at that moment the most gay friendly police chief in the city’s history (and one of the most hated by his subordinates) ordered his men to stand their ground but not to attack the crowd. Meanwhile, Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Supervisor Carol Ann Silver attempted to calm down the crowd by sympathizing with them — Silver even stated “Dan White has gotten away with murder. It’s as simple as that.” Some sort of object, can’t find good records as it what it was, got thrown at Silver, injuring her.
After three hours of rioting, the police launched a full offensive — their badges covered with black tape to hide their identities (sound familiar?), particularly as they were not following orders. They also used tear gas — but the rioters fought back, using anything they could get their hands on as a weapon, including pieces they tore off of city buses and pieces of asphalt they ripped out of the street itself. Nevertheless, the crowd did eventually disperse.
And then the police defied their orders from Chief Gain and attacked the Castro District in retaliation — they began at a bar called the Elephant Walk, which they vandalized — breaking windows and beating the patrons inside. After fifteen minutes, they left the bar and began indiscriminately attacking people in the streets of the district. This carried on for two hours before Chief Gain heard about it and went to the Elephant Walk. Upon seeing the damage, he immediately ordered the police to withdraw.
Mike Weiss — a freelance reporter who had been covering the trial of Dan White and would publish the book Double Play: The San Francisco City Hall Killings in 1984 — stated that he encountered a couple of police officers at a bar later that night, drinking and laughing. One officer reportedly told him, “We were at City Hall the day the killings happened and were smiling then. We were there tonight and we’re still smiling.” Now, it’s true that Weiss is the only source for this, but he did win a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Baltimore riot in 1968 so he does have some credibility.
The rioting caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage in just a few hours. Adjusted for inflation it’s estimated this damage would have been over a million dollars were it to happen today — making this, as far as I know, the most expensive riot in queer history. Certainly putting the Stonewall Riots to shame. Aside from the property damage, 140 protesters were injured — with 100 of those needing to be hospitalized — as well as about 61 police officers.
The next day, the leaders of the gay community in San Francisco held a press conference. The media was expecting that these officials would condemn the violence and apologize. Instead, Harry Britt, who had replaced Milk as city supervisor for the Castro district, issued this statement: “Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.” They made it abundantly clear to the people of the Castro that no one was ever to apologize for the riot at all. As of this day, no one has — of course, neither have the police.
That night, an estimated 20,000 people rallied in the Castro District. May 22 was Milk’s birthday, so the rally had been planned long before the rioting. The rally managed to stay peaceful, although the entire city was tense. If anything, Cleve Jones can be credited with keeping it that way — laying out contingency plans, coordinating with Chief Gain, and having 300 monitors to keep an eye on the crowd. However, the point of the rally originally had been to have a celebration of Milk’s life and that had not changed. Despite the underlying anger, there was still plenty of dancing and partying in the streets.
A grand jury was convened to determine who had ordered the attack on the Elephant Walk — but there was no real evidence, so it remains a mystery. No officers ever faced consequences for the police action. With Feinstein looking to win a full term election as mayor, she spent a lot of money campaigning in the Castro district — courting the still politically powerful gay community. Her primary promise to them was to appoint more gay people into public offices. After her election, she kept this promise — even replacing Chief Gain with the openly gay Cornelius Murphy. Murphy overturned some of Gain’s less popular policies (namely, the colors that police cars were painted) which won him some popularity with the police force, but insisted on progressive policies regarding the gay community. By the following year, one out of every seven new police recruits in San Francisco was gay or lesbian.
The riots had received national attention and, if anything, stressed the need for minorities to be represented in government. Gay and lesbian people began to be elected or appointed to public office all over the country. The legacy of those riots lasted for decades. In 2009, fearful of what the verdict might be, as the California Supreme Court deliberated on the case of Strauss v. Horton, the then Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom asked the court not to announce their decision on May 21. Although the court actually decided in favor of LGBTQ+ rights, they still agreed not to publicly announce their decision on the 30th anniversary of the riots, waiting until May 26.
Unfortunately, of all the things that have changed in the 41 years since the White Night Riots, police brutality in the United States is really not one of them. This week we’ve seen historic protests over this issue — and a lot of controversy about riots. We cannot, as a community, forget where we’ve come from. I’m not saying we all need to go out and start riots right now, but I am saying that our community already fought this battle with decades of rioting. There are people still fighting this battle, people our community has left behind. We need to support them now.