Manuel Betancourt on the gay iconicity of Judy Garland
Judy Garland died on June 22, 1969.
The Stonewall riots began on June 28, 1969.
The contiguity of these two events have encouraged many since to see them as intimately tied to one another, going so far as suggesting that one caused the other. It’s a question that came up several times in casual conversation last year, especially during the summer as New York City celebrated their joint anniversary. Such commingling of fact and fiction fascinated me, especially as my book on Judy at Carnegie Hall is, above all, a study in how Garland’s gay iconicity has endured over the years. In my research for the book I came across many an exasperated historian pushing back against what has since become key Stonewall lore.
A 1994 play titled Judy at the Stonewall Inn, for instance, imagined Judy’s own ghost egging on the Stonewall patrons to fight back. Despite what sounds like a fanciful premise that took plenty of artistic license to tell its tale, the play merely unearthed a kind of whispered acceptance of the historical importance Judy’s funeral played in that watershed twentieth century moment. More recently, RuPaul summed up that pivotal 1969 riot in a way that put Garland at its center, telling her Drag Race queens in a 2019 episode that those at the Stonewall had “used their grief over Judy’s death to rise up and fight back.”
The earliest example, though, came courtesy of The Village Voice. In line with the flagrantly homophobic coverage the New York City weekly had offered about the late June riots that happened mere blocks away from the Voice’s offices, a July 10th story titled “Too Much My Dear” snidely connected the lavish Garland funeral that had taken place in Manhattan days before the riots began with the angered response against a late night police raid of Stonewall: “The combination of a full moon and Judy Garland’s funeral was too much for them, Dick Neuweiler said the other day, assessing the cause of the Great Faggot Rebellion.”
Writer Walter Troy Spencer helpfully let someone else’s words flippantly connect the grief many in the gay community felt about Judy’s loss with the anger members of that same community lashed at the NYPD in the days that followed. It kept the Voice contributor from having to factually make the connection himself. Historians and those actually involved in the four-day riots have pushed back on that all-too tidy conflation of arguably disparate members of the LGBTQ community. Sylvia Rivera, one of the preeminent LGBTQ advocates of that era, called it a “myth” outright, while Stonewall historian David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, has stressed the inadequacy of seeing the riots as being in any way caused by the funeral of a beloved entertainer.
It’s understandable why this image of tear-streaked theater queens raising hell for not being able to mourn in peace resonates, especially because it so handily elides a much thornier history. It’s easier to collapse the queer community into a group of grief-stricken diva fans than to remember and honor the righteous anger and frustration (against the police, after all) that fueled the week-long riots.
But it’s also worth asking why the myth endures and what we lose when we connect Stonewall to Garland rather than to, say, Stormé DeLarverie and Marsha P. Johnson, two pivotal figures — the former a Black butch lesbian, the latter a trans Black woman — in the riots’ proceedings. And so, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally that took place in June 1970, it’s imperative to do away with facile myth making and let this important bit of queer history be centered not on ghosts of dead divas but on the real life brave women who led a community under siege into an anti-police riot that feels as timely in 2020 as it was in 1969.
Fascinated by queer history and the making of a gay icon? Check out Manuel’s book to learn more!