The memorials in New York City that supposedly relate to the LGBTQ+ community are terrible. Uniformly god-awful. Just plain cringe-worthy. Epic fails. And that these opinionated observations aren’t even close to being controversial, just proves my point. Whether stymied by political posturing, proximity to real estate developer cash or just plain lack of aesthetics, New York cannot get it together to properly reflect the experiences of queer folks in its population.
Although I’ve previously aired my grievances about the NYC AIDS Memorial, the most recent memorial abomination is possibly the worst yet: Anthony Goicolea’s LGBT Memorial located in the Hudson River Park, close to that storied cruising zone and gathering place, the Christopher Street Piers. Created in honor of the victims of the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, as well as other victims of hate, the LGBT Memorial is no more than a pile of rocks. While this gathering of boulders certainly inspires tears, it’s out of frustration rather than grief.
However, one benefit to these dull stones is that they don’t actively exclude anyone, which is more than can be said for George Segal’s Gay Liberation, the blindingly white and proudly cisgender same-sex couple sculptures that loiter in Christopher Park, across from the Stonewall Inn. Memorializing the influential Stonewall riots that kicked off on the night of June 28, 1969, these sculptures were commissioned in 1979 with the caveat that they had to be “loving and caring, and show the affection that is the hallmark of gay people…And it had to have equal representation of men and women.” Segal’s response to this prompt was to construct two pairings: a gay male twosome that stand chatting with one figure touching the other’s shoulders, while the other stands cool as a cucumber with his hands in his pockets and a duo of lesbians sitting on a park bench with one woman’s hand on the other’s thigh.
While seemingly aggravatingly mundane now, Gay Liberation wasn’t without initial controversy. Due to both outrage and construction in the park, it took over a decade for the sculptures to actually be installed in Christopher Park in 1992. The pearl-clutchers aren’t the only ones who hate this memorial, though. Entirely white, from head to toe, these figures quite literally whitewash (and cis-wash) the legacy of the riots they supposedly represent. Segal apparently didn’t see fit to place a sculpture in honor of the many queer, trans and gender non-conforming people of color that participated in the riots. Stonewall veterans like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and Stormé DeLarverie are nowhere to be found in Segal’s vision of gay liberation, somewhat ironically mimicking how trans and gender non-conforming people and people of color have often been left behind, overlooked or outright ignored in gay liberation movements.
Segal’s figures are also so innocuously passive to be offensive. Liberation was fought that night with flying bottles, shot glasses, heels and dog shit, thrown at the police, not politely having a conversation in a park. And even though Gay Liberation is an ancient relic by New York memorial standards, this still matters because the threats that the patrons of Stonewall were rebelling against–arrests and raids due to frivolous laws policing gender (one notable law legislated that individuals had to be wearing at least three articles of clothing corresponding to their biological sex)–aren’t too far from our own. While the method of enforcement was different, harassment and police violence against queer, trans and gender non-conforming people, especially people of color, is still a reality for many.
In 2015, anonymous activists covered Segal’s four statues with wigs and scarves, and painted their faces black and brown to rectify this Caucasity. While this was a momentary act of rebellion against the erasure of history, artist Chris E. Vargas and the Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art (MOTHA)’s current exhibition Consciousness Razing—The Stonewall Re-Memorialization Project, at the New Museum contains a similar critique of these imperfect monuments, though more institutionally driven than the prior well-earned vandalism. Part of the New Museum’s Department of Education and Public Engagement’s Fall 2018 R&D Season GENERATION, MOTHA’s installation, curated by Johanna Burton and Sara O’Keeffe not only reconsiders what would be a more appropriate monument to the riots, specifically, but also how we preserve and memorialize the multiplicity of queer histories.
MOTHA is no stranger to questioning traditional methods of historicizing. Founded by Vargas in 2013, MOTHA looks for alternate means, including humor and outright fiction, to fill in the blanks, silences and missing information that typifies trans “hirstory.” As MOTHA’s mission statement reads, “For millennia, the patriarchy has had versions of history; for a few years in the 1970s, some white feminists had herstory but it hasn’t been until now that transgender people have finally had a gender-neutral history all their own.”
And Stonewall is a very particular test case in the trouble with historicization. Why? Because nobody who was there seems to have a singular story of what actually occurred after the NYPD raided the bar. To some, Marsha P. Johnson tossed that first shot glass. To others, a heel plunged from the back of a paddy wagon, landing right into the gut of a policeman. And yet others saw Stormé DeLarverie punch a cop, encouraging others to join in. Now, it’s no surprise that all the veterans of Stonewall have a different war story. It was a riot–it’s only logical that various tales abound. As Miss Major remembers in the Trans Oral History Project, that is subsequently quoted in the exhibition’s takeaway materials: “Something happened–something like a boom–I don’t know if it was a fire-cracker; they say someone threw a beer bottle; someone else says one of the girls took her heel and broke a pane of glass. I don’t know what the hell it was; all I know is that all of a sudden everybody was fighting.”
Now, in addition to the multitude of the veterans’ memories, what further troubles the Stonewall narrative is the many examples of media missteps and eye roll-inducing Hollywood adaptations of the riot. Need I point to 2015’s terrible film Stonewall that places a corn-fed white cis gay boy as the main brick thrower with the drag queens and trans women of color playing his quirky local sidekicks. But, this cinematic stinker wasn’t the only offender. One of my personal favorite misrepresentations of Stonewall came courtesy of The New York Times who, in a correction to an article on President Obama deciding to designate the bar as a national monument, published this classic correction: “The article also referred incompletely to the initial protesters at the Stonewall Inn. They were primarily gay men, not just gay men; there was at least one lesbian.” Just one.
In response to this, Consciousness Razing—The Stonewall Re-Memorialization Project features several facets to try to figure out how exactly to best archive and memorialize Stonewall. This includes a large central 1:7 scale model of Christopher Park, amusingly rendered in the same shock of white as the George Segal sculptures. This model is stuffed with twelve artists’ renderings of proposed replacements for Gay Liberation, commissioned by Vargas and MOTHA (it’s no mistake that the new commemorations add the color to the park rather than strip it away like in Segal’s monument). Surrounding this model, Vargas and MOTHA present each artist’s description of their proposed memorial, along with, in some cases, audio. In an adjacent room, Vargas and MOTHA set up a study center with reading materials such as pamphlets from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, gesturing to the more radical politics of many of the Stonewall veterans that often gets lost in the mythology.
One of the strongest parts of the entire installation isn’t even its central piece. In a corner, beside the stairwell, a vitrine contains objects relevant to Stonewall, including Miss Major’s white stiletto heel, coins, a brick, beer bottles, a shot glass and even, a dog turd. Of course, no archive of Stonewall would be complete without The Daily News cover reporting on Judy Garland’s funeral that occurred earlier on the day of the riots, an event that supposedly whipped some of the Stonewall patrons into even more of a frenzy (though some veterans like Sylvia Rivera hesitate to place too much importance on the collision of these two circumstances). With puppy poo in an vitrine, it goes almost without saying that this is a wry take on institutional fascination with archives. However, because the Stonewall riots, like many events in queer history, left barely any tangible record, these semi-fictional items, while not the exact ones tossed at cops that night, can suffice to supplement the absences in the physical records of marginalized communities.
This need to find different strategies of archival memory mirrors the diversity of approaches the twelve artists take in creating a more apt monument to Stonewall. Taken together, these proposed memorials weave a tale of survival, wit, collectivity, strength and memory in the face of both institutionalized violence and contemporary erasure. In one area of the model, Stonewall veteran Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt places golden rats, representing how, as he writes in his description, “that night the ‘gutter (street) rats’ shone like the brightest gold!.” Nearby, Chris Bogia’s A Sculpture For June 28, 1969 uses brightly colored geometric abstraction, contained within the wooden frame of the bar’s facade, to depict the alternate confusion and self-fashioned glamour of that night with some vaguely recognizable forms including a heart, a string of pearls and a high heel. Other works stick with the figure, as seen in Martine Gutierrez’s Hidden Figures in Resistance, which transforms Segal’s four clearly white cis subjects into a circular foursome of gender neutral metallic figures.
Some of the artists’s chosen materials and imagery symbolize the populations that have been written out of the Stonewall narrative. Take, for example, Catherine Lord’s Reliquary, which honors lesbians (maybe that one mentioned in the Times). Lord’s piece towers over the rest of the model, filled to the brim with T-shirts from both individuals and archives, like the Lesbian Herstory Archives, that read “Friend of Ellen,” “Every Dyke Is A Hero,” or just simply, “Cunt,” as well as a T-shirt from The Clit Club. Similarly, Nicki Green harnesses the imagery of a pile of bricks to portray not only one of the objects tossed by protesters, but also the term “brick,” meaning a trans woman who can’t pass as cis. Devin N. Morris also constructs furniture to represent iconic Black trans women figures, such as Lady Chablis and Marsha P. Johnson, in A Seat For Sitting.
However, it’s not all serious. Some artists add some much needed levity to the memorials like Jibz Cameron, best known as her performance alter-ego Dynasty Handbag, who memorializes Stonewall by showing not only a stiletto being stabbed violently into a cop’s eye, but also the bar’s notoriously overflowing toilets.
It should be noted that Consciousness Razing—The Stonewall Re-Memorialization Project is not the first to ask artists to revisit the Gay Liberation monument. In December 2016, Hugh Ryan and Avram Finkelstein commissioned a series of artists and artist collectives, including Nayland Blake, LJ Roberts, Dark Matter and Carlos Motta to make their own plans for monuments for VICE. Entitled Squatting on Stonewall, the project was to not so much mirror the events of the Stonewall riots themselves, but as Ryan and Finkelstein wrote, “to speak to the movement for queer liberation as they see it today.”
Ultimately, that multiple artists and curators have seen the need to lend more voices to Christopher Park is significant. The strength of both Consciousness Razing—The Stonewall Re-Memorialization Project and Squatting on Stonewall is not necessarily in each artist’s proposal individually, but their ability as a whole to capture the various parts of Stonewall’s history and queer liberation. Even picking one of the proposed sculptures out of the bunch, it may not be as weak as Segal’s, but it still wouldn’t be sufficient. Potentially cities are going about memorialization all wrong–one monument is never enough. Maybe, just like the model in the New Museum, the park should be covered with these memorials. Just like the burdensome phrase LGBTQIA+ community is an umbrella under which many individuals stand, memorials for that community need to embrace these multiplicities too, no matter how divergent, conflicting or contrasting. Queer liberation was born from chaos; perhaps it should be memorialized by it too.