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Randy Wicker4
Randy WickerPhotography Tom Kneller, art direction Spencer Singer

Photographing LGBTQ+ pioneers of the Stonewall era on its 50th anniversary

Randy Wicker4

Five queer icons – lensed by photographer Tom Kneller – remember the legendary riots that sparked a queer revolution in America

If LGBTQ+ people were to have an official bedtime story, it should be the story of Stonewall

It’s 1969 in post-war America. Homosexuality has been listed as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association for 17 years and is illegal in almost every state. In New York, the gathering of queer people is classed as ‘disorderly behaviour’ and the FBI has a growing list of known LGBTQ+ people. Even the postal service is keeping note of addresses where material pertaining to be homosexual is sent. 

Amid all of this, there is a haven – the Mafia-run Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, one of the only places where queer people can truly be themselves; dancing, drinking, and dragging up to their hearts content. Despite paying off police officers to leave the bar undisturbed, it’s often raided and it isn’t out of the ordinary for patrons to be abused, assaulted, and arrested. 

On June 28, 1969, this all changed. Tired of relentless harassment and bullying, the raid that night turned violent after the arrest of a lesbian woman – believed to be Stormé DeLarverie. The crowd gathering outside became galvanised and began throwing stones, bottles, and pennies at the officers. The rest of the story – as the best ones are – differs between each storyteller. 

It’s widely believed that activist Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick/shot glass/stone, though this has been disputed – even by Johnson herself. Johnson’s close friend and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera is also integral to the story as a frequent patron, and while being present for previous (smaller) riots, was believed not to be present when the June 28 riots started. The details remain an ongoing joke within the community – no, Taylor Swift did not throw the first brick – but it’s to be noted that the story of the riots have been whitewashed in film portrayals, removing figures like Johnson and Riviera from the narrative completely. 

This year’s Pride in New York sees 50 years since the legendary riots. To celebrate and remember those who paved the way for the freedoms LGBTQ+ people in the US and the Western world-at-large enjoy, photographer Tom Kneller has lensed a group of pioneers from the Stonewall era. “It was really important for me to look back and honour those individuals who lived through Stonewall and are still fighting for the community 50 years later,” Kneller tells us. “So much of our history is forgotten or erased, so it was really important for me to recognise these queer pioneers.” 

Featuring Randy Wicker, Egyptt LaBeija, Victoria Cruz, Agosto Machado, and Samuel R. Delany, the mandate was to photograph each participant in a place they call home. Unsurprisingly, the project has been extremely inspiring for Kneller and Spencer Singer, who conducted the interviews and provided art direction.  

“This project is one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had,” the photographer shares. “Speaking with them about Stonewall and our history was amazing – I learned so much from each person. If you think that our generation is open-minded, then you should meet them.” 

RANDY WICKER

Randy is a prolific activist who first joined The Mattachine Society in 1958 and for more than 50 years has fought for LGBTQ+ rights with various organisations. Randy was an extremely close friend of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. We shot Randy at home in Hoboken, NJ where Marsha lived as his roommate for nearly 12 years before her untimely death in 1992.

What does Pride mean to you? How are you celebrating?

Randy Wicker: Pride to me is celebrating the life I’ve lived and the progress I’ve seen happen in this great society. I will be marching with the Reclaim Pride Coalition activists starting at 9:30am. In the evening, I’m getting on the Philadelphia float to join them with the black and brown stripe added to the rainbow flag.

What does Stonewall mean to you? Why is it important we remember the history of Stonewall?

Randy Wicker: It was the moment that a small movement of hundreds of people moved to a mass movement of thousands. It happened because it was a resistance that captured the imagination of the masses – a small movement finally took root. I’m amazed at all the progress that has been made in the 50 years since Stonewall.

What advice would you give to somebody struggling with their sexuality but wanting to celebrate Pride?

Randy Wicker: Go out and be open with people. Get to know different types of people until you find those that you can communicate with and feel safe with. You have to ease into a life that you feel comfortable with. Mainly, I think it’s a real adventure to be gay; gay life has been such a wonderful experience. It’s a great education if you’re willing to be open and explore it.

“(Stonewall) was the moment that a small movement of hundreds of people moved to a mass movement of thousands. It happened because it was a resistance that captured the imagination of the masses – a small movement finally took root” – Randy Wicker

How can people continue supporting the LGBTQ+ community outside of Pride?

Randy Wicker: It’s important to get involved in organisations, whether it’s a local youth group or SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders). Get involved with the local Democratic club or even the local Republican club if you happen to be Republican! Go join a metropolitan community church. Put your roots out in all types of organisations. Meet other people and you’ll be better for it!

If you could say anything to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, what would you say?

Randy Wicker: Girlfriends, you have no idea how famous and fabulous you have become! You would not believe it.

Marsha and Sylvia were the most marginalised of gay people. Trans people were not added to the LGBTQ+ coalition until about 10 or 15 years ago. People didn’t want them to march in the gay parade! What is so great about Marsha and Sylvia is that they have become the face of gay liberation. Marsha had less than anyone else and yet she taught me more about living than any other human being. That was to do for others and you will find happiness. That really is the secret to a good life.

VICTORIA CRUZ

Victoria Cruz is a transgender activist and pioneer who has made strides for the LGBTQ+ community in the past five decades. Cruz has fought to protect and empower the community through her work with the NYC Anti-Violence Project. In 2012, she was honoured with The Justice Department’s National Crime Victim Service Award for her advocacy. Cruz’s investigation of Marsha P. Johnson’s death was documented in David France’s 2017 documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. We shot Victoria at Jacob Riis beach, a queer haven she refers to as ‘The Riviera of New York’ and has been visiting since 1963. Victoria wanted to honour Ms Colombia, a queer icon who died at Jacob Riis beach last year, so we captured her next to the Ms Colombia’s memorial on Jacob Riis beach.

What does Pride mean to you? How are you celebrating?

Victoria Cruz: It’s part of who I am. I don’t have to wait for one day a year to be proud of who and what I am. When I wake up in the morning I thank God, do my personal hygienes, dress myself up, and look in the mirror before I get out there and be proud of who and what I am. And I am proud!

What does Stonewall mean to you? Why is it important we remember the history of Stonewall?

Victoria Cruz: When I was a child I pledged allegiance to the flag. I took the words ‘Liberty and Justice for all’ to heart, but growing up in the Stonewall days, I didn’t have that. I was harassed by cops because of who I am and I had to watch over my shoulder all the time. But what laws was I breaking? So, that liberty and justice really didn’t pertain to me at that time. When Stonewall happened, I said: ‘Okay, you can pay me back for all the injustices.’

“The community has to support itself. We have power in numbers! Together we stand, divided we fall” – Victoria Cruz 

What advice would you give to somebody struggling with their sexuality but wanting to celebrate Pride?

Victoria Cruz: Be true to yourself. Love yourself. And be honest to yourself.

How can people continue supporting the LGBTQ+ community outside of Pride?

Victoria Cruz: By continuing to support the community! The community has to support itself. We have power in numbers! Together we stand, divided we fall. Let’s keep the community together, that’s something Sylvia wanted.

If you could say anything to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, what would you say?

Victoria Cruz: Girl, they gave you those honours 50 years too late because you are pioneers. Marsha is the Rosa Parks of the movement and Sylvia is the mother of the movement. 

SAMUEL R. DELANY

Samuel R. Delany is a prolific science fiction writer whose incredibly seminal autobiographical books Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village and Times Square Red / Times Square Blue beautifully investigate themes of race, sexuality, art, New York, and much more. He is the recipient of the Stonewall Book Award for his novel Dark Reflections. We shot Samuel around Philadelphia where he lives with his partner Dennis.

What does Stonewall mean to you? Why is it important we remember the history of Stonewall?

Samuel R. Delany: Sadly I was not in New York during the Stonewall Riots. During that summer I was living in San Francisco. Someone called me the next day from New York to tell me all about them, and I was delighted to hear and, over the next weeks, read about them. 

My novel Dark Reflections has a scene that takes place in the Stonewall Inn, inspired by visits I went on several occasions in the summer before the riots. My sense of the place is that it was a black and Latinx bar, though, again and again, in the decade right after it, it was presented as a largely white bar and the rioting itself something that began largely from the white members of the New York gay community.

What advice would you give to somebody struggling with their sexuality but wanting to celebrate Pride?

Samuel R. Delany: Don’t struggle with it, just enjoy it! I was 27 when Stonewall happened. Afterwards, I was fortunate that I did live in New York and there were places like the (sex) theatres that I describe in Times Square Red / Times Square Blue. But I don’t think there are places like those theatres today at all…. Now a lot of people do it with Scruff and Grindr!

EGYPTT LABEIJA

Egyptt is a legendary transgender icon and performer from the Royal House of LaBeija. She is the recipient of numerous honours from various ballroom competitions and has worked extensively with organisations such as the Audre Lorde Project and Housing Works. We shot Egyptt at home in the Bronx as she prepared for her Pride performances.

What does Pride mean to you? How are you celebrating?

Egyptt LaBeija: Pride is about celebrating who I am. It means not caring if anyone likes that or not! I’ve been celebrating Pride since the beginning of this month. The best way to celebrate is to go out and be visible.

What does Stonewall mean to you? Why is it important we remember the history of Stonewall?

Egyptt LaBeija: It’s important that we remember the history of Stonewall so we don’t have to repeat it again. When people remember what happened at Stonewall, they will know what we went through as the LGBTQ+ community. Society has to understand that we are people and we have rights.

Stonewall was the beginning of the revolution! We shouldn’t have to hide and be ashamed of who and what we are. We are still going further and after another 50 years they will look back and see how far we have come. 

What does it mean to be a part of the House of LaBeija?

Egyptt LaBeija: Everything! Ev-ery-thing. It is the first house of ballroom. It is not just the House of LaBeija, it is the Royal House of LaBeija. 50 years later, we are what we are. We are back on top, and we’re going higher.

“Stonewall was the beginning of the revolution! We shouldn’t have to hide and be ashamed of who and what we are. We are still going further and after another 50 years they will look back and see how far we have come” – Egyptt LaBeija 

What advice would you give to somebody struggling with their sexuality but wanting to celebrate Pride?

Egyptt LaBeija: Love thy self. Don’t worry about what anyone has to say about you. At the end of the day, you have to go home and be with yourself. If you’re not comfortable and happy with that person, then you need to fix that. A lot of people live their lives through other people’s eyes. In my life, I don’t settle for anything less than I what I want. So, don’t settle, just do what you need to do!

How can people continue supporting the LGBTQ+ community outside of Pride?

Egyptt LaBeija: I’m going to continue to support the community through performance and education. I’m going to continue to until I get too old and I can’t do it!

If you could say anything to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, what would you say?

Egyptt LaBeija: ‘Job well done. I appreciate everything you’ve done.’ Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today!

AGOSTO MACHADO

Agosto is a legendary performer from the East Village avant-garde theatre scene. He has acted alongside Holly Woodland and Candy Darling and served as close friend and collaborator to Marsha P. Johnson, Jack Smith, Peter Hujar, Mario Montez, and many more queer legends. He is best known for his performances at East Village performance haunt La MaMa. He continues to perform at sites like the Judson Church and art galleries across New York. We shot Agosto at his home in the East Village, which also serves as an archive of queer artists who did not make it to Stonewall50.

What does Pride mean to you? 

Agosto Machado: Pride is self-awareness and acceptance of yourself! It’s a long process because of the manners and morals of the time. Like an onion, you need to peel back the layers of yourself and be proud of what is under each layer!

What does Stonewall mean to you? Why is it important we remember the history of Stonewall?

Agosto Machado: We didn’t know that the riots at Stonewall would explode into gay liberation! Stonewall wasn’t the first little riot, there were many incidents that didn’t make the papers. At that time, we were used to the police coming in and raiding the bars. They’d clear us out and then we would return in about 40 minutes after everything died down. Marsha and Sylvia were the ones that continued the march forward once the riots gained such recognition. People of colour have been ignored by the media, which is why it’s wonderful to know that there is so much acknowledgement of Marsha now. Thank God younger people are not ignoring history!

“Pride is self-awareness and acceptance of yourself! Like an onion, you need to peel back the layers of yourself and be proud of what is under each layer” – Agosto Machado 

What advice would you give to somebody struggling with their sexuality but wanting to celebrate Pride?

Agosto Machado: Safety in numbers! There are a million people coming this month to Pride… you can blend in, wear dark glasses! (joking). I know it isn’t easy for everyone. You need layers of armour to survive! Even with the dark glasses, it’s important to know that you are part of a larger family and movement.

If you could say anything to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, what would you say?

Agosto Machado: You did it for us all! Your message is heard, loud and clear!