Anonymous Activists Just Painted The Stonewall Statues Brown For Miss Major

In an incredible interview between our trans editor Mey and the legendary black trans elder Miss Major, they discussed the way that Gay Liberation statues of white, cis people memorialized outside of Stonewall white- and cis-wash a movement led by black and brown queer and trans people. “Let’s get together a group of people to redo those god damn statues across from the original Stonewall. Let’s have the building at least claim who the people were that were there, not these white people that they had on in the plaque in there,” Miss Major told Mey. “Someone should smash those motherfuckers up and turn them into the white dust that they are and put a couple of statues of people of color and at least make one of them an overly obnoxious transgender woman 6’5′, three inch heels, blond/red hair, lashes, beads, feathers and put one of those fine white boys next to her, now that I can handle!”

In response, two anonymous activists revamped the statues so they would better reflect the individuals who put themselves on the line for the liberation of their communities at Stonewall and throughout the history of queer liberation movements. They painted the statues brown and dressed them in wigs and bright costumes. You can watch their video here.

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The activists are two queer and gender non-conforming women in their 20s, one white and one a Latina immigrant, living in Brooklyn. They saw Miss Major’s comments as a call to action and decided to respond. We were able to interview them via email on condition of maintaining their anonymity.

Why did you decide to paint and dress the statues?

Those sculptures are supposedly there to commemorate the Stonewall riots, but there isn’t a trace of the actual riots in them. They’re a slap across the face to the Black and Latina trans women who got whacked with batons and shoved into police vans, and still had the guts to continue to lead the fight for LGBTQ liberation. I mean, the people who modeled for the sculptures weren’t even at the riots! That’s just a straight-up insult. It’s also important to note that the Mildred Andrews Fund paid a (presumably) straight and cis white man $90,000 to depict gay people. It’s no wonder that the sculptures are so impassive and tone-deaf.

We painted them because Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Storme DeLarverie and all the other Black and Brown people who led the movement deserve credit for their courage and strength. What we did was rectification, not vandalism. Those statues are bronze (brown) underneath the layer of white paint — the symbolism behind that is infuriating. I know that some people are going to be angry, but I’m not concerned with preserving bullshit art. I’m angry about the whitewashing of LGBTQ history.

What does Stonewall mean to you?

Stonewall and Compton’s Cafeteria Riot were breaking points. They were the moments when society’s most disenfranchised decided that enough was enough, and fought back. They were about subversion, not assimilation. Before its de-politicization, pride was about survival. Now it’s just a problem that obscures how bad things still are for LGBTQ people who aren’t white, middle-class and cisgender.

Why is it important to you to center trans people and people of color in conversations about queer and trans liberation?

We’ve got to keep talking about the 16 trans women have been murdered this year, and Black Lives Matter, and police brutality, and immigration. And the respectability politics have got to stop! It’s insane that gays booed Sylvia Rivera 42 years ago, and just did the same thing to Jennicet Gutiérrez a few months ago. Voices like hers are the ones that need to be amplified the most. It’s not liberation if it’s not intersectional.

Do you expect to face any negative consequences for this action?

We’re hoping to stay totally anonymous. There was a camera crew at Christopher Park shooting a short documentary about the riots, and they got some footage of us, but agreed to blur out our faces. If, however, our names do surface, we’re prepared to deal with the potential consequences. It’s better if we get arrested than if it happens to a trans woman who’d then be grouped with men and put in harm’s way.

Anything else you would like folks to know about the action?

To the people who’ll end up repainting the sculptures: brown and black lacquer exists. Think about what it means to repaint the statues white, and then stop.
To Miss Major: This is for you. Thank you.

Update from Miss Major:

Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a divinity student at Vanderbilt University. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @adrianwhitetx.

Adrian has written 150 articles for us.

87 Comments

  1. What makes me feel uncomfortable with this is the fact that no actual black woman was involved in the re-painting of the statues. I feel like that would have made a big difference.

    My thoughts right now are “nice idea” and “you tried” but I can’t really get to liking it wholeheartedly.

    • I also have some mixed feelings about the action for a few reasons including yours, but I did want to point out that Sylvia Rivera, one of the two women depicted in this picture, is Latina, and so is one of the activists who painted the statues.

        • They are on Autostraddle. It’s why Mey and Heather Hogan are constantly writing about black issues despite not being black. And all the white women being experts on Islam because they read two articles on ISIS.

          • I don’t really want to hear any more opinions on this but maybe you could collect your white sisters who are fucking up all over this thread? I donate to this site in an attempt to help hire more non white women but instead you keep going the other way and getting more racist. Which after some of the racist debacles on this site I didn’t think was actually possible.

  2. I actually know little to nothing about Stonewall, and it didn’t occur to me to start learning until people starting commenting on the movie trailer. When I saw the trailer, I actually figured they were taking the fake protagonist surrounded by real characters approach (i.e., Titanic’s Jack and Rose we fictional but several other characters were based on real people). I don’t disagree with using a fictional protagonist in a film like that because it seems to work in a lot of historical fiction, but now that I’ve done a little bit of reading, it bothers me that they used a white guy and it bothers me even more that I never learned this stuff in school (high school or university).

  3. Apparently the modifications are already gone, so those worried about the statues being damaged can relax:
    https://www.frontiersmedia.com/frontiers-blog/2015/08/19/activists-paint-stonewall-memorial-statues-brown-in-honor-of-unsung-heroes/

    I want to thank you all for your comments! My first reaction was to get really excited, before considering the blackface aspect that others brought up. I wonder if the perception of the original statues influences perceptions of blackface — like, are they statues specifically of white people, painted brown (definitely blackface) or are they generally-human-shaped pieces of bronze painted white and then brown (not so clearcut)? Either way, I think we all would agree that painting the statues would not be a good long-term solution. We need some new, more representative statues! …And history books… and movies, etc. etc.

    • The issue of Blackface for me, and I can only speak for me not other brown people, is the aspect of de-humunization and mockery. I don’t give a fuck who or what is underneath. Whether it’s a costume for your dog or a statue of “generally-human-shaped pieces of bronze painted white and then brown”.

      Even without knowing the history of Blackface, seeing what is supposed to be an Brown person, depicted in such a clownish way brings back a childhood of feelings where I was told I wasn’t beautiful, or intelligent, or someone to be taken seriously as a candidate at a college interview (actually happened). I understand why that imagery was specifically chosen, it’s to put us in our place and remind us that we are ridiculous and not respectable or worthy. I hated the idea that those statues were up like that and I am so happy they’re back to normal.

      This is why I’m probably not as bothered by the white actor playing a light skin brown person in a serious way. Yes there are issues of not hiring Brown actors, but the disrespect isn’t there when makeup artists are actually making that person look a certain way. The actor isn’t mocking or belittling. Again, I am speaking for myself.

      • Jessie, I just wanted to tell you that I appreciate you sharing your POV on this even though it doesn’t necessarily fit with what everyone else says. As I have been trying to figure out how I feel about what happened, reading your comments has made me think of a lot of points that I never would have seen on my own :)

        Also, fuck whoever told you that you weren’t a good candidate for college. That is all.

  4. I love that some people are getting all up in arms about the fact that it was “vandalism.” Public art is (ideally) commissioned or created to make a statement about our society/people/etc. The art may not literally belong to the people, but that message/statement kind of does. Art is not sacred, and it is not crafted and displayed in a vacuum. The things that subsequently happen to public art pieces as they are exposed to a changing public are part of the evolution of the piece’s message/impact. The ‘vandalism’ becomes part of the history of the piece. It is art as well.

    And, I mean, it’s not like they splashed a bucket of paint across the Mona Lisa. The statues are easily returned to their former state.

    As to whether it’s ‘good’ or effective art, that’s up for debate. But at least it’s gotten us debating! The message and impact, the origins and ownership of those things, are all worth thinking and feeling about and hearing one another’s opinions on. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?

  5. While not opposed to activism in any way, I will point out that these particular statues have been vandalized more than 40 times in the past by anti-gay activists. The message the people responsible wanted to get across may not be the one they want.

  6. People’s ‘omg blackface!’ response to this is so confusing to me. The thing that’s shocking and violent about blackface is that it’s an act of racism; the intention is racist. The mechanics are not the point, putting black pigment on a white face isn’t the point, it’s the racist intent behind it that matters. There was obviously no racism behind the actions of these activists.

    Like, if someone shoved me, but it was to get me out of the path of a moving train, then the intent of the shoving is clearly benevolent. To me you all sound like a person who’s going on and on about someone who shoved them without acknowledging that they didn’t get run over.

    Another example: I had to wear a patch on one eye when i was a kid to correct an eye condition. Are you going to point at me and go ‘omg pirate!’ and condemn the doctor that is trying to help me for making me look foolish? And that was all you had to say about it? You had nothing to contribute except ‘omg pirate’? Nothing like ‘I hope their vision gets better’ or ‘Cool the doctors are working to solve that condition’ or ‘I wonder if there was a way to improve this like give the person a parrot and a sword so they can really rock the pirate look?’ ‘Maybe we should all wear eye patches so they don’t feel so self-conscious’? There were so many ways to better respond to the actions of these activists besides ‘omg blackface’! and then nothing else.

    These activists see an important problem, a social problem with lives at stake. They were moved to do something real about it, not just talk about it. They’re trying to solve a problem that they believe is worthy of their time and commitment and possible public criticism / incarceration. There’s an unfortunate visual similarity to blackface, but the visual similarity does not extend to an act of racism that blackface entails. In other words it’s besides the point.

    I wish ppl that had bothered to comment ‘omg blackface’ would follow up with something substantive about the cause behind this act. Be part of the solution. How cool would it have been if AS had an amazing conversation about activism, historical acts of protest art, their own activism in their communities, civil disobedience and performance art. It’s a big exciting topic.

    I get it, activists are easy to make fun of. Portlandia makes a living at it. The passion activists feel towards righting wrongs and pulling out all the stops can sometimes result in not seeing right away what a more cynical eye would see. I was disappointed that the AS community didn’t use this remarkable opportunity to bring more to support to this important conversation.

    Activists; good job. You moved me and I believe in what you’re doing.
    -Former Pirate and Would-Be Activist.

      • Yes I agree ppl can be unintentionally racist. What I’m saying is that everyone is reacting as if they were deliberately racist, which leaves me gobsmacked because they were doing it to honor a black woman. I think intention matters very much.

        I used a story from my own life because it’s preferable to pretending I know what it’s like to have a racist act perpetrated against me. It is a logical comparison because ppl are reacting to superficial appearance rather than the purpose or intention in both cases.

          • Actually Jesse’s comment above helped me to understand. If I got it right, Jesse’s saying the personal experience of racism relating to blackface made it so the negative impact of how the statues looked outweighed any positive impact from the good intentions of the activists to honor an important black woman.

            I think that’s what you were getting at J.V. with your comments, saying that the analogies of train collision and eye patch did not apply because they don’t occur in the context of racism.

            As someone who is a part-time activist for various causes going on 20 years now, I’m used to grassroots shoestring budgets and homemade stuff for rallies sometimes looking undignified, and I hadn’t encountered the appearance outweighing the intent before, so it’s given me a lot to think about and to feel.

  7. So when these statues were vandalized in the past it was an act of homophobia, but now that it is trans people who are vandalizing public art it is ‘liberation’.

    Oh my sides.

    The vandals are idiots.

    Surely their rage would be better directed at the straight men who are killing them?

    • The homophobic vandalism wasn’t just generic vandalism that people interpreted as homophobic. In one case the statues were beaten viciously with a hammer, in another “AIDS” was spraypainted on the male couple.

      Those incidents were clearly intended to communicate the vandal’s homophobia.

      This incident is clearly intended to critique the statue’s choices in representing a riot over the arrest of gender noncomforming members of the gay community with nonthreatening, gender conforming gay couples, and in representing a racially diverse community with bronze statues coated in white enamel.

      And the prioritizing of white, gender conforming gay couples over the more downtrodden members of our community does kill people, so no, we shouldn’t only focus on those who are harming us in the most unsubtle ways and give more covert bigots a free pass.

  8. People seem to be really agitated by the fact that trans people of color might be critical of the mainstream LGBT movement. But trans people and POC owe you nothing, and they especially don’t owe you their silence when your organization or activism has failed to represent and support them. Just because the community uses an acronym doesn’t mean there’s only one agenda–in fact, it’s plainly clear here that the political wants and actions of cisgender gay folks have consistently and violently come before those of trans folks, especially those of color.

  9. Looking at the statues, it doesn’t look like they’re depicting a specific race. These aren’t statues of white people in white clothes. The statues are all the exact say color. I hate to point out the obvious, but white people aren’t actually paper white. They don’t blend into the snow. If they wear a white shirt, it doesn’t look like there’s no color change at their hands. If these statues were a different solid color, would there still be a need to vandalize them. Their vandalism looks more like what you would see in a wax-work, not a statue. The statues weren’t about whitewashing or white people. They are just literally white colored statues. White people should actually be called peach. I am not the color of those statues, before or after. If I stood beside them and held my hand up to them, they would not match.

    In all honesty, I wish the statues were the colors of the pride rainbows. Each one a different solid color. Now that would stand out in a good way.

    • They are literally whitewashed statues that represent a figuratively whitewashed event. The color of the statues is not meant to represent a skin color, but it becomes symbolic of a skin color (as well as other the more generic figurative sense of whitewashing, or misrepresenting history to make it seem more idealized) because of the way the historical event is treated.

      They are also statues of gender conforming people that are supposedly meant to represent a riot that began when a bunch of people were arrested for dressing in a gender nonconforming way.

  10. or you could make your own monument instead of doing something temporary that looks like shti on someone else’s existing monument that they put actual effort into.

    so what you have is 100% vandalism which is destruction of property REGARDLESS of one’s convictions and intended message and sense of moral indignation.

  11. A cis ally told me that Miss Major didn’t participate in the famous Attica Riot like she has claimed. I told this person to get lost. But later I went to the NYS DOC inmate database and there’s no record of her! Also, there was a commission to investigate the riot and it issued a big report, which I found, and there’s no mention of her in that report either. Can someone tell me what is going on? If she wasn’t at Attica, why should anyone think she was at Stonewall?

    • Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Miss Major was at Stonewall apart from her own claim, and her claims about the event (that Marsha P. Johnson wasn’t there, that it mostly drag queens and transwomen, and that there were few gay men at the riot, are contradicted by a lot of other witnesses and evidence such as photographs and arrest records. So while it’s possible she was at Stonewall, the weight of evidence would suggest she wasn’t. And, as you note, her falsehoods about Attica suggest she’s lying about this too. Sadly, she wouldn’t be the only gay, lesbian, or trans person to falsely claim to have participated in Stonewall.

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