An interview with Yvonne Ritter, Stonewall Veteran
Could you please provide us with a bit of background?
I grew up in Brooklyn and went to a parochial grammar school where nuns used to beat you up and tell you were bad if you looked at a boy or a girl. They would make you feel bad about everything you did. I was the oldest of the grand children and I remember one New Years Eve, at the age of eight. I was crying about something and my uncle said “Big boys dont cry”, I replied “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.” As a reaction he slapped me across the room. At that time I didn’t know what to not say to people.
I was a five by five as kid. You know, five feet tall and five feet wide. I ate to compensate. By the time I was in seventh grade I wanted to do something to get my self-esteem back, so I went on this crazy diet and lost about 90 pounds.
What is your family background?
Mexican, French, German, English, Irish and a tiny bit black. I didn’t quite fit in the neighbourhood as my father was whitefish, he was French-German and my mother was Mexican.
And what neighbourhood in Brooklyn did you grow up in?
East Flatbush ten blocks from Brooklyn college.
When did you start hanging out with the queer community?
I was still trying to play straight, I was in this position when I was afraid to come out to people and I was hiding. So I did this crazy weightlifting thing, if you look at my arms they’re quite big. I’m almost embarrassed about that – I went to a weightlifting competition when I was in high school. And I was weird – this was all implying I was ashamed of who I was and I was trying to be something else, something that I wasn’t. Which led to the abuse of alcohol & drugs. However, this December I’ve been clean and sober for 34 years.
I always knew who I was though. When I used to play with the kids in the neighbourhood I always used to take the female role. We had make believe guns and there would be Cowboys and I would be the beautiful girl.
My uncles were macho. But my mother and one of aunts never judged, even though my fathers brothers were sexist. When I finally came out to my family and told them what I was going to do, it didn’t really matter to them at all. It’s like being an alcoholic, to people who love you it doesn’t matter. And people who care, you shouldn’t worry about.
Chloe once said “Transitioning was the joy of self acceptance”. How did you find out for yourself?
I find it to be true. Instead of worrying about what people thought about me. I had no control of what people said about me, unless I wanted to punch them – to fight them, to knock their teeth out! You have no control about me and less control about what they say about me. You have no control of what people say, do and feel. I learned that after a while, and once I let go of that I was a lot better off. I had a lot better self esteem, people treated me differently. It was only after I got sober that saw these things.
How did New York City play a part in your self discovery?
New York City was probably a good thing for me. I lived in Brooklyn and I moved in to the city in my teens. I used to go to the gay bars in Brooklyn. I had been to Stonewall before – before that fatal night, where I almost got arrested.
Do you recall the chain of events? When you read about it, they say it happened in the early morning?
It happened in the early mornings and the next days or so there was a lot of hoohah [tension/noise]. I had been there a lot, I had been to a lot of gay bars, I had been to the Stonewall. The police came in and started pushing people out.
Was there any awareness of what the issue was? I read in a book called ‘Gay Power’that there were some mafia issues?
Yeah, a lot of the gay bars were run by the mafia. There was a power struggle between the cops and the mafia. The clients and the gays in the bars were the ones to suffer however.
We had been taken advantage of so much. When the cops came in that night and started pushing people around, pushing them in the paddy wagon we said we’re not gonna take it anymore. We got to the point where we didn’t want to be pushed around anymore.
Was it not the transgendered people who started the situation?
Yes, Sylvia Rivera was one of the people. She was transgender transvestite, she was mad tough! She was a real drunk, but ended up getting sober in the end. She passed away a few years ago.
Were you in the same community as the likes of Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia?
I was back then, I was going back to school at the time. I was trying to get a bachelors in psychology. That got me away from the crazy girls, that’s not to say that I’m better than anybody its just my story. I needed to stay away from some people.
That night the cops came and people were arrested what happened after that?
There were people everywhere, cops pushing everyone. I started to walk out of the building and one of the cops looked at me and told me to go over to him. I started crying and telling him that I was 18 years old and I’d just graduated High School and talking about how sad I would be if my mother found out and how my father would kill me if they knew that I was in trouble with the police. I really played on it. Then the cop told me to beat it!
I walked out by the little cigar store by the train station and took a train to chambers then took a train to Brooklyn. I was still dressed to kill, I had to stop off at my friends house where I’d left my other clothes.
You had a pit stop? Because you were dressed like a girl?
Yes, I had to so my parents didn’t see me. But you know what? Later on in life when I told my mother I wanted gender reassignment she told me she’s known all along and that I never needed to worry.
The same thing happened to me when I told my mother I was queer. With the trans community how comfortable are you with the blanker labels of gay or homosexual?
I don’t like labels, we’re just people. Queer is good. Whatever you want to call yourself is fine. You don’t have to let people label you.
How do you feel about the gratitude or recognitions that the gay community has for the trans community specifically?
I don’t know if they have much, these queens were the ones who were kicking it up. Actually at the front of the bar there were screaming ‘we are the Stonewall girls, we wear our hair in curls we wear our dunagrees above our knobbly knees’. Truth be told the trans community were the loudest there.
How much sisterhood/brotherhood did you feel from other civil rights movements which were also happening at the time in the 60s or 70s?
Actually I was just about to mention that, because I saw what was happening with the African Americans we kind of thought, lets jump on the bandwagon. We knew we were being discriminated against, it gave us the power to speak up and fight.
You know the song where the chorus goes ‘no blacks no gays no jews’ I feel often us as disparate communities still feel a great deal of challenge, I often wonder how we would benefit from more democracy between the communities?
I think we got a lot of our feelings from not wanting to be – my feeling is that we grew our strengths from the likes of the African Americans and others under discrimination
Perhaps feminists too?
Absolutely, this definitely made us realise that we could have our voice too. I think we were holding on the coat tails of feminism.
There of course was what was happening with A.I.M the Native Americans too at the time. It was all happening at a similar time, its curious. However do you feel ever that since all this time in the 60s that even though things have progressed our cultures have been whitewashed to an extent? We have taken so much inspiration from these strong groups. How do you feel about how the media perceive us? Do you feel misrepresented by things like Ru Paul’s Drag Race for example?
As I said, everyone is an individual. All of that stuff like Queer as Folk as example, all the characters have their own characters. But with Rupauls Drag Race you see them all dressed up but when their not in drag they are weeny little guys!
Do you feel at ease by the infiltration of homosexuality in the media and the mainstream, with people such as Jay-Z or Obama supporting gay marriage. How do you feel about this? Does it make you happy?
It makes me very, very happy. When I was in my teens and all of this was happening you couldn’t even talk about being gay!
Do you feel this use of media puts our rights in a different context which we may not have total control of? How do you feel about gay marriage?
I think we should have had it a long time ago, a long, long time ago. We should have always had the same rights as everyone else.
Its really refreshing to hear this perspective because sometimes my generation we can be a bit ungrateful, a bit gen x. So its amazing to hear that as someone who went through the 50s and 60s it puts myself in a more gratitude.
You shouldn’t need other peoples opinion, we wanted to be accepted for who we were. That was the most important thing. I cant speak for other people but I felt like, why shouldn’t I be able to do the things that they do? I went to a Catholic Grammar school and I grew up around all these people talkig about ‘perverts’, and then there were these priests. I was abused by a priest in fact.
To change the subject a little, what do you think has changed to our basic rights as homosexuals, mainly medically? Especially in terms of HIV and AIDS?
I was a nurse at Saint Claires and I worked directly with HIV and AIDS patients who of course many of them were my friends. I feel that a lot of those with HIV and AIDS may not have been given as good care if we hadn’t gone through a change as far as it goes with our attitudes with gay and straight people. I think the people who were at Stonewall that night had great impact on really putting people in better perspective.
About basic medical rights and care for HIV and AIDS, it made me think of Chloe too, people who were activist and had HIV and AIDS and that combination put her in a position where she was able to effect some change.
Jason: I think for me someone like that really made me think about my own care and maintaining my rights and also how to approach the system. Previously to her I felt a bit sheepish, a kind of beggars cant be choosers mentality. I agree with Viva that I feel even though I didn’t know Chloe she drastically changed how I saw my rights, I wouldn’t know where I would be if it hadn’t been for her.
V: Chloe had by virtue of being a trans person in the mire of hospital system, being mis-gendered constantly and having such a hard time herself- she managed through that to make it bigger than herself, and was appointed to the HIV and Human Service Planning Council of New York.
J: Viva said something yesterday about Chloe ‘she knew her self worth without being proud’
V: But Chloe was a star too, and in a very cool way – PROUD of herself and her community, however at the core of her she was about service.
Right, absolutely. You have to know who you are without necessarily being proud but there is a different between being full of your self and being proud.
I’m still a person like everyone else, just because I was involved in this change, it wasn’t just me there was the gay community, the bi community, the straight community and so on. They’ve all adapted!
V: There’s a language in the hospital system now, that didn’t exist ten years ago to deal with trans people..
People who are in hospitals, administrators and health care providers are more sensitive to the community, than they were years ago.
V: Yeah, to hear peoples experiences now compared to hearing Chloe – when I first met Chloe. I know it’s challenging–
J: I don’t think its mission is completed but the situation has certainly improved.
V: No, but it’s definitely changed. A young trans man I know, when Chloe’s memorial happened he told me “I will do anything you need for this memorial” because when he was in the hospital, he acknowledged to me “I know Chloe changed this game. The way I was treated, those caregivers have experience now thanks to activists who went through the system and made these changes before me.”
J: From your personal experience, can you timeline the chain of events of the Stonewall to the Reagan and Bush era in regards to HIV and AIDS. Do you feel the onslaught of the said massacre was a result of a certain demand for rights from the community?
Definitely, because of the demand from the community. We were demanding health care, we were demanding things that we were never entitled to. We felt we were entitled to these things but weren’t getting them.
Do you think it became such an epidemic because the powers that be were were so angry –my generation has read these stories about queernation rebelling in the 1970s and acting out and debauchery during the gay pride parade. For example, having sex and doing drugs in a limousine while having the windows open during the parade.
Did you notice during the 1970’s or in retrospect that the Stonewall event created the reaction from the administration or the powers that were let AIDS and HIV, or possibly instigated AIDS and HIV as a response–
It’s a school of thought that people believe. I personally don’t believe that. I believe that because of the way that the people in the 1960’s, the people in the gay pride movement, came out. They [the administration] had to listen, people were empowered. They would get a lot of backlash, they wouldn’t get the votes. A lot of people were coming out and saying ‘This is who I am, and if you don’t like it you don’t get my vote!”
The politicians realised they cannot do this [ill-treatment] anymore, because they won’t take it.
On the other side Reagan turned his back. And a lot of people think that that’s why it became such a plague, an epidemic.
Reagan was a mess. I think he was so full of alzheimer that he didn’t have any brains left when he came to power.
I kind of feel bad for him sometimes.
I do too, I do too! I think a lot of people used him. Because he was an actor and because he was so–
Viva: I don’t feel bad for Reagan. And it doesn’t get dumber than Bush. I don’t feel bad for them. Because there are so many people now, in America, that are like that: Small minded. I just want to shake them.It’s deadly, it has a deadly effect not caring for somebody else.
Jason: That mindset makes me think ‘pride’. And this is the irony of the Gay Pride. When I think of numb America, they’re so ignorantly proud.
Do you have any opinion or towards organisations such as Act Up or Queernation?
They are a good thing, but they can get to the point where they turn people against the community because of their radical nature. One way or another, you can screw up any kind of cause.
Do you feel that’s more Act Up or Queernation?
Most groups want to jump on the band wagon, trying to get attention. But it’s not about getting attention, it’s about helping the people, helping the community. The Queernation and Act Up can be a little too much ‘Me, me, me’ instead of ‘Us, us, us’.
It’s a funny thing because I [Jason] grew up in the Mid West. I also think it’s a matter of perspective; you have an advantage of being from the East Coast, being so close to Academia and the Ivy League schools. Basically an educated region, being costal and so close to Europe as well. People are generally more worldly here, the city is very travelled. I think sometimes the bread basket and different parts of the America can be really land locked. With aspects like the NEA abolishment, in Ohio you’re in a zone that’s subject to possibly missing out on cultural word fare. We get our news from television, and things are really produced for the rest of America.
Viva: It’s important to have the [whole] spectrum. Not everybody belongs to, not everybody is called to the extreme.
Jason: It’s funny, because when I was a kid I was really into design, i-D magazine, The Face, European aesthetics, Peter Savile, Neville Brody and stuff like this. I had a fascination design and iconography. I loved to read colours magazine. And I remember the Act Up ‘Silence equals death’. That was occurring the same time as I was latching on, instinctively and viscerally, to Keith Herrings imagery. And it’s sort of locked in there, and I think as a young person that had an impact. The whole triangle with the Silence Equals Death, images in the parade –
They thought that they were doing good, but it could have had an effect on the community, the general population. I went to the APE conference in Italy, Act Up people were so radical. They were giving people the wrong idea.
What sort of measures or ideas, that are not already in place, might you suggest that could help us regard and respect those of us that have passed? What can we do as a community to appeal to one and another and the watching world at large to bring light on our ‘fallen soldiers’?
We could start by never forgetting the people who have passed away, for who they are and what they’ve done. The people who came before shaped the present, the people who lived in the past shaped the present. We just have to respect their memory and make sure they’re not forgotten.
Do you think that’s more of an oral tradition? Do you feel there’s an act of measure we should take to recognise people?
We have people who’s legacy –
Right, like Martin Luther King. People who were in the gay movement in the 1960’s when it first started were very much cohesive.
We were talking about this yesterday, about how unfortunately it is that we divide between even the gays and lesbians for example. You know the FireIsland saying, stay in the pine, stay in the grove.
There’s so much missing from my former generation. I certainly know who Malcom X is and I certainly know who Martin Luther King is, and I know who Leonard Peltier is. But to be honest with you, when Viva brought up these two transgendered people yesterday (Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson) she had to educate me. We watched the YouTube videos of their speeches and I have to admit ignorance. And I wonder if it has to do with the gap in the mentorship.
I have people that I have lost, like Willy Ninja or AndréSmith, that were really important to me. People we remember as family. Last month when I was at Larry La Van Dance the ghosts and spirits come back to me. And I talk to my friends about it, which is really the best way to recognise them. Having that dialogue, being almost tribal in a manner, making it easier to remember them.
How can we uphold the legacy and remember our heroes?
We have to educate the entire community, not just the LGBT, the community at large, the straight community. A lot of times we have to dim it down a little bit. Don’t be too “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it! ”That can be off-putting, let people get to know you.
There are different approaches!
Who were, if any, your mentor? Or members of the community that you looked up to? What can you share from your point of view on insight about their environment, journey and mentoring of you that helped you on your path?
There were a lot of people that were in the community that were just my friends. I didn’t have any mentor in particular, just people who accepted me for who I am. Some people –like Barbara Warren, she was the director LGBT community centre. She was a person who asked me to come there, and lend my expertise. She helped us develop these organisations. The organisation that Chloe and I was in, Gender Identity Project. The gay community and the straight community were coming together, and we were forming organisations.
You mentioned Gender Identity Project. Can you speak a bit about that?
Well, Barbara Warren was there! It was very, very influential. She helped us develop that. She was one of the people who was head of the mental health of the gay centre. She helped us to find our voice. She helped us realise that whoever we are, we deserve love and respect. LGBT or otherwise.
What was the purpose of the Gender Identity Project?
For us to have a place to come! It was a place were we could get together, where people stopped using labels. Whoever we were, we were. There was an organisation for us to come and talk about who we were, what we were and what we felt about ourselves.
I’m so happy you made that point about the breadth and the expanse and how it’s not just limited to males, females, gay. The community is so much larger than a lot of people realise.
I’d also like to mention the importance of 13th street.
Yeah, it definitely is.
That [The LGBT Centre] is like a church, to me!
Yeah, because it brings everybody together.
Especially with the clinic there.
I worked as a counselor there actually.
I’m also grateful of you mentioning Barbara Warren.
Barbara Warren was one of the people who got us together. She was an educator, for the queer and transgender- and she was a straight woman.
Could you speak about Chloe and how she affected you?
Chloe was always giving me homage. And I used to say “You’re just as important in this as I am in this thing. [It] Doesn’t really matter that I was in Stonewall.”She helped me through my sisterhood. She was my sister. We were sisters. And that was the most important thing. She helped me to engender a sense of community. She made me realise my importance in my work, as a health care provider and a nurse –and just as a person, who was involved in the community.
With so much already given to us by former generations, what can younger queer people do to maintain and respect our forerunners and navigate a promising future?
Just respect everybody for who they are and what they are. I see some of these young queens and they go too far to the extreme of wanting to fit in.
Don’t judge, because you don’t want to be judged.
I guess that goes for all ages!
Yeah definitely, for all ages.
Judging people to the point where you feel like you have to over do it to represent yourself.
Right, right. Not saying that there’s anything wrong with it, but anything taken to an extreme can be dangerous.
Extreme is relative. For some people being transgender is extreme. Just the idea of transitioning is extreme for some people. There are some people that would call your existence extreme, that wordshifts so often.
We get a better perspective, we get to see everything from everyone’s perspective. Not saying we’re better than anyone, it gives us a better perspective: There are other opinions besides mine, there are other ways of being besides mine.
It’s a sense of empathy. Empathy today is an extreme.
That’s what you need. People need to be compassionate, no matter who they are. No matter what part of the spectrum they come from, they need to be compassionate. You need to be compassionate for other peoples feelings and lifestyle.
Is there anything else that you feel is important to share?
Just be grateful and thankful for who you are. Don’t try to be anything else than what you are.