In homosexual circles, you’ll likely be read for missing important moments in LGBT history, such as the origins and key players of Pride (*read, in this context, meaning carefully but gently, publicly shamed). It makes sense. How can we relish the acceptance enjoyed by current generations of queers without honoring the people who fought all forms of oppression to give it to us?
I felt the sting of embarrassment, during my trans teenage years, of not knowing the stories of Marsha P. Johnson, who was begging on the corner of Bleeker and Christopher, only to give the money to her trans siblings. At the time, like many of my peers, I could only name transgender actors and influencers — not the behind-the-scenes activists who made my existence possible.
Around Christopher Park in the West Village, directly across from the Stonewall Inn bar, are black and white photos of historic moments in LGBT history hanging from the fences. Only a few of the thousands of people who pass by these photos have any idea of the significance of their location. Albert Herring, a 74-year-old man, appears in one of these photos with the same youthful expression he wears today. Almost every day, he sits on a bench facing the Stonewall Inn, reliving memories of his youth.
People come from all over the world to take photos outside the Stonewall Inn, unaware that a riot veteran is sitting directly in front. “People keep asking, ‘Who threw the first brick?’ It does not matter who threw the first brick,” he said, “They came with a chariot of death. They were ready with clubs in hand. They wanted to kill us and throw us in the back of the wagon. It wasn’t a riot. We were fighting for our lives.
Albert, who is now a good friend, hid his history as a Stonewall veteran for many decades. He felt that drawing attention to himself would hurt a movement to free people like him. Only seeing numbers like Sylvia Rivera and Stormie DeLavarie glorified in the media that he changed his mind. Seeing that his contribution was appreciated and even mythologized pushed him to be more open to being present on the evening of Pride’s birth. “I am a [Stonewall] veteran. I never wanted the focus to be on me. But now I want to be in front of the parade. It’s been 54 years and I’m still here,” he says.
Albert’s experience spans the entire gay rights movement, and no one outside of his small circle of friends knows about it. It was only through a chance meeting at a ball on the quays of Christopher Street that I heard of him. On a sunny June afternoon, my friend Reneé Imperato, a 73-year-old transgender woman, and I were celebrating Pride. We decided to go to the place where many people who fought for gay rights in the 70’s became homeless and were forced to live. Albert was there, sitting quietly while one of his close friends, Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker, a 59-year-old transgender woman, reveled in his accomplishments.
Renée was born in New York, but she wasn’t there the night of the riots. She was across the ocean fighting as a soldier in the Vietnam War. “I’m not a Stonewall veteran. I’m next to Stonewall,” she says, “I’ve been brainwashed by an imperialist machine. When I came back, that’s when I started fighting.
Reneé’s body is covered in tattoos, including an image on her right arm of the Stonewall Inn, as it was set up in the 1970s, with silhouettes of rioters in front of large flames. Inside Reneé’s East Village apartment is a wheelchair covered in scarves, coats, large jewelry, and a collection of fishnet stockings. His life once depended on this chair to get around the city.
Several years ago, Renée was unable to walk due to a severe case of neuropathy caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. After nearly two decades of acupuncture, physical therapy, and countless trips to the VA hospital, she regained her ability to walk with the aid of a cane. Before and after her recovery, she was active as a community organizer. She attended all the marches and direct actions she could, whether on foot or in her chair.
Reneé describes the time when she couldn’t walk as one of the most isolating phases of her life. “When you’re sitting in a chair, people run through you. They don’t see you,” she said. Her story is common to older people who feel abandoned by friends and family as they age and lose their physical abilities.
According to a study conducted by SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders), LGBT seniors are twice as likely to live alone, and most are forced to rely on family of their choice―LGBT friends and partners―for care.
I can confirm this. I was the occasional caregiver for my close friend Janice Covington, a 74-year-old transgender woman who has lived in North Carolina most of her life. She traveled the world with the army and she never wanted to leave her home country again. Janice and I had been friends for many years when I lived in North Carolina, where we fought side by side, against anti-transgender legislation. On my many visits, Janice would tell stories of walking the streets of San Francisco and fighting the police in the cafeteria in Compton.
For almost 50 years, she lived a double life, posing as a man at work and a woman at night. She only came out as transgender in the early 2000s because she feared losing her family and her career as the Nascar fire chief.
She lost her job, her family, and her past in hopes of sharing her true identity. In her isolation, she began to fight for other transgender people who hid their identities and to support those who also lost their families. This led to her becoming active in local politics where she was eventually elected as a delegate to the 2012 DNC. The first transgender delegate in North Carolina.
Janice told me how members of the local community stopped visiting her and taking her phone calls as her health began to decline. The woman I knew, who once stood proudly over six feet tall, fiercely defying outdated bans on transgender toilets and bursting into public debates with politicians, was shunned and left home alone. As she grew older and her health declined, her value to the community sometimes obsessed with young people faded away.
After decades of advocacy, she shouldn’t have faced her final battle alone. His last moments of consciousness were spent in the VA, on a ventilator. She was buried in a veterans cemetery with her dead name on her headstone. She deserved more, and I fear Albert, Renee, and their peers will face the same level of abandonment as they get older.
In my experience, the LGBT community tends to pay more tribute to the heroes we’ve lost than to those who are still alive. Bridging the generations has always been difficult, but I know we have the potential to develop our capacity to care for and value our queer elders in meaningful ways.
The way we lost Janice Covington (and she is by far no exception) is proof that our seniors deserve better. We have gained more in LGBT rights in the last five decades than in the last five centuries. Many of the people who lived through those times and fought for us are still alive, waiting to share their stories. It’s time to actively listen, at the very least.