Bill T. Jones: We Must Work Harder to Connect Stonewall to the World’s Other Liberation Struggles
Jones wants the LGBT movement to reach out. ‘Can we grow? Can we take leadership? Where is the first openly gay or trans president? You’ve got to have a breadth of vision.’
In this special series, LGBT celebrities and public figures talk to Tim Teeman about the Stonewall Riots and their legacy—see more here.
Bill T. Jones is a choreographer, director, author, dancer, co-founder of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and artistic director and co-founder of New York Live Arts.
When and how did you first hear about the Stonewall Riots, and what did you make of them?
I’m not quite sure. At the time I was a 17-year-old living in upstate New York, my head full of Woodstock. I had some inkling I might be gay. But a small community like that did not dominate our conversations. Our conversations were dominated by the Vietnam War and civil rights struggles. America was burning down for any number of reasons.
Stonewall did not loom large in the mind of this young black man who at that point was not sure what his sexuality was. I do remember sometime afterwards being picked up by someone involved with Berkeley when I was hitchhiking who used the term “queer politics.”
“Queer” was shocking to me. Gay liberation I understood. They said, “like Stonewall.” I asked what Stonewall was. They said it had been when “sissies” and drag queens had turned on the police and said, “We’re not taking it.”
That reminded me of growing up in a migrant labor camp. We were potato pickers. In the social system of that industry, black people were brought from the South and isolated in the farms and woods, and didn’t mingle. I did. My parents wanted me to be acculturated into being a black Yankee.
In that culture, there was a certain level of tolerance for “sissies.” Sissies were sometimes strapping guys hauling a 100-pound bag of potatoes all week. Then at the weekend they would go into Little Richard mode with their shirts tied in the front and with lovely skin. They were very camp.
The word was to be careful around them because a sissy had a supernatural strength. A lot of guys had their asses whipped by so-called faggots and sissies. There was this idea of sissies being capable of exploding. They were seen as an abomination in the eyes of god and a consternation to the eyes of the human beings around them who didn’t understand them. When I heard of Stonewall, that was the image I had and it made me very proud.
At the time the headlines were dominated by Vietnam and the Martin Luther King assassination. For a young black man, there were other things in the front of my mind. And I wanted the freedom promised by the counterculture: turn on, tune in, and drop out. In straight culture there was Mick Jagger and Bowie, all those guys doing gender-fuck. They were being free and cool and wearing makeup.
What is the significance of the Stonewall Riots for you now?
They were just one of many other riots about human freedom, and the disenfranchised being able to express themselves. That is how the mature man I am now understands my sexuality: What is left of gay liberation is just another volley in this ongoing battle for social justice.
How far have LGBT people come since 1969?
We’ve come damn far. I’m married to my companion (Bjorn G. Amelan), and that’s a big deal. We’ve even run the risk of becoming completely co-opted by bourgeois complacency.
The generation that brought you The Advocate and all those magazines are well-heeled and using surrogate mothers and having babies. Suddenly, becoming very domesticated I guess is a privilege of a very successful social movement: You get to be boring, you get to be “normal.”
That spirit of fighting is still there, when it comes to fighting for trans rights, immigration, and the environment. Who are our gay leaders? Where are the coalitions, collaborations? I try to keep a multi-racial, multi-ethnic group of performers. I try to be as open as possible. I show up and be visible.
Is this a blip? Or a watershed moment of opportunity, if progressives want to believe it is an opportunity? We are speaking on Earth Day. Are we all doomed to be swept away by a tsunami of our making, or will this bring us together to see more clearly the relationship of individuals struggling for agency to big historical questions? I sure as hell don’t have the answer. I feel the same way about the Trump administration.
What would you like to see, LGBT-wise, in the next 50 years?
Let’s go back to the civil rights struggle. I didn’t know there was a group called trans people when I was a child. Fifty years ago, we couldn’t have known that by now the binary notion of humankind would be eroded and we would have an ever-growing acceptance of a nuanced notion of gender. Having said that, Black Lives Matter have had to smack the whole country in the face how many years after the civil rights struggle.
We thought we’d be living in a post-racial world 50 years out from the civil rights struggle, and we’re not. I hope there will be more opportunities in 50 years’ time for more kinds of people. I hope it looks like right now but with cleaner air, and better education, and health for more people.
Can we work harder to connect Stonewall to the major liberation struggles happening around the planet now? It feels very bourgeois and a bit stuck, the way we talk about it now. We should connect to Planned Parenthood and the struggle for reproductive freedom. Half the candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination are women and women of color.
The biggest struggle facing humankind ever is climate change. Can we come into the real world as real citizens as opposed to the wounded group of boys, girls, and trans people still licking our wounds from being treated poorly when we were children?
Can we grow? Can we take leadership? Where is the first openly gay or trans president? You don’t just get elected on one platform, you’ve got to have a breadth of vision.
What would you say to the Stonewall demonstrators?
Thank you, brothers and sisters. [As Martin Luther King said], “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”