|The I-35W bridge in Minneapolis is lit up in rainbow colors to commemorate
last year’s Pride celebration on June 24th, 2011. Image via Creative Commons.
BY STEWART VAN CLEVE
Former assistant curator of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota
As the end of June approaches, people across the United States are celebrating in a festival circuit of unprecedented size. In Boston, an anonymous decorator attached a pink boa and a blonde wig to a statue of William Ellery Channing. In Portland, Oregon, a rainbow tassel appeared on the tail of another statue, a horse, ridden by a stoic Teddy Roosevelt.
Here at home, Minneapolis has unfurled stylish rainbow-themed banners along Hennepin Avenue in preparation for our local celebration of Gay Pride week. Our Pride, like other Pride celebrations around the world, commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York. We also celebrate the 1969 founding of a pioneering gay and lesbian student group, Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (FREE), at the University of Minnesota.
The first local Gay Pride was a gaggle of brave marchers who exclaimed “Gay is good!” to an afternoon crowd of bemused passers-by. Convinced that they would be arrested, the marchers asked their friends and lovers to picnic in Loring Park with enough money to bail them out. But their audience on the Nicollet Mall had seen many protests during the Vietnam War, and assumed that the marchers were proclaiming their gaiety during dark times. The police never showed. It was the last weekend in June, 1972.
That first march, attended by about twenty-five, gave way to more sizeable crowds as the years passed. New marchers held banners that howled slogans, such as “Ditch the bitch and make the switch,” to an audience that finally understood what was really going on. Posters of a defaced Anita Bryant changed to posters of a defaced Jerry Falwell, the mood changed from heady to familial, and the picnic and march—now a festival and a parade—continued to grow.
In the early 1980s, some of the marchers began to wear black, mourning the loss of their lovers, friends, and family to a mysterious disease that became HIV/AIDS. Still more time passed, and advertisements began to multiply in ever-expanding “Pride Guides.” The crowds grew exponentially, filling every corner of Loring Park, and corporate logos began to manifest on second, third, and fourth performance stages. This weekend, I expect to see yet another change, taking the form of bowed heads and furious fingers jabbing at small and expensive electronic devices.
Gay Pride celebrations and other noticeable examples of queer activity have profoundly reshaped the culture of American cities. Tolerance, particularly of white gay men and lesbians, has purportedly become an indicator of how well a city fosters creativity and innovation. Urban theorists like Richard Florida have recast gay men and lesbians as “the canaries of the creative age,” and attitudes toward the acceptance of gay and lesbian issues—notably same-sex marriage—have reached new heights. For some, it would seem that society is on the verge of proclaiming that gay is, indeed, very good.
And yet, there will be at least one person who would likely not share the sentiment of societal progress. She will be spending Pride weekend in a men’s prison in St. Cloud, beginning a 41-month sentence. Her name is Cece McDonald, and she is changing the world.
One year ago, on a June night in south Minneapolis, Cece and her friends passed three white people standing outside of the Schooner bar at 29th Street East and 27th Avenue South. The bar patrons shouted racist and transphobic threats at the black youths as they passed by. One of the women struck Cece across the face with a glass bottle, and created a wound that required eleven stitches. During the ensuing altercation, one of the male patrons was stabbed in the chest and died.
Almost a year after Cece was arrested, she pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter. Initially, she was placed in a men’s prison while the Minnesota Department of Corrections determined Cece’s gender for its own purposes. Recently, the Minnesota DOC decided that Cece will spend the remainder of her time in a men’s prison.
Apparently, the State has the power to decide a person’s gender.
|Graffiti outside Hennepin County Jail. Photo by Billy Navarro Jr.|
Since the night of the scuffle, Cece has been the subject of media attention and political activism. Created to support her struggle against the legal system, a Facebook page, “FreeCece Mcdonald,” now has more than 5,000 friends. Her supporters are vast, and span the globe. A new slogan, “Free Cece,” is appearing on sunlit pamphlets in Brisbane, Australia; in hurried paintings within the subways of New York, and in graffiti on the streets of Athens. Here at home, a brief example of “Free Cece” graffiti, sprayed by Leslie Feinberg, made its way to the walls of a Minneapolis facility where Cece was temporarily held.
As many of us prepare to commemorate Stonewall, FREE, the first Twin Cities Pride march, and everything that has followed, it is important to pause and question what, exactly, we are commemorating. Are we reveling in our newfound cultural status as the canaries, the harbingers, of a creative urban world? Are we honoring past struggles against heterosexist power, and celebrating our victories over it? Cece McDonald reminds us that we are not so far removed from those marchers on Nicollet Avenue, or the rioters at Stonewall, who feared their own arrests long ago.
Canaries, it should be noted, are often kept in cages.
Stewart Van Cleve is a former assistant curator of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is author of Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota (September 2012).
“Stewart Van Cleve has gone into the musty archives and brought them to vivid life. His comprehensive and entertaining overview of queer Minnesota history is a total page-turner. This feat is all the more impressive given that he’s writing about people who, for a long time, were trying hard to keep their lives hidden. This important work of regional history is also a kind of family history—documenting our recent past with equal parts painstaking accuracy and unabashed love.”
—Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic strip DTWOF and former Dyke Heights resident