Photo above: Marsha P. Johnson, c. 1969, courtesy Biscayne/Kim Peterson.
Makeup trends may act as a vise, strictly holding women in place to enforce beauty standards the way a woodworker slowly and carefully shapes a block of wood into something smooth and perfect. But when people use makeup to break the system instead of conform to it, it can turn from a tool of the oppressor to one that strengthens the oppressed. That makeup tends to be associated with women means it can be a particularly strong touchstone for feminist protest.
In addition, because makeup can be accessible or created at home, is such a bright visual signal, and is a flexible medium people can wear or remove as they choose, it can be an especially powerful form of resistance. A way to change society’s standards—and therefore people’s treatment in society when they don’t fit into those standards—is to act out against them, and makeup can be a tool of resistance both when those standards have to do with appearance and when they don’t.
In the years leading up to the Stonewall anti-police riots in 1969, makeup became both a target for law enforcement and a way to rebel against laws that restricted gendered appearance. A preexisting New York City law made illegal anyone “masked or in any manner disguised by unusual or unnatural attire or facial alteration,” or anyone who congregated in a public place with people masked or disguised, except for authorized masquerade parties and parades. The law was enacted in 1846 and was meant to prevent tenant farmers from protesting their landlords, which they sometimes did in disguise to hide from authorities. In practice decades later, police used a guideline of enforcement of the law by targeting people wearing fewer than three pieces of clothing “appropriate to their sex” as a way to discriminate against LGBTQ people and businesses that served them. By enforcing these laws in a way that reinforced straight cisgender society, police targeted those who didn’t conform.
Because of discrimination from the police and the public, it was a risk for people to “appear” to be LGBTQ. Anyone who was gender nonconforming in their clothing, makeup, or hairstyling carried a risk of being confronted by police or turned away at businesses. But markers of makeup and clothing also helped LGBTQ people recognize each other and create (relatively) safe havens.
In the 1930s and ’40s in New York, certain cafeterias on Christopher Street at Sheridan Square—near where the Stonewall Inn operated decades later—provided a place where gay men could publicly gather. At the Life Cafeteria, openly gay men, often styled with long hair and heavy makeup like blue eye shadow, mascara, and blush, would sit near the window, eating and talking. The business allowed this in part because of the crowds that would come to gawk at the people who flouted gendered expectations about appearance. Historian George Chauncey describes their makeup as one of the strategies gay men used to claim public spaces in the city. By emphasizing theatricality, they turned everyday locales into a stage, where breaking gender conventions was “less objectionable because it was less threatening.” The same way performers could get away with costumes that would be inappropriate offstage, these men intentionally overemphasized color and playfulness in their cosmetics to stage a sort of spectacle for straight onlookers who came to gawk.
Balancing playfulness with taking oneself seriously can be a dangerous line to walk—defying gendered expectations of appearance has always been risky, even under a guise of performance. Chauncey writes that people who did so were at higher risk of harassment from other customers, being kicked out of businesses, and arrest—especially when they didn’t confine their appearances to places that tepidly tolerated them. This is true in any decade: Desmond Vincent wrote for Very Good Light in 2020 about the risk of wearing cosmetics as a man in Nigeria, which has legalized systemic homophobia and where people can be arrested for just the suspicion of homosexual behavior. Vincent wrote about his decision to wear black nail polish in this environment. Police stopped him to question him about the nail polish, and he paid them money so they’d leave him alone.
Later, a person on the street threatened him by reciting the anti-same-sex law. But he kept wearing the nail polish. “To me, painted nails means that I’m risking my life just to feel beautiful. And to that, I’ve realized this: Sometimes the most effective form of activism is simply daring to live. Not just exist, but truly, authentically and loudly, even when it seems illogical or risky to and goes against literal laws,” he wrote. For some, resistance can look like making oneself visible in a world that tries to erase the existence of LGBTQ people. Makeup, a visual signifier, can help make queerness visible.
In the 1960s, bouncers allowed people into the gay bar the Stonewall Inn based on their appearance—using appearance to define who was queer and who was deemed safe to let in. According to Chris Babick, a frequent customer, people working the door would look through a peephole, and “the man inside would look at you and, if you looked like you belonged there, would let you in.” Appearing effeminate by using clothing or makeup had been a way for gay men to identify each other for decades, including the men who wore makeup at the Life Cafeteria. Many gay men in the 1960s balanced an appearance that identified them as gay, likely with some elements of style that were gender-bending, with a conventionally masculine appearance that would allow them to safely navigate city streets.
The customers allowed inside the Stonewall Inn made up a variety of subcultures within the LGBTQ scene in New York. Customers were primarily gay men, and the majority presented conventionally masculinely with no makeup. Some dressed in a style of hippies, a growing subculture that had elements of gender-bending, with long hair, blue jeans, and floral or ruffled shirts. But a significant minority of the clientele represented bolder transgressions of straight white masculinity: scare or flame queens wore eye makeup and effeminate hairstyles but weren’t necessarily attempting to “pass” as women, drag queens wore makeup and women’s clothing to portray a character or persona, and some trans women wore makeup as part of their gender presentation. These customers were allowed in if their appearance passed the test at the front door.
The security measures that management at the Stonewall Inn used, like denying certain people entry if they “appeared” straight and having multiple locks and steel doors inside the outer oak doors, were meant to help protect the bar from police raids. When the bar was raided, the doorman would flip a switch that turned on bright white lights as a signal for those dancing and drinking inside. To combat officers attempting to get inside, the Stonewall doormen tried to recognize people’s faces, along with judging their appearance, and asked potential customers to describe the inside of the bar to see if they had been before. Since admission to many gay bars and clubs depended on visual markers of belonging, police sometimes wore plainclothes in an attempt to get inside and raid them. On the night of the Stonewall raids, four male police officers wore dark three-piece suits and ties, a more conventionally masculine appearance than some of the Stonewall customers they were aiming to arrest.
The summer of the Stonewall riots, the police had ramped up their raids of gay bars in an attempt to close down the Mafia-owned establishments. In fact, they raided the Stonewall Inn on June 24 and came back a few days later, June 27, the night the riots erupted. Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine had put extra measures in place that night in an attempt to have more support to shut the Stonewall Inn down for good. This included women police officers who went undercover into the bar to help “examine” people dressed in clothing the police deemed feminine to determine if they “had undergone a sex change”—an assault on someone’s body and privacy. If someone had gender-affirming surgery, they would not be arrested because they wouldn’t be violating the gender roles the police proscribed that were based on external anatomy.
This enforcement shows that police officers felt they had authority over the bodies of LGBTQ people and that harassment and violation of their rights was a normal part of police work. Reflecting on this night years later, Pine said, “This was a kind of power that you have and you never gave it a second thought. Police targeted those who violated gender norms, and men wearing drag were the first to be led into the paddy wagon outside the bar.
One of the customers at the Stonewall Inn that night was Maria Ritter, a trans woman celebrating her eighteenth birthday. She had spent hours getting ready with her friend Kiki, wearing black stockings, a dress she took from her mother, and CoverGirl makeup she bought for herself, along with more makeup of her mother’s. “It would take us hours, and at that time we painted for the gods: it would take us three or four hours to make up,” she said in David Carter’s 2004 book Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. Ritter also carried a purse with men’s clothing in it in case she needed to change on the way home, likely to avoid harassment. That night at the Stonewall Inn, she didn’t have a chance to change her clothes or wipe the makeup off her face. When Ritter saw police, she wanted to get out of the bar. As she went to the women’s bathroom to see if it had a window, police ordered her to stand with other trans women and people dressed in a way the police deemed inappropriate for their gender.
The police didn’t expect this vulnerable population to resist arrest—because they usually didn’t. Historically, as today, police have felt empowered to abuse communities who lack the resources and societal support to fight for their rights in a justice system that’s designed to support the status quo. That night at the Stonewall Inn, after tension had been building between the police and the LGBTQ community, people fought back, and riots continued for several days.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were trans women present at Stonewall the first night of the riots. They went on to start STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, to provide housing and other support for trans youths in 1970. Both Johnson and Rivera did sex work throughout their lives, and both had been arrested repeatedly for sex work and for wearing women’s clothing and makeup on the street. Rivera said that every time she was brought in front of a judge, they would say she was charged with “upper-head female impersonation”—so for wearing makeup and hairstyling that the dominant culture gendered as female.
In pictures of Johnson, she can be seen wearing flower crowns and red lipstick. The blush high on her cheekbones and the color on her eyelids match her lipstick, as if she used the same product on her lips, cheeks, and eyes. And it’s likely that she did because she didn’t have much money to spend on cosmetics.15 Johnson said she wasn’t afraid of going to jail at the Stonewall riots because she had been going to jail for the past ten years “just for wearing a little bit of makeup down Forty-Second Street.”
Some LGBTQ activists responded to discrimination by emphasizing that gay people were just like straight people. “I had spent ten years of my life going around telling people homosexuals looked just like everybody else. We didn’t all wear makeup and wear dresses,” said Randy Wicker, who worked at the LGBTQ organization the Mattachine Society and later became friends and roommates with Johnson. Wicker said that although he came around to be glad it happened, he was at first horrified by the uprising at the Stonewall Inn. “I thought at the time they were setting back the gay liberation movement twenty years, because I mean all these TV shows and all this work that we had done to try to establish legitimacy of the gay movement that we were nice middle class people like everybody else,” he said.
This way of thinking—that conforming to norms of the dominant culture will lead to better treatment of marginalized groups—is known as respectability politics. First defined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her 1993 book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church in the context of Black American history and Black churches, respectability politics can apply to a marginalized group that attempts to appeal to the dominant culture through manners, appearance, and behavior. While it may make sense on some level to prove to white straight folks that other people are humans too, just like them, the concept relies on policing members of a community to meet definitions and standards based on the white straight gaze. Narrowing what qualifies as “respectable” means narrowing who gets to go un-harassed in public. The definition of respectable in New York in the 1970s was generally based on straight culture and white cisgender people’s bodies.
At this time, being “like everybody else” meant not wearing makeup unless one was a cisgender woman, and only wearing makeup that blended into what was trendy for white straight cisgender people. Not every LGBTQ person wore makeup, but people of all genders who bucked trends and gender expectations by using makeup faced a higher risk when in public. This is clear by the police targeting of trans women and others who wore feminine clothing and makeup during the Stonewall riots. It’s also present in the activist movement that was born that night and often focused on white cisgender gay men while leaving out lesbians, bisexuals, trans women, and people of color—those who defied sexist and racist definitions of what was “respectable.”
As trans women of color, Johnson and Rivera had to fight this battle over respectability and inclusion over and over. At a gay pride rally in 1973, Rivera made that point when she angrily addressed the crowd and asked them what they had done for the trans people in jail facing harassment and assault. At the rally, Rivera was kept from the stage for much of the day by organizers who ignored or disregarded her. When she finally did get on stage, she yelled into the microphone that she and the members of STAR were working for rights for everyone in the LGBTQ community—“all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white middle class white club.”
Later that night, disappointed at the lack of acceptance of her at the rally, she attempted suicide. She survived the attempt because Johnson found and helped her. Johnson was found dead in 1992, and though police said her death was a suicide, Rivera and others believed she was killed. The implications of who is deemed worthy of respect have violent consequences, which Johnson and Rivera knew because they were forced to see them.
By being in public, fighting for rights of all LGBTQ people no matter their gender, and demanding to be seen as who they were, Johnson and Rivera were trying to make the world safer for others, even when it wasn’t safe for themselves. They refused to assimilate with standards that excluded women of color, trans people, and others who defied gender expectations. When they worked to expand LGBTQ rights, they did so in lipstick and eye shadow, emphasizing that makeup did not determine whether a person deserved safety and respect.
Excerpted from All Made Up: The Power and Pitfalls of Beauty Culture from Cleopatra to Kim Kardashian by Rae Nudson (Beacon Press, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.