Q & A with Artist Mike Funk on his Comic "Stonewall 1969"

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By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
While the Stonewall Riots were, by nearly all accounts instigated and led by trans women of color--such as Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy--they're all too often associated in the popular culture with white, gay male liberation. Artist Mike Funk's comic "Stonewall 1969" attempts to correct this perception, by illustrating--literally--the part played by TWOC, the oppressions they faced, and the backlash their efforts received from conservative cis gay activists of the time. Funk does this in a lively, fun fashion, that's caught the attention of mainstream outlets like Buzzfeed. When he's not cartooning, self-described "twenty-something dork" Funk drums in the "feminist revenge-core quartet" Shady Hawkins (which is easily my new favorite band name). We caught up with Funk to talk about Stonewall, cis-washing, and turning anger into art. PQ Monthly: You seem well-versed about the contributions of trans women of color--like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major--to the Stonewall riots. How did you learn about that history? Why was it important to you to share it? Mike Funk: While I can’t place the first time I read about Sylvia Rivera, I know credit is due to a professor I had in college who had known her and assigned a speech Sylvia had given at the New York LGBT Center in 2001. I vividly remember reading her say: “Gay liberation but transgender nothing!†Ten years later, the things she’d been saying for forty years continued to ring with clarity and relevance. I learn so much from the Internet. While I know my college education provided me with the initial spark in many instances, I would cite trans activists and queer communities online with the majority of my learning about transgender history and especially the work of trans women of color past and present. I learned about Miss Major from a YouTube rabbit hole, but time and time again my research landed me on Reina Gossett’s blog. Reina has been researching and documenting the lives and legacies of Sylvia and Marsha P. Johnson, and if you want to know anything about anything, her work is a rich starting point. The Internet certainly isn’t immune to whitewashing history though. I remember coming across some Radical Queer Etsy Store or whatever and seeing patches of a photo (I believe to be from Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, a protest in San Francisco that predated Stonewall) of a white, blonde drag queen. The caption? “Sylvia Rae Rivera.†So even as she’s gained more recognition in trans history and politics, it comes at the expense of her racial identity and intersectional activist work. History is important because we keep screwing up in the same ways repeatedly. Rather than write the Great American White Trans Guy Memoir, I think using my position to tell and properly cite stories that are erased is at least one positive thing I can do. PQ: In your story, you show conservative activists, like those in the Mattachine Social Society, who objected to the riots, because they thought trans sex workers and homeless youth made the movement look bad. What do you think of the irony, which you allude to, of those mostly middle class, white activists receiving credit for, and reaping the benefits of, the incident? MF: It’s completely absurd. I have a lot more compassion for reactionary activists of that era than I do for their contemporary torchbearers though. Randy Wicker, who I drew in my comic and quoted espousing the homophile party line regarding respectability, later befriended and lived with Marsha and Sylvia. He has come to play an integral role in celebrating and documenting their legacies. Maybe, given more information or experience, others like him felt differently over time as well. Today, I think the conservative tentacles of my community are cognizant of the struggle and revolutionary work done by marginalized communities. You’d have to live under a huge rock not to be. And I think they are deeply resentful of it. enhanced-buzz-32320-1372454113-8 PQ: The book and documentary "Stonewall Uprising" received a lot of attention. As you mention, though, it's been accused of whitewashing and cis-washing what happened at the riots. As trans activists and people become more visible, do you think our culture's idea of the event will become more accurate? MF: I do think the work of activists and archivists today is reshaping how people look at history. In general see a lot of people my age are more critical of where a particular narrative is coming from, and who it paints as the hero. It’s hard to say, because like I say in the comic the mythologizing and misinformation about Stonewall started with the press coverage the very next morning, and you know what everyone says about the importance of first impressions. But regardless of whose books are considered definitive, I think anyone with a critical mind can figure out that no one throws trash at the police over Judy Garland. PQ: This piece of yours received a lot of attention, with sites like Buzzfeed and Queerty running features on it. What about it, do you think, struck a chord with people? MF: I think in general comics are a good way to tell stories that center gender identity, sexuality, and oppression, because it’s a medium that is at once marginalized and accessible. It’s no coincidence that there’s a pretty rich tradition of queer cartoonists. If novels that center gay characters don’t sell, and if movies are too expensive to make in the first place, how many other story telling options have you got? The comics community, though not without its hierarchies, is still maligned enough in the literary and art worlds that it can’t really afford to turn away talent over identity. And given the origin of alternative comics stemming from shock jocks like R. Crumb, it would be pretty hypocritical to balk at gay sex in the face of all his “taboo busting†(which was, in my opinion, largely just racist and sexist tropes that were long tired by 1969 but anyway). I think what works about my piece, which is now 3 years old and something I would maybe do somewhat differently today, is that I crammed in a lot of information in a relatively digestible and entertaining format. While I’m far and away not the first person to tell this particular version of the riots, I do try to draw in a way that gets people’s attention. I try to make my comics harder not to read than to read, so I owe any attention it received my goal of to creating work that is difficult to ignore. PQ: You're a prolific artist with many, many pieces on your Tumblr. How do you find your subjects? What inspires you to create like you do? MF: I spend much of my time berating myself for not being more productive, so it warms my heart to be described as “prolific.†Above all else I really just want to make people laugh. I like using humor because it’s hard to argue with someone who makes you laugh. As combative as my work can be, I truly cannot stand conflict! I’m also enamored with my own personal pain and stupidity, so my autobiographical work mostly reflects that. Often times I have used comics to process my feelings, to create a narrative out of something to make it more tolerable. Sometimes that’s a drag but sometimes it will just leap out of me, like a comic I made about getting harassed and called a fag in Prospect Park last spring. I would say my number one inspiration is being upset, and I make myself calm down by making other people upset instead. But hopefully, to quote a friend, with more smiles than cries. BlogTail_Leela Ginelle