Image Credit: Rhododendrites
‘But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.’- Audre Lorde, Who Said It Was Simple?
Audre Lorde, a black queer poet, on her struggle to find intersectional freedom within an era of political transformation.
The fundamental takeaway from the Stonewall riots and their subsequent influences is that they were fuelled by black transgender women and drag queens and that the riot itself began in defence against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969.
The anniversary of Stonewall comes at a sombre time. This last month has seen the deaths of a black trans man and 2 black trans women virtually unpublicised by the media. Tony Mcdade was killed by police in Florida. Dominique ‘Rem’mie’ Fells and Riah Milton were found in Philadelphia and Ohio. In 2019, 26 trans or gender non-conforming people were killed in acts of violence, the majority of whom were black trans women. Yet it was black trans women who formed a major part of the 1969 riots, taking their energy and momentum and turning a spontaneous event into the lively, passionate and powerful movement we see today.
Police raids were frequent on Stonewall and many other bars in Greenwich Village, NYC, often used to confiscate alcohol and perform identity checks on the members inside. In the early hours of June 28th 1969, the NYPD stormed the inn in an unexpected raid, attempting to cease business once and for all. Years of rough mishandling by police, the arrests of men wearing dresses and women in ‘butch’ clothing culminated in a simmering outrage that was about to explode. With the increasingly violent arrests, the aggravated crowd transformed the raid into a riot, stubbornly defending the rights and lives of queer people. The events of Stonewall were not the first protests in LGBT+ history; however, their dynamism propelled the movement forward to resemble something of what we see today.
The Stonewall Inn was home to all, including those marginalised within the LGBT+ movement itself, struggling against its growing homonormativity (white, male, middle-class). This included butch lesbians, drag queens, homeless youth, transgender people and Black and Asian LGBT+ minorities.
After years of non-confrontational protests, the rife of socio-political activism of the late sixties, most importantly the Civil Rights Movement, and the growth of transgender activism in San Francisco, provided enough fertility to cultivate more direct protest.
The events in New York in 1969 resulted in decades of organised protest and the spread and strength of change across the globe. Emergences from Stonewall include the creation of the GLF (Gay Liberation Front). Which, in turn, led to the formation of many other LGBT+ organisations in the UK and across Europe. Further, the equalisation of the age of consent with heterosexual couples and many bans on serving in the military lifted. Similarly, legislation was passed to allow same-sex couples to adopt and eventually led to the repeal of Section 28, which prevented the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools. Finally, we’ve recently arrived at marriage equality, but the work is not yet done.
Among the founding members of GLF and in the crowd of protestors at Stonewall was Marsha P. Johnson, a black drag queen and ‘mother’ to Stonewall refugees. It was Johnson who took the energy of the riots and injected it into grassroots movements such as S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). In 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River, an alleged suicide. Johnson’s fellow founder and drag queen Sylvia Rivera, in particular, received immense amounts of hatred from within the community, despite being one of the first to channel and create space for marginalised groups. As the movement swelled in the latter half of the century, history was increasingly whitewashed, and as pride moved from a protest to a party, its de-politicisation attracted wealthier and whiter liberalised LGBT+ to centre stage. It is essential to remember that queerness does not cancel out whiteness. The Pride movement owes a lot to the Civil Rights Movement for creating a culture of protesting for change, as well as to the beautiful black mothers of Stonewall.
Activist Angela Davis popularised the idea of intersectionality, which ‘addresses the overlap and reduces the divisions between race, sex, gender and class.’ She notes, in particular, the diversifying of the feminist movement. Black queer folk should not have to choose. Black trans folk should not have to choose. Intersectionality is integral to the LGBT+ movement. As Marsha said:
‘No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.’
In the current climate, the anti-racism protests and the backlash against transphobic legislation, it is essential for those who celebrate the freedom of Pride and parade to stand alongside their black brothers and sisters and remember who earned them their liberation. It is essential for cis queer people to stand alongside their non-cis friends as some of the most vulnerable in our society are facing disproportionate discrimination on all levels. No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.
Pride is a commemoration of the Stonewall riots. White, cis, queer people owe a debt of gratitude to the black trans community who fought and suffered for their rights to protest and party today. Celebrate pride, celebrate change, celebrate freedom. Most of all, celebrate history, and those who fought for our liberation.