“The first Pride was a riot.”
This June, the LGBTQ+ community has routinely shared those six words across social media. Activists and demonstrators in support of the Black Lives Matter movement use them to remind us that there’s a clear throughline between the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States and a revitalized push for anti-racist legislation that protects people of colour, especially Black Americans.
Leading queer-championing organizations such as GLAAD are encouraging the LGBTQ+ community to look within and to revisit history. The anger that has erupted after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery (and thousands of other Black people) is deeply and historically connected to gay liberation. The first Pride was indeed a riot. But history has been written to disqualify and erase the efforts of those at the frontlines: the Black queer community; Black transgender women in particular.
To unpack that fragmented and compartmentalized history, we first need a little background.
The 1960s are considered “the last great reform era in American history,” a time when citizens grew fed up with violence and injustice. In addition to the civil rights movement and ardent efforts to overturn Jim Crow laws, marginalized communities also fought for women’s liberation, the abolishment of police brutality, and the end of the Vietnam War. At the time, LGBTQ+ individuals were regularly arrested for having consensual sex (that violated sodomy laws), kissing in public, gathering in bars, or simply existing if they were perceived to be queer. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual considered being gay a mental disorder; in fact, the American Psychiatric Association didn’t remove homosexuality as a disorder until 1973.
While Stonewall is remembered as the riot that sparked the gay liberation movement as we know it, others came before it, most in protest of unwarranted police surveillance and brutality against disenfranchised queer people of color. As Out has outlined, books such as City of Night and Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians consider the first modern gay uprising to be the Cooper’s Donuts Riots. It occurred in May 1959, after law enforcement arrested LGBTQ+ folks without probable cause as they hung out at the gay-friendly donut shop.
This was followed by the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in August 1966, and the Black Cat Riot in 1967, during which officers beat customers and arrested 14 people. Each one was fuelled by angry sex workers, trans and gender non-confirming people, and drag queens who faced violence and discrimination. “[LGBTQ+] people were thrown out of hotels, they were stabbed, they had their breasts cut, they were mutilated because of their genitalia,” Felicia Flames, a “self-described transsexual woman,” told The Advocate in 2018. “We were tired of being arrested for nothing.”
And then came Stonewall — a series of events that perfectly illustrates how the revolutionary elements of the fight for civil rights influenced gay liberation.
There are hundreds of contradictory and inconsistent accounts of the Stonewall riots. But what we do know is that on the night of June 27, 1969, the Stonewall Inn witnessed a violent police raid on drag queens, transgender people, and gay people, a majority of whom were Black or brown. These events led to six days of protests on Christopher Street in New York City — what we now know as the Stonewall Uprising.
Some of the leading figures fighting for justice at Stonewall were Black transgender women, most famously Marsha P. Johnson. Johnson — who, when asked, would say the “P” initial stood for “Pay It No Mind,” in the context of her gender — was a performer and activist. According to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, she described herself as “gay,” “transvestite,” and a “drag queen.” In several books, including Lillian Faderman’s The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, Johnson is remembered for climbing a lamppost and shattering an officer’s squad car with a heavy object, which prompted other protestors to strike the police with pennies, beer cans, and glass bottles.
“Angry lesbians, angrier drag queens, excessive mourning, staggering heat, racial tensions, the example of civil disobedience set by the women’s movement, the antiwar protesters, the Black Panthers — all the elements were present and only a single flame was needed to ignore the bonfire,” noted author Edmund White in the anthology The Stonewall Reader. Sylvia Rivera, a brown trans woman who participated in anti-war and Black liberation marches, also heavily influenced the Stonewall riot and its subsequent protests. So did Miss Major Griffin Gracy, a Black trans activist who eventually worked for the Transgender Variant Intersex Injustice Project.
“From Stonewall to the very first Pride march in 1970, the Christoper Street Liberation Day march, Black trans and queer people have always been the ones willing to take the most votive action — whether it was throwing the brick or the first punch,” says Elle Hearns, founder and executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. “We’ve always been at the centre of the movement. Black trans women like myself were always on the frontlines, and Marsha P. Johnson is a great example of what it looks like to take action in every aspect of your life.”
Storme DeLarverie, a biracial, lesbian drag performer who spent time with Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, is believed to have “thrown the first punch” at Stonewall.
DeLarverie, who later joined the Stonewall Veteran’s Association, opened up about her experience in a January 2008 interview with Curve Magazine. “[The officer] then yelled, ‘I said, move along, faggot.’ I think he thought I was a boy. When I refused, he raised his nightstick and clubbed me in the face,” she said. When asked if she’d heard of the “Stonewall Lesbian,” a.k.a. “The woman who was clubbed outside the bar but was never identified,” she said, “Yes. They were talking about me.” She said she never identified herself “because it was never anybody’s business.”
Another place where Black rights and queer rights intersected is in the way in which LGBTQ+ activists protested. Their methods — igniting trash fires, smashing cop cars, chanting “gay power!” — were heavily influenced by the demonstrations of powerful groups such as the Black Panther Party (BPP), which was founded in 1966.
Following Stonewall, gay activists groups such as the Gay Activists’ Alliance, Gay Liberation Front, and the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), were formed, and adopted the “lexicon” of the BPP. “For the gay men, drag queens, and trans people that frequented the Stonewall Inn, the recognition of police brutality as a tool of gender oppression was a point of adjacency made possible by the prolific accounts of police brutality circulated and amplified by the civil rights movement in general, and the Black Panthers, in particular,” argued Lisa M. Corrigan, an associate professor of communication and director of the gender studies program at the University of Arkansas, in her article “Queering the Panthers: Rhetorical Adjacency and Black/Queer Liberation Politics.”
The connection went both ways. Despite internal hesitation, some Black Panther and Gay Liberation Front leaders encouraged solidary between groups, since they had parallel ideologies. Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the BPP, spoke about his support of the gay liberation movement in 1970, telling reporters that the Panthers “would like to have unity with homosexual groups who are also politically conscious.” In August of that year, Newton delivered a speech, “The Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements,” in which he called for intersectionality.
“Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion,” he said.
Similarly, members of the Gay Liberation Front, like activist John O’Brien, attempted to contribute to the BPP financially to show solidarity. (Some GLF members, however, ultimately denied his motion to do so, citing homophobic language used by the Panthers.) In 1970, Afeni Shakur, a Black Panther activist and Tupac Shakur’s mother, helped organized a meeting with the Gay Liberation Front at Jane Fonda’s house to discuss working together.
Unfortunately, so many of the vocal Black queer activists that fought during the ‘60s and ‘70s are largely understudied when compared to their white counterparts. Names like Kathy Kozachenko, Elaine Noble, Leonard Matlovich, and Harvey Milk are widely known for their contributions to LGBTQ+ rights. Black activists aren’t as celebrated, despite the essential roles they played. A select few include: Bayard Rustin, a key adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; writer, poet, and activist Audre Lorde; Ernestine Eckstein, a leader of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian and civil rights organization in the U.S.; Barbara Jordan, the first Black woman elected to the Texas Senate; writer and scholar Angela Davis; and author James Baldwin.
This year especially, Pride cannot be celebrated without acknowledging the critical, and oftentimes dangerous work that has been done, and continues to be done, by Black queer voices and activists — while honouring the confluence of race, gender, and sexual orientation.
Earl Fowlkes, president and CEO of the Center for Black Equity, stresses that intersectionality is important now more than ever. As a Black child, he says he didn’t experience homophobia. He had a supportive family and a gender non-conforming uncle to look up to. However, things changed in his adulthood. “One of the things that shocked me when I came out was the fact that there was so much racism in the queer space,” he says, explaining we must acknowledge the pervasiveness of racism in our society to become better. “We can undo this if we all do it together. What the white gay community can do is listen and have dialogue with the Black queer community — talk to us, invite us to the table.”
Today, activists like Hearns, who is also a co-founding member of the Black Lives Matter movement, are working to prevent the erasure of Black queer folks — especially Black transgender women — and the whitewashing of queer history. (Donating to her Marsha P. Johnson Institute, for instance, helps uplift these voices).
The reality is that even well-intentioned allies may never begin to understand what it’s like to live as a Black trans woman, or severely disenfranchised American, Hearns explains. The language surrounding 2020’s demonstrations remind us that all Black lives matter — regardless of sexual identity or gender.
No human can afford to stay silent on the issue of racism, around the country and against the LGBTQ+ community specifically. According to Mapping Violence, Black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white people, despite being 1.3 times less likely to be armed. Between 2013 and 2019, 99% of police officers that killed people on duty have not been charged with a crime.
Black transgender women are disproportionately affected by fatal violence. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, more than one in four trans people have faced bias-driven assault. The organization states more than one-fifth (22%) of transgender people who have interacted with the police reported harassment, and the rates are much higher for Black transgender individuals: 38% reported harassment, and 15% reported assault by officers.
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 57% of transgender people are afraid to go to the police for help largely due to the threat of being harassed, physically or sexually assaulted, or misgendered—which is why the deaths of transgender people often go severely unreported.
The Human Rights Campaign reports that at least 26 transgender or gender non-conforming people in 2019 were violently killed, and at least 14 trans individuals have died so far in 2020, most of whom are Black — including the recent deaths of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Riah Milton, just this past week. The American Medical Association has deemed violence against trans people an epidemic.
This is why the fight for equality and the end to police brutality seen in the 1960s and ‘70s, and reflected in today’s unrest, begins with Black queer people, especially Black transgender women.
“We’re seeing the people who are most directly impacted getting smooshed, not only in our society, but in our movement. There will always be the desire for those who are oppressed to shake the hands of their oppressor, and under these conditions, that won’t warrant us any new results. That is the hard challenge for Black trans people during this time. How do we survive when everyone else is willing to sell us out?” Hearns says, noting that Black trans individuals are banding together — separately and within the larger Black Lives Matter movement — to gain visibility. In Minneapolis, for instance, City Council members Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham, who both identify as transgender, are working to “end” the police department.
“The reality is that we’re creating our own solutions. We always have,” Hearns continues. “We’ve always acknowledged our own power, our own talent, our own brilliance. Black trans people will never be extinct, no matter how hard people work to try to get rid of us, there will always be more of us that come.”