It’s a truth that often goes unacknowledged by too many in the LGBTQ+ community: We owe everything to our black members.
The gay liberation movement of the late 1960s and ’70s was led largely by black lesbian and transgender activists. The first event of gay liberation, or at least the event most often seen as the turning point for LGBTQ+ people, was the riot and demonstrations that began on June 28, 1969 against police raids of New York City gay bar Stonewall Inn. Many leaders of that watershed moment were black women: trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, and biracial lesbian Stormé DeLarverie, to name a few. All three would play vital roles in the organizing and activism that followed.
Johnson was an inaugural member of the Gay Liberation Front, founded trans advocacy organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with Latina activist Sylvia Rivera and played a vital role in AIDS Coalition to Unlease Powerduring the AIDS crisis of the ’80s. Griffin-Gracy organized grassroots activism in San Diego for trans women, and provided healthcare and support to victims of the AIDS crisis. DeLarverie served the Greenwich Village community as a volunteer street patrol officer for years, and later in life became the vice president of the Stonewall Veterans’ Association. They risked violence and persecution to advocate for their community, and many, like Johnson, paid for it with their lives. Without the leadership of these black women in the days of gay liberation, no queer person in this country would be where they are right now.
But for all that these trans and POC trailblazers have provided us, white queer people have failed them. In the ’90s, the gay rights movement shifted from radical action, anti-capitalism and anti-racism to focus on assimilation and capturing the approval of the mainstream. The leaders became largely white gay men, and the people of color who started the revolution were left behind –– a trend that in many ways continue to this day.
To say there is a race problem in the queer community is putting the issue very lightly. Racial exclusion and its subsequent problems are so rampant that popular MLM dating app Grindr provides an option to filter people out of your feed based on race (a feature they finally announced will be retired). Queer people of color are far more likely to experience poverty, HIV and sexual violence. Black trans women are murdered at epidemic-level rates every year. But these issues are swept under the rug so vehemenently that when Philadelphia introduced a new pride flag with black and brown stripes to celebrate queer people of color, huge backlash from white queers ensued. White gay men and women reaped the benefits of gay liberation and have been content to ignore the issues that the most marginalized members of the community face.
Right now, thousands of Americans are participating in anti-police protests following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers. He’s one of many black people who have lost their lives to systemic police brutality: Just this year, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police entering her apartment, while Ahmaud Arbery’s death at the hands of civilians was ignored by the Glynn County Police Department until a national outcry forced authorities to make arrests over two months later.
And on May 29, while protests against the police occurred, black trans man Tony McDade was murdered in Tallahassee by an officer. McDade’s murder shortly follows the murder of trans woman Nina Pop in Missouri, and is the latest in along line of black trans people whose murders get far less acknowledgement on social media and the news, especially from the mainstream LGBTQ+ community.
In recent years, Pride Month has become commercialized and commodified, as brands have used the month as free marketing, slapping a rainbow filter on their logos for woke points. It’s a state of affairs that’s caused many to forget what pride started as: an uprising. At Stonewall, hundreds of people raised their voices against police mistreatment and abuse. At Stonewall, marginalized communities banded together to demand better for themselves.
And if we don’t remember that right now, then white queer people have failed the activists who came before them. We’ll have failed Marsha P. Johnson, Stormé DeLarverie, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and all of the queer black women who fought for our rights such a short time ago.
I’m a white cis gay man. I can’t speak for black people and the injustice they face. But this June, I beg every queer person as priviliged as I am to use that privilege to support the Black Lives Matter protests. Donate to bail funds, sign petitions, raise awareness and show up to demonstrations, while always deferring to the black organizers in charge. Don’t ignore what’s going on, or act like the oppression of black people and the oppression of queer people are unconnected, when history proves that false. If we don’t support these protests, we’re betraying the roots of our community and the black activists to whose work we owe so much. The LGBTQ+ community has failed its black members time and time again. Right now, and always, is the time we show we can do better.
Read more from The Monthly: June Edition here
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