On June 28th, 1969, the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village became a major catalyst in the movement for LGBTQ rights. Transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were among the boldest and most outspoken leaders who stood up against the ongoing police brutality and harassment that plagued the now landmark gay bar for months.
The actions that occurred that night at Stonewall weren’t a protest, but a riot—violent, disruptive, and purposely resistant. The LGBTQ community had enough of the state-sanctioned discrimination and abuse. Blood was shed, fighting ensued, arrests were made—the police were not there to protect and serve, but to persecute and torture.
Johnson, who was celebrating her 25th birthday that night, was the first to resist, followed by Rivera who threw one of the first bottles at the oppressive police. The revolution sent shockwaves across the nation as many other cities began to stand up and fight back against LGBTQ inequality.
Fifty years later, we owe our current progress to these two fearless black and brown transgender women who risked their lives in the fight for LGBTQ liberation.
Today, we have marriage equality, a gay candidate running for president, mainstream media representation, and Congress just recently pushing to pass the Equality Act—a law that would extend civil rights and protections to all LGBTQ Americans nationwide.
On Thursday, NYC Police Commissioner James P. O'Neill made an unprecedented apology on behalf of the Police Department for the conduct of the officers during Stonewall. “The actions taken by NYPD were wrong—plain and simple,” O'Neill said during a Pride event at police headquarters. His remarks were a long overdue apology for a major gross abuse of police force.
Despite the diverse leadership it initially took for the movement to advance, many of the achievements since have benefited the most privileged within our community: white cisgender gay men.
Browse through any disparity study on LGBTQ people, and black members of the community are often hit the hardest. Despite the public awareness of these setbacks, black and brown queer people continue to be underrepresented in LGBTQ leadership, media, and visibility.
And while many had hoped for racial harmony within the LGBTQ community, I’ve learned first-hand that we still have a long way to go. As the former LGBTQ editor for Philadelphia magazine, I’ve spent the past three years covering racial discrimination in our own rainbow flag-waving backyard.
From gay bar owners insulting black patrons with racial slurs, to white-led LGBTQ nonprofits being protested against by diverse community members, I’ve come to recognize that the fight for diversity and inclusion is not just happening outside of the LGBTQ community, but within it.
But this is nothing new. History has already shown us that black queer and transgender people have always had to remind the rest of the community of our prominence—despite the fact that the movement was co-led by us since the beginning.
While many people rightfully praise the late gay political icon Harvey Milk, our community doesn’t give as much respect to civil rights legend Bayard Rustin. Rustin, a black gay activist who openly embraced both his identities at a time when they were being federally marginalized, took on some tough battles.
Throughout the 1940s until his death in 1987, Rustin was a steadfast revolutionary who was intersectional and strategic. He led the effort to get the historic 1963 March on Washington off the ground and advocated for equal legal protections for LGBTQ people before it was popular. “The only final security for all is to provide equal protection for every group under the law,” Rustin said while testifying before the General Welfare Committee of New York City Council in 1986.
But Rustin was only one of several black LGBTQ activists who were ahead of their time. The Combahee River Collective Statement, formulated by a group of black queer women in 1974, was a groundbreaking manifesto that reshaped the way we now discuss feminism and intersectionality.
Co-founded by acclaimed black lesbian activist Barbara Smith, the Combahee River Collective gave a voice to black queer women at a time when they were excluded from mainstream movements. Some of the intersectional values expressed by this trailblazing group can be seen in many movements today, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, whose founding leadership include black queer women.
Such activism wasn’t just projected in policy and direct action, but through pop culture. The legendary James Baldwin and Alice Walker weren’t the only black queer writers who spoke truth to power—the 1986 anthology In the Life, edited by Joseph Beam, also redefined how we saw ourselves as well.
At 27 years old, it never really dawned on me how much black queer culture has been highly consumed by society at large until I watched the groundbreaking 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning which spotlighted the immersive and deep history of New York City’s black queer ballroom drag scene.
While many now freely use the colloquial phrases “throwing shade,” “read you for filth,” and “spill the tea,” it was impoverished black queer and transgender drag performers who originated those terms decades ago while facing a HIV/AIDS epidemic that still hasn’t gotten better for people like them.
Fast-forward to now, and we’re still talking about the ballroom scene’s impact through the new hit show Pose on FX that includes a remarkable amount of diverse LGBTQ actors, writers, producers, and directors.
Films such as the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, books such as Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones, and the rise of black LGBTQ voices from public figures such as Billy Porter, Lena Waithe, Roxane Gay, Janet Mock, Janelle Monáe, Laverne Cox, Sharron Cooks, Raquel Willis, Tre’vell Anderson, Don Lemon, and other countless activists and entertainers, give me hope.
But again, we still have a long way to go.
Right now, LGBTQ progress is being threatened under the presidency of Donald Trump. We have already witnessed ongoing federal setbacks to policies impacting the transgender community and those living with HIV.
The unaddressed racial pitfalls that have unfairly crippled black and brown LGBTQ people have made matters worse in the very safe spaces we should be considering home.
It hurts to see the lack of diversity and the erasure of black queer and transgender revolutionaries during Pride month, and to see companies that still lack our visibility in their offices take up space in our parades.
Pride wouldn’t exist without the work of black and brown LGBTQ activists who risked their lives and reputations on behalf of a community that haven’t paid their proper respects.
As we move into the next 50 years, let’s not continue to ignore and silence the accomplishments of black and brown LGBTQ community members. Give them a seat at the table and a mic at the podium. Pay them in equity and access, not tokenization and exploitation. It can’t be a true Pride celebration until we are all free.
This is what Marsha P. Johnson would have wanted because she once said so herself: “As long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America, there’s no reason for celebration.”
This Pride season, it’s time to put the rainbow flags and cocktails down and put our fists back up. The revolution is still not over; there’s plenty of work to be done.