Pride Month 2020: The Past Informs the Present

By Kieran Robertson

“No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.” – Marsha P. Johnson

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the New York Police Department arrived at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York. The police frequently raided bars patronized by the LGBTQ community, but on this night the patrons decided to resist. This night of resistance was such an important moment in the larger movement for LGBTQ rights that the community still marks the moment each year during June- otherwise known as Pride Month.

You may have noticed that the LGBTQ community has been a bit quiet about Pride Month this year. There is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, postponing Pride events around the country. But the LGBTQ community has also put celebration on hold as many folks get to work supporting the current Black Lives Matter movement. However, if we look at the history of the movement for LGBTQ rights, we can see that Pride isn’t actually on hold- many members of the LGBTQ community are actually celebrating by engaging in the same types of protest that we mark in June each year.

Activists in Columbus, Ohio, circa 1980s.

The original Stonewall Uprising was a protest against police brutality led by LGBTQ people of color. In 1969, the Stonewall Inn was a refuge for all members of the LGBTQ community in New York City. At a time when known homosexual acts were a crime, the bar was a place where LGBTQ people could go and feel safe being themselves.

Like most LGBTQ friendly bars at the time, the Stonewall Inn did not have a liquor license. Many of these bars were operated by Mafia families, taking advantage of the community’s desperate situation to make money. Police made frequent raids of LGBTQ bars, but would often tip off the owners in advance, requiring hush money in exchange for the community’s continued safety.

When the police didn’t feel they had been paid properly, LGBTQ patrons faced violence and arrest. In particular, transgender and gender noncomforming patrons could face arrest under a statute that required citizens to be wearing at least three “gender appropriate” pieces of clothing. (“Appropriate” referring implicitly to an individual’s gender assigned at birth.)

Three of the most important faces at the Stonewall Uprising, and in the early Gay Liberation Movement, were Stormé DeLarverie, Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera. It is believed that DeLarverie’s arrest, and Johnson and Rivera’s decisions to resist, began the uprising that night.

It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.
— Stormé DeLarverie

The fact that these three women were outspoken at Stonewall was not a surprise- they spent their lives working for the liberation of their community. They are simply three examples of the many people of color who have always been central to the LGBTQ community and the fight for liberation.

LGBTQ folks have also always been central to the movement for African American civil rights in the United States. As the midcentury civil rights movement developed and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became a public face, he was followed by one of his closest advisors, Bayard Rustin. Rustin was incredibly influential in organizing many of the protests we now read about in our history books. However, due to the way his sexuality shaped his public image, Rustin was often pushed off center stage. You can read about Rustin and other LGBTQ civil rights leaders here. How can LGBTQ Ohioans and their allies continue to celebrate the spirit of Pride while also engaging with the Black Lives Matter protests across the state? One important step is taking the time to be informed about the specific accomplishments of black LGBTQ folks. Where can you start? Here are some ideas:

As public historians we examine evidence of the past to guide us and make sense of today. Read about intersectionality, or dive into an Ohio-based story with the film Flag Wars to learn about gentrification.
Listen to what the black LGBTQ community have to say about this moment, and learn how you can support black led LGBTQ organizations in our communities. In Ohio, learn about Columbus’s Black Queer and Intersectional Collective (BQIC) or Cincinnati’s Cincy Black Pride. You can also check out this article with more information about organizations around the nation, or this report about the effect of violence on the lives of black trans women.

The spirit of Pride is very present this year, as the LGBTQ community actively honors where we have been, who we are, and where we are headed. If you have any other suggested resources for this moment, please share in the comments. Happy Pride, blog readers.

Posted June 10, 2020

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