On June 24, President Obama announced that a 49-year-old gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in New York City, would become “the first national monument to tell the story of the struggle for LGBT rights.” The news came at an awkward time for LGBTQ communities, which for years have been wracked by painful political differences.
Some gay rights activists celebrated the presidential acknowledgements, as well as the rainbow-emblazoned police SUVs that joined Pride parades this year in cities across the country. Others viewed these elements as contradictory and even harmful, given the ongoing targeting of LGBTQ people — especially those who are low-income or the “wrong” color — by the police. (In the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs’ latest annual report, from 2015, surveying victims of anti-LGBT hate violence who called the police, 80 percent said police were indifferent or hostile.) Meanwhile, queer and trans people of color are taking to the streets, protesting issues like deportations, the whitewashing of Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub massacre, and ongoing murders of trans women of color. This fragmentation within queer activism is increasingly apparent, even to those not under the LGBTQ umbrella.
For the Stonewall christening ceremony on June 27, the White House invited selected leaders from the community, as well as a slew of non-queer politicians and officials. The guest list included people like NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, who has been consistently criticized by LGBTQ activists for supporting policies such as “stop-and-frisk” searches and “broken windows” policing — both of which target low-income trans and gender nonconforming people of color, as well as other people of color.
The monumentalizing of Stonewall calls attention to what is an increasing dissonance among those involved in LGBTQ activism: those who welcome the so-called protection offered by police and the state, and those who feel targeted by them. The symbolic gesture that is the White House’s recognition of Stonewall raises questions about who among the queer community actually benefits from the move toward inclusion. In particular, low-income queer and trans people of color have yet to see the positive effects of accelerating assimilation.
The newly installed plaque outside the Stonewall Inn, an apparent designator of political progress, doesn’t align with policies that continue to harm queer and trans people — like the ongoing deportation of undocumented immigrants, or the failure of Congress to pass an employment anti-discrimination measure on June 14. A 2013 Pew survey found that 21 percent of LGBT people had been treated unfairly by an employer in hiring, pay, or promotions due to their gender/sexuality.
Plus, Stonewall’s history is anything but one of state inclusion.
“The truth is my community needs house keys, not handcuffs, needs care not cages.”
The bar’s significance comes from an uprising in June 1969 during an anti-gay police raid. People who threw bricks at the NYPD officers almost 50 years ago, as well as many of today’s queer activists who carry that legacy forward, are calling “bullshit” on what they identify as the rewriting of history.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was a 22-year-old who’d recently come out as trans when she clashed with cops that June night in Greenwich Village in 1969. She isn’t exactly impressed by the White House’s gesture.
Last year, when Independence Day: Resurgence director Roland Emmerich released the historical drama Stonewall, Major was among many people who accused the film of whitewashing an important moment in gay history, and of reducing the transgender people who were at the forefront of the uprising to mere props.
Major expressed her disappointment on the queer blog Autostraddle:
They keep doing this! My first thought is: how dare they attempt to do this again? A few years ago they did another Stonewall movie, and I swear if I saw a black person, it had to be a shadow running against the face of somebody who was white!
Major’s words quickly became the center of a storm of internet pushback regarding the film’s historical inaccuracies, a storm that Emmerich later blamed for the movie’s megaflop-status at the box office.
The trans icon was invited to Monday’s ceremony, where Senior Advisor to the President of the United States Valerie Jarrett and other White House officials spoke about the importance of honoring “our history” from a podium outside the Inn. Major said she quickly declined the White House’s invitation when she heard it was going to be an expressly apolitical event.
The VIP-only occasion’s invitation made it clear that the commemoration of one of the most politically charged moments in gay history was to be anything but. Here’s an excerpt:
Please note that this is an official event with the U.S. Department of the Interior. As such, no political activity may take place at the event…
“Oh, that’s cute,” Major commented of the invite. “To go and sit there and be a quiet little nigger? No.” One of the first trans women of color to be honored as a grand marshal of San Francisco’s Gay Pride celebration said that, while trans people might be “the flavor of the moment,” the government was not taking enough action to help keep trans women alive and safe.
“They [the mainstream gay movement] spent millions and millions of dollars to get married,” she said. “What about taking some of that to set up programs to get kids through school without bullying … [or] help transgender people keep it together throughout all the stuff that they have to suffer through and get the help that they need to become stable?”
At the White House event, Twitter user @BlackShiite took their disappointment online, posting pictures of the mostly white VIPs:
The memorializing was largely celebrated by those with the loudest voices in the world of gay rights — spokespeople for organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, for example. Representatives of these organizations use their platform to depict the LGBTQ movement as monolithic: one with with shared concerns and a shared agenda. But as white gay people benefit more and more from legal protection, visibility and inclusion, the LGBTQ movement is divided by the same factors that structure all inequity in the US, such as proximity to state violence and access to resources.
How can we consider the Stonewall commemoration a triumph, so long as millions continue fighting?
These differences, of course, are primarily articulated through race and income; low-income queer and trans people of color are overwhelmingly the targets of police abuse, arrests and surveillance.
This division between white, wealthy, cisgender gays, and queer and trans activists of color has been apparent throughout this Pride season, as queer and trans groups across the country pushed a #policeoutofpride campaign, opting out of Pride celebrations after cities announced increased state security presences post-Orlando.
As with the government’s pro-gay makeover, Pride celebrations across the country are as much an occasion for corporations to promote themselves as “allies” as they are a chance for LGBTQ people to gather and celebrate their survival. In 1998, the Bay Area’s LAGAI-Queer Insurrection was possibly the first queer direct action group to crash a Gay Pride parade and call out corporate hijacking, chanting “It’s a movement, not a market!” as they disrupted what had in large part become a celebration of gay consumerism, not liberation.
Some of the world’s wealthiest banks and tech companies have since solidified their place as sponsors and participants in the festivities. While it may be true that large corporations increasingly employ gays and lesbians, these hires are predominantly white and predominantly cisgender. Even more, the growth of tech industries in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Seattle continues to displace longstanding communities and bringing in hoards of high-paid corporate workers. What often goes unspoken is that lower-income LGBTQ people, especially communities of color, are forced out when white, wealthy, and highly educated gays and lesbians move in.
No Pride in Policing
BreakOUT!, the largest organization for transgender youth in New Orleans, recently conveyed “with deep regret” that it would step down as a grand marshal of the city’s recent Gay Pride festivities due to increased police presence in the wake of the massacre in Orlando. The group identified many of its membership as undocumented youth who had experienced sexual violence perpetrated by police and sheriffs, as well as “youth who have already been the targets of private patrols and security in many of the gay bars in the French Quarter,” including bars that were exclusionary and hostile toward trans women.
“While we were honored to be named one of the grand marshals in Pride, our priority is to our vision of liberation where we can walk down the street without fear. #policeoutofpride,” the group said in a statement.
Mirroring New Orleans, three of the organizations that were to be honored in San Francisco’s Pride — the world’s largest gay public event — pulled out at the last minute. Grand Marshal Janetta Johnson of the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project, which advocates for trans prisoners across the US, said she didn’t “feel comfortable accepting being in this parade,” pointing to the queer homeless population in San Francisco, whom she explained wouldn’t be welcomed at Pride.
The monumentalizing of Stonewall calls attention to increasing dissonance among those involved in LGBTQ activism.
She also brought attention to the case of Athena Cadence, a trans woman incarcerated in the San Francisco Country Jail, who is on the 31st day of a hunger strike to demand self-determined gender appropriate housing and search policies be implemented. Johnson’s organization was joined in opting out of San Francisco Pride by the sex worker clinic St. James Infirmary, which was slated to receive the “Heritage of Pride Award,” as well as the Bay Area arm of Black Lives Matter, an organizational grand marshal of the event.
At San Francisco Pride’s opening affair, the Trans March, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee and openly gay city supervisor Scott Wiener were booed off stage by a crowd numbering in the thousands, ostensibly for trying to co-opt the occasion to grandstand for the upcoming November elections.
Lee and Wiener had recently promoted policies such as the removal of tent encampments that target poor people — many of whom may be transgender.
And in Toronto, the city’s police chief was rebuffed when he offered an apology for the department’s raids on gay bathhouses that were acknowledged as the result of homophobia within the government. Activist Chanelle Gallant, who was present for one of the raids, told Canada’s Globe and Mail that the apology “is meaningless without concrete actions.”
“I do not believe the police protect us,” Gallant continued. “I believe that the police should be defunded and that funds should be redirected into community services that keep us safe,” such as health care and employment opportunities for LGBT people.
House Keys Not Handcuffs
In the wake of the Pulse Massacre in Orlando, of newly enacted transgender inclusion policies in the military and of the new Stonewall monument, the broader LGBTQ community has been the center of attention to a degree it hasn’t experienced since the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act one year ago. Amid this increased focus, divides within the LGBTQ community have been accentuated.
Over the past month and across North America, queer and trans activists have loudly, clearly demanded tangible, material policies that would shift the daily life of LGBTQ people navigating poverty, state violence and criminalization. At the same time, those at the forefront of these movements have expressed their distrust — and disinterest — in the currency of symbolic politics. How can we consider the Stonewall commemoration a triumph, so long as millions continue fighting? How can that conflict be effectively relegated to the past, when it has yet to end?
And so in the spirit of Stonewall, people will continue to organize against the cooptation of Pride. As Janetta Johnson said while announcing her decision to withdraw from San Francisco Pride, “The truth is my community needs house keys, not handcuffs, needs care not cages, needs jobs and job training, economic power and cultural self-determination. We need safety, real safety… When my community is safe, then we can be really proud.”