It’s become a tradition at annual Pride festivals around the country: Activists interrupt a colorful parade to protest the participation of police and expose the rift between the LGBTQ movement’s corporate mainstream and those living on its margins. With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots approaching, such protests have been gaining attention. Plenty has been written over the past few months dissecting Stonewall’s radical legacy and paying homage to the transgender activists who emerged as leaders of the legendary gay bar uprising and the revolutionary movement it reflected. Some of the mainstream press is finally acknowledging that, despite their early leadership in the LGBTQ movement, trans women of color continue to face rampant violence and discrimination today.
Meanwhile, just as the 2019 Pride Month kicked off, a 25-year-old trans woman from El Salvador named Johana Medina Leon died just a few days after being released by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) from a packed immigration jail in El Paso, Texas. Her death followed that of Roxsana Hernández, a 33-year-old trans woman from Honduras who died after being held in a privately run immigration jail in New Mexico last year, bringing worldwide attention to the dire conditions in U.S. immigration jails. Both women reportedly died from complications related to HIV infection, although an independent autopsy suggested Hernandez also suffered physical abuse. HIV is easily treatable when screening and proper health care are available. ICE responded to the latest death in its typical chilling fashion, telling reporters that Leon was just another “alien” who came to U.S. with an “untreated medical condition.”
Leon and Hernández were not “aliens.” They were human beings and asylum seekers who passed “credible fear” interviews. Perhaps a need for proper medical care was one reason for their journey, but like so many others seeking refuge, instead of being able to access care, they were incarcerated under the Trump administration’s deadly immigration policies.
Jorge Gutierrez, the executive director of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement (TQLM), a national group organizing LGBTQ Latinx communities, said LGBTQ migrants have been reporting that they are experiencing discrimination, being placed in solitary confinement, and being refused medical care at immigration jails and holding pens for a long time now. However, for transgender women and other LGBTQ migrants, the struggle begins long before they reach the border.
“We work with a lot of Central Americans…their journey really starts the minute they leave their community,” Gutierrez said in an interview. “They experience all sorts of violence on the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, and even there, when they are waiting to seek asylum, they are experiencing violence there, and once they are detained, they experience the same kind of violence that they are fleeing from.”
Transgender people face violence all over the world, but the danger is compounded in Central America, where transgender people endure rampant, systemic discrimination on top of the violence that has sent thousands fleeing to Mexico and the U.S.
The plight of trans women and other LGBTQ migrants wrapped up in this crisis has been glaringly missing in many of the conversations happening around Stonewall’s anniversary, even as trans activists like Sylvia Rivera and Martha P. Johnson are beginning to be more widely recognized as Stonewall heroes after being sidelined by the movement decades ago.
Meanwhile, migrant justice advocates and groups like Familia: TQLM and the Transgender Law Center’s Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project have been organizing actions at the border as well as Pride events to “make all the connections” between the violent incarceration of LGBTQ migrants and high rates of criminalization, violence and murder that trans women of color in the U.S. already face.
“We are really coming together to say … our folks are still experiencing all kinds of violence and are being murdered, and we are reminding our community during Pride Month that the work is far from over,” Gutierrez said.
Yet Stonewall’s legacy and state violence against migrants are deeply entwined. As Truthout’s Maya Schenwar and Kelly Hayes recently pointed out, the concentration camps at the southern border are also prisons, part of a larger, industrial system that makes the U.S. the world’s incarceration capital. Gutierrez said Familia: TQLM’s mission is an extension of the work activists like Johnson and Rivera were doing decades ago. After all, the Stonewall riots were a rebellion against the police, who systematically raided bars, assaulted queers and threw them in jail. Border Patrol officers and ICE agents are police who work with local police in many parts of the country to tear apart families and destroy lives. Trans women of color of any background still face high rates of police profiling and criminalization, but what about those who are seeking asylum or are living in the U.S. undocumented? Our unjust immigration system compounds the oppression that LGBTQ Latinx, Black and immigrant communities already face.
“Trans women are being harassed and stopped and arrested for walking while trans, so imagine when our folks are interacting in that kind of violent way with the police, and then you add in immigration status,” Gutierrez said.
This explains why LGBTQ activists are protesting the police presence at Pride events. Two popular slogans for Pride disrupters are “Stonewall Was a Riot” and “No Cops at Pride.” These aren’t simply a radical provocations harkening to the past, or part of the ongoing argument over who “threw the first brick” that sparked the 1969 riots. While the LGTBQ movement has secured major victories like marriage and housing equality for its more privileged members in the years since Stonewall, police continue to target the most marginalized in the LGTBQ world, including Black and Latinx trans women, sex workers and homeless youth — as well as LGBTQ migrants fleeing persecution, and trans and queer immigrants living in the U.S.
“I would say that is why every Pride Month there such a conflict around police presence at Pride festivals,” Gutierrez said. “When trans and queer people of color are still facing so much violence coming from the police…why are they being invited, and why are they taking up space in a place that is supposed to uphold our dignity?”
This also explains why activists like Gutierrez are calling on fellow LGBTQ people to not only oppose the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, but also to demand the abolition of the concentration camps and agencies like ICE for good. As long as people are criminalized and caged for migration, there will be more violence and more death. Taken as a whole, “No Cops at Pride” and “Abolish ICE” are at the center of the same movement for dignity.
“These agencies have become murderous agencies and we need to organize to abolish them and end it all, because the only way to stop the violence is to get rid of them completely,” Gutierrez said.
This weekend marks the anniversary of the Stonewall riots and will see some of the largest Pride celebrations of the year. If you attend and the party is suddenly interrupted by demonstrators, don’t grumble or stand on the sidelines. Join in solidarity with the LGBTQ people who first sparked a movement for queer freedom – and those who are still struggling and dying for freedom today. Say their names: Martha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Johana Medina Leon, Roxana Hernández and countless others who fought to live life as who they are, against the odds. Stonewall was a riot, for sure, but it was also an expression of collective liberation. LGBTQ people won’t be free until all of us are, regardless of our identities or where we come from. That’s how freedom works.
Correction: Jorge Gutierrez is the executive director of Familia: TQLM, not the communications director as this article originally stated.