LGBTQ Activists Took on ICE, the Corporatization of Pride, and More in 2019

LGBTQ Activists Took on ICE, the Corporatization of Pride, and More in 2019

Most queer and trans people get their news from a few media conglomerates and tech companies that control most of what we see, and only a few very privileged queer and trans voices get any kind of platform.

The largest for-profit LGBTQ+ outlets are owned by a holding company, Pride Media, which may soon shut down the 52-year-old Advocate and 27-year-old Out (the author of this piece has contributed to both). After years of surrendering profits to internet giants like Facebook and Google, the top editors of both magazines resigned on December 11, after about a year on the job. The still-popular hookup app Grindr couldn’t keep its politics and pop culture site INTOmore from shutting down thanks to a conservative investor. And Gay Star News, one of the U.K.’s largest queer media sites, published its last post in July. In a goodbye letter, its founders named Brexit and “rainbow washing” — which they defined as profiting from gay audiences in a “tokenistic way” that is really just about money — as reasons for the site’s demise.

These publications only ever served a narrow, mostly class privileged, mostly white, sliver of the LGBTQ+ population. As it wheezed out its summer issues, Out, in particular, became almost purely advertorial, exploiting the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in June to sell gay audiences to almost any corporation that painted itself as an inclusive rainbow capitalist. Many of these corporations directly fund anti-LGBTQ+ efforts, like the campaigns of politicians with anti-gay agendas.

Truthout has published year-end lists of LGBTQ+ news since gay marriage was legalized in 2015, which was the year that many corporate media outlets said the gay liberation movement had won. Most of us weren’t fooled (and not just because a marriage certificate is basically a legal document that gives the government more control over our private lives).

Four years later, we continue the tradition of recounting the true stories of queer and trans liberation struggles that corporate media ignored.

Exploiting Gay Pride and Apologies Not Accepted

In June 1969, New York City police couldn’t contain the “queens” who for two nights fought back against the cops’ ritualistic arrests and beatings in lower Manhattan.

The riots that ignited at the Stonewall Inn that year are a major spark for the modern gay liberation movement; the first Gay Pride protests held in New York and San Francisco in 1970 on the anniversary of the riots were celebrations of resistance.

In June 2019, New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill made a public apology for the police brutality at Stonewall. To anyone paying attention, his words came out like a bad joke: Law enforcement officers are consistently reported as the top source of violence against LGBTQ+ people — especially against low-income, trans youth of color.

For years, corporations, the police, Zionists and various other fountains of oppression for LGBTQ+ people have co-opted Gay Pride, creating events whitewashed and depoliticized beyond recognition. In 2019, the exploitation of Gay Pride by politicians and profiteers was never more blatant.

Politicians like Joe Biden were obviously pandering for the gay and gay ally vote by stopping at the Stonewall Inn. Taylor Swift promoted her new Pride-themed music video there during a tour produced by anti-gay billionaire Philip Anschutz and his conglomerate AEG, which controls some of the largest event venues in the world, including the Barclays Center, which hosted New York City Pride’s opening ceremony. There was nothing you couldn’t buy with a rainbow on it, down to Rainbow MAGA hats with proceeds going to President Trump’s re-election campaign.

Yet 2019 was also a year of incredible protests and radical responses that called out this co-optation.

Resisting Corporatization and Policing of Pride

In the 1980s, Ellen DeGeneres-style “civility politics” and businesses began creeping into Pride. This was met by global protests and boycotts of corporate Pride events, in addition to alternative Pride events. Moreover, in 2019, the number of cities where cops are banned from marching in uniform grew globally: Official bans now include Prides in cities around the world, including Auckland, Minneapolis, Nice, Sacramento and Toronto.

Ohio’s Black Queer & Intersectional Columbus (BQIC) collective led a rejection of the public relations narrative crafted by Stonewall Columbus, locally known as the nonprofit behind the Midwest’s second-largest Pride fest (after Chicago). Stonewall Columbus executives encouraged the 2017 arrests and prosecution of four Black queer and trans BQIC members, who blocked the Pride parade to bring attention to corporate co-optation and cops who keep killing Black community members.

Rejecting corporate sponsorship, Columbus Community Pride held its second biannual event this year as well as weekly Free Resource Fridays, where people could access free food, shampoo, clothes and political education on neighborhood blocks instead of in boardrooms like the inside of the new million-dollar LGBT Center, where Stonewall Columbus management meets with potential sponsors.

To corral and contain Pride marchers who aren’t attached to some business or business-adjacent nonprofit, corporate Prides have begun a new tradition of sucking any real protest out of Gay Pride through “resistance contingents” — the pre-approved groups of marchers with various messages deemed as “political,” who are almost inevitably drowned out by the glitzier, more well-funded floats and sound systems paid for by big business.

For example, in 2019, San Francisco Pride released several press releases marketing its Resistance Contingent as a catch-all for people who are mad about things. One press release, clearly meant to appease corporate sponsor Google, noted how Black Lives Matter, women’s rights and “immigration [sic] rights” activists (apparently, groups that the Pride board assumes would not normally overlap) would get the opportunity to march in a section of the parade alongside YouTube protesters. The Bay Area-based video platform is owned by Google, which had just gone out of its way to defend a popular “alt-right” YouTuber, Steven Crowder — the anti-gay, fired Fox News pundit whose 4 million-plus subscribers come to him for analysis sprinkled with Trumpian language like “anchor baby” and “lispy queer.”

In the city that held the U.S.’s second-largest Pride, Gay Shame San Francisco filmed Stonewall riots veteran Miss Major, activist CeCe McDonald, author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and filmmaker Tourmaline, for a series of videos against cops and corporations. “Pinko Commie Dykes Against Cops,” read the banner held by Gay Shame and other groups, who stopped the city’s parade for about an hour, when cops began arresting and roughing up members of the blockade.

Queer Chicagoans: A Conservative Lesbian Mayor Isn’t Progress

While gay nonprofits attempt to stay relevant by moving resources into the campaigns of allegedly pro-LGBT politicians, it doesn’t stop politicians from putting donors from industries like real estate before voters.

#StopLoriLightfoot was the ad hoc collective formed to serve some visible queer opposition to Chicago’s new mayor. Lori Lightfoot is a former prosecutor who pandered to progressive voters by obscuring her history of siding with police and real estate developers during her mayoral campaign. Lightfoot’s progressive mileage largely came from optics: She’s Chicago’s first Black lesbian mayor.

Mayor Lightfoot, however, doesn’t value public school teachers; wants to increase the $95 million her predecessor already spent building a police academy designed like a military training facility; and opposes rent control. At a campaign stop at the gay-owned restaurant chain Hamburger Mary’s in March, queers interrupted her, chanting, “Lori Lightfoot, you can’t hide! These queers can see your shady side!”

In 2019, LGBTQ organizers showed how prisons will never be “safe” for our people, no matter how hard politicians and police try to pretend.

Prisons Attempt to Portray Themselves as LGBTQ-Friendly

In the past, Truthout has covered how prison reform efforts around LGBTQ+ prisoners actually result in bigger prisons and bigger profits. Right now, the system is feasting off of increasing numbers of trans and queer people (of color, mostly) thanks to the rise of segregated jails, detention centers and prison wards that have spun off new specialties for people working in the field, like in the sectioned-off areas commonly known as “queer/queen tanks.”

Prisons are also growing tentacles that are presented as gay- and transgender-friendly solutions to the extreme levels of abuse that LGBTQ+ people face, when they’re already places we know to be one of the most concentrated spaces on Earth when it comes to racial divisions, rape and emotional trauma that often ends in suicide — all of which are used as weapons by prison administrators and guards.

Every November, during Trans Day of Remembrance, we remember our dead. Living prisoners at prisons like San Quentin, north of San Francisco, organized their own events around the day.

And now our governments are reintroducing the concept of asylums, where society hid and made money off of society’s “misfits.” Then and now, queer people fit this bill — in large part because we are more often disabled and more often poorer than our cis, hetero counterparts. “Conservatorship,” or declaring someone unfit to take care of themselves, is a way that governments are taking self-determination away from poor people — particularly disabled people, homeless people and drug users — by locking them up into jail-like facilities.

In San Francisco, politicians have given a new jail a nice-sounding name: the “Behavioral Health Justice Center.” It’s just a politrick: Conservatorships use the same infrastructure, like cops who are not at all equipped to deal with people experiencing mental health crises acting as first responders.

Israeli Apartheid: High-Key at Eurovision

Since 1956, Eurovision, one of the most-watched broadcasts on Earth after sports events like the Olympics and the World Cup, has pitted singers from different European countries against one another in an over-the-top vocal battle. Europe’s campy song contest is so gay that one country’s conservative government pulled out of next year’s event (a “homosexual flotilla,” according to Hungary’s conservative, state-run TV station, MTVA).

Each contest is hosted by the country of the previous year’s winner, whose fame is short-lived save for the (very) few breakout contestants like ABBA and Céline Dion. Most people won’t know this year’s winner, but the event itself was an international controversy because of calls for a boycott by Palestinian queer groups such as Pinkwatching Israel and their masses of international supporters.

This year’s May show was one of the least attended in the contest’s history, and the public shaming of guest performer Madonna — who crossed the picket line with a statement that Ellen DeGeneres could have written — plus the waving of Palestinian scarves by Iceland’s contestant, Hatari, only fanned the flames of controversy. The issue of Israeli apartheid in Palestine overshadowed every last lipsynched line.

Indigenous Two-Spirit and Queer People Rise

In 2019, Native peoples’ organizing has been building a movement not seen since the 1970s. Gender-variant Two-Spirit people are focused in the work of The Red Nation, an anti-capitalist, Indigenous peoples’ liberation group. With its roots in the area dubbed Nuevo Mexico by Spain, after colonists slaughtered, enslaved and rendered homeless so many Native Americans, The Red Nation’s 10-point program notes:

The processes of colonization and heteropatriarchy impose binary gender roles, nuclear family structures, and male-dominated hierarchies that are fundamentally at odds with Native customary laws and social organization, where LGBTQ2[-spirit] people often held positions of privilege and esteem. The effect of this system for Native LGBTQ2 is violent. Native LGBTQ2 experience rates of murder, sexual exploitation, discrimination, hate crimes, homelessness and substance abuse at high rates.

Canadian activists are doing much of the organizing to raise the issue of the deaths, disappearances and gender-based violence against Two-Spirit people. The work, much of it done by elders and youth, emerges alongside a resurgence in art, land defense and sovereignty fights across Turtle Island (North America) involving Two-Spirit people. They’re making it harder for the Canadian government not to pay attention to the 231 calls for justice by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two Spirits. The National Inquiry called out Canada’s “specific intent” to destroy Indigenous communities as “race-based genocide.”

Meanwhile, 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization (at least on paper) of homosexuality in Canada. Activists organized events like the Anti-69 Symposium to challenge co-optation of the radical history of queer organizing. The Canadian Mint‘s release of an “Equality” collector’s coin further enshrined the idea that many Canadian capitalists, like in the U.S., view LGBTQ+ people as a market rather than a movement.

In U.S.-occupied Hawaii, wealthy capitalists from the tech industry have displaced many Native Hawaiians. Who else but Mark Zuckerberg would forcibly purchase much of the over 700 acres of Kauai he now owns (and wants surrounded by a six-foot wall)? Fellow tech billionaire Larry Ellison of Oracle bought 98 percent of the island of Lanai and former AOL CEO Steve Case controls about 22,000 acres on Maui. As a result of this displacement, many Native Hawaiians are homeless and live in tent cities where they are often brutalized by police or private security forces hired by wealthy newcomers. The Tent City Kweenz emerged as a tight-knit community of trans people keeping each other safe in a tent community in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island.

Resisting ICE Terror

All year long, activists leveled up their actions against the abuse and deaths at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.

In September, Bamby Saucedo of the [email protected] Coalition filmed a message of joy as she reported that the battle to free Salvadoran trans activist Alejandra Barrera was a success. In December, the group launched a campaign to #FreeKelly — Kelly being a trans asylum seeker who, like Barrerra, ICE has imprisoned for more than two years, likely as retaliation for speaking to lawyers and the media about inhumane conditions inside ICE’s concentration camps.

Activists also uncovered more horrific details about the 2018 death of the Honduran asylum seeker Roxsana Hernandez, including the deletion of footage by CoreCivic, a subcontractor for ICE that owns the camp where Hernandez died.

Pride month began with another horror show as we mourned 25-year-old Johana Medina Leon, who had grimly predicted her own death on ICE’s watch over ICE’s refusal to treat her for HIV, no matter how many times she pleaded with guards and officials to see a doctor. Medina Leon’s family described how she had even asked to be deported back to El Salvador, where she was fleeing an anti-trans government. ICE boasts about the $269 million it spends on medical services, but the agency refused to send Medina Leon’s body back to El Salvador unless her family could foot the bill. Community groups like Familia TQLM and the [email protected] Coalition ended up raising funds for her funeral and transport.

It’s a terribly fitting example of how the U.S. serves up the same violent treatment as the right-wing governments and militaries from which the refugees fled in the first place.

Familia TQLM and ally organizations focused on Cibola County Correctional Center, which operates ICE’s only LGBT detention ward, where the community is segregated, supposedly for their own protection. But there’s no “protection” here, as trans people — especially trans femmes and those with disabilities — report sexual abuse by staff and are subject to the horror of solitary confinement at a much higher rate than non-queer and trans people. In addition, the average trans person spends about twice as much time as other migrants in detention purgatory while they wait for judges to decide their asylum cases.

Despite a public shaming, ICE recently signed a $2.2 million contract with the private consulting company McKinsey, which has advised ICE to cut the medicine and food budgets for immigrants caged in detention centers. (McKinsey is also the former employer of gay presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who has attempted to downplay his work for the company.)

However, the queer tradition of nontraditional family structures provided a lifeline to some trans migrants in 2019. Creating bonds that go beyond bloodlines is built into the queer experience, often because our biological parents are unsupportive or abusive when we come out. The “queer family” structure has undoubtedly helped some trans migrants to connect with host families in the U.S. through groups like the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. (It’s sad, but the reality is that so many people still live in limbo; as of December, the Project’s waiting list had 30 trans women looking for sponsors.)

Finally, 2019 saw activists behind Queer Trans War Ban create a toolkit and series of workshops stressing the fact that many queers want no part in U.S. military terror.

Even though corporate media usually silenced the antiwar voices of the queer movement, as President Trump attempted to order trans soldiers back into the closet, some of our own continued work, such as spotlighting the rape of trans soldiers by other soldiers.

Author’s note: Thanks to Ryan Conrad, Mameta Endo, Chanelle Gallant, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Erica Meiners, Erika Pulfer, Thatcher Sady and Danni West for helping source parts of this piece.