The Year of COVID, Elections and Police Brutality Also Saw LGBTQ Activism

For the past five years, Truthout has looked back at the queer and trans news you might’ve missed because corporate news outlets decided not to cover it. This year, almost all of us were tangled up with the biggest news stories — queer and trans people felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; the feuds between the rich and powerful in Washington; the anti-racist uprisings; and the global warming-fueled hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires.

This year has reaffirmed what many of us have known for years: Queer and trans liberation is inextricable from the liberation of all marginalized people. More than ever, we can’t separate the queer and trans issues from the oppression of anyone who is marginalized. In 2020, we continue the tradition of recounting the true stories of queer and trans liberation struggles that corporate media ignored.

Anti-Police Protests Translated Into Ongoing Demand for Cop-Free Pride Events

As protests in the summer raged against police-perpetrated executions of people like Tony McDade, a Black trans man from Tallahassee, Florida, Pride agency directors had to suck it up and say a few words about Pride’s anti-police roots. The director of the nonprofit that runs Los Angeles Pride announced a protest to show “solidarity with the Black community against systemic racism and joining the fight for meaningful and long-lasting reform” of the police. The protest was canceled when activists pointed out hypocrisies such as L.A. Pride’s lack of outreach to Black trans/queer people, and its letter to the Los Angeles Police Department affirming its 50 year-long “strong and unified partnership with law enforcement” as it planned the event.

COVID-19 pushed most Prides onto platforms like Zoom, where it was easy for executive boards to make verbal statements in support of Black trans and queer lives; some historically pro-police Pride boards, such as San Diego’s, pledged that future events would be free of uniformed officers. However, Pride boards have generally broken promises when it comes to the Black, Latinx, Indigenous, disabled and/or low-income queer and trans people who are most often targeted by the police. In the past couple of years, some of the bigger corporate Pride events in the country — Columbus, Ohio, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, for example — revoked public stances against the police once they decided that pro-cop, #BlueLivesMatter values were no longer a public relations liability.

About That Supreme Court Anti-Discrimination Decision That Liberals Cheered in June…

President Bill Clinton proclaimed June as Pride Month back in 1999, and since then, the federal government has often dropped some concession to LGBT people (gay marriage and trans military inclusion came in June 2015 and 2017, respectively). This year, the Supreme Court’s decision that LGBT people should be free from discrimination at work got a lot of applause from corporate media outlets and nonprofits, but as trans lawyer Gabriel Arkles told Truthout, “Just because discrimination is illegal does not mean it won’t happen… Discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and disability still happens” every day.

Proving discrimination is hard — at least as hard as getting an employment lawyer to pay attention to your case without connections or money. With an economic depression setting in, the Biden administration’s current cabinet roster should spark no false hopes that the U.S. will stop spending trillions on domestic and foreign wars, bailing out the biggest businesses, or catering to billionaire donors, while labor protections wither and people who haven’t hoarded money will have to get by on the charity of the richest Americans.

Realistically, none of us will know anyone who gets any concrete benefit from the Supreme Court decision, as much as it may have given liberals good feelings about the Court and reinforced beliefs that it’s an institution concerned about fairness. Particularly, queer people working in the underground economy, like sex workers, got nothing, and a new rule from President Trump’s Labor Department gives government contractors who discriminate more reason to keep on discriminating.

The Deadliest Year for Trans Women Was Even Deadlier in Puerto Rico

Murders of trans people — especially low-income, Black, Latinx and Indigenous trans women and femmes — sets new records every year. This may be due to there being more attention on trans deaths and more data points to pull from, but whatever the reason, we’re not moving on what matters. We might be paying more attention to the problem of killings of trans people, but as many trans people point out, how many dead trans sisters’ names do we have to speak until more people actually care about the trans people who are breathing today?

Left out of the data: The 50 states didn’t come close to the relative numbers of murders of trans women in U.S.-occupied Puerto Rico, where most weeks there are one or two preventable deaths of trans people, according to Aleksander V. Johnsen with Colectiva Solidaridad, one of the trans/queer-led organizations partnering with mutual aid programs like Brinca Charco to direct attention and protective gear to trans and nonbinary people surviving on the island right now.

The political class has mostly ignored the everyday suffering that exploded after Hurricane Maria’s devastation; hurricane season this year barely made news on the mainland despite the destruction and deaths it brought. Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resigned in 2019 after million-person-strong protests. (The major catalyst for the protests came from homophobic and misogynist texts involving jokes about cadavers from 2017’s Hurricane Maria, exposing politicians’ enthusiasm for privatizing the island’s power grid, and a deceptive, self-serving local and social media strategy.)

But people organizing against U.S. colonialism are in survival mode, working against the influence of corporate and Democratic and Republican profiteers of the shock doctrine.

Political Campaign Spending Goes to Electing Conservative LGBT Politicians

People in the U.S. have less faith in the government than in any of the big corporate interests that we have reason to distrust: Pharmaceutical companies, social media platforms and corporate news conglomerates all rate as more trustworthy.

And yet there are still so many LGBTQ career politicians who want to become one with the country’s most loathed institution. After the November election, a 20-year-old foundation that exists to elect LGBTQ bureaucrats, the LGBTQ Victory Fund, gifted journalists with a press release in which the organization congratulates itself on helping elect more “out” candidates than in any other U.S. election. The fund and its associated politician training camp, the Victory Institute, claim to be nonpartisan and without any political agenda, in the same vein of celebrities participating in get-out-the-vote campaigns who don’t want to alienate fans and patrons: It doesn’t matter who you vote for as long as you vote!

Every election sucks up more resources than the last, and the Center for Responsive Politics reports most members of the House are millionaires. Obviously, most queer and non-queer people are not rich. Victory and other gay nonprofits that pivoted to electing gay politicians after gay people could legally get married and join the military attempt to avoid the intersectionality issue — especially around poverty.

The foundation’s social media recently celebrated the elections of “TWO new lesbian sheriffs!!” [sic], and in one of the few races between two openly LGBTQ candidates, it endorsed a gay, white, status-quo lawyer funded by real estate over an Indigenous and Latinx queer socialist. The fund partners on campaigns with GOPAC (essentially a mirror of the Victory Fund brought to us by right-wing politicians like Newt Gingrich and Michael Steele), which exclusively supports conservative candidates.

The Victory Fund also endorsed Pete Buttigieg, who will become the first gay person to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation in January. The gay magazine Out (by no means a leftist news source) surveyed its readers on Democratic primary candidates. “Mayor Pete” came in as their fourth choice. Major fundraisers for Buttigieg in Chicago and other cities were interrupted by queer and trans activists who acted independently, though a few came to form loose organizations. The group Queers Against Pete put out a statement listing Buttigieg’s opposition to reinstating free tuition at public universities (and canceling student debt) and his anti-universal health care/Medicare for All stance as a couple of his many positions that uphold systems that antagonize non-rich queer people. While mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he helped developers gentrify and demolish low-income neighborhoods, and refused to release tapes related to the murder of Eric Logan, a Black person killed by cops. Another multi-city effort, Queers Not Here for Mayor Pete, collected some of the writing by queers against the politician.

Lesbians Who Tech Give Faux-gressive Cover to Big Tech

Like Gay Pride, the tech industry conference named Lesbians Who Tech and Allies moved online in 2020. This year’s program featured public relations emissaries from corporations innovating new forms of surveillance, drone bombs and ending labor protections. Multiple Black Lives Matter panels and celebrity appearances by Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, soccer player Megan Rapinoe and Melinda Gates distracted from the ugliness of the industry that spends more on lobbying than any other sector. BlackRock, Goldman Sachs, Nextdoor.com and the CIA were among the sponsors behind the yearly event, which gives corporate public relations emissaries the chance to paint their overlords as socially progressive, giving panels like “Life at Amazon: Inclusive Hiring Process” and “The Integration of Technology and Finance.”

Symbolic Plaques Are No Substitute for Basic Needs Like Stable Housing

In 2016, the Obama administration officially dubbed the Stonewall Inn the first LGBT national monument, but gentrification threatened that bar, the site of an infamous 1969 anti-police riot, and its owners say they’re relying on GoFundMe to keep the place open.

In 2018 and 2019, San Francisco officially designated neighborhoods of the city as the Transgender District, the Leather District (leather as in the fetish) and the LGBTQ District. Funded mostly through taxes, the city created small bureaucracies around the districts, with tax money going to staff and, for example, the symbolic metal plaques that describe leather culture, or the painting and maintenance of lampposts in the Transgender District now decorated with the baby blue, baby pink and white of the original trans flag.

Most of the area’s leather bars never reopened after March’s statewide shutdown, including the city’s longest continuously operating queer bar, the collectively-owned Stud, and the Eagle bar, whose owners worked with developers on a plan to construct hundreds of luxury apartments adjacent to where the Eagle was, which rent for up to $5,800 per month. The community got some plaques and a flag pole, intended to fly a giant flag representing leather culture. But now it is just a flagless pole.

Housing aid for trans people exists in many major U.S. cities, but most of these programs are temporary, like rent vouchers. Money for these programs could be cut with a politician’s pen, and ultimately just ends up in the bank accounts of landlords and/or real estate investment trusts that operate as mega-landlords, owning tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of apartments and flats across the country.

Homelessness has always affected queer and trans people more than most. Some queer and trans groups worked on preventing an exacerbation of the homelessness crisis that has already begun, despite a federal moratorium on evictions through January 31, 2021. GLITS (short for Gays and Lesbians In a Transgender Society) is a trans sex worker-led organization that bought a 12-unit building to house low-income trans people in New York. House of Tulip is working on a similar project in New Orleans. In Minneapolis, Share-a-ton was the brief but inspiring squat housing 200 homeless people who worked with volunteers to turn a vacant hotel into shelter that the local government’s austerity policies wouldn’t provide. And the anarchist organizers of Seattle’s anti-cop Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) organized and camped out to end police violence against people of color, including all people of marginalized, intersectional identities. However, police broke the city’s own ban on chemical weapons by dispersing the zone in clouds of teargas.

Mutual Aid Gets People Through Terrible Times

Mutual aid between queers happens every time a queer person sleeps on another person’s couch, or helps to cook meals for Food Not Bombs deliveries, or cleans a community fridge at the end of the day. When officials and institutions with power don’t help people during rough times, people come up with ways to get what they need.

Artist and activist Tourmaline beautifully describes the power of mutual aid in a piece on freedom dreaming: “Freedom dreams are born when we face harsh conditions not with despair, but with the deep knowledge that these conditions will change — that a world filled with softness and beauty and care is not only possible, but inevitable.

Following the Freedom Schools of civil rights battles in the South in the 1960s, Tourmaline writes that “freedom dreaming isn’t just about the big things — the huge world changes that we are manifesting in our movements, like police and prison abolition, free universal healthcare, and gender self-determination for all.” It’s about those things, but also small acts:

When I take a walk down my block, and slow down to touch and smell the blooming flowers, bursting with vitality, I’m freedom dreaming. I am allowing myself to live in a world where nature is a teacher and friend.

When I Venmo my friend $25 with a heart emoji, so that they can safely take a cab home from a protest or a date or a doctor’s appointment, I’m freedom dreaming. I am creating a world in which we can all move around safely, without fear of harassment.

When I stay in bed all day, luxuriating in rest, moving in and out of cat naps, I’m freedom dreaming. I am living in the knowledge that I don’t have to be productive in the ways capitalism demands of us in order to deserve relaxation and recuperation.

Truthout contributor Dean Spade wrote a fantastic, read-it-in-a-day primer on mutual aid that lays out, for those of us lacking inspiration or imagination, how people in community with each other have always performed mutual aid and how it can help us live through crises and their aftershocks.

Making the Case for Abolition

Disabled people make up the majority of people locked up and terrorized by law enforcement, and calling 911 is a terrible option for people who cops are more likely to harm than help. The case for prison abolition — rather than the reform of a rotten system — is even clearer thanks to events like the Portland Disability Justice Collective’s November conference that connected mutual aid, race and poverty. Meanwhile, two books out this year from Truthout staff and contributors describe how reforms to the criminal legal system usually cause more terror for marginalized queers, and/or low-income, disabled people and substance users: Prison By Any Other Name and The Feminist and the Sex Offender.

The Oakland and Sacramento chapters of the Anti-Police Terror Project (APTP) created alternatives to calling 911 during a psychiatric emergency. This tool launched in several cities, formed mostly by queer and trans people. A call, a text or a direct message on social media goes to volunteers who respond to people experiencing mental health crises to APTP’s Mental Health First project.

Meanwhile, Visual AIDS launched Strip AIDS, a comic series about the ongoing plague that covers issues like HIV criminalization, and how detention centers, jails and prisons are the worst place to be during a pandemic, with miserable outcomes for people inside and out of the system.

From Legalize Positivity, a comic about HIV criminalization by Clio Sady & Inés Ixierda.
From Legalize Positivity, a comic about HIV criminalization by Clio Sady & Inés Ixierda.

The San Francisco direct action collective Gay Shame created Abolition is the Floor Not the Ceiling, a project imagining a world where reparations for Black people is more than just a check. Gay Shame followed this with anti-gentrification actions like a Halloween night street takeover called Night of the Living Next Door, which tied surveillance partnerships between Big Tech and government agencies to increased deaths and jailing of homeless people, and housing unaffordability for trans/queer tenants who face the threat of eviction as landlords get richer.

Some of these projects might not exist this time next year, but as long as police-perpetrated violence and inequality continue, radical trans and queer people will keep freedom dreaming.