I’ve been blessed to interview Stonewall Riots veteran Miss Major multiple times and I always cherish learning from her wisdom. In early April, I had another chance to speak with her for Out’s Pride issue, asking her to retell the events of that first night during the Riots in 1969. Prior to this particular interview, I had read about the brutality of that night from various sources and how she had even been knocked unconscious by a police officer.
This time, however, I could tell there was apprehension in her voice, perhaps because going into too deep of detail would be to relive one of the most traumatic events of her life. Still, she managed to paint a vivid picture of queer and trans people being repeatedly slammed around by the New York Police Department that night.
“The memory of that first night doesn’t come to me with anything like joy or happiness, because so many of the girls and the few guys that were there got really hurt,” she said. “After the city police barged into the bar — with numbers and attitude — the feeling that was so prevalent that night was fear. Looking at the riot squad was like watching Star Wars stormtroopers, but they were in black with riot gear, sticks, guns, mace, helmets, and shields.”
She concluded her statement, describing the vast difference between the fervent, furious atmosphere surrounding the events of that fateful night and the candy-colored, capitalist glitter fests that claim to honor the annual remembrance of Stonewall in the decades since.
It’s true that so much has changed in the last half-century. There’s more media representation of LGBTQ+ folk than ever before, even though the levels for particular identities may dip from year to year. We have an openly gay candidate running for president and his biggest liabilities (which I tend to agree with) revolve around not being radical enough around criminal and racial justice. It’s no longer completely socially unacceptable to hire cisgender queer folks for jobs and there’s a national fight to enshrine those protections federally with the Equality Act. And then, there’s the holy grail tentpole accomplishment: marriage is recognized as a right for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
It’s clear to most that none of these “advancements” render the fight “complete” in the Trump era. In fact, it seems like each week we’re reminded that with more of a presence in society comes more of a need to exert our socio-political power. Last month, rallies sprang out in major cities around the country protesting the president’s military ban on transgender service members. And just last week, the Trump Administration proposed a change to the Affordable Care Act that would remove protections based on gender identity in line with a host of other ways in which it has tried to undermine our existences. When these attacks happen, it’s not uncommon to see social media flooded with posts, mostly from well-to-do white trans people and cis people, complaining about and half-heartedly protesting Trump, but he and his cronies aren’t the only enemy of the LGBTQ+ community.
If this whole Pride Month is about the external forces plaguing our community and not about the internal forces — that legends like Miss Major, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson warned us about — then we will do a disservice to their legacies. For many of my more marginalized sisters, brothers, and siblings in this community, there’s little time to even focus on what Trump is doing when so many of our own continue to cause harm and siphon resources from more impactful efforts. For instance, the 2017 Funders for LGBTQ Issues tracking report, which chronicles grantmaking by U.S. foundations, found that disabled people, sex workers, survivors of violence, economically disadvantaged people, and even veterans and military service members received only one percent of domestic grant dollars respectively.
If the gatekeepers of our community (those powerful, mostly white, cis, able-bodied wealthy nonprofit directors, CEOs, political insiders) really believed in what our ancestors and transcestors at Stonewall were fighting for, we would see more elevating of grassroots Black and Brown leadership, the people who actually carry the torches lit by the founders of our movement. We would see more money going into efforts supporting those who are low income, incarcerated, homeless, and sex workers. (Mind you, Sylvia, Marsha, and Miss Major lived these experiences.) We would see less of an interest in bringing on token queer and trans people — many who already have major platforms and little-to-no connection to the community throughout the rest of the year — in Pride campaigns to support organizations with million-dollar budgets that do work that never directly touches the most marginalized groups within in our communities. This Pride Month there’s a lot to be mad about. There’s a lot for us to riot over.
When reports about our dear trans sisters Muhlaysia Booker and Michelle Washington went viral early last week, I couldn’t help but think of the long history in which Black trans women and trans women of color have tried to make clear the risks that we face when we leave our homes each morning. Sylvia’s later organizing work was galvanized by the mysterious death of Marsha, the erasure of the death of a trans woman named Amanda Milan in 2000 and the inaction of our community’s national nonprofits (which often explicitly excluded trans and often bisexual and queer people) to remedy these issues.
This callousness, however, was something Sylvia faced even in her younger days, and was immortalized on video in a now oft-mentioned instance of hatred from white cis gay men and lesbians. Her speech at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day March should have been a call-to-action for the community at-large, a pivot on the impending decades of canoodling with capitalism and a government that has never really valued queer and trans existence despite political figureheads, even on the “progressive” side of our political system, saying otherwise.
If you don’t believe me, look at the radio silence that trans immigrants encounter when they raise their concerns. Just four years ago during Pride Month, activist Jennicet Guttierez spoke up about the injustices that trans immigrants face from the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at a White House event. She was promptly shouted down by well-to-do, white, mostly cis gay men and lesbians who were more interested in being respectable and courting then-President Barack Obama than holding him accountable for what he was doing to our trans immigrant family. Between what happened to Sylvia in 1973 and what happened to Jennicet nearly 42 years later, the cycle of silencing continues. If those gatekeepers with the most political power in our community had heeded Jennicet’s call-to-action, perhaps, we would have been able to protect trans immigrants in the Trump era and even saved Roxsana Hernandez, who died in ICE custody last year.
So, some major shifts still need to happen in our community. In the spirit of those who fought the State outside of the Stonewall Inn in 1969, we need to be more radical about righting what has been oh-so-wrong for too long. Many of these ideas are central to Out’s Pride Issue, where our team imagined 50 radical ideas for queer liberation. They include:
We must prioritize Black and Brown-led organizations and initiatives, particularly in local areas, for donations and funding.
We must demand that national LGBTQ+ nonprofits and initiatives release annual information on how their work transforms conditions for specific groups within our community. If you elevate what is happening to Black trans women or trans immigrants, be transparent about how much of your programming, funds, and resources actually impact them. And if it turns out that your organization’s work doesn’t actually impact the most marginalized groups, rework your programming and budgets to better reflect that.
We must prioritize and elevate organizing efforts and programming that centers keeping our people alive: Black trans women, trans immigrants, those at risk of dying by suicide.
We must provide more employment opportunities for queer and trans people who are low-income. What better way to start that at LGBTQ+ organizations and initiatives.
We must elevate opportunities for queer and trans organizers and activists on the ground to be highlighted for their work, which is actually on the frontlines. Those who spend most of their time on the streets, working hard and thanklessly like Sylvia and Marsha, to the front.
We must remove police presence from our events and spaces and invest in safety groups developed by organizers and activists in communities across the country. (Newsflash: Our Stonewall veterans were literally fighting the police at the Riots.)
We must commit to an LGBTQ+ political platform that centers abolishing ICE, prisons, and the military (institutions that never had our best interests at heart) and decriminalizing HIV and sex work.
We must demand that healthcare is accessible for all (particularly those who are disabled, trans and gender nonconforming, and/or living with HIV and AIDS). That healthcare fight must center inclusive reproductive justice and mental health.
We must prioritize our youth by protecting them in our flawed educational system and demanding that they learn about their identities, their history, and holistic sexual health.
We must prioritize our elders by ensuring that they have adequate housing, healthcare, and respect.
We must demand that all political leaders who vie for our vote are fighting explicitly in the interest of all parts of our community.
This Pride Month we have an opportunity to heal the longstanding wounds that divide our community while also fighting the Trump administration. Let’s clean up shop! I believe we can change the course of our community in a way that will actually leave future generations in a better position to tackle any political era that they encounter. With the power and resources that have been accrued in the last 50 years, none of us should be suffering, especially not the Sylvias and Marshas of today. The Riots never actually ended. Let’s ensure that one day they actually do.