PROVIDENCE, RI -
As Pride month brings itself to a close, the air stirs with a certain colorful fervor, music blasting and city streets buzzing with more people than usual; yet much like Splenda in a cup of morning coffee, the refreshment is accompanied by a small but nagging feeling that something just isn't quite right.
It's easy enough to escape from that cognitive dissonance, though. Nearly every major city has festivals and parties for the occassion; facebook, twitter, and snapchat have some pretty kickass pride filters; you can drink svedka from a rainbow clad bottle until you puke; I mean, it's 2017 and everything is generally a lot better...right?
On the final Saturday in June of 1970, the
Chicago Gay Liberation organized a march beginning in the city's Washington Square Park.
The day was chosen in honor of the New York City Stonewall riots, which took place on that same Saturday a year prior. It was from there that these sorts of celebrations and festivals grew, spreading to other major US cities and eventually encapsulating an entire month (which was to conclude with a parade on that final weekend in June).
Now whereas only a handful of people may have known this bit of trivia prior to just reading it, I'd bet that a much larger proportion at least knows what the Stonewall Riots are: militant protests and demonstrations held by members of the LGBTQ+ community in response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar located in Greenwich Village. The riots are considered to be the single most pivotal event in the beginnings of the gay liberation (and subsequently gay rights) movement.
Yet infamous as the event is, Stonewall was by no means the first incident of an LGBTQ+ reaction to police violence. In fact, three years prior, one of the first recorded “gay riots” took place in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. Erased almost entirely from the mainstream historical accounts of the gay rights movement, the Compton Cafeteria riots were the product of a police raid on a group of trans women. The confrontation consequently spurred organizations such as National Transsexual Counseling Unit. Yet if were not for a single San Francisco reporter, there would exist no official record of what transpired at Compton Cafeteria.
a gay activist living in California at the time, wrote of the Compton Cafeteria riots in the program for the first San Francisco pride parade in 1972. It was later discovered by professor and theorist Susan Stryker, who went on to direct the 2005 documentary Screaming Queens, which gave full account of the riots. From there, journal articles and op-eds slowly began to appear, memorializing and honoring the queens of Tenderloin.
A photograph of some of the queens who frequented Compton Cafeteria
Though these tributes are small compared to the attention and significance assigned to Stonewall riots. And what’s more, the efforts of those most affected by police brutality have been erased from the accounts of those riots, as well. Stonewall was lead in large part by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans women of color whose contributions during the riot were left out of nearly every major news story. Subsequently, Stonewall pioneered a gay rights movement that was mostly for white males. In one NPR piece, Nicole Pasulka quotes writer and activist Sarah Schulman:
"It was drag queens, Black drag queens, who fought the police at the famous Stonewall Inn rebellion in 1969. Years later, a group of nouveau-respectable gays tried to construct a memorial to Stonewall in the park across from the old bar. The piece consisted of two white clone-like thin gay men and two white, young lesbians with perfect noses. They were made of a plaster-like substance, pasty and white as the people who paid for it."
So if that is Stonewall, the axis for pride’s establishment, what is pride month really? For many it is a party— a celebration of love being love. There is no doubt that this is a positive and even important outlook, but it is not an excuse to feel complacent. In their perpetuation of the gay rights movement, white gay men and women seem to forget more and more the issues that plague the queers and femmes who look unlike themselves. But what’s key to any group, especially one that faces systemic marginalization, is that it concerns itself with the issues of all its individual members. If equality sits atop a ladder, it is then the responsibility of the LGBTQ+ community to climb together, resting not only until every individual has seen the top. And even through all the progress that has been made, there are still countless people struggling at the bottom.
Employment Discrimination acts cannot put the Compton Cafeteria riots into a history book. Marriage equality won’t bring back Ciara McElveen, Chyna Doll Dupree, Mesha Caldwell, Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, Jojo Striker, Jaquarrius Holland, Keke Collier, Alphonza Watson, Chay Reed, Kenneth Bostick, Sherrell Faulkner, Kenne McFadden, Kendra Marie Adams, or Ava Le'Ray Barrin (the 14 trans folks who have been killed this year.) Apple’s rainbow colored float at any one pride parade will not protect queer people of color, sex workers, drag queens, or transgender men and women from police harassment and brutality.
For these individuals, the subtle apprehension that hung in the air this June is not so easily avoidable. To them it is not like splenda in coffee; they cannot just click their tongues to the roof of their mouths, willing away the bitter taste that sits heavily between their cheeks. There is no disconnect between past and present, no taking for granted the intersections of social margins. As was articulated in a statement released by a trans-led coalition of Chicago-based organizations, “We reject the image of Pride offered to us: Empty platitudes from politicians who cover up the murders of Black youth, productions put on by corporations that abuse trans and queer workers, and the constant presence of murderous police officers armed to the teeth with, tasers, pepper spray, automatic weapons, and the audacity to say that they are here for our protection, as they rush to arrest us for celebrating our own legacy. The rainbow masquerade is not enough.”
For them— for us— pride month is more than a party. It is a funeral for all those in the community who have lost their lives; it is not the parade but the protest that shuts it down; it is both the brown and black stripe that now wave unapologetically below 7 other colored blocks; our icon will never be the Babadook but instead Johnson and Rivera and the other screaming queens who fought for a community that refused to acknowledge them.
It is my hope that the future will succeed in doing what the present has failed to. The goals set forth by some of the first pride activists considered the improvement of life for every queer and genderqueer individual. Only if that is remembered, if homage is finally paid to the (too often forgotten) heroes of the gay rights movement, will those goals be reached. As a toast to pride 2018, remember the words of black, gay activist James Credle, “While we are often stereotyped as members of a single community, our roots emerge from and encompass multiple ethnic and racial identities...if we are serious about the eradication of brutality from our community, then we must acknowledge the widespread abuses which occur daily against lesbians and gay males [and trans folks].”
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