22 Jun THE ROOTS OF THE RIOTS: AN ODE TO PRIDE
I am a white, upper-middle class, cisgender, queer, and non-disabled woman. I acknowledge the impact my privilege has on my experience and my understanding of the topics mentioned in this article.
I started questioning gender and sexuality-based assumptions a long time ago.
When I was eight, running around on the playground, I was confused about why the adults around me were acutely interested in which boy I liked. I wondered why girls were always assumed to be solely interested in boys. Why didn’t I fit into this normative idea?
At the age of thirteen, a boy scoffed at me in the lunchroom for playing softball. “Only lesbians play that sport,” he shouted as if someone should be ashamed to be lesbian.
At the age of fifteen, all my friends in school were assumed to be straight – but everyone knew who the gays were in school.
At the age of eighteen, I began to open up about my sexuality as a bisexual woman. I was one of the lucky ones to be surrounded by loving and accepting friends and family. Yet, some of the boys that I knew fetishized me as if I was an object that existed solely to play out their male fantasies.
Pride month has always been a time of celebration and reflection. Thinking back to each of these moments, I didn’t fully understand the true impact or meaning behind these gender and sexuality-based assumptions. We’ve been conditioned to understand a set of binary societal guidelines and norms. In the past decade, society has taken steps to transcend normativity and binary perspectives – recognizing the multiplicity of identities that exist. However, there is still so much work to be done. When people around us – whether they’re educators, influencers, or business leaders alike – do spark conversations about the LGBTQIA2+ community or Pride month more broadly, we are often exposed to a very singularized perspective.
Think about it: who do you imagine when someone speaks about the LGBTQIA2+ community?
Maybe you think of RuPaul’s Drag Race or Ellen DeGeneres. Perhaps you point to Caitlin Jenner or other well-known, mainstream (mostly white) celebrity figures.
But what about all the other activists within the LGBTQIA2+ community? All the people who have been fighting for equal rights and justice for decades? Who remembers their stories? Whose perspectives matter? Whose perspectives are we prioritizing? What does this say about society as a whole?
This year, Pride month is looking quite different than it has over the past 50+ years. Restrictions surrounding COVID-19 are forcing people to take their Pride celebrations online. Such limitations present their challenges. Many members within the LGBTQIA2+ community are being forced to return home – living with friends and family that may not be as accepting of their true identity as a queer, trans, or non-binary individual. A barrier that is, unfortunately, all too common across the world.
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, renewed in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor (just three of the many Black people unjustly killed in America), has also refocused attention on the voices and experiences of Black people in society more generally. As Black Lives Matter activists continue to call to defund and abolish the police and reform educational curriculum, the LGBTQIA2+ community is being called upon to own up to the anti-Blackness and transphobia in the community as well.
In light of the importance of Pride month and Black Lives Matter, activists both within the LGBTQIA2+ community and beyond have pointed to two key BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) LGBTQIA2+ players who paved the way for equal rights for all. Two of those notorious individuals being: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
Johnson was an American, gay transgender female activist, sex-worker, and self-identified drag queen. Johnson worked tirelessly to protest against oppressive policing and was an outspoken advocate for gay rights. Equally important, Rivera was a Latin American, gay transgender female activist and self-identified drag queen who was part of the drag group, Hot Peaches. Johnson and Rivera worked alongside one another – participating in demonstrations with the Gay Liberation Front and eventually co-founding STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to support young gay, gender non-conforming and transgender people living in New York City.
On June 28, 1969, police raided the gay bar, Stonewall Inn, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Johnson and Rivera were among the hundreds of people that resisted arrest for being at a bar that acted as a haven for the gay, lesbian and transgender community. At this time, “masquerading” as the opposite sex was still considered illegal. The collective decision of the community members to fight back that night sparked a new era of revolution.
During the weeks that followed, riots and protests erupted across New York City – eventually leading to the first gay Pride parade in 1970. Three years later, Rivera was forbidden from speaking at the annual Pride march in New York City simply because she was a transgender woman – demonstrating the imperfections and discriminatory practices systemically embedded into the LGBTQIA2+ community.
The Stonewall Riots are rooted in the leadership displayed by Johnson, Rivera, and others alike. You can’t be an activist for LGBTQIA2+ rights without being actively anti-racist. You can’t be pro-gay rights without being in favour of rights for trans people. As Rivera famously shouted at the Pride parade in 1973, “If it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.”
As you celebrate and reflect on your own personal or indirect experiences with the LGBTQIA2+ community, this Pride month, think about whose voices you’re listening to and prioritizing. To enact effective and systemic change for all, we need to take concrete steps to make our Pride celebrations intersectional. The term intersectionality was coined by Black lesbian scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and refers to those whose identities lie at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression and inequality, which work to exacerbate one another. Intersectional Pride is about amplifying the voices of the most marginal sectors of our communities. To anyone who feels conflicted about advocating for intersectional Pride or who rushes to defend JK Rowling’s transphobic comments: this is not about your ego. This work is not about centering yourself within the dialogue. Rather, it is about dismantling a system that was created to favour white, heterosexual cis-gender men, and making sure that Pride celebrations are accessible to all people.
Pride is not a moment. Pride is a movement. And the work doesn’t stop when the month is over. We need to work and learn and unlearn continuously. This is not about being “one of the good ones.” We are not experts. We will make mistakes along the way, and we will own up to them.
My hope is that we will use this momentum to guide our actions and celebrations – not only this year, but always. There is no going back to ‘normal’. We cannot afford to go back to the way we used to think about Pride and the LGBTQIA2+ community as a whole. The time for intersectional Pride is now. Acting on this truth means educating yourself about Black queer history and seeking justice for the many Black transgender women that are at a heightened risk of being killed at the hands of the police, including Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells.
Thinking back to that little girl at age eight, thirteen, fifteen, and eighteen, I recognize the growth I have made over the years to learn, call-out, and act on my beliefs. But the work doesn’t stop here. It’s just beginning.
To the LGBTQIA2+ community at Queen’s and beyond: thank you for sharing your stories for MUSE Pride Week 2020. Your voices need to be heard.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: https://medium.com/@jeanevalk/before-stonewall-pride-riot-in-the-usa-ded2ff811c48