June is LGBTQ Pride month, and with marriage equality making strides across the country it is the perfect time to evaluate the status of LGBTQ folks across the country and within the state of Louisiana. Currently, President Obama is the first president to affirm support for same-sex marriage, and some time this month the Supreme Court will make a decision about marriage equality. Yet while marriage equality is something that some view as very personally important in the fight for LGBTQ people’s rights, attaining it is not the end of the struggle for equality & equity for LGBTQIA+ populations in the United States, especially those who are living with intersectional LGBTQ identities (ie: LGBTQ and Black/Differently Abled/Poor/Immigrant etc). With police brutality and racial tension at the forefront of United States social policy right now, the historical roots of Pride month become even more relevant if we are to holistically continue this liberation struggle.
LGBTQ Pride month is held in June to honor the Stonewall Riots of 1969 which are widely regarded as the singular most important incident leading to the LGBTQ liberation movement. The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, was just one of many gay bars that was raided by New York Police officers in a crackdown on establishments operating without liquor licenses at the time (the irony was that the New York Alcohol Board wouldn’t give liquor permits to gay bars, driving them underground. The Stonewall Inn was actually run by the Genovese family. Many gay bars at the time were owned by the mafia who had connections to the police to help keep them away).
On June 27th 1969, the communities served by the Stonewall Inn were spurred to action after a police raid escalated. A group of people who were escorted out of the bar and arrested got fed up with being pushed around and harassed by the police and took a stand. This initial scuffle of trans folks, drag queens, gay men and lesbians was escalated after the police were humiliated, eventually becoming a full on rebellion. The aftermath of the Stonewall Riots led to the creation of many gay rights organizations around the country, with many gay liberation efforts were underway within 2 years of the riots. The visibility of the riots allowed people to begin to express their queerness in public in a way that could have gotten them arrested before they occurred. It was the newfound public pride in their identities that led to celebrations of the event that opened the door and started the LGBT pride and rights movement that continues to this day. Although surely a cause for celebration, every year Pride month also illuminates the struggles overcome for this progress, as well as highlighting the areas of improvement in the fight for LGBTQIA equity.
Today as was the case in the past, the specific needs of Transgender folks are often left out of the discussion and eschewed for progress for gays and lesbians. With people like Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono, Janet Mock, and now Caitlyn Jenner bringing transgender narratives and experiences to the mainstream consciousness, Trans folks have benefitted from a certain amount of visibility recently that was unheard
of in the world Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson protested against 1969 (despite this visibility, there is a real concern about its lack of ability to translate into action that positively impacts everyday Trans people, especially Trans women of color who face disproportionately high rates of interpersonal and state sanctioned violence). Rivera and Johnson are the most well-known protestors of the Stonewall Riots, 2 trans women of color who fought and survived through the racism, classism, and trans exclusivity in the gay community years before, during and after the riots at a time when mainstream gay, lesbian, and feminist activists chose to ignore trans folks in their activism because it would be “too hard”.
New Orleans, as progressive as it claims to be, has its own sordid history with the gay and trans community. This city recently had the unfortunate distinction of seeing the fifth trans woman of color murdered in 2015, 21 year old Penny Proud. A member of BreakOUT! (an organization created to fight criminalization of LGBTQIA+ youth in the city), BreakOUT! made a bold move in proclaiming that all Black Lives Matter when they erected a billboard to be on the Broad Street overpass, naming Penny in her death and calling for more investment in jobs, housing and education in order to keep Black transwomen safe. While Penny’s murder speaks volumes about where we are today in New Orleans, roughly 40 years ago, just 3 days before the 4th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, New Orleans was home to what was then the deadliest intentional fires in the city’s history at the gay bar the UpStairs Lounge. The story is familiar to some and unknown to others, but it certainly puts a damper on New Orleans’ reputation as the liberal, free loving city it’s known as. While there are now rainbow flags adorning many corners of the French Quarter, this event is seen as its own kind of Stonewall in that it forced both the gay community of the city to come out and acknowledge itself and the straight community to acknowledge the existence and humanity of gay folks in the city.
On this June night in 1973, a patron who was thrown out of the UpStairs Lounge came back and set the stairwell of the bar on fire, trapping everyone inside and killing 32 people. While not regarded as a hate crime because the arsonist himself was a patron of the bar and was assumed to be gay, the police and fire departments’ lethargic response to the fire and resulting public response demonstrated just how little value the lives of the victims had. For starters, there was never an arrest made even though police knew who set the fire (it is believed that the arsonist committed suicide within a year of the fire), some family members refused to claim the remains of their relatives, and a radio host even joked that their ashes “would be buried in fruit jars”.
As time goes on, and more victories are won for the LGBTQ community, we cannot forget those who fought bravely but did not make it to see these victories happen. Whether lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, anti-gay/anti-trans violence, interpersonal violence, mental illness and/or suicide, state sanctioned violence and/or neglect or a host of other reasons, it is clear we cannot just use June as a time to celebrate and showcase out pride. In order to honor the true roots of pride, we must also use this time to reflect upon and honor the people and movements that got us to where we are today.