This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, an event that has been said to have sparked the beginning of the “gay liberation movement” (although the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco preceded by three years). On June 28th, 1969, the most marginalized people in the LGBTQ+ community, which included people of color, trans and gender non-conforming people, sex workers, and homeless youth, fought back against the very forces that threatened their everyday existence.
Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera
Whenever I think back to this time in our herstory, I am inspired by the agency and resistance of our forefolks, like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. They were unapologetically themselves in a world that despised their existence, erased their contributions, criminalized their practices, pathologized their identities, and incarcerated their bodies. Even within their own communities, they experienced rampant transphobia, misogyny, racism, and so much more.
Despite all of this (or perhaps because of it), they fought back. They took to the streets and risked everything, all so that white, cisgender, gender-normative, gay men could take the reins of the movement and center their images and narratives. Everyone else was told to wait, that their rights would eventually be won. And many people believed them and continued to fight alongside them. They were content with the scraps that were being thrown their way, because when you’ve been starved your whole life, scraps can feel like a feast.
As we now know (and probably knew back then as well), “trickle-down equity,” much like trickle-down economics, doesn’t actually work. By focusing solely on gay identity and/or practice, the leaders of this movement were able to avoid troubling the systems of oppression that granted them privileges based on race, gender identity/expression, sex assignment, ability, class, citizenship status, and much more. And once the AIDS epidemic was upon us, they would erase any reference to gay sex in favor of an assimilationist identity politics, because respectable (straight) people just didn’t talk about sex.
Throughout the years, the movement would continue to dabble in its fair share of "respectability politics." Anyone that deviated from monogamy, gender normativity, vanilla sex, or anything else related to the Heterosexual Project™ was constructed as the “bad queer,” the opposite of which was the “good gay.” Marriage equality became the perfect foil for this dichotomy to play out. Those who saw marriage equality as the most important issue of the movement were considered “good gays,” the poster children of the movement. Anyone who thought there were more pressing matters to address, like discrimination or youth homelessness or sex workers’ rights, were considered “bad queers,” a threat to the movement.
Fast forward to today: 30 states still lack full non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people, 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+, and transgender women of color are being murdered at an unprecedented rate. The “good gay/bad queer” dichotomy is still alive and well, having adapted throughout the years to fit a variety of contexts. For example, recent bathroom bill protests have chosen to center the images and experiences of gender-normative, binary trans people, over those of intersex, gender non-conforming, and non-binary trans people. Once again, we are told that our time will come. That once cisgender people can accept gender-normative, binary trans people, it will only be a matter of time before they accept the rest of us. The dominant group gets to decide the terms of your respectability. That is how the game is played.
So what’s at the root of all of this? Shame. Most LGBTQ+ people have this one thing in common. We were made to feel shame for at least one aspect of our sex, gender, and/or sexuality. And what do we do with all of our shame? Shame is interesting because it has the potential to both connect and divide us. While some of us seek to nurture our social connections through a common experience of shame, others seek to differentiate themselves from those they deem less respectable, more shameful. This latter group deals with their shame by pinning it on others. They seek to distance themselves from people within their own community in hopes of being accepted by the dominant groups that marginalized them in the first place. It's internalized oppression at its most insidious, and it needs to stop. There is a lot of healing that needs to take place within our movement if we ever want to enact real social change together.
So what would the LGBTQ+ movement have looked like had we centered the people that actually risked everything during the Compton’s Cafeteria and Stonewall Riots? Well, intersectionality would certainly have been introduced a lot sooner. “Gay liberation” would have been expanded to combat racism, classism, sexism, ableism, nativism, cisgenderism, sizeism, and so much more. Freedom from discrimination and equal access to housing, employment, and public accommodations would have been prioritized over marriage equality. “Pose” would have premiered before “Will & Grace.” Just think of it: if we were to channel all our activist efforts towards ensuring that the most marginalized within our communities have their basic human rights, wouldn’t that essentially take care of everyone? No more “waiting your turn” on the hierarchy of respectability. Trickle-up equity, perhaps?
During my time here in the Peace Corps, I have had a lot of time to think. To face a lot of the pain and patterns of my life thus far. As someone who has been marginalized based on gender and sexuality, I have grown accustomed to taking scraps from people. If someone tolerates me, I experience this as a win. I think to myself, “Well, at least they aren’t trying to physically harm me.” WTF? My baseline hope for a social interaction is for someone to not want to hurt me? No, ma'am! I deserve so much more than that.
My baseline should be 100% care and acceptance. I deserve to be valued and appreciated and celebrated. I don’t want your pity or sympathy. I love my queerness, and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. I choose my queerness just as much as I was born this way. I am worthy of love, and anyone who receives my love is better off for it. So save your scraps for someone else, because it's time for me to feast!
Happy Pride, everyone!