Written by Julia Purks ’23
The uprising at Stonewall Inn in New York City on June 28, 1969, catalyzed Gay Liberation as we know it today, arising amidst a long history of police brutality against LGBTQ people. The riot came as the fruit of relentless oppression, mirroring the cruelty of the era.1 It was not a peaceful protest, but rather a justified reaction to injustice:
“What made Stonewall a symbol of a new era of gay politics was the reaction of the drag queens, dykes, street people, and bar boys who confronted the police first with jeers and high camp and then with a hail of coins, paving stones, and parking meters.”2
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were active participants in the Stonewall uprising. They were transwomen and trailblazing transgender activists, drag performers, luminous members of the community, and close friends. Soon after Stonewall, they cofounded an activist group dedicated to helping drag queens and transgender women of color.1,3
Although transwomen of color participated in the Stonewall uprising the night of June 28, 1969 – demanding rights that benefit all LGBTQ people—the Gay Rights movement proceeded without them. Today, even as we celebrate marriage equality, anti-discrimination policies, and widespread social acceptance for LGBTQ individuals, transgender people, especially transwomen of color, are not invited to celebrate these achievements to the same degree as their white and/or cisgender peers. We, both as a society and as members of the queer community, have irrevocably left behind trans people since the inception of the movement. We stripped away their momentum by declaring a movement that intentionally did not include them, and trans peoples’ rights have inevitably lagged behind. The intersection of racism and transphobia leads directly to an annual lengthy list of transwomen of color who are murdered. In 2019, the number of reported murders of trans people in the U.S. totaled 21, all but one being transwomen of color. The actual number is likely higher, since transwomen may be misgendered by the media or their deaths may not be reported at all.4
Why Pride Month? Being LGBTQ is a risk factor for suicide, psychiatric disorders, homelessness, unemployment, substance use, and chronic stress. The prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts among transgender adults is 40 percent.5 Discrimination still exists in various manifestations and is protected by the law. Amidst a long list of negatives and potential hardships, what is there to be proud of? Pride Month reminds us that our identities are worth defending. Our queerness and experiences contribute to a rich community that is united by a common struggle and a shared freedom from convention.
During this Pride Month, President Trump removed protections for LGBTQ people regarding healthcare and health insurance discrimination (enacted on the fourth anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting).6 During this Pride Month, two transwomen of color were murdered: Riah Milton and Dominique Rem’mie Fells.7 Fifty-one years have passed since Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera stood up for their rights, and today those rights have still not been fully protected. The demand for justice continues and the movement must not take a single step forward unless it steps in solidarity with those it has neglected: trans people, non-binary people, people of color, people with disabilities, transwomen and transfemmes and non-binary people of color, to name a few.
On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people are protected from discrimination on the basis of sex, sexuality, and/or gender identity. It was a 6-3 vote.8 One of the Supreme Court cases considered in the ruling was brought forward by a transwoman named Aimee Stephens. She was fired from her job as a funeral director soon after coming out to her boss via a letter. She died of end-stage renal disease a few months ago, before the Supreme Court ruled on her case. I will close by including an excerpt of the letter she wrote to her boss:
“I have felt imprisoned in a body that does not match my mind, and this has caused me great despair and loneliness. With the support of my loving wife, I have decided to become the person that my mind already is. I cannot begin to describe the shame and suffering that I have lived with. Toward that end, I intend to have sex reassignment surgery. The first step I must take is to live and work full-time as a woman for one year. At the end of my vacation, on August 26, 2013, I will return to work as my true self, Aimee Australia Stephens, in appropriate business attire. I realize that some of you may have trouble understanding this. In truth, I have had to live with it every day of my life, and even I do not fully understand it myself. I have tried hard all my life to please everyone around me, to do the right thing and not rock the boat. As distressing as this is sure to be to my friends and some of my family, I need to do this for myself, to end the agony in my soul. It is my wish that I can continue my work at R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes doing what I have always done, which is my best.”9
In honor and remembrance of all of those who have fought before us.
- Dentato, M. P. (2017). Social work practice with the LGBTQ community: The intersection of history, health, mental health, and policy factors. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Adam, B.D. (1995). The rise of a gay and lesbian movement. New York. Twayne.
- “Two Transgender Activists are Getting a Monument in New York,” New York Times, May 29, 2019
- “These Are the Trans People Killed in 2019,” Advocate, May 22, 2019
- “Suicide Risk and Prevention for LGBTQ People,” National LGBT Health Education Center, Sept. 2018
- “Transgender Health Protections Reversed by Trump Administration,” National Public Radio, June 12, 2020
- “Dominique Fells, Riah Milton, Two Black Trans Women Murdered this Week,” Out, June 12, 2020
- “Supreme Court Delivers Major Victory to LGBTQ Employees,” National Public Radio, June 15, 2020