August 27, 2020 Articles

No Pride Without Protest: How the Black LGBTQ Community Changed History

It is time that we ask ourselves collectively, “Why don’t you guys do something?”

By Shana Marks
Pride wasn’t always a joyful occasion. In fact, Pride as we know it started with violent protests.

Pride wasn’t always a joyful occasion. In fact, Pride as we know it started with violent protests.

June is Pride Month. Every year, cities around the world mark the occasion with festivals and parades, celebrating the tremendous strides that the LGBTQ community has made. But Pride wasn’t always a joyful occasion. In fact, Pride as we know it started with violent protests.

Stonewall Riots

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village. This raid was nothing new. For decades, the LGBTQ community had been targeted and chastised. Authorities routinely penalized and shut down suspected gay bars, and same-sex relations were illegal all over the country.

Still, the Stonewall Inn had become a place of refuge. It welcomed drag queens, who were excluded from many other gay bars in town. Stonewall could not get a liquor license as a known gay bar, but it was one of the only gay bars left that actually allowed dancing. LGBTQ youth, often disowned by their own families, felt at home. It was an institution in the LGBTQ community, and particularly in the black LGBTQ community.

By the mid-1960s, the Genovese crime family controlled most of the gay bars in the Greenwich Village area. They bribed police to ignore what was happening in the Stonewall Inn, and police tipped them off before conducting any raids. This allowed the Mafia to hide any bootlegged alcohol, and other illegal activities, before police showed up.

On June 28, 1969, there was no tip. After raiding the Stonewall Inn just a few days before, police showed up again. They stormed the bar with a warrant, found illegal alcohol, and arrested over a dozen people, including Stonewall employees. Anyone in the bar suspected of cross-dressing was taken into a bathroom, where an officer would identify the suspect’s biological sex.

This time, the patrons at the Stonewall Inn had enough. Instead of dispersing, they stayed outside the bar, watching members of the LGBTQ community being violently attacked by police. At one point, an officer hit a black lesbian patron over the head with a baton while forcing her into a police van. She struck back and shouted to the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?”

Then the riots began. The crowd, largely made up of black gay men, lesbians, trans women, and drag queens, started throwing coins, bottles, and small stones at police. Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman and outspoken LGBTQ rights activist, is credited with “throwing the first brick,” although Johnson herself claimed that the riots were already underway when she arrived.

Within minutes, a full-blown riot, with hundreds of people, unfolded. Some barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn, which was subsequently set on fire. First responders put out the blaze and rescued those inside, but the protests—at times drawing thousands of people—continued for five more days.

The Stonewall Riots did not start the gay rights movement, per se. They did, however, galvanize the LGBTQ community to fight for widespread LGBTQ rights and to combat long-standing police discrimination and brutality. Several groups were founded as a result of the Stonewall Riots, including the Gay Liberation Front, the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

One year later, on June 28, 1970, thousands of people filled the streets of Manhattan, marching from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park. This was America’s first Pride parade.

George Floyd Protests

This past June, the world was taking part in another protest. On May 25, 2020, four white Minneapolis police officers arrested and killed George Floyd. He was suspected of using a counterfeit bill. He died in police custody as he begged for help and struggled to breathe. He is, as we all know, one name on a long and ever-growing list of black men and women killed by police in America.

Since his death, citizens have filled the streets in every state and in countries around the world to protest. Like the Stonewall Riots, George Floyd’s death did not start the Black Lives Matter movement, but it galvanized the movement. This is a time of reckoning and a time of change.

Collaboration

We would not have Pride Month without protests and riots, and LGBTQ rights would not be what they are without black LGBTQ activists. It is only fitting that, this past Pride Month, the LGBTQ community joined together with the Black Lives Matter movement to say that we, as a society, have had enough. Like the patrons at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, it is time that we ask ourselves collectively, “Why don’t you guys do something?”

A Reason for Hope

On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a 6-3 decision that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBT workers from workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or transgender status. Title VII bars employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. Resolving a circuit split, the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia that “sex” does, in fact, cover sexual orientation and transgender status. Justice Neil Gorsuch, appointed by President Trump, authored the majority opinion.

Shana Marks is an associate in the litigation group at Kegler Brown Hill + Ritter in Columbus, Ohio.


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