Brook Education and Wellbeing Specialist, Elyssa Rider, writes on the history of Pride and why we must fight to protect marginalised identities within the LGBT community in order to achieve true equality for all.
For many with a shared collective knowledge of Pride and the Gay Liberation movement, our awareness focuses on the US with the so-called Stonewall Riots (those in attendance have disputed the use of the word ‘riot’, referring to the events as an ‘uprising’ or ‘rebellion’ instead). Attention is often misdirected towards trying to elucidate who threw the first brick/shot glass/punch, and the desire to have a Queer hero is focused on rather than the shared unjust treatment and lack of rights that all LGBTQ+ people were experiencing at the time.
The people who were at the forefront of the Gay Liberation movement were a mix of: transgender and gender-expansive people of colour; Queer people who were sex workers; drag queens; gay men, butch lesbians and homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Two particularly noteworthy activists were Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who both identified as drag queens of colour.
Yet, as the movement gained traction and popularity, and became adopted by the mass of middle-class White gays and lesbians, it began to pull away from being associated with those who started it.
At the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in 1973, only a few years after Stonewall, a majority cisgender, White, middle-class, gay and lesbian crowd booed Sylvia Rivera off stage. She was appealing to the crowd for justice for their “gay brothers and sisters in jail.” Agosto Machado, a co-founder of the Gay Liberation movement, said of Rivera’s treatment, “I could not believe that all of us who were at those protests were ignored. We really didn’t exist. We were a nuisance; an embarrassment.”
It has often been the case that as portions of oppressed peoples gain liberation, there is a lethargy that grows. Instead of continued pursuit for all marginalised people to experience equality, hierarchies are established. We saw the same with the movement for women’s suffrage in Britain. The date frequently given as when women gained the vote is 1918 but this was, in fact, only the date that some White women got the vote. Suffrage depended on the woman in question owning property, which effectively discriminated against the majority of women of colour living in Britain at the time. It wasn’t until 1928 that most women were able to vote.
This was mirrored in the Gay Liberation Movement, where cisgender lesbian, bisexual and gay people fought alongside trans activists until rights were acquired for the former. Indeed, it was only in 2019 that being transgender was removed from the World Health Organisation’s list of mental and behavioural disorders.
Today, the rights hard won by the transgender community are under attack. Recently, Donald Trump finalised regulations to reduce and overturn trans rights. There are also reports that the UK government is dropping plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act. This comes both during Pride month and also the anniversary of the Pulse shootings in Orlando, Florida, one of the biggest massacres of LGBTQ+ people in history.
It also comes at a time where globally people are rising up to protest and mobilise for Black Lives Matter. It is crucial to centre those whose marginalised identities straddle race and gender as we call for the protection of Black people, because these compounding oppressions disproportionately affect Black trans individuals. Of the reported homicides of trans people in the US in 2019, the vast majority were Black trans women.
It is not enough to simply presume that Black trans lives are being included when we take action for Black Lives Matter.
We must specifically and intentionally name and seek to protect them. Trans people have been advocating for their own safety, rights and freedoms for centuries but without the support and advocacy of cis people, this battle is long, and places undue burden on those who are already experiencing the pain of living in a transphobic society.
Even if we have made mistakes in the past regarding the treatment of trans people, it is not too late to recognise the harm caused, apologise, and change, as seen by L’Oreal and their campaign with Munroe Bergdorf. However, it is important to recognise that the trans community do not owe us their forgiveness, time or emotional labour. It is up to us to educate ourselves, and to use any influence we have to drive change for the benefit of our trans siblings. We must do better.
To quote Sakeema Crook speaking at the BLM protests in London, “When we celebrate Black Trans Lives, we celebrate all life.”
Definitions of key terms are available in this terminology guide created by Brook young volunteers in partnership with the National LGB&T Partnership.
‘Protect Black Trans Lives’ illustration by Elyssa Rider.