The more things change the more they stay the same. The Trump administration and its divisive policies reflect the natural evolution of our shared national history. Racism is embedded in every fiber of our national narrative…but we continually imagine (and often claim) to live in a post-racial world. We are a country divided—one torn between pretending to move beyond racism and not seeing color and one where we continue to be strongly grounded in a shared history of white supremacy and racism.
In my lifetime, I have been arrested and jailed just for being at a gay bar in San Francisco—because that very bar hosted a clientele that was primarily Black. These raids on gay bars—particularly gay bars that catered to a clientele of color—are a big part of LGBTQ+ history and my personal history as well. But despite the intersectional oppression we experience as LGBTQ+ people of color, our movement for equality and equity was quickly taken over by white males…a parallel to the common current narratives. People of color were not welcomed at more established, visible gay bars, a phenomenon documented in detail by filmmaker Marlon Riggs. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and this momentous anniversary has folks taking the time to remember Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, trans women of color who risked everything to fight back against police violence. As I consider their legacies, I am reminded again of the many parallels between things that took place 50 years ago and that continue to happen today. The Stonewall Riots were marked by the same sort of police violence that has been the hallmark of the racist history of this country—a country founded on anti-blackness and slavery. That is how we—those who are so often othered in this society—are controlled by the white male power structure. We find ways to make others feel less welcome—to further striate our society until we have grouped and sub-grouped ourselves into dysfunction. Take for example the history of animosity between the lesbian community and the gay male community until AIDS hit—and lesbians became key in providing the support needed.
The entire month of June is devoted to celebrating the gay rights movement; as I reflect on all that has led up to today and the history of the gay rights movement I have lived through in my lifetime, it is through this lens. The first Pride events were political demonstrations that quickly moved away from revolutionary change and instead embraced a more traditional political structure. As rights for gay men and lesbians were achieved in some places (like employment), the rights of transgender people were intentionally left out as a way to expedite things. This has been our history…the good of the few overshadows the good of the whole. We will always find a way to further marginalize those who are already marginalized in order to further assert our own power. Transgender women of color are being killed today in record numbers but media attention and social action is…tepid at best. The best way to commemorate 50 years from Stonewall is to rise up again and say no more. We do not need parades and parties. We need a movement that changes the landscape of our legislatures. We need a movement where we take to the streets once again to fight for all of us. If we do that, then after my 50 years of living this journey, I can say let’s celebrate PRIDE but today in this moment, sadly that is not in my heart.
All of you who touch the lives of children, youth, and families, please show love and celebrate with us but also stand with us as we work to end the hate and the violence. Love is our strongest weapon.
Bill Bettencourt is a senior fellow at CSSP.