Last June, it felt as if the entire world was converging on New York City’s West Village to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, rebranded as World Pride. Around 5 million people from all over the globe descended upon the Big Apple in what was the largest LGBTQ gathering of its kind, and the city’s streets were literally paved with Pride.
Storefronts and bars and signposts were festooned with corporate-sponsored rainbow flags, balloons, boas, paint, tinsel and posters — you name it, and there was a rainbow flag and the logo of some corporate sponsor on it. Seemingly every company was hocking LGBTQ Pride merch, no matter their history of discrimination against us or whether their C-suite was comprised of Trump’s biggest donors.
Why, even the president himself was marketing rainbow-colored MAGA hats while simultaneously attacking trans troops in the military, repealing protections for LGBTQ citizens and sticking by his notoriously brutal homophobic and transphobic dictator BFFs like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-Un and Jair Bolsonaro.
It might have appeared as if we and our allies were all wrapped in a big, colorful, feathery collective embrace as we partied together, paraded together, wore our queer positive T-shirts and hats together, reveling in the fact that what few civil rights we LGTBQ people had were still tenuously intact.
But there was something a bit disingenuous about a big tent, corporatized, police-guarded celebration that, despite the queer and independent media’s best efforts, had all but forgotten the real story behind the festivities: that the LGBTQ liberation movement we celebrate with Pride began with a fight against police brutality.
Stonewall began because, night after night, cops had been raiding our bars, arresting gay men, lesbians, gender nonbinary people and transgender people, loading us into patrol wagons and carting us off to jail for living our authentic lives in relatively private spaces.
So when, at 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 1969, as the New York City Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn — handcuffing people and loading them into police vehicles — Stormé DeLarverie, who had been hit on the head by a cop with a baton when she complained her handcuffs were too tight, urged the crowd of onlookers to “do something,” they did.
Stormé — a Black, self-identified “stone butch” lesbian and celebrated drag performer — is said to have thrown the first punch. And the Stonewall riots (they didn't refer to them as protests then, either) lasted six days. They weren’t the first uprisings for LGBTQ liberation, but they were the largest at the time.
And now, one year after the milestone anniversary of that history-changing rebellion against police brutality, many LGBTQ people have been protesting against police brutality in the names of (only most recently) George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade, a Black trans man fatally shot by police in Tallahassee, Florida.
We did so while our communities are all still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic — a deadly disease the government ignored for too long being familiar territory to the older among us — flinging open our doors and putting on our masks, some of us for the first time since the stay-at-home orders were issued in New York City in mid-March, to march as part of or alongside Black Lives Matter.
We were all risking our lives not only by marching in close contact with others in the midst of a pandemic, but we were facing off cops — many of them not wearing masks — who were armed to the teeth with the familiar batons, and now rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and military-grade weapons and vehicles.
And, not surprisingly, the cops were still raiding our community's bars and hurting peaceful protesters. On May 30 in Raleigh, North Carolina, police opened fire with “less lethal rounds” outside Ruby Deluxe, a gay bar, because owner Tim Lemuel and some friends were setting up a first-aid station for protesters. On June 1, cops in full riot gear raided Blazing Saddles gay bar in Des Moines, Iowa, for the same reason: providing first-aid for demonstrators. They arrested three people, who were cuffed face down on the sidewalk, and then spent over two hours waiting to be processed in jail and two more hours in jail after they’d been bailed out, according to the bar’s Facebook page.
In New York City on June 2, LGBTQ activists held a rally in front of the Stonewall Inn to protest the murders of Black trans people. As the rally was wrapping up — just moments after the city-imposed 8 p.m. curfew — NYPD officers beat and arrested activists in attendance, including City Council candidate and drag performer Marti Gould Cummings and activist Jason Rosenberg, who was beaten bloody and denied medical attention. He wound up with a broken arm and six stitches on his head for the “crime” of linking arms with other activists.
That’s only a small sampling of the apparently vengeful violence cops around the country exacted on protesters of police brutality. Journalists reporting on the rallies and marches have been shot at close range with rubber bullets, many more activists have been beaten with batons, run down by police cars, tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed, shoved backward to the ground courting head injuries and put in jail without masks and in close quarters for hours on end.
And while we can count the seconds until the Trump administration officially assigns blame to activists for the new spike in coronavirus cases — never mind that the spikes had already begun last week, after premature reopenings in other parts of the country — our work has not been in vain.
There have been protests in big cities and in small towns in states you’d least expect — Idaho, who knew — and in countries across three continents. Not only has the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd been charged with second-degree murder, but Minneapolis has committed to dismantling its police department; New York has vowed to outlaw chokeholds, like the one that killed Eric Garner, provide more transparency about police misconduct and reform the NYPD; and Confederate statues in Virginia and Alabama have been toppled. The protests have also led to a surge of registered voters ... and Trump has never been more unpopular.
And that’s just in the first two weeks of this ever-growing movement to combat police brutality. The month is young. Imagine what more we can do as we all continue to march and protest to reform the criminal justice system to finally protect us all. That, rather than corporate sponsorship of a rainbow-hued parade, would most definitely be something to take pride in and celebrate — masked, and 6 feet apart, of course.