"Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public." — Cornel West
It's no coincidence that the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history occurred during LGBTQ pride season. For those of us in the LGBTQ community, Pride usually means glitter, rainbows, kisses, and celebrating with our chosen family. For me, it means a day in the sun and a safe space far away from the high school days of feeling so closeted I could suffocate. For most, it simply means feeling free to love and be loved.
But even before this weekend’s tragic shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub, Pride didn’t always boil down to “love wins.” Many forget that the first LGBTQ Pride was a riot.
The 1969 Stonewall Riots were (despite what whitewashed movies tell you) a nearly week-long uprising led mostly by trans people of color against the New York Police Department at the gay bar Stonewall Inn. Police procedure was to line up patrons, check their identification, and then take them to the bathroom to verify their sex. If any were found dressed like the “opposite” gender, they were arrested (and often assaulted). The riot broke out when a butch woman was escorted from the building and hit on the head by an officer for complaining that her handcuffs were too tight. Bystanders say that’s when she looked to the crowd and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?”
Four years after Stonewall, the largest mass murder of LGBTQ people in U.S. history (until now) took place. On June 24, 1973, at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, Louisiana, an arsonist set fire to the building and 32 people were killed. In Elizabeth Dias and Jim Downs’ 2013 Time essay, they described public reaction:
The Jokes began almost immediately. The Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the MCC, flew in the morning after the fire and remembers a radio host asking on air, "What do we bury them in?" The punch line: "Fruit jars." The police department's chief of detectives reinforced the homophobic climate when he told reporters that identifying the bodies would be tough because many patrons carried fake identification and "some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar."
Despite the city's reputation for tolerance, there were consequences to being gay there in 1973. One victim, a teacher, was fired while in critical care at Charity Hospital after his school learned that he had been at the bar. He died days later from burns.
What’s changed between Stonewall, the Upstairs Lounge, and Pulse? Plenty. What’s more urgent are the things that have stayed the same.
LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. In the first five months of 2016, murders of 10 trans people in America were reported. According to the Advocate, “Almost all of the victims were people of color, and the vast majority were black transgender individuals.” If the Stonewall procedures sound eerily like what’s happening with today’s anti-trans bathroom bills, it’s because they’re exactly the same. These instances compounded by the mass shooting in Orlando are terrorism in its broadest definition—the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.
After last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriage was legal, many in the LGBTQ community grew complacent in the hierarchy of privilege. (I know you’ve seen those cis white guys with Grindr profiles that read, “No fats, no fems. #LoveWins.”) And I get that, I really do. Same-sex marriage seemed like it would never happen in my lifetime—can’t you just let me live like a problematic fave? But now is not the time to rest on our laurels. We’ve seen our community galvanize to make history in the past, and now we need to do it again and again.
Fuck homophobia. Fuck transphobia. Fuck queerphobia.
Our community—which includes some of the most brilliant minds in history—is a gift to this ugly, violent world. What have we gotten in return? The right to marry while our trans sisters are being murdered in the street?
It’s time we do away with the “surviving is thriving” adage because thriving is thriving, and it’s not enough to simply survive—we deserve to flourish like everyone else.
Now is the time for the LGBTQ community to look back to our roots and radical elders. Now is the time for true advocacy work instead of that “put a rainbow filter on it” bullshit. Every issue that affects marginalized identities—racism, classism, Islamophobia, cissexism, etc.—is an LGBTQ issue. Every issue that prioritizes something over empathy or love is an LGBTQ issue. If we could bring same-sex marriage to the U.S., we can do something to change this country’s (lack of) gun control. We can take up our megaphones. We can fight for government representation. We can speak up when we see someone undervaluing queer life. We can continue this fight because we have something worth fighting for.
We can answer that brave woman at Stonewall who shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?”