Pride: A Site of Mourning
Authors Note: This essay was written for a Smith College Course in the Spring of 2019 by the author. It was not peer-reviewed and is the sole property and belief of the author. Only small edits were made in the reposting for clarity and to offer more citation accessibility.
June 28th, 2019 will be the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The riots were a catalyst for the beginning of the gay rights movement, but a half-century later limited political gains have been made for the entirety of the LGBTQ community; and under the Trump administration, the progress that has been made is under constant threat. While Pride was originally a political march to remind people of queer oppression, it has since transformed into something more celebratory in nature.
During the time of Stonewall, being gay in the United States was a crime, and people were often arrested for discriminatory infractions such as not wearing three items of gender-conforming clothing or dancing with someone of the same sex ("Gay Rights" 2017). When the police raided Stonewall on that June evening, something changed. People resisted the violence from the police entering their space and potentially the most inspiring aspect is that this was not a previously planned action. The community had not been collectively organizing around that evening yet everyone mobilized and acted as a unit around the violence they were mutually experiencing.
In How A Revolutionary Counter Mood Is Made, Jonathan Flatley attests that it is a creation of a sense of “being-with-others” that gives way for collective organizing in times of mourning, which drives his theories for creating a counter-mood (Flatly, 507-508).
a mood shifting affective attunement … then allows workers to share an
affective state and indeed to become aware of themselves as a collective, and in so doing invoke a counter-mood, in which collective action … is newly attractive and compelling (Flatley, 504).
Although Flatly centers this collective attunement happening around the sharing of personal narrative, I argue that in the moments when the police raided Stonewall - an otherwise joyful time pierced so suddenly with fear, anger, and grief - a collective attunement was occurring as well. This caused the first actor to respond, shattering the social barriers of how to respond to police, making it possible for everyone to react accordingly.
That evening at Stonewall would later become historic for launching the gay rights movement but little is documented from the actual time of the riots. There are varied stories that try and pin down who exactly started the riot, but there is no definitive text. Rather, the two individuals I wish to focus on for this paper are that of Stormé DeLarverie and Marsha P. Johnson. Stormé, a mixed-race lesbian drag king, and Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman.
For both these potential mothers of the movement, their racial identity in conjunction with their identities as queer people situated them, and other queer people of color, in a uniquely familiar position at the moment of collective attunement during the raid by the police.
In The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. DuBois considers that while striving for equality for the Black community, what is truly being sought is the ability to hold both identities of being Black and American as mutually existing counterparts, but for Stormé and Marsha, it's not hard to believe they would be also seeking liberation within their queer identities as well.
“He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face” (DuBois, 9).
Queer people before, during, and after this moment in history have sought to be regarded as equal citizens under the law- for Black queer people, the struggle is intersectional and no part of that identity-or its oppression, could be stipped from the rest. As the mood shifted in the space, it was Black people who could almost instinctively have known what had to be done with the political shift that was happening around them. Collective action was taken and the movement was born, but as we moved towards progress, we forgot to document who got us there all along.
There have been differen
t recollections of who launched this movement, with some documents indicating Stormé DeLarverie and others pushing towards Marsha P. Johnson. Regardless of who took action first, there is a high need and value in recognizing Black people's role in igniting the movement.
The telling of Marsha P. Johnson is the most notably acclaimed for starting the riot and the story centers around the Black trans woman - throwing either a brick or a shot glass at the start of the riot. However, Johnson herself has denied being the instigator in a 1970’s interview.
I was uptown and I didn’t get downtown until about two o’clock, because when I got downtown the place was already on fire. And it was a raid already. The riots had already started.
The lesser-told story of the Stonewall is that of Stormé DeLarverie, a butch biracial lesbian drag king that threw the first punch on police as she was being escorted into a paddy wagon (Tran, 2018). Yelling “why don't you guys do something?” to bystanders after the punch, is what has been said to have sparked the resistance that ensued; and although DeLarverie also denies being the catalyst for the movement, other recountings of the riots do co-align with her own shared memory of the night (Capehart 2014).
In an interview for Charles Kaisers 1997 text “The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America” (as cited in The Washington Post), Stormé had the following to say about that evening:
The cop hit me, and I hit him back... For the first time in history, The cops got what they gave. This had never happened before. . . Stonewall was just the flip side of the black revolt when Rosa Parks took a stand. Finally, the kids down there took a stand. But it was peaceful. I mean, they said it was a riot; it was more like a civil disobedience. Noses got broken, there were bruises and banged-up knuckles and things like that, but no one was seriously injured. The police got the shock of their lives when those queens came out of that bar and pulled off their wigs and went after them. I knew sooner or later people were going to get the same attitude that I had. They had just pushed once too often.
The missing stories from the evenings of the Stonewall Riots should be marked as a loss for our community. Although some will argue that it may be ill-advised to “mythologize” these activists for it diminishes the “work of many LGBTQ+ people who risked their lives for our collective future”
, I argue we are worse off as a community if we do not uplift the truth behind the origins of that night. We lose an important part of our history when we de-emphasize that Black lives that took deeper risks that evening for the collective liberation of all LGBTQ people. In essence, this deprioritization of ensuring everyone knows the role of Black labor and Black risk is another act of white supremacy, and therefore violence, towards people of color within our community.
The prior historical political work that was tapped within Black people that night may be what tipped the scales for us all. Therefore, understanding the relevant connections that may have been sparked also should be considered.
Memories of anti-black violence have been described as being capable of being passed through a community-wide recollection as Black people are generational spectators to their own histories of violence (Alexander, 1994); as the police raided the space and began making arrests, it could be these memories that were recalled for the Black resistors. These memories might have included that of the police and their earlier counterparts, the slave patrol, and the way they have both historically used power and violence to dictate where Black people could be, how they could express themselves, and even how they could move through the world.
When the police took Stormé, it might have been her own connections to these memories that gave her the courage to fight back. Just as she could have internalized the shadows of past violence, she also had the memories of the Black activists who came before her. So resisting in this moment was something she had in her as well, and she used it to help spark the final match necessary to incite action and move the collective.
The work of Black grief helped move us forward, yet in forgetting these stories and not centering them during the fifty-year celebrations of Stonewall, continues a long-standing history in America of white benefit off of unacknowledged and devalued Black labor. The work of white supremacy washing away these contributions also gives way to create false justifications for the progression that the gay rights movement took after the four nights of the Stonewall riots.
Marginal wins have been made along the way that have benefited us all, but other focuses of the movement have been tailored for the most privileged of the lesbian and gay communities. As gay people began gaining more and more public acceptance, the shift for the movement went towards achieving the right to marry someone regardless of their gender. This shift in priorities subsequently left behind the issues that disproportionately impact Black queer people.
Elena Kiesling discusses this concept of anti-blackness in queer politics within her text “The Missing Colors of the Rainbow: Black Queer Resistance”. She outlines three instances that are representative of this anti-black “progressive” work happening from queer activism.
The first is that of the passage of Proposition 8 in California as “leading LGBT organizations and queer spokespeople blamed homophobia within the black community for the passing of Proposition 8”. The second act she defines as the push for “stronger hate crime legislation from mainstream queer organizations” serves as a further indication of anti-black rhetoric within queer movements. The policy referenced, that being the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, led to increased funding for state police and the military, which both actively target part of the communities it serves to protect. The final act she notes is “the silence of leading LGBT organizations on the mass incarceration of black bodies”. Even after marriage equality was achieved under the 2015 Supreme court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges, priorities did not shift towards directly acknowledging the struggles faced nor uplifting the Black queer community.
In the fifty years since Stonewall, using these “wins” that some parts of the LGBTQ community have been able to enjoy as justification, the focus of the event of Pride has also subsequently shifted. The first Pride march occurred one year after the Stonewall riots and resulted from the subsequent political organizing. Meant to serve as a political statement, marches were planned across the country in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Over the last fifty years, however, the norm has shifted away from the political, instead directing the priority towards a celebratory and visibly “out” atmosphere, leaving the unaddressed needs of the community to be kept in the closet.
What is the impact on the communities we are failing to hear when we fail to uplift a pro-black political platform within Pride and the movement at large? Besides playing into the cliché of white ignorance that is toxically pervasive both in and out of LGBTQ spaces, there are tangible consequences. As a result, queer people of color are struggling at higher rates than that of even that of their white LGBT counterparts.
These impacted issues range from accessing core essentials for survival, including having poor access to healthcare, housing, and employment. There is also the constant threat of police brutality for Black queer people to navigate as well.
Limited data that specifically focuses on the Black LGBTQ community is available, and what does exist is inherently limited in its ability to fully survey the intended populations. What we can see, however, highlights the disparities of people of color within the LGBTQ community.
Twenty-nine percent (29%) of Black [transgender and gender non-conforming]
respondents who had been to jail or prison reported being physically assaulted and
32% reported being sexually assaulted while in custody.
Seventy-three percent (12,237) of adult and adolescent blacks/African Americans
who received an HIV diagnosis were men… [and s]ixty percent (10,070) of
blacks/African Americans who received an HIV diagnosis were gay or bisexual
LGBTQ people of color are at least twice as likely as white LGBTQ people say
they have been personally discriminated against because they are LGBTQ when
applying for jobs and when interacting with police, and six times more likely to
say they have avoided calling the police (30%) due to concern for anti-LGBTQ
discrimination, compared to white LGBTQ people (5%).
Over time, things are not improving in the same ways for Black LGBTQ people compared to their white counterparts and as Pride has shifted its focus, grieving has also been pushed aside for lighter emotions. Fifty years after Stonewall, what should we really be celebrating and for whom are these celebrations even intended? Where are we making space to consider the vast differences of our experiences as a community- where some are getting left further and further behind?
To be Black and a woman, queer, trans or any combination of these identities (and really, countless others) redefines the lens from which individuals are able to act and be perceived by others within society. Our celebration is geared towards a White celebration for White ‘wins’. It should also be noted that in this celebration of gay Whiteness, we also center men and economic privilege over working-class LGBTQ people and women, and other gender non-conforming community members. The intersection of these identities is where grief can become even more important in understanding the shifting landscape of Pride.
When Pride took the focus off the political and ultimately the needs of the Black LGBTQ communities, grief was compounded. The oppression that has been embodied in all of their communities converges.
The (White) gay community tells them to celebrate but their Blackness cannot be taken away for their experiences and from that standpoint of holding mutual identities, is there even that much worth celebrating? The parade now highlights many of the entities that have contributed to their ongoing oppression, either symbolically or quite literally.
Corporate floats that highlight the gay buy-in to capitalism-overlooking the needs of the working class, political candidates, and elected officials that may or may not actually be accountable to the Black LGBTQ community when it comes to policy support, and even heavy police presence- which brings an actual and immediate threat to those who are supposed to be part of the celebration. Again, who is Pride really for?
The need for space to mourn what has been lost or never even achieved in the wake of all this ‘progress’ is clear given the current state of affairs for these communities politically, even though the limited examples provided. Black LGBTQ people deserve a Pride that is not only representative of their current state of affairs but also one that is honest about its origins regarding who pushed that shared moment of collective attunement toward active resistance. We fail to celebrate the stories that really matter during Pride; but where would we be without the risk Stormé took that evening when she punched the police- surely an offense she could have faced even more violence in return if she had not been supported by other (White) people who responded with action.
In our celebrations, we are forgetting to hold ourselves accountable for doing the work the other 364 days of the year. This leads me to push the return of Pride as an intentional site of mourning through celebration as it was once intended.
The original marches were to accustom the straight world to our existence, as a community we have an additional responsibility to make similar room for different racial identities within our spaces as well. This doesn’t have to mean Pride as we know it completely changes either. What it does mean though is that we must take a hard look at how the current environment we are creating might be actually incredibly oppressive to the others marginalized beyond their sexuality or gender identity within our own community.
The way this might take form could vary, but I do believe that if we hope to realign our movement toward actual progress for us all, we can start by uplifting more narratives from the evening that launched us towards today. Mourning also doesn’t have to be un-celebratory; as healing and solace were originally sought through having a social space to dance in 1969, Stonewall might have quietly also taught us that our site of mourning and spaces of celebration may actually be one and the same, that is if we can be intentional about how we choose to create that space.
It’s been fifty years since we resisted at Stonewall, isn’t it about time we start telling our own story right? In doing so, we not only set the bar for how we want our histories to be documented moving forward, that with a genuine and intersectional lens, but also set the tone for how we want future generations to continue the work of our community.
Additional Works Cited
Alexander, Elizabeth. “‘Can you be BLACK and Look at This?’: Reading the Rodney King
Video(s),” Public Culture 7, no. 1 (1994): 77–94.
Capehart, Jonathan. “Mourning Stormé DeLarverie, a Mother of the Stonewall Riots.” The
Washington Post, WP Company, 3 June 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2014/06/03/mourning-storme-delarverie-a-mother-of-the-stonewall-riots/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.584df1c73b1b.
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007),
“Of Our Spiritual Strivings”
“EXPERIENCES AND VIEWS OF LGBTQ AMERICANS.” Discrimination In America,
National Public Radio, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard T.H. Chan School of
Public Health, Nov. 2017, www.npr.org/documents/2017/nov/npr-discrimination-lgbtq-final.pdf.
Flatley, Jonathan. (2012). How A Revolutionary Counter-Mood Is Made. New Literary History,
43(3), 503-525. doi:10.1353/nlh.2012.0028
“HIV/AIDS.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and
Holland, Brynn. “How Activists Plotted the First Gay Pride Parades.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 June 2017, www.history.com/news/how-activists-plotted-the-first-gay-pride-parades.
“Injustice at Every Turn: A Look at Black Respondents in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.” National Center for Transgender Equality, The National LGBTQ Taskforce, National Black Justice Coalition. (2009) www.thetaskforce.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Injustice-at-Every-Turn-2009.pdf.
Kaiser, Charles. The Gay Metropolis 1940-1996. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998.
Kiesling, Elena. “The Missing Colors of the Rainbow: Black Queer Resistance.” European Journal of American Studies, European Association for American Studies, 24 Jan. 2017, journals.openedition.org/ejas/11830#authors.
Marcus, Eric. “Marsha P. Johnson & Randy Wicker.” Making Gay History, Making Gay History,
25 May 2018, makinggayhistory.com/podcast/episode-11-johnson-wicker/.
Tran, Chrysanthemum. “It Doesn't Matter Who Threw the First Brick at Stonewall.” Them.,
Them., 11 June 2018, www.them.us/story/who-threw-the-first-brick-at-stonewall.