Centering the Most Marginalized: 50 years since Stonewall

In the early hours of the morning exactly 50 years ago today, a large crowd of gay men, lesbians, transgender women, and other LGBTQ individuals in their 20s and 30s stood outside the Stonewall Inn, agitated and uneasy. The New York police had just raided the well-known gay bar, and were beginning to arrest the young adults and load them into police vehicles. Raids on gay bars and bars owned by the mafia (of which the Stonewall was both) were common occurrences in 1960s New York, happening every few weeks. Transgender women would be arrested for wearing dresses, skirts, or makeup, and cisgender women would be be arrested if they were not wearing three “feminine” pieces of clothing. Bargoers often had no choice but to comply with the police.

But this time was different. This time, the mix of Black, Hispanic, and white bar patrons had had enough. They were tired of being harassed by the police. They were exhausted from living in fear. They decided to fight back. What ensued was a series of violent riots, which would later become known as a pivotal moment in the LGBT rights movement.

Though many in the LGBT community are familiar with the Stonewall Riots — both as one that pushed gay rights onto the national agenda, and as an event that would eventually evolve into today’s pride parades, you many not be familiar with two of the central figures of the event: Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera. While white, gay men have historically been the central focus of the LGBT rights movement, Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera are both transgender women of color. Until recent years, their names and their impact have been largely left out of LGBT history. Marginalized by not only sexual orientation, but also by race, gender, and class, they were ostracized by their own community when the gay rights movement began to gain momentum.

This pattern is not unique to the LGBT community. The early days of social justice movements are often the most dangerous, the most costly, and receive the least recognition. And this early work is frequently done by those with multiple layers of marginalization.

For example, the #metoo movement that addresses sexual violence against women was started by Tarana Burke in 2006. Yet, it was not popularized until actress Alyssa Milano tweeted about it in 2017, prompting thousands upon thousands of responses, with women sharing their own assault and harassment stories. The result was that Tarana Burke’s original intention and work was largely ignored, and white women’s safety was centered. In particular, the movement became focused on wealthy white actresses. Burke addressed this earlier this year, explaining: “the women of color, trans women, queer people—our stories get pushed aside and our pain is never prioritized…We don’t talk about indigenous women. Their stories go untold.” The danger in this, she explains, is that we focus only on a small part of the problem, and end up ignoring those who face the most violence.

As another example, consider the #BlackLivesMatter movement, launched by three Black women in 2013: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in response to the lack of justice for Black people killed by police. As the movement grew, its focus shifted to center Black men, despite the founders work to steer the movement in an inclusive way. This is addressed on their website, stating: “as a queer Black woman, Garza’s leadership and work challenge the misconception that only cisgender Black men encounter police and state violence… order to truly understand how devastating and widespread this type of violence is in Black America, we must view this epidemic through of a lens of race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The 50th anniversary of Stonewall is a time to reflect on our own LGBT rights movement. Who are the most marginalized today? What are we doing to make sure that we prioritize their safety, health, and well being?

To identify the most marginalized, consider who is the least visible, and who is most in danger of violence, poverty, job loss, etc. Let’s look at a few statistics.

The Human Rights Campaign reports that “within the LGBTQ community, transgender people and bisexual women face the most alarming rates of sexual violence,” with 46% of bisexual women being raped in their lifetime, and 47% of transgender people experiencing sexual assault. When looking more closely at the transgender community, we find that “among people of color, American Indian (65%), multiracial (59%), Middle Eastern (58%), and Black (53%) respondents of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey were most likely to have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime.”

Indigenous communities overall experience the highest rates of violence, so it is not surprising that those patterns are reflected in the LGBT community as well. Another report found that 85% of two-spirit indigenous individuals experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. Two-spirit “(also spelled 2-spirit or two-spirited) was coined by Myra Laramee in 1990.(4)… to distinguish the wide variety of Indigenous concepts of gender and sexual diversity.”

These numbers identify a few of the communities that are most marginalized, and others, such as immigrants, differently-abled folks, and individuals of a variety of ages and income levels could also be included.

As a community, we have so much to be proud of — from the legalization of gay marriage in Obergefell v Hodges, to progressive legislation that has improved LGBTQ access to health care, gender-affirming identification such as birth certificates, and services such as adoption. Looking ahead, we still have many steps to take until we reach true lived equality for all. Let’s focus on making sure to lift up the voices of those who are most marginalized. Wherever you have influence in our community, whether it be an event you’re planning, human services you provide, or perhaps a nonprofit you work for, consider the following questions:

  • Am I making this space intentionally safe for all types of people?
  • Are marginalized individuals included in positions of power?
  • Are marginalized voices included in decision-making?

The Gay Family Law Center is a long-time advocate for LGBT rights. Our practice includes LGBT divorce, adoption, surrogacy, estate planning, and more. Contact us to set up your free consultation and see if we may be the best fit for your family law needs.

Image by Toni Reed