Written by Martha Barry, PhD, Chief Racial Justice Officer, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
Our nation is facing yet another moment of truth. Horrific killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, at the hands of law enforcement, have brought us to this critical juncture. But they follow the deaths of Stephon Clark, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Botham Jean, Michelle Shirley, Kenny Watkins, Jay Anderson, Sean Reed, Philando Castile, Jamar Clark, Pamela Turner, Dontre Hamilton and so many more. Do we believe, really believe, that Black lives matter? Saying those words in protest chants is not enough to change our blood-stained, centuries-old history of genocide, slavery, Jim Crow segregation and police brutality.
Movement, progress, change — these must all be measured against the backdrop of our nation’s racism.
June is Pride month. It commemorates the Stonewall Uprising on June 28, 1969. New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club, injuring bar goers and staff. Days of riots followed. This event launched the modern gay liberation movement. Marsha P. Johnson, a Black activist and self-identified drag queen was one of the key leaders of Stonewall. Their street action, sparked and fueled by police violence, lasted six days.
Protests have often been the tipping point leading to change.
As George Takei so ably tweeted: “LGBTs: You cannot remain silent today and celebrate Pride month tomorrow. Stonewall was a protest that became a riot because of persistent police brutality against our community. It is our historic legacy. We must stand today with our black brothers and sisters. #BlackLivesMatter” (12:38 PM – May 31, 2020).
Let’s be clear, fighting for gay rights didn’t start in the late 1960’s. Many of us knew elders, men who lived with men and women who lived with women, sharing their lives, without much challenge to the status quo. Hiding was not a way to fully live one’s truth. Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington in 1963, was a Black, gay man, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to secure workers’ rights and ensure nonviolent protest. He, and many others before him, were fighting for gay rights and civil rights for Black Americans. He faced anti-gay discrimination, arrests, and constant scrutiny. He and others laid the groundwork for gay rights to be safeguarded today.
We know writing gay rights into law does not guarantee gay people safety and security. Identifying as a person of color and gay heightens the homophobia and racism.
On June 12, 2016, a 29-year-old security guard killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Pulse was hosting a “Latin Night”, and most of the victims were LatinX.
On February 26, 2012. Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Florida. In 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted for Trayvon’s death, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement began. BLM was founded by three powerful, black women, two of whom identify as queer. The overlap of Black liberation and LGBTQ liberation is unmistakable.
We need to take time to mourn LGBTQ lives cut short by police brutality, homophobic attacks, and families (often Christians) making gay- and transgender-identified teens homeless. We mourn people of color’s lives being cut short for a host of reasons. Our heartbreak, however, cannot be limited to participating in protests, donating to organizations led by people of color, or working to end racist practices in our organizations. All of these actions are laudable, but our broken hearts demand we stand firm in our long-term commitment to racial justice.
The need to end homophobia and racism requires taking a stand against all forms of oppressive systems and injustice. If we can say Black Lives Matter, can we also say Black Queer Lives Matter? Black Trans Lives Matter? Our humanity depends on us standing on the correct side of history. Justice. Now. Together.