The History of Pride, Police Brutality, and Protest

Supermajority Education Fund

June 8, 2020

Although this year’s Pride month was already going to be different from previous years’ celebrations because of the coronavirus pandemic, the protests following the deaths of a number of Black Americans at the hands of the police have also influenced how the LGBTQ+ community is thinking about this month. In particular, many LGBTQ+ folks are reflecting on their community’s history with police brutality and protest.

“This first day of #PrideMonth2020, we urge you all to remember the Black trans leadership that launched the LGBTQ movement in the first place. Black trans women and other trans women of color fought back against police brutality at Stonewall and continue to do so now,” Transgender Law Center tweeted on Monday. 

As police violence continues to escalate peaceful protests in support of Black lives and against the unjust murders of Black Americans around the country, it’s important to discuss the role that police brutality had — and continues to have — in the LGBTQ+ movement. Here are some things to keep in mind this Pride month. 

The modern-day LGBTQ+ movement started with resistance to police brutality 

The Stonewall Inn, which was, and still is, on Christopher Street in the West Village of Manhattan, has a storied history. At the time of the Stonewall Riots, the establishment was designated a private club to skirt laws that made it illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals and required obtaining a liquor license. The establishment was one of the few—if not the only—gay bar that allowed dancing at the time, and was a safe haven for homeless youth and welcomed drag queens. 

The club was also run by the Genovese family, one of the most infamous crime families in the city. Although the cops had been known to tip off Mafia-run bars before raiding them, using their lack of a liquor license as an excuse, this didn’t happen on June 28, 1969. That night, police arrived at the Stonewall with a warrant, entered the space, and arrested 13 people, including employees and those who weren’t wearing “gender appropriate” clothing. 

People in the neighborhood and others at Stonewall were alarmed by these actions and stood outside as police became more violent. Lisa Cannistraci, an owner of the Village lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson, told The New York Times in 2014 that a butch drag performer named Stormé DeLarverie, who died in 2014 at the age of 93, initiated the call for the crowd to fight back. “Nobody knows who threw the first punch, but it’s rumored that she did, and she said she did,” Cannistraci said. “She told me she did.”

While the Stonewall Riots is perhaps the best-known incident of police violence waged against the LGBTQ+ movement, police brutality against the community was common in the 1960s. Another big attack happened more than two years before Stonewall, at the Black Cat, a gay bar in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood. It was New Years’ Eve 1967, and just after the group of people gathered there sang “Auld Lang Syne” and kissed to welcome the new year, cops burst in and began swinging at patrons with their billy clubs, June Thomas wrote for Slate in 2014. The cops struck the female owner and beat three employees who tried to defend her. Six men were charged with lewd behavior for their New Year kiss and were all found guilty. 

LGBTQ+ women of color were at the forefront of resisting police violence 

While the history of the LGBTQ+ movement has long been whitewashed, queer people of color were crucial leaders of it. Take Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. The two met on the streets when Rivera, who ran away from her troubled home at age 11, was only a preteen. Johnson, who was born in 1945, “was like a mother” to Rivera, who had never had a supportive parental presence in her life. 

Johnson and Rivera dedicated their lives to LGBTQ+ work. Together, they founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) following a sit-in at Weinstein Hall at New York University in 1970. The friends founded STAR to help the transgender youth who were being neglected. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), named for the activist who died in 2002 at age 50, “provides direct representation for low-income transgender people and transgender people of color.” Johnson, who worked to advocate for trans youth her whole life, died in1992 at the age of 46.  

Last year, New York City announced plans to build a statue honoring Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. “The city Marsha and Sylvia called home will honor their legacy and tell their stories for generations to come,” New York City first lady Chirlane McCray said at the time. 

Police violence toward the queer community is hardly a thing of the past. 

U.S. Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey suggests that between 2012 and 2016, as many as 300,000 crimes of police violence against LGBTQ individuals were not reported. A 2010 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence programs found that even in instances when police didn’t commit violence against LGBTQ+ individuals directly, 61% of LGBTQ+ violence survivors experienced “indifferent, abusive, or deterrent police attitudes” in response to reporting crimes of violence committed against them.

Because of this history of violence, Pride organizers across several cities have long discussed whether police should be barred from parades and marches, and some have acted to that end. In 2018, police in Minneapolis were not allowed to march in their city’s Pride parade in uniform. In 2019, Toronto organizers voted to bar police indefinitely from their parade. 

Reclaim Pride, who held the Queer Liberation March and Rally at New York City’s World Pride in 2019, is one such group that fights to remove police from celebrations altogether. On the occasion of the Stonewall 50th anniversary last year, the NYPD issued an official apology for the Stonewall Riots, but many activists did not accept those words of remorse.

Police also continue to take the lives of black transgender people at an unacceptable rate. Take Tony McDade, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Tallahassee, Florida last week. In 2015, 58 percent of transgender responders to the U.S. Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey reported mistreatments by the police, including verbal harassment, physical or sexual assault, consistent misgendering, and being forced to perform sexual acts in exchange for not being arrested. 

Every year, the New York City Pride Parade passes through the West Village, where a monument to Stonewall can be found just across the street from the bar. On July 28, 2016, President Obama designated the “Stonewall National Monument,” the 412th National Park site. The monument was the first in U.S. history to be chosen for its contribution to the LGBTQ+ community. The monument permanently protects Christopher Park, and its designation came in the wake of the Pulse attacks in June of 2016. 

As protesters take to the streets to speak out against institutional racism, police brutality, and the murder of Black people during Pride month, it’s important to remember the history of Stonewall and the violence that continues against the queer community. This violence, especially toward people of color, has not been forgotten. This Pride month, let’s make sure we work to stop it.