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OP-ED: Stonewall story is still playing out

Chase Strangio
Tribune News Service
In this Wednesday, June 19, 2019, photo, a visitor to Herald Square takes a photo with the Pride and Joy window display at the Macy's flagship store in New York. For Pride month, retailers across the country are selling goods and services celebrating LGBTQ culture. Macy’s flagship store is adorned with rainbow-colored Pride tribute windows, set in the same space as its famous Christmas displays. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

In late June of 1969, the New York Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Manhattan where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people would congregate. On the night of the raid, patrons fought back and days of riots ensued.

Although resistance to the policing of queer lives started long before Stonewall, the riots are widely considered the catalyst for the modern day LGBTQ rights movement. As we commemorate their 50th anniversary, the struggle against state violence and for queer liberation continues.

At the time of the raid, same-sex sex was criminalized across the country and New York City was actively enforcing a law that prohibited people from wearing “fewer than three articles of clothing appropriate to their sex.” Anti-cross dressing laws of this sort, which existed in jurisdictions across the country, were used to repress gender variance of any kind, particularly within communities of color.

Flawless Sabrina, a legendary performer and organizer of drag pageants in the 1950s and 1960s, estimates that she was arrested more than 100 times for “cross-dressing.”

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Police routinely raided bars and other public spaces frequented by LGBTQ people. Though the six-day uprising that began at Stonewall in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, was significant, there were important precursors to that revolt.

Three years earlier, in 1966, trans women and drag queens of color resisted police brutality at Compton’s cafeteria in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. As Tamara Ching, a trans woman resident of San Francisco, later recalled, “We didn’t think this was a big deal. It was a natural thing for people to do back then, to protest.”

People were already organizing in the streets and defending their rights in the years and decades that came before Stonewall. But Stonewall became a symbol of an organized fight that aligned with power to change legal systems and structures. Ultimately, some of those changes came to pass.

In the 50 years since Stonewall, many things have changed. Legally sanctioned exclusions of queer people from marriage, government jobs and other sites of power have been toppled through sustained legal fights and organizing.

But many other forms of repression persist. The achievement of legal gains in the name of the entire community while so many black and brown LGBTQ people continue to die premature deaths because of constrained life chances suggest that perhaps the story of what was launched at Stonewall is incomplete.

Already, at least 10 trans women of color have been murdered so far in 2019, according to Human Rights Watch. Black and brown LGBTQ communities continue to be targets of aggressive policing. Rather than fight to protect people from systemic harm, the Trump administration has proposed rules to deny trans people health care and kick them out of homeless shelters.

For many, it feels like the gains we’ve made are in peril and the most marginalized members of the community, the very people who led the fight at Stonewall, are still often ignored.

The Stonewall riots only mark the beginning of one story. LGBTQ histories are deeper and messier and more nuanced than that one story can capture. They began long before Stonewall and they will persist long after Donald Trump.

Stonewall was a beginning of a legal reform movement that never achieved its promise. On this anniversary, perhaps our prerogative is to go deeper into our history to find a different story to tell – one that leads with liberation and survival and leaves no one behind.

— Chase Strangio is an attorney at the ACLU in New York City. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.