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Stonewall at 50: Whose Movement Is It Anyway? 

In late June of this year, millions of queer people[1] descended on New York City to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. Fifty years ago, in the wake of gay icon Judy Garland’s tragic death, patrons of the Greenwich-village gay bar Stonewall Inn, among them, butches, drag queens, and other working-class queers, refused to tolerate yet another police raid and revolted, eventually trapping the police inside and nearly incinerating them. After several nights of fighting in the streets, the police backed off and, as many would have it, the modern U.S. “gay rights” movement was born.  But just which movement is it?  And what and how are we celebrating?

On June 30, 2019, there were at least two major events in New York City to commemorate the Stonewall uprising. These two events reflect a division in our communities between two vastly different, even if occasionally overlapping, political visions. Heritage of Pride (HOP), the mainstream organization that has claimed control over what is often referred to as the Gay Pride Parade, hosted an enormous parade from 26th Street and Fifth Avenue down into the Village and back up again, as part of “World Pride/Stonewall 50.”[2]  The HOP parade featured various elected officials; floats representing numerous gay bars carrying muscle boys and playing loud music; employees belonging to LGBT affinity groups at corporate employers, including banks, telecommunications companies, airlines, beer and liquor labels, among others; religious and ethnic organizations; and a plethora of other groups who came to express their pride as out lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, and, to some extent, transgender people. The parade celebrated the many victories of “gay rights,” most notably the right of same-sex couples to marry.  It called for equal treatment and inclusion of “LGBT”[3] people in our society and decried the many ways that the federal government seeks to demonize and exclude members of our communities, for example, by banning transgender people from the military. The parade also included contingents of cops. New Yorkers witnessed, albeit through barriers, a colorful, loud, and lengthy affair demonstrating how much some of us have come to be included in the mainstream, how normal and accepted we have become, even if we still have a way to go.  And New Yorkers got to see how we have become a successful target for marketing an array of products, from vodka to financial advice, and our identities and our desires used for marketing pitches.  One could be excused for not understanding that this event claimed to celebrate a riot by angry working-class and gender non-conforming community members who were fed up with police abuse.

…[T]wo events [on June 30, 2019 in New York City] reflect a division in our communities between two vastly different…political visions.

People coming from parts of the city, the country, or other countries, where LGBT people face extreme exclusion and even violence may have felt the exhilaration and empowerment I felt at my first parades at breaking through a profound sense of isolation.  At the same time, one might wonder what has become of the spirit of protest against the forces that still plague us, literally, for example in the form of HIV/AIDS, and figuratively, in the form of poverty and homelessness; lack of access to culturally appropriate health care, including abortion and reproductive health care (or any health care at all), housing, and jobs; ongoing police abuse, particularly toward transgender people; mistreatment and outright violence in jails and prisons; extreme marginalization of queer immigrants; private and public suppression and repression of queer eroticism; and the list goes on.

…[In the Heritage of Pride march] New Yorkers got to see how we have become a successful target for marketing an array of products, from vodka to financial advice…

To commemorate the protest legacy of the Stonewall rebellion and the more radical movement it initially gave rise to (such as the Gay Liberation Front[4]), a group called the Reclaim Pride Coalition (RPC) organized the Queer Liberation March.[5] A grassroots and international effort of “trans, bisexual, lesbian, gay, queer, intersex, asexual, two-spirit, non-binary, gender non-conforming + and allies,” this march did not include corporate sponsors or police.  Rather, it highlighted the most marginalized members of the community. The group marched, without barriers or requirements of prior registration, uptown from the site of the Stonewall Inn to Central Park.  The RPC that organized this event proclaimed that it was marching “in opposition to transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, racism, sexism, xenophobia, bigotry based on religious affiliation, classism, ableism, audism, ageism, all other forms of oppression, and the violence that accompanies them in the U.S. and globally.”[6] The march called for “an end to individual and institutional expressions of hate and violence as well as government policies that deny us our rights and our very lives, from the NYPD [New York Police Department] to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], from the prison industrial complex to state repression worldwide.”[7] The organizers further stated that they were marching “against domestic and global neoliberalism and the ascendance of the far right, against poverty and economic inequality, against U.S. military aggression, and against the threat that is climate change” and “to affirm that healthcare is a right, including treatment for all people with HIV/AIDS worldwide and intensive prevention efforts, and to demand an end to HIV stigma and criminalization.”[8]  In short, the Queer Liberation March challenged all forms of social and economic oppression worldwide, not only those specifically framed as anti-gay or anti-transgender.  It celebrated the history and lives of our diverse communities, while standing in solidarity and acknowledging the linkages with oppressed groups within and outside our communities.  Many of the organizers have a long history of social justice protest in a range of movements.

…[T]he Reclaim Pride Coalition (RPC) organized the Queer Liberation March [which] highlighted the most marginalized members of the community.

Which of these marches better captured the legacy of the Stonewall uprising?  And which one better reflects the state of the movement today? Joseph DeFilippis, the lead founder of the now-defunct radical group Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ), argues that there are really two different movements.[9] One he labels the “Gay Rights Movement” (GRM), characterized primarily by legal campaigns to break down barriers to equality, such as exclusion from the military and marriage. DeFilippis asserts that this movement is led by well-funded mostly white and middle- or upper-class organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign.  These organizations have promoted a message of equal treatment and acceptance within the structures and institutions of U.S. society.  They have foregrounded the needs of members of the community who already have some status in our society on the argument that gains for them will eventually serve the needs of more marginalized members. These organizations tend to deploy top-down decision-making methods and do not elicit the concerns of those who are less visible to them.

In contrast, DeFilippis describes a Queer Liberation Movement (QLM) that consists of mostly scrappy under-funded grassroots organizations that organize at the margins of queer life:  among people of color, people with disabilities, homeless and poor queers, people whose gender identities and expression are most marginalized.  These groups deploy strategies that address the members of the community who face the greatest challenges and oppression.  By organizing at the margins, they aim to transform the larger society to create a more just and genuinely inclusive world.  Rather than focusing on issues that can neatly be defined as specifically “gay,” the QLM organizations focus on the intersections of gender and sexuality and class, race, disability, immigration status, criminal history, and other points of oppression to form transformative justice strategies.  Instead of announcing preordained priorities, these organizations strive to provide leadership training to socially-excluded people in order to facilitate self-governance and genuine political participation.  These strategies have produced successful campaigns challenging, for example, how the homeless shelter and welfare systems in New York City treat queer people.

…[T]he QLM organizations focus on the intersections of gender and sexuality and class, race, disability, immigration status, criminal history, and other points of oppression…

Labor could take a cue from within its own ranks on how to recognize and center the needs of working-class queers. At the intersection of the GRM and the QLM organizations sits Pride at Work,[10] the LGBTQIA+[11] constituency group of the AFL-CIO. Pride at Work represents working people, predominantly union members, who identify within that alphabetic list or as allies.  While it is a national organization and, like GRM organizations, it prioritized marriage equality for many years,[12] it has also fought for the interests and needs of working-class queers among organizations that prefer to center more affluent and “acceptable” faces of the gay and even transgender communities. At times, despite very limited resources, Pride at Work has played a critical role in labor battles for unions with significant queer membership or that were championing queer rights. At its most recent convention, echoing the recurring theme of “a worker is a worker is a worker” (albeit without a nod to writer Gertrude Stein), the group passed a resolution calling for the decriminalization of sex work.[13] This position demonstrates how worker-focused queer organizations can and should take on campaigns that recognize the specific needs of members of our communities, for example, those for whom sex work provides a critical source of income and independence, while also framing that struggle within a larger campaign to replace policing with promoting labor rights as an approach to underground economies in which many marginalized people earn a living.

So fifty years after Stonewall, even as members of our communities enjoy an unprecedented degree of social acceptance, labor can and should provide a voice and resources for the larger struggle for transformative justice that queer people still need and desire.

Author Biography

Richard Blum is a member of UAW Local 2325, the Association of Legal Attorneys and of its LGBTQ Caucus. He was a founder of Queers for Economic Justice and is a long-time member of Pride at Work.  He received his M.A. in Labor Studies from the Murphy Institute in 2015 and co-organized a two-day conference, Invisible Lives, Targeted Bodies at the institute in 2015 focusing on issues of class in queer politics. Richard also endorsed and did some volunteer work for the Queer Liberation March.

Photo credit:

Mixed media piece depicting Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera being confronted by the NYPD at the Stonewall Riots, by Alec Black, Instagram @aevvan.

NOTES


[1] As a former board member of Queers for Economic Justice, I use the term “queer” to encompass a diverse range of identities including people whose sexual or gender identity or expression falls outside dominant societal norms.  In my experience, no attempt to list an alphabet of identities does justice to the full range of these identities.
[2] https://2019-worldpride-stonewall50.nycpride.org/.
[3] LGBT refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and is a common shorthand for people who do not conform to societal norms concerning sexuality and/or gender.  Some groups prefer to add a ‘Q’ on the end to connote queer, as a sort of catch all.  Other groups identify with a longer list of identities, including gender nonconforming, intersex, questioning, asexual, two-spirit, and so forth.
[4] http://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/gay-liberation-front-at-alternate-u/.
[5] https://reclaimpridenyc.org/.
[6] https://reclaimpridenyc.org/why-we-march.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Joseph DeFilippis, A New Queer Liberation Movement, in Queer Activism after Marriage equality (ed. Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis, Michael W. Yarbrough, and Angela Jones (2018).
[10] https://www.prideatwork.org/.
[11] This was the list voted for in Pride at Work’s most recent convention in August 2018.
[12] In response to complaints about this emphasis, the newsletter at the 2006 convention featured two competing views on marriage equality, one supporting the marriage equality agenda and the other, authored by me, challenging that agenda on the grounds that it excluded the diverse range of relationships in which our people live and limited the fight for access to social goods and services to people who could or would enter into this one specific relationship.
[13] My local, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW 2325, introduced the resolution, and we are serving on the steering committee of a coalition, DecrimNY, that is calling for the decriminalization of sex work in New York State.  https://www.decrimny.org/.

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