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Two people, including one with a rainbow bracelet, hold hands.

On June 28, 1969, members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community gathered at the Stonewall Inn, a tiny bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, just as they had many times before. But on this night, when the police’s public-morals squad conducted yet another raid, things did not go as expected.

The police’s standard procedure included lining up bar patrons and checking their identification. Then they were taken to the bathroom to verify their sex. Those deemed in violation of the state’s gender-appropriate clothing statute were arrested. Most people usually complied — afraid they might be outed in the local newspaper.

But this time, the most marginalized groups of the LGBTQIA+ community fought back. (The initialism LGBTQIA+ is now often used to allow for the inclusion of those who identify as queer, intersex, asexual, pansexual, nonbinary, and more.)

Tired of their bodies being victimized by police terror, transgender pioneers of color Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, along with drag kings and queens, butch lesbians, and other homeless youth, revolted.

The uprising lasted six days and was a springboard for many kinds of activism.

We Are Everywhere

There is a long history of standing up against oppression in the LGBTQIA+ community (see “Activism Before Stonewall” below), but Stonewall was a catalyst for broader organizing.

Newspapers and independent presses started promoting stories about and for LGBTQIA+ people. Coming out of the closet to increase visibility became seen as both a political act and one of self-empowerment for many.

Activist organizations were formed across the country to increase advocacy for equality and address the needs of LGBTQIA+ community members. These included groups led by LGBTQIA+ people of color dedicated to ensuring that the fight for liberation was for everyone.

Rivera and Johnson, for example, founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970. The group’s mission was to address the inequities faced by transgender people in prison, homeless youth, and others underrepresented in the LGBTQIA+ community.

On June 28, 1970, the first Pride march — the Christopher Street Liberation Day March — happened in New York City, a year after the riots. In San Francisco, there was also a march and a “gay-in” at Golden Gate Park to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. Chicago’s LGBTQIA+ community celebrated with a week of activities, workshops, and speeches.

On June 25, 1978, the iconic rainbow flag was unfurled for the first time at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade. American artist and gay-rights activist Gilbert Baker created the flag as a unifying yet diverse symbol for the burgeoning LGBTQIA+ political movement.

That activism would continue into the 1980s when groups like the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) began advocacy efforts and direct action to end the AIDS pandemic. The group continues its mission today, advocating for medical research and changing public policy to improve the lives of those living with AIDS and HIV.

Beyond Rainbows

Decades later, there are month- and weeklong Pride events across the United States each June. Millions of LGBTQIA+ people and their friends and family gather at parades, marches, parties, concerts, and symposiums to celebrate.

Marching down the street and declaring your existence is an act of solidarity, self-love, and hope.

“I grew up and came to consciousness as a lesbian and queer woman without ever seeing any positive representations of myself anywhere in my community or popular culture,” says Kate Kendell, Esq., chief of staff at California Endowment, a health-equity organization and former executive director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “When one doesn’t see yourself, it’s hard to imagine a life and future.”

Yet ensuring that everyone in the LGBTQIA+ has a bright future continues to be a struggle. Data shines a bright light on the persistence of bias, discrimination, and inequities facing LGBTQIA+ individuals.

Data from a 2020 FBI report show an uptick in hate crimes targeting LGBTQIA+ people. Hate crimes based on sexual orientation represented 16.7 percent — the third-largest category after race and religion. Gender identity–based hate crimes rose from 2.2 percent in 2018 to 2.7 percent in 2019.

There’s also an epidemic of violence against transgender people and those who identify as nonbinary.

Since 2013, 202 cases of fatal violence against transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been recorded by Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and other advocacy groups. Of those fatalities, 66 percent were Black transgender women.

And 2021 is already a record-setting year for legislating the bodies of transgender people. These laws include “bathroom bills” that aim to make it illegal to use a restroom that does not line up with the sex you were assigned at birth. Other legislation seeks to prevent transgender youth from participating in sports and accessing certain kinds of healthcare.

As we head into the 51st anniversary of the first Pride marches, we are reminded of the collective action still needed to secure equal rights for LGBTQIA+ individuals in the United States and around the world.

The Journey of Allyship

Many advocacy groups are leading the way — yet each of us can play a role in creating a more equitable and safe society for LGBTQIA+ people.

“Perhaps the greatest human purpose is to show up with full courage, humility, and curiosity as a fierce ally to those who are targeted by oppressive systems,” Kendell says. “LGBTQIA+ people need allies to show up and stand with us in fighting homophobia, violence, and policies that deny our humanity.”

Being an ally to underrepresented groups can effect powerful change — but it requires going beyond passive support.

True allyship doesn’t just change society: It is a process of personal transformation. When you take the time to listen, have uncomfortable conversations, and put yourself in the shoes of others, you grow as a person, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor, and community member. You become more empathetic and understand more deeply the importance of inclusivity.

In addition to attending your local Pride celebration, here are some ways to begin the eye-opening journey of allyship so you can show up and stand up for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Start by listening. Allies take the time to understand each person’s unique life experiences, even if it makes them uncomfortable and challenges their belief systems.

Become comfortable with discomfort. Feeling confused or uncomfortable doesn’t make you homophobic, biphobic, or transphobic. But take the time to work through your feelings honestly so you can reach a place of support for LGBTQIA+ people without reservation.

Understand intersectionality. There are millions of LGBTQIA+ people in the United States (and around the globe). Some are teenagers. At least 2 million are transgender or nonbinary. Some are bisexual. Many are people of color. That means there are many combinations of identities. For example, someone might be a bisexual, middle-class, Black woman living in an urban area. Someone else might be a white, transgender teenager living in a rural part of the country. Understanding these “intersections” of identity keeps us from categorizing and stigmatizing others. It provides space for them to share their story rather than letting our own biases or lack of knowledge create one for them.

Never “out” anyone. There are many reasons that LGBTQIA+ people don’t share their sexual orientation or gender identity. If someone has shared that information with you, don’t share it with others unless they permit you. Further, consider reading this resource from HRC for tips on responding when someone comes out to you. 

Create safe spaces. Find ways to bring your heterosexual and LGBTQIA+ friends and family together so that they have opportunities to share their experiences.

Diversify your media. Watch films and read books centering the lives of LGBTQIA+ people. Support LGBTQIA+ press by subscribing to newspapers, magazines, and radio stations. Buy music and art from LGBTQIA+ creators.

Use inclusive language. Don’t assume people are heterosexual or cisgender (meaning that person identifies as having a gender that corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth). Avoid using gendered language, such as “you guys” in a group, and “husband/wife,” and binary pronouns (he/she) in personal and professional conversations. Consider adding your own personal pronouns to email signatures and social-media profiles to show you will respect other people’s preferences.

Ask your workplace HR team about LGBTQIA+ inclusion policies. In some 28 states, it’s still permissible for employers to fire individuals for their sexuality.

Interrupt prejudice. Challenge jokes and disparaging comments that play on stereotypes — and avoid making them yourself.

Support access to mental-health resources for LGBTQIA+ people — particularly for teens, elders, and those who are transitioning.

Volunteer to support LGBTQIA+ youth. Statistics show a rise in homelessness and suicide among LGBTQIA+ youth who have left home and family due to rejection after coming out. Volunteer at shelters for call-in support, etc. Groups like the Trevor Project provide national resources and accept donations and volunteers.

Connect with elders through groups like SAGE, which provides advocacy and services for LGBT elders.

Join a local PFLAG chapter or visit their website. With over 400 local chapters, PFLAG (formerly known as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) connects parents, families, friends, and allies of LGBTQIA+ community members to support one another and the members of the LGBTQIA+ community members in their lives.

Activism Before Stonewall

LGBTQIA+ community members have a long history of standing up against oppression and violence.

The Stonewall Riots weren’t the first time the LGBTQIA+ fought back against police violence and oppression. The night was a culmination as well as a springboard of activism.

“I don’t necessarily think of Stonewall as the turning point,” says historian Susan Stryker, PhD, Barbara Lee Distinguished Chair in Women’s Leadership at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. “It was an important event, but it wasn’t the beginning.”

Many of these acts of resistance are undocumented. But Cooper Donuts in Los Angeles was the site of an uprising against police raids in 1959. Young transgender women of color stood up against police at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966.

In addition to clashes with the police, the fight for inclusion was waged in other ways. Inspired by nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement, a group of Philadelphia gay youth and drag queens held demonstrations and sit-ins at Dewey’s Restaurant in 1965. They were protesting the dress code that required them to wear attire that matched their gender in 1965.

The 1950s were also a time of organizing. The Mattachine Society — founded by Harry Hay in 1950 — was an early gay-rights group. In 1955, the Daughters of Bilitis became the first lesbian-rights group in the United States.

These “homophile organizations,” as they were called, sought to emphasize and elevate community, rather than the sexual aspect of identity, to address discrimination. Both groups drew the attention of local police and the FBI, who monitored their activities.

As far back as 1924, German immigrant Henry Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights. The group published the first gay-interest newsletter in the United States — Friendship and Freedom.

Heidi
Heidi Wachter

Heidi Wachter is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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