Reclaiming Pride and Remembering its Roots

By Emma Roderick


It has been 45 years since the Stonewall Rebellion. In June of 1969, some of the most marginalized LGBTQ people in New York City—homeless youth, drag queens and kings, sex workers, transgender women of color—rioted during a police raid of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. The next night, they rioted more. And again a few nights later. Soon, they had formed committees, organizations, a movement.

It is easy to forget the roots of the movement when we look at the Gay Pride Parade, happening in the same neighborhood (and in multiple sites around the country) this week. Activist, service, and faith organizations will mingle with floats and contingents from large corporations that encourage gay couples to sign up for joint checking accounts or honeymoon cruises. Stonewall was an expression of pride, yes, but it was angry. It was messy. It was violent (although most of the violence came from the police). Some activists at the time thought it had gone too far. It’s never clear what the legacy of a riot will be when it happens, which is part of why riots scare us. They don’t always have happy endings.

This Pride season comes after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling nullified the Defense of Marriage Act, which refused federal recognition to all but male-female marriages. This landmark reversal has prompted  some to say that the LGBTQ community has won our biggest victory yet. But what about those for whom marriage is not a primary concern? What about the battles being fought on other fronts—for people with HIV/AIDS, queer homeless youth, or LGBTQ workers in states with discriminatory employment laws. 

Those struggles are happening, but you’ll rarely read about them in the  mainstream media. You may see them at your local Pride parade.  Here are three to look for that don’t have corporate logos:

People living with HIV and AIDS

Twenty-five years ago, a group of people living with AIDS created the Denver Principles, a document that changed the standard of care for people with AIDS across the country and the world. This year, in recognition of the legacy of the Denver Principles and of the work still not done, members of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) unveiled the Atlanta Principles at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta. The Atlanta Principles call on the CDC to take leadership of the fight against the HIV epidemic, which has claimed 50,000 new infections per year for the past ten years despite rapid advances in prevention tools (including a “morning after” pill for HIV and a Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP which, when taken regularly, can reduce the likelihood of infection by more than 90%).

This year at Pride, ACT UP, which has experienced a resurgence following the release of two documentaries about it over the past few years, will share the Atlanta Principles and its campaign to get the CDC to adopt them. They will also take on Gilead Pharmaceuticals, which has patents on Truvada (the leading PrEP medicine) and Sovaldi, a cure for Hepatitis C. Gilead charges exorbitant prices for these medications (over $1,000 per pill for Sovaldi, or $84,000 for a course of treatment), and ACT UP is demanding that it lower the price. Years ago, when AZT was the most expensive drug on the market, ACT-UP shut down the New York Stock Exchange demanding that Boroughs-Wellcome lower the price. Just a few days after the demonstration, Boroughs-Wellcome cut the price by 20%. ACT UP hopes to repeat history.

LGTBQ youth homelessness

In Massachusetts, where I live, gay marriage has been legal since 2003. Our governor has an openly gay daughter whom he openly supports; our multiple Pride parades around the state are large and loud. But a 2011 study found that one in four openly gay or lesbian Massachusetts high school students is homeless. I cite this study whenever people talk about Massachusetts as a bastion of gay rights and understanding of sexual orientation. Certainly, Massachusetts has done several things right for its LGBTQ residents. But 25% of our LGBTQ youth are homeless! It is clear that LGBTQ rights are intrinsically connected to economic justice, to the criminalization of homeless youth, to racial oppression, and to cuts in social services.

This June in New York City, the Ali Forney Center joined with the National Coalition for the Homeless to kick off the National Campaign for Youth Shelter. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that of 500,000 homeless youth in the United States, at least 40% are LGBTQ (and the actual numbers may be much higher). The campaign is demanding that the federal government commit to ending youth homelessness and adding 22,000 shelter beds for homeless youth. That represents a five-fold increase in current services.

Sleeping on the street—which many homeless teens are forced to do when they can’t find a shelter in which they will be safe (this is particularly a problem for transgender youth)—puts youth at a higher risk for drug use and HIV infection. Despite the obvious public health benefits to housing homeless youth, most advocates have to fight each year just to maintain the few beds that already exist. This campaign breaks from the status quo by calling for an increase in needed services.

Employment discrimination

LGBTQ rights are workers’ rights. Did you know that it is still legal to fire employees for their sexual orientation in 29 states (and for their gender identity in at least 33 states)? If not, you are not alone. Some three-quarters of U.S. Americans believe that LGBTQ people should be protected from employment discrimination, and the same percentage of U.S. Americans believes that we already are.

But we aren’t, even though members of Congress have been attempting to introduce versions of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) for 40 years.  This legislation, which would protect against gender and sexual-orientation discrimination at the federal, state, and local level, has yet to see the light of day.

This year, President Barack Obama promised to sign an executive order barring sexual orientation discrimination among federal contractors. We don’t yet know the final language of the order. But we do know that latest version of ENDA legislation—the legislation we can’t even get passed—includes an extremely broad “religious exemption” that would codify into law the right of religious institutions to discriminate. This is not just about churches hiring their pastors: as currently written, the religious exemption could apply to religiously-affiliated hospitals, social service organizations, and the like.

Pride at Work, the LGBTQ constituency group of the AFL-CIO, organizes to protect the rights of LGBTQ workers in all fifty states. Until ENDA passes—and likely even after—union contracts with strong LGBTQ language are the best protection workers have against employment discrimination. Pride at Work develops leadership skills among LGBTQ members and their allies so they can advocate for this language in their contracts. It is always true that progressive laws are only as good as the people on the ground who will defend them when they are broken by people in power; in the workplace, this means that we need unions.

I want to remember Stonewall this year by actually remembering Stonewall. I wasn’t even born then, but I don’t want to lose the messiness and the anger; the sense, as Michael Fader put it, that “we’d had enough of this shit.’ I want to remember the queer youth sleeping nearby in Washington Square Park who were defending the place that had become their home and the gay men and transgender women who did not know of the  horrible disease to come, but who, when it threatened to exterminate them, fought back with the same anger and sense of righteousness.

I love going to Pride parades. I love getting dressed up in ridiculous sparkly outfits, meeting up with my fabulous queer friends and being my fabulous queer self. We are so good, I think. Our lives and our love are so good. And we are capable of so much. I’ve listed only a few of the initiatives happening around the country with marginalized LGBTQ people at the forefront—there are more. It has been 45 years since Stonewall. What can we and our allies do in the next 45?

Emma Roderick is a social justice organizer who lives in Northampton, Mass.  She received her M.S.W. this June from the University of Connecticut and completed a field placement with ACT UP.





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