As Pride Month arrives, advocates want to shine a light on the central role Black Americans have had in the fight for LGBTQ rights.
From the beginning of the Pride movement through the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Black activists have played pivotal roles.
And with the LGBTQ community under attack from new state laws, advocates want to bring attention to the devastating effects of the limits and the erasure of LGBTQ history on youths.
The first Pride Month was in 1970 in New York in response to the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. Those protests, along with the subsequent Pride Month celebrations, were the work of Black Americans, said Marlon M. Bailey, a Black queer theorist who studies Black LGBTQ cultural formations, sexual health and HIV/AIDS prevention.
“We have to do digging to see that actually, there were Black and Latinx LGBTQ people who were at the center of those rebellions,” Bailey told The Hill. “But a lot of … telling of LGBT rights and progress toward liberation is constantly being told as a white queer narrative, as opposed to a Black and brown and Indigenous narrative that is more accurate to what contributions that Black LGBTQ people have played.”
Bailey points to the Black activists who sounded the alarm on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. It was these communities, Bailey said, that were suffering the most from the epidemic — and subsequently began to take action on educating others on the topic.
“During the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Black folks were really really catching hell with HIV and AIDS, and the prevention models were really targeting white gay men and the focus was really white gay populations,” explained Bailey. “People like Essex Hemphill and Assotto Saint, Joe Beam, Melvin Dixon, Audre Lorde were doing a lot of activism around HIV prevention and really sounding the alarm around the way that Black gay men … our experiences were not being captured.”
But even before then, Black activists were leading the charge against prejudicial policies targeting queer communities.
Meet Marsha P. Johnson
One of the most well-known Black queer activists is Marsha P. Johnson. Over the past few years, her story has started to become more mainstream through documentaries. But Pride Month would never have happened without Johnson, who helped lead the Stonewall Rebellion, said David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition.
“The Stonewall Rebellion is something that is often erased, but there would not be a Pride Month recognition, there would not be Pride marches, there would not be a Pride movement and there might not even be the LGBTQ movement as we know it, if it were not for Marsha P. Johnson,” said Johns.
Johnson was born on Aug. 24, 1945, the fifth of seven children born to Malcolm Michaels Sr. and Alberta Claiborne.
Johnson began wearing dresses at age 5. But after she was bullied and sexually assaulted at the hands of a 13-year-old boy, she stopped.
It wasn’t until after she graduated from high school and moved to New York City that Johnson adopted her full name: Marsha ‘Pay it no mind’ Johnson.
“She lived in New York City at a time when policies were designed to terrorize us,” Johns told The Hill. “It was legal for shop owners to discriminate against people who they believed were homosexual. There were rules governing the pants that women were expected or not expected to wear. And so this meant that people seeking safe space would often congregate in particular places which expose them to additional violence when the police would raid places like the Stonewall Inn.”
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The Stonewall Inn was a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village. Like many gay bars at the time, it was subject to police raids. But in this particular instance, Johns said, when police were attempting to raid the bar, Johnson helped lead a week of resistance — known today as the Stonewall Resistance.
Then, Johnson and friend Sylvia Rivera started the Street Transvestite Activist Revolutionaries, an organization that was early in the LGBTQ movement in centering on the rights of children, LGBTQ children.
“The work of Marsha and Sylvia continues to be important when we think about the targeting of trans folks and the disproportionate impact that legislation and legal and social efforts to commit genocide against trans folks have on Black trans women and girls in particular,” said Johns.
Over the past few years, a spate of anti-LGBTQ laws has spread throughout Republican states. In 2022, about 315 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures around the nation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. This year, 474 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced, according to the ACLU.
Just more than half of these bills specifically target transgender people. Some bills limit access to gender-affirming health care, despite most major medical organizations saying these services are medically necessary and often life-saving. Other bills ban transgender athletes from participating in school sports or using bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
Many of these bills also focus on school curriculum, limiting discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms, such as Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Law, which critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
But Imara Jones, a Black trans woman and leading expert on trans rights and anti-trans extremism, said this is why celebrating Pride Month and the history of Black queer advocates’ contributions is so important.
“Pride month gives LGBTQ+ hope and is a reminder that the fight for equality is never ending. That’s why it’s so important to keep using our voices and to shine a light on the Christian Nationalists, who are steamrolling their agenda to remove LGBTQ+ people from public life,” Jones said in a statement to The Hill.
“None of us would be celebrating pride without the leadership of Black transgender women and queer people of color overall,” she added. “In the face of adversity, Pride Month stands as a powerful symbol of resilience, reminding us that our lives are worth forth; especially against the backdrop of this inspirational legacy.”
Black LGBTQ youths at risk
But even as advocates honor revolutionaries like Johnson, they’re calling attention to the effects the erasure of LGBTQ history has on Black youths.
A staggering 25 percent of Black transgender and nonbinary youth attempted suicide last year, double the rate of their Black cisgender peers, according to a report by the Trevor Project.
Black transgender and nonbinary youth are also more likely to report experiencing higher rates of victimization, including discrimination, threats of violence, physical attacks and attempts from others to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Violence has gone up quite a bit in terms of folks committing all sorts of different crimes against LGBTQ people,” said Leslie Hall, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities program. “We’ve seen this kind of spillover into drag shows now.”
A 2021 report by the Center for American Progress found that 33 percent of Black LGBTQ Americans had faced discrimination in the last year, leading to 1 in 3 avoiding public spaces such as stores or restaurants to avoid experiencing discrimination and one in five avoiding travel.
“It’s necessary to help educate the population particularly now, in the midst of all of this anti-Black, anti-queer legislation and the discourse that’s out there to really eradicate and misrecognize and disrecognize our communities,” said Bailey.
“There’s a need for June. There’s a need for February,” he added, referring to Black History Month. “There’s a need for these months to actually recognize our people and our struggles and also model and charter the course of ongoing struggles for our liberation.”