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The LGBTQ civil rights fight is far from over

Marginalized people in the queer community do not feel victorious.

Trans pride
An LGBTQ march in Toronto.
SOPA Images via Getty Images

The question of who threw the first brick at police officers raiding Stonewall is a controversial one.

Some claim that it was black trans women and drag queens who took the first stand at the New York gay bar in 1969. Others say it was butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie who fought back first. I like to point out that Stonewall was the culmination of a long line of queer protests, including the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco years prior, when black and brown trans women and drag queens pushed back on anti-crossdressing laws.

Ultimately, it doesn’t truly matter who tossed the first brick; the point is that we — a diverse, inclusive group of LGBTQ folk — took collective action toward the liberation of all queer people.

With the 50th anniversary of Stonewall culminating in elaborate, corporate-sponsored Pride parades and pop anthems last month, it seems clear that we now live in a society where artists and companies are largely, openly competing for queer dollars, where acceptance for same-sex relationships has never been higher (despite a recent dip), and where an openly bisexual man has the No. 1 hit single in the country for a near-record number of weeks. Looking at it from the outside, it would appear the battle for LGBTQ rights may be over.

An article in the Atlantic by James Kirchick several weeks ago made this exact case, citing that historically high acceptance of gay and lesbian people and the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage equality. According to Kirchick, gay and lesbian people in the US need to admit that they’ve won.

“The end of gay rights does not mean the end of homophobia,” he writes. “As long as gay kids commit suicide at rates higher than their straight peers, as long as even one gay person is denied a job because of his sexual orientation, there will be a need for activism, education, and other efforts toward positive social change. But for the gay movement to persist in its current mode risks prolonging a culture war that no longer needs to be fought because one side — the gay side — has already prevailed.”

Kirchick argues that Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy for president also proves there is nothing left to fight for, and that more than half of queer people live in states that already have comprehensive nondiscrimination protections.

But that doesn’t mean the fight is over; that means it’s half-waged at best. The list of attacks on LGBTQ rights grows longer by the day, with Trump administration rolling back federal contractor nondiscrimination rules for both sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as defunding fetal tissue research, which is a vital component to the discovery of a cure for HIV/AIDS. Trump has also moved to make it easier for adoption agencies to discriminate against gay and lesbian parents. His administration’s attacks on the trans community are even more extreme, banning trans people from the military and proposing a rollback of protections for trans people in health care and homeless shelters. One of his first acts as president was terminating Obama-era Department of Education guidance encouraging schools to support the gender identities of students.

A new battle in LGBTQ rights can arise any day — and often does.

The “gay rights” fight may be over some, but not for marginalized members of the community

Often, the common perception of LGBTQ people’s lives in the US is filtered through the experiences of white, upper-middle-class, cisgender lesbian and gay people like Kirchick who live in coastal cities and happen to have access to large media platforms. Kirchick’s piece is filled with the common gripes of white, cis, gay men, citing protests of Pride parades by Black Lives Matter activists, questioning the inclusion of asexual people under the LGBTQ banner, and displaying general disregard for the needs of trans people.

I have no doubt that some cisgender gay and lesbian white people, with their local nondiscrimination protections and their ability to marry their partners, have had all their needs met by the achievements of the gay rights movement. But calls for the end of LGBTQ activism ring hollow to those of us who still hold marginalized identities within the community.

The LGBTQ flag, with the transgender flag in the background. Samuel Kubani/AFP via Getty Images

Police harassment of queer and trans people of color has shifted away from gay bars like Stonewall to public spaces, where trans women of color are frequently stopped by police just for walking down the street. An NYPD officer recently said in a deposition that he drives down the street looking for women with Adam’s apples to stop on suspicion of engaging in sex work. Under New York state law, a condom in a trans woman’s purse is sufficient evidence for arrest on prostitution charges. Cis white gay men may have achieved high enough social status to avoid police targeting over the past 50 years, but the underlying social dynamics triggering police harassment of queer people of color persists to this day.

The idea that same-sex marriage marks the end of the movement sparked by Stonewall is overly simplistic. There’s a long legacy of cis gay men and lesbians trying to split trans and other marginalized queer people from their civil rights movement.

In 1973, legendary trans and gay rights activist Sylvia Rivera was prevented from taking the stage in New York City at a gay rights rally to speak to a largely white, middle-class crowd of LGB people. Eventually, organizers relented, and she stood before the crowd clutching the microphone to jeers. What followed was a truly inspiring speech about the plight of incarcerated trans women and other LGBTQ people who were being mistreated by the prison system. By the end of her rousing speech, the crowd was roaring while she spelled out “GAY POWER!”

The sad truth is that crowd quickly forgot that speech, and trans women are still abused within the prison system. Denial of transition care, referenced in Rivera’s ’70s-era speech, persists to this day, while trans women are mainly held (and sexually assaulted) in men’s prisons even now; three trans asylum seekers have died in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At Stonewall this year, on the exact anniversary of the riots, a black trans woman grabbed the mic during a drag performance to call out the murders and police mistreatment of trans women of color. Like Rivera, she was met with jeers from a predominantly cis white crowd who threatened to call the cops to have her removed.

The policing legacy that was once met with a queer brick is alive and well. But it is now directed exclusively at those with less political power than cis, white, middle-class, gay men.

America has a history of prioritizing cis, white LGB rights

In 2007, the LGBTQ rights movement nearly imploded when House Democrats pushed for a sexual orientation-only version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill that was ostensibly designed to ban discrimination against LGBTQ people. (The Senate had already passed a trans-inclusive version of the bill, while the House needed more Republican support for passage.) Trans people were, at first, told at the time to “wait our turn” for equal rights under the law; then the political coalition backing the effort disintegrated before the House could pass the bill.

The push for marriage equality similarly prioritized the needs of mainly white, upper-middle-class, cis gay men and lesbians. Trans people, largely, would have been better served with an LGBTQ rights movement with a commitment toward state and federal nondiscrimination protections, rather than an all-out push for marriage equality. As Kirchick notes, many major LGBTQ rights organizations shut down completely after Obergefell, declaring mission accomplished. That has opened the door for a major backlash directed mainly at trans people that could end up rolling back legal rights even for LGB people. The reality is that gay rights in the US are tenuous at best.

In fact, there are still no federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people — in other words, LGBTQ people in 30 states can be fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes for their sexual orientation or gender identity. A 2017 Harvard University survey found that more than half of all LGBTQ workers faced workplace discrimination. A study that same year by the Urban Institute revealed widespread housing discrimination against same-sex couples and transgender individuals.

This could change in the fall when the Supreme Court will hear the case of Aimee Stephens, a trans woman who was fired from her job at a funeral parlor when she notified her employer of her gender transition in 2013. But the odds of her prevailing with a conservative-majority SCOTUS bench are long, according to judicial experts.

The Trump administration hasn’t backed down, either. Just last week, the administration appointed a commission to reevaluate how the federal government will determine what counts as a “human right,” prioritizing “natural law” to make the new determinations. Natural law as a legal concept often prioritizes biblical, or so-called innate, biology in determining how to set out civil rights law. Each of those appointed to Trump’s new commission is a public opponent of marriage equality, a sure sign that LGBTQ rights are in grave danger.

Those who argue that the fight for gay rights is over are frankly ignoring a history where the boundaries between gay people, drag queens, and trans people were much more blurred. For a movement born out of societal disgust over “those queers,” how can any cis gay man stand there and leave the rest of us behind once he’s gotten his?

Given the current political situation, it’s a mistake to assume that Obergefell is “settled law,” not when currently seated justices have hinted at a desire to overturn the ruling. SCOTUS will, in some ways, be center stage for the next step in the fight for LGBTQ rights. Aside from Stephens’s case about gender identity discrimination, arguments are scheduled for this fall for cases that will determine whether people can legally be fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Is it really so difficult to imagine a world where SCOTUS decisions against trans rights could be weaponized against cis gay men and lesbians as well?

Just as we did at Compton’s Cafeteria and Stonewall, we must stick together; none of us is free until we’re all free. Even then, we must remain vigilant against the encroachment on our rights. It’s a dangerous time to declare the fight for LGBTQ rights over with so many very obvious threats lurking in the background. Kirchick concludes his piece with this: “For those born into a form of adversity, sometimes the hardest thing to do is admitting that they’ve won.”

I argue that for those born into a form of adversity, the hardest thing to do is admitting that others may have it worse.

Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. She was the first openly transgender Capitol Hill reporter in US history. Her other work can be seen in the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, Vice, and many others.


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