Pride was born in resistance to state violence and it is our responsibility to continue that legacy.
We’re out on the streets of Denver celebrating Pride, which takes place every year in June to commemorate the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots and the beginning of today’s movement for LGBTQ equality and liberation. The riots and the movement that followed were a direct response to police raids and ongoing harassment. Law enforcement targeted queer and trans people, arresting and assaulting them because they were different, they were vulnerable, and they were easy targets. LGBTQ people, marginalized by society, had no protection from oppression and violence, and no one outside the community cared much about their struggle until they finally couldn’t take it anymore and fought back.
A few days ago, a jury ruled that Jeronimo Yanez, the Minnesota police officer who shot Philando Castile as his partner live-streamed the murder on Facebook, was not guilty of a crime. Apparently the law allows the on-camera execution of a compliant, law-abiding Black man for no other reason than his existence made the police officer feel afraid. The poet Claudia Rankine wrote, “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, Black men are dying.”
We have seen time and time again that a jury will find a police officer innocent of wrongdoing in taking a human life as long as the officer claims to have been afraid – whether or not the fear was in any way justified. The law exonerates murderers while condemning their victims for frightening them. This is not the law being misinterpreted or misapplied. This is the law itself being violent and unjust.
In 1969, it was unjust laws that allowed police to harass, arrest, imprison, and assault LGBTQ people for wearing the wrong gender of clothing or expressing the wrong kind of affection. We should never lose sight of the fact that the oppression they suffered was completely legal, was entirely state-sanctioned, and their resistance was illegal. That they marched for pride when their very existence was a crime.
The movement for LGBTQ liberation was built on the resistance and the labor of queer and transgender women of color, women like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. They suffered the most, risked the most, and when we look at where we are today, it’s clear that they gained the least.
Transgender women are still murdered at a rate more than four times that of cis women, and the vast majority of those lives lost are women of color. Most of their murders will never be solved. In fact, we know that when trans women of color report violence or harassment to the police, more than half of them find themselves being re-victimized by police mistreatment and harassment. Often, instead of being helped, they wind up arrested themselves. Trans women of color are at disproportionate risk of criminalization, as we remember when we look at the case of Arizona State University student Monica Jones, who was arrested for “intent to engage in prostitution” for simply walking outside while being black and transgender.
Let this remind us that we cannot rely on the police and the prison industrial complex to liberate our community. Pride was born in resistance to state violence and it is our responsibility to continue that legacy.
This year, in Colorado, sexual orientation and gender identity were added to the state harassment statute, making it a crime to target LGBTQ people for mistreatment. This was widely hailed as a victory for LGBTQ rights, ignoring the fact that as with all criminal statutes, it will without a doubt be disproportionately used against men and women of color. This statute will lead to increased police interactions for those communities already at the most risk, while doing nothing to address the less overt but equally violent oppression perpetrated by the wealthy and powerful. Note that the same Republican controlled Senate that passed the harassment statute killed bills that would have banned conversion therapy, made it easier for trans people to update their birth certificates, and established a Homeless Bill of Rights—all measures that would have had a much larger positive impact on the LGBTQ community. We need legislation that affirms our rights and our identities, not merely provides more excuses for the criminal justice system to extract money and labor from those who can’t afford legal defense.
Increased policing is not the path to LGBTQ liberation. The fact that some of us, the white middle-class queer people like me, can walk down the street today without fear of police harassment does not prove that the violence and degradation of our criminal justice system has materially changed. Only our position within it has altered. To the extent that we embrace the same system that used to abuse us, we are now in the position of propping up and condoning its continued abuse toward poor communities and communities of color.
I want us all to remember that it is easy to recognize injustice in the past, once it has been defeated. It’s easy to believe we would have fought back then for the rights we now take for granted. It’s much harder to look at what’s happening now, what we are so used to, what so few are willing to speak up against, and declare that it is wrong. It is hard to fight against the violent policing and criminalization that are embedded in the very foundation of our society, but true liberation demands it. True liberation demands we not only celebrate the battles we have already won, but take on those we’re not sure we can ever win.
Like many of you, I like to imagine that I would have fought alongside Marsha and Sylvia and their community if I had been alive in 1969. But it’s easy to cast ourselves in the role that history has deemed heroic. If we are truly committed to freedom, safety, and dignity for all people—and we’d fucking better be, because they didn’t risk their lives so we could wear rainbow crop tops at a festival sponsored by Coors Light—then we must fight now, when the outcome is far from certain.
Pride is about resistance, and the time to resist is now.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).