This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Gay Pride celebrations in 1970, one year after the riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, NY. What a momentous year for the incredible demonstrations occurring around the world to protest the oppression and killing of Black people. Today is a fascinating echo of the events from late June 1969, in which a Black trans woman, Marsha P. Johnson, and a Latinx drag queen, Sylvia Rivera, stood up for the rights of gay and trans people.

A Brief History of the Stonewall Riots

A woman feels grateful for the work done by trans women of color

Photo by Ronê Ferreira from Pexels

In 1969, being gay, lesbian, or a “transvestite” (the term “transgender” wasn’t coined until 1971) was largely considered illegal and the police regularly sought to entrap, arrest, and beat people for these “crimes.” The police conducted raids of known and suspected hang-outs where the LGBT community congregated. The Stonewall Inn was one such place where it was relatively safe to openly display same-sex affection and gender nonconforming behavior. The bar was owned and run by the Mafia, who usually paid off the police to keep them from raiding their establishment. But at some point, the pay-offs ceased and the police decided to raid without warning.

A spontaneous resistance to this police brutality rose up and turned into a riot that injured several people and resulted in the destruction of much of the bar. Protestors returned and rioted for another five nights, demanding their rights. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were among those leading these protests and later founded and participated in several gay rights organizations, including the Gay Liberation Front and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). They dedicated themselves to activism supporting LGBT youth and community in Lower Manhattan, founding STAR House and supporting it via sex work. Although it was short-lived, STAR House made an impact and inspired others to create their own projects. 

Black Trans Women Keep Being Murdered

In 1992, Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River. Although police initially ruled her death a suicide, there is evidence she may have been murdered.

Black trans women are still being murdered today. This year alone, the killing of 14 black trans women have been reported in the U.S. (and many more may have gone unreported). Two of those murders happened just a couple weeks ago, during Pride month and the Black Lives Matter protests. Their names are Riah Milton in Liberty Township, Ohio, and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells in Philadelphia.

We Enjoy Pride Because of a Black Trans Woman

It’s important for us all to acknowledge that Pride month and the rights enjoyed by the LGBTQIA community today originated, at least in part, with the efforts and sacrifices of Black trans women who were tired of discriminatory and hateful treatment by police and society. Within one year of those original riots, the first Pride parade marched defiantly down New York streets. It took another 45 years for gay marriage to become legalized, though today the LGBTQIA community enjoys widespread (though certainly not universal) acceptance. Nonetheless, Black members of the LGBTQIA community, especially Black trans women, are still fighting for acceptance and struggling to feel like their lives matter. 

As advocates for sexual health, wellness, and pleasure, and believers in the idea that sexual rights are human rights, we are called to promote #BlackTransLivesMatter, #BlackSexLivesMatter, #BlackBodilyAutonomyMatters, #BlackPleasureMatters, and #BlackGenderIdentityMatters as part of our support of the #BLM movement. 

How You Can Help

A trans woman reflects on the Stonewall Riots

Photo by Dean Shim from Pexels

Consider making a contribution to any of these agencies and organizations to show your support and enable them to continue the important work they do:

  • The Marsha P. Johnson Institute is dedicated to protecting and defending the human rights of Black transgender people. They do this by organizing, advocating, creating an intentional community to heal, developing transformative leadership, and promoting their collective power. 
  • House of GG creates safe spaces for members of the Black trans community to heal – “physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually” – from generations of transphobia, racism, sexism, poverty, ableism and violence.
  • Brave Space Alliance is the first Black and trans-led LGBTQ+ centre in the South Side of Chicago, who are dedicated to creating resources and services for LGBTQ+ individuals on the South and West sides of the city.
  • Black Transmen Inc is a non-profit organization whose focus is to empower Black trans men by addressing issues related to the intersection of racial, sexual orientation and gender identities. 

Happy Pride!