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Pride began as a riot: How the LGBTQ community is reflecting on a new civil rights movement

a rainbow chalk covered sidewalk
Jasmin Sessler
Amid the pandemic and widespread social unrest, this year's Pride celebrations have taken on a more serious tone.

Like most things during this pandemic, Pride Month is looking a little different this year. Many of the normal gatherings and celebrations have been cancelled. Meanwhile, protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd continue to spread across the nation. Amid the unrest and uncertainty, some activists see this Pride Month as particularly poignant. Stateside spoke with Erin Knott, executive director at Equality Michigan, and Selma Tucker with Public Sector Consultants in Lansing about the connections between the fight for LGBTQ rights and the fight for racial justice. 

The first Pride was a riot

The Stonewall Riots in late June of 1969 sparked a new beginning in the fight for gay rights. A police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York, erupted into a riot when the patrons fought back. This event is often celebrated as laying the groundwork for the Pride celebrations and marches we know today.

Knott said that the current protests against police brutality feel deeply connected to the outrage at Stonewall. One of the most notable figures of that night, and the subsequent movement for LGBTQ rights, was Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman. While many Pride celebrations today are marked with parades and rainbow flags, Knott said it's important to remember that the origins are far more solemn.

“The LGBTQ civil rights movement was born when black and brown trans women had had enough of police raids and brutality,” she said. “These acts of resistance, riots, and rebellion were in direct response to the anger boiling over against a system that devalued and erased LGBTQ lives.”

On current protests borrowing from past movements

In the same way that the movement for LGBTQ rights drew on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, there are lessons from the fight for LGBTQ rights that are applicable to today's fight for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. For example, he said, broader acceptance for gay marriage and other LGBTQ rights came after their families and communities began to embrace them. 

“It took people waking up and seeing the injustices that were happening at a macro level across the country, but also the injustices that were happening inside of their home,” Tucker said. “In order to find equality for our brothers and sisters of color, it is an individual and personal discussion and reflection we are going to have to have with ourselves, as well as policy changes at the state, federal, and local level.”

What does Pride look like during a pandemic?

Pride usually means big parades and rainbow-colored swag, but the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed that. Many of the events have gone virtual, and Knott said her group has turned their focus to educating the public about LGBTQ history and issues.

“As you’re well aware in Michigan, you can still be fired or denied housing or service because of who you are and who you love,” Knott said. “So while we’re not out on the streets and in parks across the state of Michigan, there’s plenty of opportunity to be doing the work and to continue to do movement building and building power at the local level.”

Juneteenth is another celebration coming up this month. June 19 celebrates the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared enslaved black Americans free. To Tucker, a black gay man, these two celebrations occurring in the same month is especially poignant.

“I think it’s beautiful that they’re both in the exact same month, and it really speaks to the heart of this conversation where black issues and LGBT issues are overlapping, and they can use each other as leverage points to make progress because we both want the exact same thing.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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