50 years after Stonewall, what does Pride mean today?

Written by Serena Daniari

Serena Daniari is a writer, journalist, producer and transgender activist who has worked with GLSEN, GLAAD, and the Transgender Law Center. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

Wandering the streets of New York City this June, I found myself moving through a rainbow wonderland. From store fronts and banks to iconic landmarks like the Empire State Building, the city has been transformed into a multi-colored display of LGBTQ support and allyship.

It's incredible how much things have changed. After all, 2019 marks just 50 years since queer folks fought back against police persecution at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, sparking the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Back then, legal and social protections LGBTQ people have today, like marriage equality and employment security -- let alone widespread celebrations like Pride -- would have been inconceivable.
How the Stonewall riots inspired today's Pride celebrations

How the Stonewall riots inspired today's Pride celebrations

However, while Pride engenders a spirit of progress, inclusion and self-acceptance, our community cannot afford to be complacent.

The LGBTQ community is not a monolith, and our views regarding Pride are as nuanced and diverse as we are. But as a young transgender woman, I can't separate the celebratory aspects of Pride from its complicated, painful history, rooted in the violent abuse of my transcestors. After all, the precursor to the modern Pride parade -- the Christopher Street Liberation Day march, held on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots -- was not born out of a desire to celebrate. It was an organized demonstration against political, social and economic marginalization and violence.

People attend the New York City Pride March on Sunday, June 30.

People attend the New York City Pride March on Sunday, June 30. Credit: Amy Lombard for CNN

For many of us, these threats are still prevalent. So far, at least 11 black trans women have been killed in the US this year, and in May, the administration announced plans to roll back trans healthcare protections. In the face of these continuing injustices, Pride should stand as an important reminder that the homophobic and transphobic sentiments of the past continue to trickle into our lives.

Re-writing history
The reality is that the LGBTQ rights movement has been spearheaded by black and Latina trans women, including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major, who were on the front line at the Stonewall riots. But their stories have frequently been erased, with cisgender gay white men positioned as the faces of the movement instead. (Notably, the 2015 film "Stonewall" was panned by LGBTQ activists who claimed it minimized the participation of black and Latino trans people from the riots.)
Demonstration at City Hall, New York in 1973. From left: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Jane Vercaine, Barbara Deming, Kady Vandeurs, Carol Grosberg, and others.

Demonstration at City Hall, New York in 1973. From left: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Jane Vercaine, Barbara Deming, Kady Vandeurs, Carol Grosberg, and others. Credit: Courtesy New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

And to this day, trans people are frequently left alone in the fight for access to medical care and adequate protection from violence, and are even excluded from the very queer spaces the trans women before fought so hard to cultivate and protect.

Marsha P. Johnson: A central figure in the gay liberation movement

Marsha P. Johnson: A central figure in the gay liberation movement

"Pride is not inclusive," said Eva Reign, digital manager at the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, a community organization that advocates for black transgender people. "Trans people don't feel welcomed at mainstream pride events. Trans women of color created it, so we should be the first ones marching and calling the shots."

A parade goer holds a sign that says,

A parade goer holds a sign that says, "Support all your sisters, not just your cis-ters." Credit: Amy Lombard for CNN

This erasure of people of color specifically was highlighted in 2017, when Philadelphia added black and brown stripes to its Pride flag in an attempt to more explicitly include LGBT people of color. This flag was subsequently met with intense controversy, particularly by white gay men who vehemently opposed adding new colors to the rainbow symbol. This firestorm embodies a pervasive conflict in Pride discourse.
People cheer as they watch the parade, which took place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

People cheer as they watch the parade, which took place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Credit: Amy Lombard for CNN

However, now, more than ever, young queer folks are using Pride as a vehicle to center the most marginalized members of our community. In an interview with Paper Magazine, 33-year-old queer singer Janelle Monae expressed the importance of supporting queer and trans people of color in social justice activism; and earlier this year, Philip Picardi, Out magazine's 27-year-old editor-in-chief, brought on black trans activist Raquel Willis as the publication's executive editor -- the magazine's first trans editor since its founding in 1992.
Striking photos of transgender life in New York's most famous LGBT neighborhood

Striking photos of transgender life in New York's most famous LGBT neighborhood

"I think the younger generation of queers are more conscious of how LGBTQ identities intersect with other forms of prejudice, like racism, ableism, misogyny and classism," said Peter Meleo, a 21-year-old student activist at Arizona State University. "I'm gay, but I'm also cis and white. That affords me many privileges that my trans sisters of color don't have. When I create Pride meet-ups, I'm always thinking about ways to involve trans people and intersex people. They deserve to experience pride in who they are too. If our symbol is rainbow, our movement should represent every color and every hue."

Pride 2019: A history of the rainbow flag

There is no denying that there's still work to do in terms of including trans folks and people of color into the Pride dialogue in meaningful and substantive ways. But despite its shortcomings, Pride is undeniably a beacon of hope.

Street art is seen at a stop sign during Pride in New York.

Street art is seen at a stop sign during Pride in New York. Credit: Amy Lombard for CNN

The unfortunate reality is that like many, I experience transphobia frequently when navigating public spaces. I've been laughed at, misgendered and assaulted. But during Pride month, when the city is painted rainbow, I definitely feel safer and more accepted. The slogans and displays feel like a protective cloak, letting LGBTQ people know that for one month, people are on our side. For one month, being homophobic or transphobic is strictly forbidden.

"As trans people, we're taught to be ashamed of our past and even ashamed of our present," Reign said. "As each generation becomes more visible and more accepting, we're able to disband those structures in our lives that reinforce our shame. As young trans people, Pride is about finding the tools to throw all of that away, but (also) to remember who first gave us that strength."

To me, Pride isn't just a party. It's a symbol of what's possible: the ability to witness fully realized LGBTQ equality in my lifetime.

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