Queers have long been doing battle with the police. What is now called Pride commemorates a spontaneous insurrection at the Stonewall Inn against police persecution, repression and violence. Today, acts of collective refusal against police violence and in affirmation of Black life are taking place all over this country and the world. These struggles have always been linked, not just because Black gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have long straddled both movements, but because these movements recognize that the right to freely inhabit public spaces and public institutions has never been equally granted.
That fateful night on June 28, 1969, when the police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City, Black queens and sissy boys, Puerto Rican butches and white street hustlers all banded together and fought back, refusing to obey the orders of the police to submit quietly to their own subjugation. Instead of waving rainbow flags with corporate logos and tossing carnival beads, folks were burning trash cans and throwing bricks through storefront windows; sometimes that’s what rebellion looks like.
Today, we remember two veterans of that revolt: Marsha P. Johnson, a Black self-defined drag queen, and her Latina BFF, Sylvia Rivera. The uprising at Stonewall resulted in the formation of the Gay Liberation Front, the multicultural, multiracial, multigendered activist group of which Johnson was a founding member. The very name of that early queer rights organization shouted out its sense of solidarity with anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles happening around the world, echoing UC Berkeley’s own Third World Liberation Front, the student activist group responsible for establishing the ethnic studies department on campus — a department I am proud to chair.
Then, like now, more “moderate” members of the nascent movement for lesbian and gay rights worried about being associated with these Black and Brown hustlers and drag queens. Many preferred to project a more sanitized vision of gay life that lined up with white middle-class aspirations. Johnson and Rivera were sex workers. They had both known homelessness and addiction, and their political and social allegiances had always been rooted in the racial and classed realities of street life. Later, when they started their own organization to support homeless teens, they gave it a name with a little more sparkle and a sharper focus on those most impacted by police harassment: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
Even as we celebrate the Stonewall Uprising, let’s remember that it was not the first time that queers had fought back against the abuses of the police. In 1959, the Los Angeles police entered Cooper Do-nuts ready to practice their rehearsed tactics of harassment and abuse against the establishment’s mostly transgender, mostly nonwhite patrons. Cooper’s, sandwiched between two gay bars on Main Street in downtown LA, was a favorite after-hours hangout for queer club-goers, sex workers, street hustlers and their patrons. That night, when police stopped and arrested two drag queens and a young Chicano street hustler named John Rechy (who would write about this scene in his 1963 novel “City of Night”), the club kids and drag queens fought back, surrounding the police car, lobbing coffee cups, donuts and anything else until the cops were forced to retreat.
When the police returned with reinforcements, the protesters did not back down. The riot that ensued lasted all day and into the next night. A few years later in 1966, closer to home in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, a similar scene arose at Compton’s Cafeteria. Once again it was transgender women, many of whom were also sex workers and women of color, who led the revolt and fought back to make a public claim for their right to occupy the space of the public, to move in the world free from threats of state intimidation and violence.
Today homosexuality is no longer illegal, but consensual adult sex work continues to be criminalized and is still used as an excuse to stop, harass and jail transgender women and other queers, particularly those who are Black and Latinx. Although the Supreme Court recently ruled that employment discrimination against LGBTQ+ populations is illegal, U.S. prisons and detention centers routinely enact unspeakable harms against transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
The function of the police has always been rooted in maintaining social control. In this country, that has always meant the control of Black, Brown and Indigenous bodies and has always been about enforcing social and sexual norms dictated by the interests of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy.
In 1969, the world was on fire with liberation movements that demanded an end to tyranny and injustice, that demanded respect and meaningful representation. Diverse people stood up and recognized their collective power to fight back and reclaim their rights to live free of fear, intimidation and violence.
In 1969, Rivera was only 18 years old. Johnson, already a veteran activist, was 24. Then, like today, movements against state injustice and cruelty were and are led by courageous young Black and Brown people who refuse the gendered politics of respectability and the false promise of racial assimilation into a society founded on slavery and settler colonialism.
Today, activists are drawing connections between state-enacted crimes against Black people and the right to bodily autonomy, between the racial and gendered logics of mass incarceration and the cruelty of immigrant detention, between the ongoing occupation of Indigenous land and the ongoing police presence in our communities, between the capitalist greed of the few and the homelessness, disease and precarity of the many.
There can be no queer pride without queer protest. This June 28, celebrate queer pride; work to abolish the police.
Juana María Rodríguez, Ph.D., is a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley specializing in the intersection of racial and sexual politics.