I know we’re past the annual installment of “Gay Pride June,” but I still keep thinking about World Pride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — the crucial trigger of the gay rights movement in America. Now that many of the rainbow flags around NYC are coming down (although, interestingly, many remain vibrantly displayed), and now that most of the estimated five million people who participated in World Pride have left town, I checked in with some friends as to how they digested it all. All work or make work in arts and culture. I wanted to understand their perspectives on celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall while existing, as they do, as Black and Brown people in 2019 America. They are: Seyi Adebanjo (multimedia artist), Edwin Ramoran (curator of visual and performance art), Chitra Ganesh (visual artist), Zavé Martohardjano (interdisciplinary performance artist and activist) and Steven G. Fullwood (public archivist). They comprise an identity spectrum: transgender, Filipino, Southeast Asian, nonbinary, African, lesbian, African American, nonconforming, Indian, gay and an array of class and educational status categories.
I ruminated over two questions during the months leading up to, and in the month after, the big celebration. Before I share the questions, I want to say that I was further inspired to ask these two questions by three facts and factors:
- NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, announcing that NYC will erect, in Greenwich Village, a permanent monument to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — the first permanent monument to trans people in the world.
- The emergence of the TV series Pose, on FX, as a major cultural phenomenon, including trans women of color on primetime TV as well as behind the scenes in producer-director Janet Mock.
- To date, at least 12 trans women of color have been killed thus far in 2019, a number that is expected to rise.
My first question is:
What does the 50th anniversary of Stonewall mean for you in terms of the ways that LGBTQ+ Black and Brown bodies are represented and celebrated?
Seyi Adebanjo: It means people continuing to fight, push and demand justice with an intersectional appropriate to liberation. It means deep cultural representation with the most marginalized celebrated, affirmed and uplifted. It means spending money to house, feed and clothe homeless Queer/Trans/GNC/LGBTQ youth and adults. It means instead of spending millions on monuments, spending money to create sustainable employment, housing, education and safe spaces for people in Queer/Trans/GNC/LGBTQ communities.
Edwin Ramoran: This anniversary serves a historical purpose, on the surface, to remind us of how we have communally commemorated the decades since the Stonewall uprising. We understand now it was definitely culturally specific, as well as culturally diverse.
Chitra Ganesh: The 50th anniversary of Stonewall has a complex set of associations and effects for me. On the one hand, I am so glad that figures who I’d heard of primarily as anecdotes from older, more seasoned activists are now becoming widely known, referenced and honored for their work, commitment and sacrifice. The reclamation of figures such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson are an index to the state of our movement(s) in two fairly divergent ways. The concept that low-income queer and trans women of color are recast to occupy a central role in the movement is an important gesture in that it highlights their labor and courage, and their sheer force of will and generosity in the face of brutal discrimination.
Zavé Martohardjano: I worry that marketing for World Pride and the Stonewall anniversary overshadowed an important celebration of the tireless street activism by trans people of color that paved the way for recognition of LGBTQ human rights. There’s a long history of tokenization of trans women of color, just as there is for other women of color.
Steven G. Fullwood: Representation isn’t freedom, and people often conflate these two things. Black and Latino LGBTQ people continue to be harassed, assaulted and murdered by the police. We shouldn’t be distracted by the long-overdue attention that our pioneers are finally receiving from the mainstream; it doesn’t relieve us of responsibility to recognize and fight transphobia, injustice, racism and homophobia. In many ways, we should be suspect of the attention. The commodification or “celebration” of Black and Latino (model) bodies are often used to camouflage or obscure real Black and Latino bodies, particularly those of working-class and poor people.
My second question is:
Going forward, how can Black and Brown bodies be honored and celebrated while we’re still alive?
SA: By saying our names while we are alive. By creating shows, media and community spaces for living Queer/Trans/GNC/LGBTQ, especially folks of color. By transforming the framework to center the living. By providing or creating space where we can talk to each other, share stories, provide gentle touch and affirmations for the living.
ER: Our collective progress cannot be based on white supremacy. Liberation for our LGBTQ communities must have a stronger connection to protecting our Black and Brown brothers and sisters on all fronts, including ongoing and institutionalized racism, sexual and gender oppression, and class warfare. As LGBTQ people of color, we have to do much work daily to prioritize our Black and Brown bodies, to uplift ourselves and our families and under-recognized, underrepresented, under-served communities. We need to honor our present bodies by honoring our ancestors, and also continue to celebrate everyday members of our communities. And next we need to celebrate the contributions of Stormé DeLarverie in a future monument.
CG: I look forward to working towards a movement and a NYC ethos where the impulses for monuments and large architectural cultural spaces gain more of an equal ground with the dire needs of queer homeless youth; where mental health issues, such as suicide and depression, and basic issues of access to housing and water, are foregrounded. What would Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera think of NYC’s decision to spend money to establish a permanent monument to their likeness as money for homeless youth seems to be disappearing?
ZM: A true celebration of queer and trans people of color would be us waking up every day knowing we can afford to stay in the cities we grew up in and not bracing ourselves to be displaced by gentrification. It would be cities across the world creating affordable housing, access to fresh food, and trauma-informed wellness programs specifically for queer and trans Black and indigenous folks and people of color. A true celebration would be getting real power at the table to get what we need, and to demand real accountability about the violence we face. There’s a lot of dishonor in how so many of us are asked, again and again, to be tokens or ambassadors, to only have a momentary chance to represent ourselves and experiences — to be an image, a silent icon, but not be given real space to demand and vent and dialogue.
SGF: The mainstream is fickle and unreliable. Corporations cannot be counted upon to acknowledge the countless contributions of Black and Latino LGBTQ people to local, state, national and international culture and history. The most valuable thing we can do for each other as Black and Latino LGBTQ people is to honor and celebrate ourselves.
These voices from the NYC arts and culture community remind us that notions of Pride, 50 years later, are complex for those whose identities still exist on the social margins. While there have been great strides in the movement, there is much more work to be done to truly honor and value the lives of LGBTQ Black and Brown people. We must continue to ensure, for example, that corporate Pride sponsors remain accountable to our communities in the years to come. It means financial resources must be earmarked so that LGBTQ youth have secure housing, food and access to healthcare. It means that while we can take a moment to cheer, shout for joy and take pride in seeing ourselves in a positive light in today’s media, we must remain vigilant and ensure that our trans women of color are safe, accounted for and thriving.
Ultimately, it means that June is not the only month in which we have these conversations.