Rights For All

We examine the historic links between the black freedom movement’s and the LGBTI+ community’s struggle for civil rights

 By Xav Judd 

The political and social movement Black Lives Matter (BLM)was set up in July 2013, following George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the fatal shooting of African American adolescent Trayvon Martin in Florida. Although the organisation started in the USA, it’s spread to over 60 countries where it protests against the various injustices and, indeed, systematic discrimination faced by black citizens. And its presence in the media has meant many sections of society have re-examined their relationship with race (and possible prejudice).
This has included the LGBTI+ community. In 2017, the city of Philadelphia added brown and black stripes to the traditional six-banded -1978 Gilbert Baker-designed- flag to highlight the issues of people of colour. This new standard has been adopted in several other parts of the nation and, indeed, worldwide. And it’s no surprise that such solidarity and support arose because historically, in the United States, the struggles for Afro-American and non-heterosexual liberties have repeatedly been linked. In fact, political groups and individuals in the queer sphere have often been inspired by those fighting for black freedom, which has extended to occasionally copying their strategies and tactics. From the mid-1960s onwards, there was a revolutionary fervour in the USA as several groups fought against the establishment, whether it was those demonstrating against the Vietnam War, or feminist, Afro-American and gay political and social movements striving for equality. In fact, they all seemed to feed off each other and in the opinion of queer theorist Susan Stryker, one example of how our community was clearly inspired by the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) involved sit-ins where protesters enter a public space or business and stay seated till removed by force or their grievances are addressed. And two instances of where the CRM utilised this tactic successfully took place in 1960: desegregation was (eventually) achieved in Greensboro’s Woolwich stores and Nashville’s downtown lunch counters respectively.
Enthused by such results, an assemblage of non-heterosexuals followed suit: on 25 April 1965, what was believed to be the first gay rights sit-in was held in a Dewey’s in Philadelphia. Before then, that branch of the hamburger restaurant chain had been a hub for LGBTI+ patrons. Nonetheless, earlier that year, they began to discriminate against anybody they considered looked non-straight. In response, in the spirit of previous CRM acts of defiance, around 150 LGBTI+ individuals sat down and refused to budge. Three teenagers who had been instrumental in coordinating the episode were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Outraged by this, the local division of the Janus Society, a homophile organisation, conducted a five-day campaign that included handing out leaflets and picketing (another technique originally employed by the CRM). And on 7 May , there was a second sit-down in Dewey’s, but no one was detained. Ultimately, shortly after these efforts, the eaterie discontinued their bigoted policy. In the early hours of 28 June, 1969, a watershed moment occurred in our struggle for rights, the Stonewall riots. The six-day string of protests kicked off inside the eponymous Greenwich Village-located inn (New York), which was a Mafia-owned gay bar. After yet another police raid, fed up of the perpetual harassment, many of the LGBTI+ patrons in the venue resisted. The initial demonstration and the resultant larger ones – they lasted until 3 July – were undoubtedly partly energised by the pervading atmosphere of radicalism. Nevertheless, according to historian Nicholas Edsall, the biggest influence on the incidents that unfolded was the CRM, directly comparing the Stonewall Uprising with “Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955”.
The riots illustrated other ways in which the black and non-heterosexual protest movements connected. It’s regularly forgotten that the Stonewall Inn had a diverse clientele that was comprised of several different ethnicities. One of the numerous Afro-Americans in the watering hole on the first night of unrest was Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992). Like many, the eloquent drag queen had been spurred on by the uprising, which, in general, triggered a new kind of activism in the queer sphere. Thus, in July 1969, she was one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). It was a group that fought for our rights, an endeavour that had much in common with the CRM’s one since they both struggled against similar opposing forces. As they largely had the same battle, LGBTI+ and African American groups would often support each other. As well as Johnson, there were other notable CRM individuals who were BAME and gay or bisexual. Maybe the most important was the Pennsylvanian-born Bayard Rustin (1912-1987). He coordinated pivotal demonstrations like Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington. At this huge rally was another key non-heterosexual advocate for black citizens’ liberties, the writer James Baldwin (1924-1987).
In the end, because they shared a few central figures and both fought for comparable goals, it was conceivably inevitable that tangible associations would develop between the LGBTI+ and Afro-American political cum social movements. Initially, it’s fair to say, non-straight individuals and organisations were so influenced by the black freedom movement that they borrowed strategies, tactics and even slogans (activist Frank Kameny modelled “Gay is Good” on “Black is Beautiful”). However, in the radical political climate of the era, eventually both minorities’ pushes for equality fed off and backed up each other. To a degree, this cooperation not only still exists but in reality has strengthened. Indeed, especially in relation to the African American queer sphere, a lot of campaigners now champion both racial and sexual rights. Perhaps this has come about as unlike BAME leaders of the past, they operate in a (Western) world where attitudes to homosexuality have softened somewhat, resulting in legalisation. This embrace of intersectionality can be found in BLM; which, when invited to Pride Toronto in June 2016, conducted a sit-in to highlight the issues of LGBTI+ people of colour. Actually, part of the organisation’s unyielding ethos is that all black lives matter regardless of sexuality or gender.

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