49 Years After Stonewall, Transgender Women Still Face Harassment By Police
On the 49th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, we honor the legacy of the brave transgender women of color who led that action and the work of advocates across the country continuing the fight for change.
By Alex Roberts
On this day, 49 years ago, our modern-day LGBTQ movement began with the Stonewall riots. The Stonewall Inn, a dark and crowded bar in New York City, was a haven for all who were forced to the margins of society. Transgender and gender non-conforming folks flocked to Stonewall as a place to live freely; they would often find the doors to both straight and gay bars closed in their faces. Stonewall gave them, and the hundreds of homeless LGBTQ youth of New York City, a place to call home.
In the 1960s, LGBTQ people from across the country were heading to New York City, many with just the clothes on their backs. Some were kids who had been thrown out of their homes for their sexuality or gender identity, and others were coming for a chance to live openly in a large city. Some found a way off of the streets, but many were left to panhandle their way to $3.00 — enough for admission into Stonewall. At Stonewall you could drink, dance, and enjoy each other’s company in ways the outside never allowed — like many queer establishments across the country, a home for its patrons.
In the months before the Stonewall riots, several gay bars and clubs in Greenwich Village had been raided or closed — relations between police and LGBTQ community were hostile if they existed at all. In the early hours of June 28th, 1969, nine police officers burst through the doors of the Stonewall Inn. The police began arresting anyone not wearing at least three articles of, what they considered, “gender-appropriate” clothing. Outraged by the harassment by police and fed up with a life relegated to the streets, the partygoers fought for their home.
The charge was led by transgender women Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. In David Carter’s book, Stonewall, a witness remembers Marsha in the crowd, “just saw her in the middle of the whole thing, screaming and yelling and throwing rocks.”
Several witnesses point to the leadership of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera throughout the uprising. Sylvia is quoted as saying, “This was started by the street queens of that era, which I was part of, Marsha P. Johnson, and many others that are not here.”
For five days, the crossroads of Seventh Avenue South and Christopher Street served as a hub for LGBTQ people to speak out against the harassment they faced by police. This action, although it did not start the gay rights movement, brought forth a new era of LGBTQ activism. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera went on to found “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries” (STAR) the following year, which housed and fed LGBTQ homeless youth.
According to Sylvia, “STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at that time.” The first STAR House was opened in 1970, in a trailer truck in a New York City parking lot.
Eventually, Marsha and Sylvia were able to get a permanent home for STAR at 213 Second Avenue. The STAR House was the first LGBT youth shelter in North America and the first organization in the U.S. to be led by transgender women of color.
Though much has changed, Black transgender women still face profiling, harassment, and unnecessary arrest by police departments across the country. In our 2015 survey, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that almost one in five Black transgender women had been physically or sexually assaulted by a police officer. One in three Black transgender women said police assumed they were engaging in sex work just by being in public.
Such mistreatment is the direct result of a society that marginalizes Black people, Black cisgender women, and Black transgender women. It is an unsustainable environment for both advocates and law enforcement.
Every year, advocates are forced to count our murdered dead — disproportionately transgender women of color. Currently, advocates in Jacksonville, Florida are sounding the alarm about three transgender women slain in that city in just the last six months. In Jacksonville — like in many parts of the country — relations between the transgender community and police are strained at best, further isolating those who need help and protection.
49 years after Stonewall — a protest against police action led by brave transgender women of color like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson — we should remember how far we’ve come and how much further we still have yet to go.
Alex Roberts is a writer and recent graduate of Howard University. He’s currently an undergraduate intern with the National Center for Transgender Equality and volunteer with the Transgender Law Center.