Remembering Stonewall—Celebrating Pride Month in COVID-19

Amidst Riots, Protests, and Legislation

Remembering Stonewall—Celebrating Pride Month in COVID-19

Amidst protests decrying police brutality facing Black Americans and new Albertan legislation that may be affecting the very right to protest, we enter Pride month, a celebration of queer rights, whose origins can be traced back to a riot.

Despite the cancellation of this year’s Pride parades because of the pandemic, June remains a joyful, albeit somber, occasion for many in the LGBTQ+ community worldwide.  As the community readies itself to celebrate in a modified fashion, it should be  remembered that a great deal of these rights came at a high cost.  Many of the rights enjoyed today have roots in New York City’s Stonewall Riots, which began as a reaction to police brutality, particularly against the Black trans community.

During this Pride season, we acknowledge that many of these hard-earned rights are not universal, and do not apply to all members of the community.  In recent years, the queer community has faced the rise of ultra-conservative governments worldwide, which have coincided with a rise in homophobia and transphobia, including cities proclaiming themselves “LGBTQ-free zones.”

In Alberta, current struggles included the recently voted down Bill 207, which would have proved especially detrimental for the trans community, as well as the passage of the controversial Bill 8, rolling back certain parts of Bill 24, which had supported Gay-Straight alliances in schools.  Each Pride month also sees an upswing in misinformation, often used to discredit and further demonize the community.  Despite progress, violence against the queer community continues to this day.

The first step to social change is to acknowledge the reality of social privilege, as well as listening to, learning from, and supporting marginalized communities themselves, as well as heeding the lessons of history.  For example, although activists had been struggling for decades, Stonewall remains a pivotal moment in queer history.  The Stonewall Riots began June 28, 1969 in New York City’s Greenwich Village after the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay pub.  During this time “the solicitation of homosexual relations” was illegal in NYC (and much of the world), and while bars often offered the community relative safety, the community faced relentless police harassment and social discrimination.  The subsequent six days of rioting were a catalyst for the queer rights movement in the United States and the world.  Amidst the chaos, the stories of various women of colour including, Stormé DeLarverie, Marsha P. Johnson, and Silvia Rivera fighting back against police brutality have emerged.

Stonewall can be seen in the context of the civil rights movement, with a great deal of overlap between those struggling for Black rights, women’s rights, as well as those struggling for queer rights.  Rights groups, such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) flourished in the years following Stonewall.  Black trans rights activist Marsha P. Johnson, along with Latinx trans rights activist Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) for trans women of colour, as well as homeless drag queens, the first of its kind in the United States.  It is important to note that both women self-identified as drag queens.  Over the years, activists founded other rights organizations, such as PFLAG (formerly Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and GLAAD (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation) and which expanded upon the work of prior organizations such as The Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society, which strove for lesbian and gay rights, respectively.

One year after the riot, the commemorative Christopher Street Liberation Day is now remembered as the first Pride parade.  The struggle for queer rights continued well into the 1980s with the AIDS crisis, and the 1990s with increasing rights achieved worldwide, including legalized queer marriage in certain countries in the 2000s.  In particular, Canada formally legalized queer marriage with 2005’s Civil Marriage Act.

Canada’s queer history has been fraught with struggle and protest, with rights achieved through the dedication of many individuals and well as organizations.  Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop, the first Canadian and oldest surviving LGBTQ bookstore in the world, found itself at the centre of many struggles throughout the years, including censorship.  Canada decriminalized homosexuality in 1969, and removed homosexuality as a cause for inadmissibility under the Immigration Act in 1978.  In 1981, over 300 queer men were arrested in raids in Toronto’s bathhouses, leading to protests in what has been dubbed “Canada’s Stonewall.”  Canada added “sexual orientation” the Human Rights Act in 1996, while this year’s Bill C-8 banned conversion therapy.

The historical record is filled with countless other examples of the importance of protest in achieving rights for those marginalized in society.  One example includes the labour moment’s Haymarket Affair, which began as a way to secure an eight-hour workday and ended in police brutality.  Despite this, Alberta is currently facing a bill many say are against these very types of movements.  On May 28, 2020, Alberta’s controversial Bill 1 – the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, passed its third reading in legislature.  This Bill was originally introduced in February by Premier Kenney after Canada-wide protests along rail lines, commuter train routes, and roads, in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en protesters opposing northern BC’s Coastal Gas Link pipeline.

Bill 1 “allows hefty penalties against any person or company found to have blocked, damaged or entered without reason any ‘essential infrastructure.’ ”  This infrastructure includes highways, rail lines, pipelines, electrical lines, oil sites, telecommunication equipment and more.  Individuals found guilty can face up to $25,000 CAD in fines or up to six months in jail, while corporations can be fined up to $200,000 CAD.  To proponents, this Bill represents the enforcement of law and the protection of citizens and the economy from harm, while for others the Bill represents further destruction of Indigenous ways of life.

In an interview with CBC, community organizers, such as Alison McIntosh, from Climate Justice Edmonton, believe that this may affect grassroots protests in Alberta, while Alberta’s Liberal Party’s David Khan believes that this may interfere with Indigenous peoples’ rights to hunt and fish on traditional lands, as well as damaging Alberta’s reputation as an ethical source of oil.  In addition, Alberta Regional Chief Marlene Poitras states, “Allowing the bill to pass will serve to erode individual rights, unfairly target Indigenous Peoples, and has no place in a democratic society.”

Bill 1’s defined types of infrastructure include both private and public property, which are separate under Canadian law.  Experts, such as Howard Kislowicz, associate professor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law state that rights and freedoms under the Canadian Charter, such as speech and assembly apply to public infrastructure include roadways.  However, he states that the Charter does not apply the same way to items like pipelines, which are technically private property.

Kislowicz believes that opponents may be able to challenge this Bill on the violation of the right to peaceful expression and peaceful assembly, as well as the province intruding upon federal criminal law jurisdiction.  He also believes that the law could be challenged under treaty rights and Aboriginal title, protected under section 35 of Canada’s constitution.  Aboriginal title refers to an area of common law that states that Indigenous rights persist even after the colonization of the land.  In Alberta, this may be difficult, though, as most Indigenous land is covered by treaties unlike in other provinces, such as BC.

The overlap of these various struggles for equality cannot be denied, and during this Pride season, we should acknowledge those who fought for many of today’s current rights and those who continue to struggle to this day.  As a way to better understand the origins of many of these movements and how systems of oppression function, we may turn to the words of Kimberlé Crenshaw who originally coined the phrase intersectionality.  Although the term originally explained the oppression faced by Black women, today, intersectionality has evolved into an explanation of the overlapping system of oppressions based on the various intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, language, religion, and class.  In the words of Crenshaw, intersectionality today is “a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.  We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status.  What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”

Acknowledging these inequalities and understanding how they affect our various communities is a way to work to create change.  As Crenshaw states, “We’ve got to be open to looking at all of the ways our systems reproduce these inequalities, and that includes the privileges as well as the harms.”  In the original spirit of Pride, this June, consider donating to various causes as a way to actively get involved as one of the first steps to change.  These include Outlink Calgary, the Pride Centre of Edmonton, The 519, the Canadian Native Friendship Centre, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, the George Floyd Memorial Fund, and the Regis Korchinski-Paquet Memorial Fund.

Another is to become familiar with the issues facing communities.  AU has several courses that help to outline the issues and place them in the appropriate historical and current contexts.  Suggestions include WGST 301 Women’s and Gender Studies, WGST 421 Advocacy from the Margins, ENGL 308 Indigenous Literature, ENGL 316 Literature of the Harlem Renaissance, POLI 450 Globalization and Human Rights, SOCI380 Canadian Ethnic Relations, SOCI 378  Rebel with a Cause: Social Movements in History and Popular Culture, and SOCI 381 The Rich and the Rest: The Sociology of Wealth, Power, and Inequality.

Wishing everyone a safe and happy Pride Month with a reminder of the words of trans visual artist Micah Bazant, “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”

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