June is Pride Month. It is a time to celebrate. It’s also a time to remember the struggle for equal rights, a history we are continually encouraged to forsake, fragment, and forget.
Far-reaching state laws criminalize teachers who dare break hegemonic silences to “say gay” to students and otherwise acknowledge facts and US history. Legislators capitalize on poverty to enlist constituents in incriminating neighbors, including those providing youth rare support in family, schools, and community. We must remember: we have been here before.
“Do Not Flaunt”
Florida repealed antidiscrimination ordinances ensuring gay and lesbian citizens rights, sparking cookie-cutter activism nationwide. Championing the repeal was Save Our Children (SOC), a national coalition claiming that the very mention of non-heterosexual relationships corrupts youth.
According to SOC, lesbian and gay people are “deviant” threats to families and to religious freedom who “recruit and molest children” and are demanding special rights. In her autobiography, SOC’s figurehead leader explained: “They can hold any job, transact any business . . . so long as they do not flaunt their homosexuality and try to establish role models for the impressionable young people.”
This leader was Anita Bryant, an evangelical celebrity spokesperson for multinationals including Kraft and Coca Cola, and for Florida orange juice.
The year: 1977. The country reeled from a recently ended corrupt presidency, corrupt war, and oil crisis-based recession that came on the heels of a nationwide push for civil rights. Seeking power amid destabilization, right-wing forces doubled down on a historically successful unifying tactic: dehumanizing minorities.
Years earlier, New Yorkers in Greenwich Village stood up against state-sanctioned terrorism focused on the local LGBTQ+ community.
Building upon the activism of anti-racist and LGBTQ+–rights organizations, outcast patrons of New York’s Stonewall Inn gay tavern banded together to oppose what was expected to be yet another routine police raid aimed to publicly humiliate and persecute those claiming community around queerness.
Indeed, at the time, New York City denied liquor licenses to establishments serving queer clientele. This helped the powerful profit financially from corrupt kickbacks, and politically from legal justification for arrests of marginalized nonconformists.
In the early hours of June 28, 1969, rather than allow the inevitable, some in the Stonewall Inn resisted, collectively refusing to be labeled unlawful deviants.
Instead of accepting continued brutal oppression, some said no. Led by Black and Latinx self-identified drag queens, they occupied the Inn, calling to onlookers for help while being arrested. “Why don’t you guys do something!” Others joined them outside, filling Christopher Street with demonstrations, riots, uprisings. For six days, people protested normalized harassment, criminalization, and police violence the LGBTQ+ community was forced to endure under mainstreamed right-wing heteroprejudice, transphobia, and bigoted hatred.
Fifty-three years later, we commemorate June as Pride Month in honor of our Stonewall ancestors who fought systemic oppression to demand basic civil rights for LGBTQ+ people.
We celebrate their brave solidarity and struggle against dehumanizing injustice as they pushed the nation to fulfill fundamental promises. We honor the legacy of this ongoing chapter in US history as it is buried by the same repressive forces fought against in 1969, who codified state discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in the 1977 backlash.
“Equal Protection of the Laws”
Within a democratic framework, the Stonewall patrons’ protests make perfect sense. Since 1868, the US has promised equality to all. The Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution states:
“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; . . . nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The Constitution ensures citizens “equal protection of the laws.” Nevertheless, in 1969, it remained legal to refuse jobs, housing, health care, goods and services, and other core privileges and immunities to people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. It was typical to face months of incarceration or institutionalization and vote-disqualifying felony charges for gathering while gay.
Like those marginalized for their ethnicity, sex, race, or religion, LGBTQ+ citizens received abridged political, economic, and material protections in 1969 that belie even what strict originalists admit should occur under the Constitution.
Despite improvements, this lack of equal protection continues today. Adding to the Fourteenth Amendment, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, and the Fair Housing Act provide national standards for inclusivity. They also offer loopholes for states to get around federal regulations requiring equal protections.
Right-Wing States’ Rights
The Transgender Law Center’s National Equality Map reports more than half of US states rank “low” or “harmful” in regard to legislative policy advancing LGBTQ+ equality. And hard-won civil rights legislation is being eroded by those seeking to maintain austere inequities required for optimal capitalist profiteering.
According to Human Rights Campaign, 2021 set the record for the most anti-LGBTQ+ state legislation passed in US history. That record may be broken again; the ACLU documented more than 150 bills seeking to undermine basic protections for LGBTQ+ people considered this year by US lawmakers. These include allowing citizens to use personal beliefs to exclude others from rights they enjoy.
While Illinois offers important antidiscrimination protections, proposed legislation from surrounding states cast a sweepingly regressive net restricting rights. Iowa’s Republican-backed religious exemption bill HF 170 would exempt those who claim religious motivation for opposing birth control, abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgender people from federal antidiscrimination requirements in employment, healthcare, adoption, restroom access, hate speech, and other areas.
Couched as “protection of the free exercise of religious beliefs and moral convictions,” the bill’s narrow list of eligible beliefs and convictions clarifies its real intention: legalizing special rights for far-right authoritarian bigots.
Legislation binds rights. But discriminatory bills need not pass to discriminate. Inequity is affirmed through even unsuccessful state-sanctioned threats. A tsunami of proposed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in a society trumpeting equality for all proclaims: “We are superior. You are lesser, and unsupported.”
This, of course, stigmatizes and damages people. Driven by disinvestment and despair, youth suicide rates in the U.S. were astronomical even prior to COVID-19, and the Trevor Project finds LGBTQ+ youth four times more likely than heterosexual peers to attempt suicide. Transgender youth are twice as likely as cis LGBQ youth to have attempted suicide in the past year.
Threatened discrimination also engenders the shame, alienation, and fear right-wing extremists have long used to consolidate power. Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat identifies it as a core tyrannical tactic of demagogues.
“There are folks getting elected and making their whole careers based off of anti-LGBTQ stances,” explains Nicole Frydman, Director of Operations of Uniting Pride (UP) Center of Champaign County, the only LGBTQ+ resource center of its kind in our area. These anti-inclusive stances have been crafted to spread nationwide, as in 1977. Now, however, social media help obscure profiteers’ backing of hateful, inequity-stoking rhetoric.
As they reach out to promote their free support groups for youth and adults, educational trainings, and programs such as the Pride Fest Parade and Queer Prom to the community, UP Center staff confront disparaging anti-LGBTQ+ comments on their social media platforms. Recently, this has shifted form. “We’ve seen the word ‘groomer’ coming up more and more,” Frydman said.
“Groomer” is a shaming slur used to criminally malign teachers while pushing Texas’s and Florida’s recent anti-LGBTQ+, anti-history, school-privatizing legislation. It is Anita Bryant’s “role models for the impressionable young people” 2.0, embodying SOC’s defaming lie that queer people “recruit and molest children.” It carries dehumanizing deviance propaganda from the South and the past, undermining caring professionals’ ability to be deemed worthy of respect, employment, and equal rights regardless of legislation. It is the charge of morally corrupting youth used to condemn and kill Socrates tied to the witch-hunt’s brutal social dagger of patriarchy and privatization.
“This is not the kind of thing we have seen before,” Frydman said. “That we’re seeing this locally . . . really highlights how conversations happening in other places have a direct impact here.”
Illinois is recognized for institutionally advancing LGBTQ+ equality. But, as history shows, sanctioned right-wing anti-democratic authoritarianism knows no bounds. Much work remains. “We’re not done,” Frydman states of the UP Center’s efforts, channeling the spirit of Stonewall. “We are far from done.”
CU Pride Fest will be October 1. Contact the UP Center for support, or to support their work: www.unitingpride.org.
This article, commissioned for the Public i, appeared first in Monthly Review on June 10, 2022; reprinted with permission.
Aimee Rickman is an educator, activist, organizer, ethnographer of youth, culture, and technology, and author of Adolescence, Girlhood, and Media Migration (Lexington Books, 2018).
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