Stonewall didn’t actually mark the beginning of the LGBTQ rights movement.

By June 28, 1969, so-called homophile groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis had been risking life and liberty to organize queer folks and challenge the assumption that homosexuality was a mental disorder or moral defect for nearly two decades. But the three days of public, violent demonstrations that followed an early-morning raid on The Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village—a rebellion against police brutality toward queer people, many of them trans or people of color—nonetheless came to occupy that space in the American consciousness.

The five decades since the Stonewall riots—begun, in mythology if not necessarily reality, by a transgender woman of color named Marsha P. Johnson—have seen unprecedented victories for the LGBTQ community. But they’ve also witnessed immeasurable heartbreak, disappointment, death, and tragedy: The AIDS epidemic. Harvey Milk. Prop 8. Anita Bryant. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Pulse. HB 2.

Today, many LGBTQ Americans enjoy prosperous lives framed by rights won through pain and bloodshed—at least in parts of the country. But how do we truly measure progress when the most vulnerable members of our community are still under threat?  

There’s no federal or state law protecting LGBTQ people from job discrimination. President Trump is stacking the federal courts with people like Matthew Kacsmaryk, who’s called transgender people “delusional”—and who, last week, became a U.S. district court judge. And with the rollback last month of Obama-era rules that safeguarded trans people from discrimination in medical settings, the Trump administration has effectively dismantled every federal protection for transgender Americans.  

This doesn’t even begin to consider the lived experiences of queer people of color, immigrants, and others living at the intersection of multiple modes of oppression. Same-sex families’ adoption rights are at risk. Trans women of color are murdered in the streets. Queer kids are thrown out of their homes—a full 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.

Progress is indeed a tricky thing to quantify, especially for a community as diverse as those living under the linguistic umbrella LGBTQ. But as we reach a half-century after Stonewall, it’s crucial that we find ways to preserve this history—the victories, the losses, the joys, and the traumas that our queer ancestors endured—so that it doesn’t become a casualty of time and fading memory. 

We owe this to our community’s elders, to future generations, and to ourselves.

Prior to coming back to North Carolina last September, I spent five years as the editor of HuffPost Queer Voices in NYC. There I learned that the most important form of our community’s collective power lies in our stories. Through personal storytelling, we humanize our struggle. And through our stories, we ensure that the history of what our community has endured isn’t forgotten. We tell our stories and uplift the voices of our community’s most vulnerable—and we do this as often and as loudly as we can to anybody who will listen—as we continue to fight for a more just and equitable world for anyone who calls themselves LGBTQ.

In an effort to create space for queer voices as Pride Month concludes, the INDY asked local community leaders, activists, and elders for their perspectives about what fifty years of Stonewall means—and where we go from here. As someone engaged in an ongoing journey to more fully understand this community’s culture and history, I hope their words resonate with you as powerfully as they did with me. —James Michael Nichols

Daniel Tomas / Derelict

Nightlife curator and activist, Raleigh

“The harder we push and the harder we advocate, they push even harder to silence and invalidate what we have to say.”

To be completely candid, progress has been slow in North Carolina. I do think we’re making progress in North Carolina in the queer community, but the harder we push and the harder we advocate, it seems in the current political climate—both at the state and federal levels—they push even harder to silence and invalidate what we have to say. For example, we’re about to pass the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall, and it wasn’t until this month when our state capital of Raleigh got its first Pride Month deemed by both the governor and mayor.

I am, however, grateful for those who came before me both at Stonewall and here in North Carolina. So many activists fought with their lives so that I could have any of the visibility I have today.

I feel like we still have dividing factors within our own local and national LGBTQ communities that aren’t going to lead to us coming together to fight and be cohesive. I would hope that in the next thirty years we’re not still talking about marriage equality or Adam and Steve or debating trans rights when we need not look or listen further than our own backyards—do I believe that’s going to happen? I don’t know. North Carolina has not been a beacon of positive change for me, and I do think that’s very real for many people, not just LGBTQ. As much as I would hope everybody’s on an equal playing field in the next thirty years or so, the women’s rights movement and the Civil Rights movement of the sixties and seventies tell us that won’t necessarily be the case.

Conner Calhoun 

Special projects coordinator, Lump Gallery, Raleigh

“I’m not sure Raleigh has made progress. I don’t think saying the word ‘inclusive’ all the time is enough.”

Fifty years isn’t a very long time, and the mythos of Stonewall Inn feels like a watered-down drink. I want to link my LGBTQ legacy not to tragedy, but to people who are full of sequin light. It was the most fabulous, colorful people who liberated queers, who continue to liberate us.

Being a studio artist is not helping people directly, but when I’m working in the studio, I know that’s where I, to the best of my ability, navigate and communicate complicated issues. Gender. Sexuality. Trauma. Environmental change. It’s a language for words too smoldering for my tongue to grasp. An outlet for my fevered emotions.

Because I have art as an outlet, very slowly I’ve been able to grasp the reins of my sobriety. As a queer person, I didn’t have many healthy outlets, so I turned to drugs and alcohol, starting at an early age when I was coming to terms with who I was. We poison ourselves, taming our magical empathy. We need more spaces that aren’t built around the sales of alcohol. Spaces without the pressures of commodity. We need a space that isn’t an art project. Something exclusive to queer people, trans people, and people of color without it othering said people. Spaces that are queer-owned.

I’m not sure Raleigh has made progress. I don’t think saying the word “inclusive” all the time is enough. Talk is cheap. And there’s very little to prove that spaces are actually being inclusive without being exploitive. I’m not going to pat someone on the back for being a good person.

There is an ancient wisdom to the air we breathe, a humble destiny to which all our hearts ache.

I am anxious. I have hope.

J. Clapp / Vivica C. Coxx 

Drag queen, interim executive director, LGBTQ Center of Durham

“I think of Pride Month as almost like a revival.”

Having it be fifty years since Stonewall and still having to fight every single day for our ability to be happy and to have full lives is really hard to think about. But remembering the courage from fifty years ago does give me the courage to wake up every single day and make sure everything I do is either for my happiness, the happiness of the queers around me, or for the overall well-being of the folks in my life. So I find their struggle to be empowering because I know they wouldn’t want us to give up today.

Progress, for me, looks like black and brown and trans and gender-nonconforming folks waking up every single day and knowing that they are safe. I want them to have the resources they need, and I want us to stop writing legislation that hinders folks’ ability to go to the bathroom, seek employment, or just have access to health care in the ways that they need it. That’s what progress looks like—access to the basic things that help us survive and live, which are currently being attacked.

I think a lot of people focus on Pride as an opportunity to celebrate who we are. And I want to make sure that we continue celebrating who we are. But in the process of celebrating, we are being thankful for the progress we have made and being reminded that we still have work to do. I think of Pride Month as almost like a revival, where we can come together and recommit to moving forward while also celebrating our successes over the past year. And, with it being fifty years since Stonewall, we should chart new waters while continuing the legacy laid before us by trans women of color.

Kendra R. Johnson 

Executive director, Equality NC, Raleigh

“There’s been a concerted effort to erase our voices, to erase our presence, and to demonize us as a community.”

Stonewall was such a pivotal moment because it broke the silence around the LGBTQ community and gave us broader visibility as a movement. Even though we’ve been struggling for fifty years, particularly the trans and gender-nonconforming community, which has always been at the forefront of the movement, we continue to face the same type of police brutality and the same type of violence that sparked the movement in the first place. And although we’ve made some strides, we’re still fighting for our lives on a day-to-day basis.

I think there’s been a concerted effort to erase our voices, to erase our presence, and to demonize us as a community. But we have been successful in raising the visibility of our lives and our stories, which is creating space for the people who come after us to have positive role models to see that happiness is possible, to know that there are elders in the community who support them, and to have a reflection.

For me, a safe and inclusive world for queer and trans folks is a place where our identities are not demonized. Where we have freedom of movement and access. Where we have sovereignty over our bodies and we have representation not only in our government but in our media and our corporations and in our school systems.

We still have a lot of work to do to build a society that recognizes our contributions, that does not continue to erase us from history, that gives us free and open access to all of the aspects of the American Dream, and does not stigmatize our very existence.

Vansana Nolintha 

Co-founder, Brewery Bhavana and Bida Manda, Raleigh

“Be proud of your truth and your authenticity, because we have a chance to be someone’s role model.”

My relationship with Stonewall and the progress of this movement is specific to the impact its legacy has on Raleigh and North Carolina. 

As an immigrant, choosing a place to live and creating space are central to my life and my purpose, as I am constantly searching to build a community, to build a new home away from home. It’s important for my sister and I that we invest our lives, our stories, our hearts, and our time in a place that is progressive, inclusive, generous, and kind. There is something really remarkable and empowering about living and contributing to a purple state. Our country is experiencing a time of leadership crisis with extreme polarization. Whether it’s immigration or LGBTQ rights, we no longer are able to have a conversation that is grounded in the humanity of these complex and nuanced topics. It’s my life purpose that my personal story and my work be an opportunity to humanize these polarizing topics and an invitation for all of us, with all of our differences, to build a community that is centered in empathy.

As a young person, there weren’t really many role models in my life that I looked up to who were gay. So for a long time, my perception of what it means to be a gay person in the world was conditioned by what is displayed through the mainstream media. My ask for you is that, whether you are a singer or an engineer, a painter or a teacher, be proud of your truth and your authenticity, because we have a chance to be someone’s role model—inspiring them and inviting them to live their truth. My hope is that we can diversify what it means to be a gay person in the world—a narrative that it is more complex, more nuanced, and more whole than what it is displayed through the lens of the mainstream media.

Saige Martin 

Raleigh City Council candidate

“So much progress has been made, and yet we are at a time where that progress is trying to be eroded.”

Stonewall is a humbling reminder of how far we’ve come and yet how far we still have to go. I think that so much progress has been made, and yet we are at a time in our national politics, across various states and even locally in some instances, where that progress is trying to be eroded. Decisions that local, municipal leaders, state leaders, and those within the federal government make are really challenging much of the work of what was started when the riot first broke out at Stonewall.  

So, for me as a young, gay, out man who is running for public office, it’s a joyful experience to think back on, to reflect on all that has come from that moment, and all the work that came before that, as well. But it’s also a call to action for me, specifically, as someone who could potentially be an elected leader, to realize that progress can be lost very quickly—and especially for communities that are most marginalized and communities that are most at risk. In the month of Pride, we should be proud of what we’ve accomplished as a community.

We should also be so thankful for those who have come before us and those who have stood in the way of police and in courtrooms and in the way of the justice system to say what you are doing is not right. I think sometimes we get so caught up in the events of Pride Month that perhaps we don’t reflect enough on what has come before that make that event possible.

Jasmine Beach-Ferrara 

Executive director, Campaign for Southern Equality, Asheville

“It’s always been true that many things are true at once in the South.”

Stonewall means a lot of different things to me at once. It was a seminal event in the fight for LGBTQ liberation, but, of course, people were living very brave lives and doing powerful organizing before that night. What happened is such a powerful, iconic story about a group of drag queens and women of color who just said enough, and, at great risk to themselves, confronted the regime of laws and persecution that targeted our community.

Part of what’s powerful about Stonewall that I think about in our work across the South is the idea of what it means to claim public space as our own and what it means to be who we truly are in the public square. Every day, LGBTQ Southerners contend with the realities of laws or persecuting systems or cultural pressure points that try to keep us from claiming that right to just be—and be safe and whole—in both our private and public lives. The act of just being who we are, of being open about who we love, is a form of resistance in the South. A big part of what keeps me relentlessly hopeful are the acts of courage I see people taking every day.

It’s always been true that many things are true at once in the South. That feels like the best way I know to narrate the moment we’re in right now. I know a lot of people in our community who say that not much has gotten better in their lifetime, and this is true for them. And I know a lot of other people who say that there has been breathtaking change in their lifetime, and that’s also true. Our work is to build a movement that responds to the urgent crises in our community and also speaks to the dreams of our community.

Bishop Tonyia M. Rawls 

Sacred Souls Community Church, Charlotte

“It is their courage and it is that heritage of speaking truth to power that can be liberating for us all.”

The Stonewall legacy is so powerful on many levels. I think what makes it so important today, particularly as a queer woman of color, is that we hear the truer narrative of what actually happened there—with trans women of color being the ones who actually led the rally for freedom and justice for us all. When we think about lesbian and gay people, that was a margin, and when we think about trans people of color, they were the margins of that margin. And so that model of the Stonewall work, I believe, set a tone for us that, when followed, helps to ensure that no one gets left behind.

I celebrate the courage displayed at Stonewall. My hope is we bring that courage to life again, particularly as it relates to the fights we’re facing in reference to LGBTQ life, protections, and privileges. It is their courage and it is that heritage of speaking truth to power that can be liberating for us all.

Progress, for me, looks first like us turning inward to see where there are places within our own movement where we still have a lot of work to do. We have work to do in reference to racial justice within our movement. We have work to do as it relates to class and issues of the marginalized. We have work to do as it relates to the ways that we love, embrace, and support our trans and gender-nonconforming family. My highest hope is that we not shy away from that internal work.

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