By Daniel J. Vázquez Sanabria
The names of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two Trans PoC activists credited with playing a central role in the Stonewall Riots, have been mentioned more than ever in the past month because of a proposed monument in their honor slated to go up in Greenwich Village, down the street from the Stonewall Inn. This renewed attention towards Rivera and Johnson has been accompanied by comments from the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) Commissioner, James P. O’Neill, stating that the actions of the NYPD back in June of 1969 at the Stonewall Inn were “wrong” or “discriminatory and oppressive.” In a context of continued erasure and violence this apology is not enough.
Marsha P. Johnson’s death in 1992 is still considered a “mystery” to many, and the NYPD failed to appropriately investigate her death by classifying it as a suicide–despite explicit evidence suggesting otherwise. While activists and other advocacy groups forced the NYPD to reopen Marsha’s case as “undetermined” back in 2002, justice has not been served for her to this day. The images of her body floating in the Hudson River bring to mind the viral hashtag #BlackTransLivesMatter, and point to a long history of violence against Trans folk, especially Black Trans women and other Trans women of color. Marsha’s death, and the NYPD’s tacit acceptance of violence against Trans people, falls outside of Commissioner O’Neill’s apology.
Today, the Stonewall Riots are talked about as the catalyst for Gay Liberation in the U.S. However, the story has been largely condensed (and whitened) in order to center a narrow vision of Gay Liberation that privileges those with greater access to power within the LGBTQ community. Even Sylvia Rivera pointed this out in a 1973 Rally for Gay Liberation. The Stonewall Riots have been romanticized in the favor of a select few. Meanwhile nobody wants to talk about the rising numbers of transgender youth attempting to commit suicide , or how fifty six percent of the LGBTQ population in the U.S. lives in states where conversion therapy is allowed to be conducted on minors. And heaven forbid we talk about the death of Johana Medina León, a Salvadoran migrant who was denied HIV treatment while under ICE custody, on Pride Month.
Yes, Stonewall was about Gay Liberation, but it was also about Black Liberation, Latinx Liberation, and Trans Liberation. It was about the liberation of people like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Despite mentions of their names, promises to build statues, and apologies about how they were treated in life and death, queer and Trans lives like those of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson are often completely put to the side, and homonormative gay lives prevail over them—even in June. Although a limited idea of Gay Liberation prevails, we cannot ignore the rest of the LGBTQ community, especially those who continue to struggle like Marsha and Sylvia did. This becomes more relevant when the NYPD wishes to right their wrongs fifty years later, after doing almost nothing to change their violent behavior between then and now.
Black Trans women in New York City face the same dangers—if not more—from the NYPD that they might face in Texas or other seemingly more conservative places. The truth is Black Trans women are in danger anywhere they are. Black Trans women are often considered and treated as the lowest of the low in U.S. society because they are both Black and Transgender women. Even with the Human Rights Campaign’s data, we cannot help but ask what percentage of the forty percent of LGBTQ homeless youth that live in the United States are Transgender, Black, or both. In addition to this, a bigger question is added: what percentage of murdered individuals in the United States are Transgender when, according to the HRC, nearly 3 in 4 family members deny the experiences of Transgender and gender-expansive youth? We may be able to mourn the deaths of 12 Transgender individuals in 2013, or 22 in 2017, or 26 just this past year, but how many slaughtered Transgender folk are misgendered when their death certificates are filled?
Even though Stonewall is known for being a space for LGBTQ people, the identities of the individuals present in 1969 crossed other intersections beyond their sexualities. The NYPD should apologize for what happened at Stonewall, but they should also apologize for what happened in Staten Island on July 17, 2014 when Eric Garner was murdered by one of their own. The NYPD should apologize for working closely with ICE and fully stop working with an institution that endangers the lives of migrant families. The NYPD should apologize for what happens when they profile Transgender folks and charge them with prostitution for simply standing near street corners.
The NYPD should go past their apologies and take actions. One of these could be getting rid of whatever was purchased in the $7.3 million transaction with Safariland, a company that produces tear gas used against migrants at the border, Standing Rock protesters, and Palestinians in Gaza. Until our newspapers here in New York cease to run headlines about regular occurrences of police violence against vulnerable people, the NYPD’s apology for Stonewall means nothing.
The NYPD should do better for the people it says it is there to protect. And there needs to be broader acknowledgement that 1969 was not only about gay rights and visibility. While World Pride might be the catalyst of Sylvia and Marsha’s monument to be erected after fifty years of almost complete silence, the bigger question is not why now, but rather what is the purpose? Both Sylvia and Marsha are completely forgotten during the Pride Parade almost every single year (I would know after directing a table at PrideFest). The pressure that New York City faces as the host city for World Pride is probably the only reason why, after fifty years, a brick thrown at a cop will be celebrated and not erased completely from history.
Daniel Vázquez Sanabria is a Puerto Rican scholar and activist. While his work is mostly centered around Puerto Ricans in and outside the island, his main interests are studying identities, social justice, disabilities, art, and LGBTQ issues, among others. He is currently a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and President of the Puerto Rican Alliance at Brooklyn College.