Last week, I visited San Francisco’s Castro District, one of the most famous queer neighborhoods in the world. While there, I stumbled upon the GLBT History Museum and spent the afternoon looking through the exhibits, completely enraptured in an unfamiliar history that somehow still felt like home.
LGBTQ+ people have existed for the entirety of human history; in the last few centuries, many have lived their lives unnoticed or forced to hide. Others who spoke out or lived openly faced discrimination, violence, and even death. Visiting this museum allowed me to get a closer look at this often unrecognized history. I gained a greater appreciation for the work that trailblazers did so that I, as well as future generations of LGBTQ+ people, can have an easier life in a more accepting society.
A key moment in LGBTQ+ history is the Stonewall protests in June 1969, which were a response to police raiding the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village, New York City. Many people view the subsequent six days of protest as a major catalyst for the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
In 1977, Harvey Milk became one of the first openly gay people elected to public office in the United States. He spent less than a year in office, as he was assassinated by Dan White in November 1978. In his will, Milk included his now famous wish: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s was devastating for the LGBTQ+ community. In response, organizations such as Act Up protested the US government’s inaction and hostility towards those infected with the then untreatable disease, most of whom were gay men.
A landmark Supreme Court case for LGBTQ+ equality was Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which overturned anti-sodomy laws that only affected queer people. Exactly 12 years after Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that marriage is a constitutional right guaranteed to LGBTQ+ couples.
Our community has come a long way in our fight for equality, but we still have a long way to go. Many of the prejudices that fueled discriminatory laws and actions in the last century exist today, just in different forms. I’m thankful that society is more accepting today than it was before, but it’s far from perfect.
Fifty years after Stonewall, police harassment and brutality toward queer people, especially transgender people, are still a huge problem in our country. Twenty-two percent of transgender people who had interacted with police reported police harassment, and 6 percent reported that they experienced bias-motivated assault by officers. Black transgender people reported around double the rates of biased harassment and assault, at 38 percent and 15 percent respectively.
Forty years after Harvey Milk’s election, Andrea Jenkins just became the first openly transgender black woman elected to public office. While this is a historic win for our community, we can’t just celebrate and forget the continued violence against transgender women of color. In 2016 alone, 27 transgender people were murdered, most of whom were transgender women of color.
Thirty-five years after the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, more research still needs to be done on HIV/AIDS. Today, HIV is the third leading cause of death for black women, ages 25 to 44.
Fourteen years after Lawrence v. Texas, no one can be imprisoned for being gay, but queer people can be fired simply for being queer in 28 states, and 3 states even have laws prohibiting local anti-discrimination laws. There’s still no federal workplace anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ+ people; instead, we have a patchwork of state laws that vary widely in their protections.
Two years after Obergefell v. Hodges, many think our fight for equality is over. While nationwide marriage equality was a huge win for our community, that wasn’t the end goal. We still face anti-transgender bathroom bills that would require people to use the bathroom that matches the sex listed on legal documentations. And even when we finally remove all possibility of these bathroom bills, there will still be another issue to address, another cause we must fight for, until all LGBTQ+ people gain true equality. This fight must center around intersectionality, as other forms of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, and ableism also harm LGBTQ+ people. True equality means the freedom for everyone in our community to live lives free from all forms of oppression.
We can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been. Sadly, a lot of LGBTQ+ history has been erased or ignored in favor of more mainstream, heteronormative, and cisnormative narratives of history, especially in school curriculums. Moreover, gentrification of historically queer neighborhoods is erasing physical spaces for queer communities to thrive.
What can we do? One way to help is visiting and supporting LGBTQ+ museums and archives around the world. You can also donate to organizations that preserve LGBTQ+ history, such as the GLBT Historical Society and the History Project in Boston. Another way to help is supporting the ongoing efforts to advance LGBTQ+ equality through organizations like GLAAD, Human Rights Campaign, The Trevor Project, and Lambda Legal.
Beyond financial support, get involved with activism. LGBTQ+ history is being made every day. Decades from now, future generations will look back at our present time and see the change we’ve created. There may even be museum exhibits on the groundbreaking work done in 2017. What role will you play in this? How will you help write LGBTQ+ history?
Becina J. Ganther ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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