Taking Freedom: Reclaiming Our Lineage: Organized Queer, Gender-Non-Conforming, and Transgender Resistance to Police Violence
On the role that queer people of color play in resisting oppressive policing.
In the 1960s, the Compton Cafeteria and Stonewall riots in San Francisco and New York signaled a turning point for the organizing of queer people of color. While the Stonewall riot is now seen by mainstream LGBT history as a proclamation of gay identity, and the Compton riot is all but forgotten, in actuality, both events were led by queer and trans people outside of the mainstream.
LGBT and queer resistance to police violence cannot be separated from the history of LGBT resistance. This activism has been separated from the work of activists only relatively recently, as LGBT agendas have moved into the mainstream.
In the 1970s, gay liberation movements looked to the Black Panther Party and worked together to end police violence.
The late 1970s and early 1980s marked the end of many radical queer groups, due to interference from the FBI and single-issue “gay-friendly” campaigning. However, many new organizations, such as the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, Black and White Gay Men Together, and Dykes Against Racism Everywhere, worked against police violence as part of their agenda.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the AIDS epidemic brought a resurgence of queer militancy. This was similar to the post-Stonewall riot activism of the early 1970s, particularly in the form of direct action and resistance from groups such as ACT-UP.
The issue of police violence has been divisive in queer communities. Many mainstream groups, such as Human Rights Watch, have seen anti-gay violence as coming not from the state or police, but from crime.
Throughout the long history of policing of queer communities in New York City, queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming people have creatively resisted and survived police brutality and police violence.
Currently, mainstream LGBT activism looks to change federal hate crime legislation, but grassroots organizations challenge homophobic and transphobic violence within a broader movement to decrease our reliance on police, prisons, and courts.
Particularly for trans women of color, fighting legislation aimed against sex work is crucial to ensuring rights and ending policing and surveillance.
Unfortunately, many of the largest national LGBT organizations constantly recall and reference the liberatory and antipolice Stonewall riot as a battle cry for their homonormative agenda: marriage, military inclusion, access to the market, and hate crime legislation.
The riots that erupted at the Stonewall Bar on Christopher Street on the night of June 28th, 1969, like the one at San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria in 1966, signaled a real turning point in queer activism. And yet, rather than being narrated as an urgent act of resistance and rebellion against state violence, the story of the Stonewall riot has been refashioned into a homonormative tale of the LGBT community’s first proud public proclamation of gay identity and rejection of social stigma. The Compton Cafeteria riot was all but erased from mainstream LGBT history, obscuring the fact that the individuals who fought back against the police that evening were not simply members of San Francisco’s gay community, but were also those who most often have to resist police oppression: street youth, gay and lesbian people of color, sex workers, drag queens, transgender, and gender-non-conforming people. Indeed, queer people located outside of the mainstream LGBT movement have much to contribute to an analysis of police violence, as well as to a critique of aligning with the police for “protection.”
That the social and political connections between LGBT communities and policing are so infrequently considered central to LGBT politics is all the more striking when one considers that, in one form or another, strains of LGBT political work have always addressed police violence. There is, in significant respects, nothing new about making police violence central to a queer agenda—indeed it is perhaps only relatively recently that police violence has been seen as anything other than one of the most flagrantly apparent manifestations of LGBT oppression. Before the Stonewall and Compton Cafeteria riots, in fact, even politically moderate groups such as the Mattachine Society, which was founded in 1950 in Los Angeles and later expanded with chapters in the East Coast, were heavily active around issues of police harassment. Printing “What to Do in Case of Arrest” cards and attempting to build collaborative relationships with police forces in order to promote more sensitive police conduct toward gay individuals, Mattachine organized around gay men’s vulnerability toward police violence (1).
Later, in the politically radical years of the early 1970s, activists of the gay liberation movement looked to the Black Panther Party in their call for an end to the “racist police force,” and prominently espoused an analysis of the police and the prison system as intrinsically oppressive of racial, sexual, and gender minorities alike (2). As historian Regina Kunzel documents, gay liberation activists marching to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots marched in front of New York City’s Women’s House of Detention (across the street from the Stonewall Bar), where Afeni Shakur and Joan Bird, Black Panther members, were incarcerated shouting: “Free Our Sisters! Free Ourselves!” (3)
The latter half of 1970s and early ’80s are typically considered the time of collapse of the revolutionary historical moment surrounding the gay liberation movement, and indeed this period saw the fall of the Black Panther Party and other revolutionary groups under the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s COINTELPRO (a secret FBI “counter intelligence program” targeting political groups and often using tactics that were themselves illegal). Although politically moderate groups such as the Gay Activists Alliance, which espoused a comparatively narrow, single-issue approach to gay-positive political reform, were founded in the late 1960s and active in the early ’70s, as the United States became more conservative over the ensuing decades this single-issue approach eventually came to be predominant.
However, the mid-1970s also gave birth to many of the first antiracist and queer of color organizations. Groups such as Salsa Soul Sisters (the first black lesbian organization), Black and White Gay Men Together (BWMT), the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, Dykes Against Racism Everywhere, and the black lesbian and feminist Combahee River Collective had all formed by 1980, and all included an analysis of policing issues in some capacity in their work. DARE, Salsa Soul Sisters, BWMT, and other New York City-based activists came together in the fall of 1982 to mobilize in response to the September 29th police raid on Blue’s Bar, a predominantly black gay bar on 43rd Street in Midtown. Queer activists’ response to the incident heightened the levels of attention to police brutality against LGBT people both within and beyond the gay and lesbian community. The lasting legacy of the Blue’s raid could be seen a little over a year later, when James Credle of BWMT addressed the congressional hearings on police brutality in Brooklyn specifically on the subject of the Blue’s raid and police abuse of gays and lesbians. Reminding his audience that it was not an accident that queer people of color and transvestites led the revolt at Stonewall, Credle asserted to the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice:
While we are often stereotyped as members of a single community, our roots emerge from and encompass multiple ethnic and racial identities. We have suffered, and continue to suffer, brutality as blacks, Hispanics, Asian, and Native Americans, in addition to our third-class status as lesbians and gay men. All of us who have been maimed, physically and emotionally abused, unlawfully arrested—yes, even tortured and killed—have yet to receive any note of recognition or acknowledgement that we too are victims of police harassment and brutality. If we are serious about the eradication of such brutality from our community, then we must acknowledge the widespread abuses that occur daily against lesbians and gay males. (4)
Credle presented a nuanced understanding of the police force’s systemic and pervasive oppressive relationship with LGBT communities as well as the role of intersectionality in determining who among those communities were historically the most vulnerable to police abuse. Although none of the officers involved in the Blue’s incident were criminally prosecuted, the incident became a catalyst for coalition building and promoting internal dialogue about community-based responses to police violence. The work of DARE, BWMT, Salsa, and others would eventually lead to the formation of an ad hoc Anti-Police Abuse Coalition in the summer of 1984, the goals of which included a formal apology from the New York Police Department, as well as to the organization of “a network capable of mobilizing at a moment’s notice to stand up to the police” and to “express … solidarity and build alliances with other oppressed communities who are fighting police abuse.” (5)
As the burgeoning impact of AIDS in the 1980s and ’90s brought with it a resurgence of queer militancy reminiscent of post-Stonewall radicalism—most notably with the emergence of direct action-oriented groups such as ACT-UP and Queer Nation—so too continued the struggle of queer resistance against police violence. Often, however, these groups exemplified the ways in which gay “antiviolence” activism had come to be fraught with conflicting ideas about and approaches to addressing the perceived threat of antigay violence. Though they championed their confrontational style of direct action politics and radical, antiassimilationist ethos, Queer Nation, for instance, espoused an analysis of antigay violence that did not posit the threat of violence as coming from the state but rather looked to the police force, if not as a de facto ally, than certainly as a potential source of support (6). In this respect, Queer Nation exemplifies a trend noted by Christina Hanhardt that, in the decades following Stonewall, gay vulnerability to antigay violence came to be perceived as the “vulnerability of the crime victim.” (7)
In this sense, Queer Nation and its spin-offs—in particular the Safe Street Patrol and the Pink Panthers—embodied a significant shift away from the critiques of state- and police-perpetrated violence espoused by gay liberationists and their allies in the new left and carried forward by antiracist queer activists in the 1980s and ’90s. This shift in emphasis became institutionalized when the national lesbian and gay organizations, like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce took up support for “hate crimes legislation” in the 1990s. These laws increase sentencing and hence can also increase the already unprecedented numbers of people incarcerated in the U.S.
Throughout the long history of policing of queer communities in New York City, queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming people have creatively resisted and simultaneously survived police brutality and police violence. Through direct confrontation with the police, intervention in police violence, and concrete attempts at rethinking safety and realizing that vision, queer and trans people, particularly low-income and queer and trans people of color, have sought to change and dismantle policing and create real alternatives to the police state.
In the contemporary moment, while the mainstream LGBT movement continues to advocate for the inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation in state and federal hate crimes statutes, there are numerous examples of grassroots efforts to challenge homophobic and transphobic violence within the context of a broader movement to decrease our reliance on police, prisons, and courts. Groups like the Southerners on New Ground, the Safe Outside the System Collective at the Audre Lorde Project, Critical Resistance, Justice Now!, INCITE!: Women of Color Against Violence, and many others, actually work in the same spirit of the more liberatory post-Stonewall movements to create spaces to dream, think, and create police-free zones, community accountability mechanisms, and ways of resisting violence.
These organizations continue this project because policing of communities that can be called deviant continues to the present day and is even intensifying in some respects. For example, in July of 2006 Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams signed the Omnibus Public Safety Emergency Amendment Act, which allowed for prostitution free zones (PFZ) to be implemented throughout the district. Similar to drug- and gang-free zones created in the 1990s as a part of the continuing racialized, policed, militarized, and antipoor “war on drugs,” prostitution-free zones are marked by warning signs and cast a wide net of criminality over a host of identities (trans women, sex workers, and people of color) and actions (congregating in groups, waving at the corner, possessing condoms or cash).
Fears about the “prostitute” are often augmented by hysteria over the presence of people of color in public space who may be simultaneously eroticized, considered “dirty,” and security threats (e.g., “loitering” Latinos). Profiled as prostitutes with alarming frequency, transgender women of color are targets for arrest and harassment by police who act out societal stigma against gender-non-conformity. Different frameworks can drive policing and surveillance of other forms of sex work, such as massage parlors. Police raids may be framed as “rescues” of trafficked women, or they may be based on similar fears of congregating “illegal immigrants” who challenge public safety. (8)
Trans justice activist Darby Hickey argues that the implementation of PFZs simply makes a de facto practice de jure. “The intent [of the PFZs] was to legitimize a practice the police have been doing for years, it was not new, it was just legitimized again in the law, not a whole lot changed, now police had an official phrase for doing what they have always done.” (9)
Mallory Teefari, trans activist and harm reduction practitioner, has worked with street sex workers and in the DC trans community since the 1970s, and described the long history of attempts at social control by police:
All through the years the [Metro Police Department] sought means and ways to actually control the trans and sex worker market in Washington, D.C., by zones, by identification as workers, by means of ID-ing. … Groups were formed like the DC Transgender Coalition, DC Care Consortium, and Transgender Health Empowerment, and activists started looking into reasons and ways to combat oppression and help the transgender community to deal with issues like health, legal issues of arrests—to try and understand the community that has basically always been an aspect of DC: a transgender street culture (10).
Organizations mobilized in response to the policing of sex workers in D.C., the legislating of the PFZs, and to advocate for alternatives to policing. The Alliance for a Safe and Diverse DC was established in 2005 by community members and advocates in response to an assemblage of proposed laws targeting sex workers and those involved in street sex economies, such as the Prostitution Nuisance Abatement Amendment Act, the Omnibus Public Safety Act, and the Anti-Prostitution Vehicle Impoundment Amendment Act (11). The Alliance for a Safe and Diverse DC established a community-based research team, which included many people directly impacted by the PFZs. Research team members had significant experience working on “topics of sex work, HIV, drug use, LGBT and immigrant communities, racism, homelessness and community organizing.” (12) The team conducted research over the course of 2007, and finished and published their findings in 2008. The research culminated in “The Move Along Report: Policing and Sex Work in DC.” The final portion of the report consists of a series of recommendations to the mayor and D.C. council, the metropolitan police, the U.S. attorney’s office, the office of police complaints, funders, sex worker organizations, and human rights advocates. The recommendations call for a, “city wide review of the laws, policies and practices regarding the policing and regulating of adult public sex,” and the report proposes that the PFZs be repealed or a moratorium enacted. However, in spite of these recommendations, D.C. police posted PFZ signs along 5th and I streets during the inauguration of President Barack Obama (13), and Prince George’s County recently adopted PFZs (14). In November new legislation was also proposed to extend PFZs in Washington, D.C., indefinitely (15).
Campaigns like that of the Alliance for a Safe and Diverse DC work to reshape the radical legacies of the Stonewall and Compton Cafeteria uprisings toward a still more expansively liberatory future. This future can be realized by standing in solidarity with—and taking direction from—the vibrant queer and trans organizing led by queer and trangender youth on the Christopher Street Pier in New York City, as well as with campaigns happening south of New York City, like the sex workers in D.C. organizing against prostitution free zones or the trans women of color in Memphis, Tennessee, organizing in response to the police violence against Duanna Johnson. Arrested in February of 2008, Johnson, a black transgender woman, was verbally and physically assaulted by police at the Shelby County Jail. She spoke out against the violence in the local news media and initiated a federal lawsuit against the Memphis police department for civil rights violations (16). Nine months later, she was found murdered, execution style, near her home in North Memphis.
Unfortunately, many of the largest national LGBT organizations constantly recall and reference the liberatory and antipolice “Stonewall” riot as a battle cry for their homonormative agenda: marriage, military inclusion, access to the market, and hate crimes legislation. The narrow and singular pressure to accept this agenda and assimilate into mainstream society elides the rich and dynamic history of our movements for liberation and self-determination. A critical analysis about the dangers of aligning with the police, and an alternative practice of building real protection from violence in the form of strong and diverse communities, is part of that rich heritage. Remembering our radical history, and reclaiming ownership over it, is a powerfully transformative act of love for the value of our movements and our lives.
What are the similarities between the challenges of the LGBTQ community described in this chapter and the issues described in Chapter 1 (“Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why.”) and Chapter 2 (“‘Build That Wall!’: A Local History”)?
The article gives historic examples of solidarity between communities. What are current examples of communities organizing together toward a common goal?
How have communities of color and LGBTQ communities historically been discouraged from organizing together?
What do communities of color and LGBTQ communities have to learn from each other about resisting police violence?
Regina Kunzel, “Lessons in Being Gay: Queer Encounters in Gay and Lesbian Prison Activism,” Radical History Review 100 (Winter 2008): 14.
“What We Want, What We Believe,” History—Early 1970s file. Lesbian Herstory Archives, New York.
James Credle, “Police Brutality: The Continual Erosion of Our Most Basic Rights,” Gay Community News (14 Jan. 1984): 5.
“Speakout” flyer, Police file. Lesbian Herstory Archives, New York.
Flyers by Queer Nation ask, “where are the cops?” and organize speak-outs at Police Plaza to demand police accountability to gay issues. Police File, Lesbian Herstory Archives, New York.
Christina Hanhardt, “Butterflies, Whistles, and Fists: Gay Safe Street Patrols and the New Gay Ghetto,” Radical History Review 100 (Winter 2008): 64.
Penelope Saunders and Jennifer Kirby, “Move Along: Community-Based Research Into the Policing of Sex Work in Washington, D.C.,” Social Justice Journal (Spring 2010): 2.
Darby Hickey, interview by Che Gossett, written notes, August 18, 2008.
Mallory Teefari, interview by Che Gossett, written notes, August 11, 2008.
Saunders and Kirby.
Alliance for a Safe & Diverse DC, “Move Along Report: Policing Sex Work in Washington DC” (PDF). (Washington DC: Different Avenues, 2008): 4.
Marc Fisher, “Welcome to Inauguration Island, A Prostitution-Free Zone,” Washington Post 17 Jan. 2009.
Daniel Leaderman, “Prince George’s Council OKs ‘Prostitution-Free Zones,’ Strip Club Bill,” Gazette.net 16 Nov. 2011.
Martin Austermuhle, “The District: Soon to Be Permanently Prostitution-Free?” Dcist.com 3 Nov. 2011, accessed January 18, 2012.
Robbie Brown, “Murder of Transgender Woman Revives Scrutiny,” New York Times 18 Nov. 2008; Associated Press, “Tennessee: Ex-Officer Is Indicted,” New York Times, 20 Nov. 2008.
*Click here to access a Spanish-language version of this story.