Rebellion and Pride:

How Police Have Failed LGBTQ+ Communities

By Ella Wiley & John guzman
Senior Communications Associate & Communications Associate - Justice in public safety project

HIV/AIDS Activists during the dedication ceremony of Stonewall Place in New York City, June 1989 (Source: Photo by Erica Berger/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

While many have come to know Pride month as a celebration of LGBTQ+ communities and history, its roots in Black and Brown trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people’s advocacy against police violence are frequently overlooked. The result is an erasure of the contributions of TGNC people of color in fighting police and bureaucratic violence.

Today, violence by state and private actors against LGBTQ+ people of color, particularly against trans people of color, grows, as evidenced by the current wave of anti-trans laws, misinformation campaigns, and transphobic and homophobic violence.

As we continue to push for a vision of public safety that provides for sustainable and healthy communities, it is crucial to remember that the police, and the criminal justice system as a whole, have long denied people safety because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender presentation – and have historically targeted LGBTQ+ people of color in particular. At the same time, LGBTQ+ people of color have an equally lengthy history of bravely countering these abuses and fighting for liberation.

Pride’s Roots in Countering Police Violence

In the 1940s and ‘50s, a moral panic surrounding homosexuality labeled the “lavender scare,” led to the mass removal of or perceived LGBTQ+ people from government service, and normalized the persecution of LGBTQ+ people through the institutionalization of homophobia. Because of this campaign, serving alcohol to LGBTQ+ customers became effectively criminalized by New York’s State Liquor Authority, which labeled establishments that did so as “disorderly houses” and suspended or revoked their liquor licenses. New York City’s shrinking number of gay bars were regularly raided by the NYPD and shut down, while their patrons were frequently arrested for sodomy, sexual deviancy, cross-dressing, and other charges designed to criminalize LGBTQ+ identities. These discriminatory policing strategies had a unique impact Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people.

On June 28, 1969, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) violently raided a gay bar in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan. The Stonewall Inn, whose customers were largely trans women and gay men of color, had been raided many times before, but this time patrons fought back. The rebellion moved into the streets and lasted five days, later inspiring protests across the United States against the discriminatory policing and criminalization of LGBTQ+ people. This insurgence is now recognized as the beginning of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.

Many of Stonewall’s leaders were Black and Latina, including Marsha P. Johnson, nicknamed “the mayor of Christopher Street,” Sylvia Rivera, and Zazu Nova – trans women who had prominent roles during the protests. Unfortunately, following these protests, these very same activists who made strides for their peers were ostracized by certain white, cisgender members of the community, exacerbating the exclusion and, therefore, violence against LGBTQ+ people of color.

Zazu Nova at Gay Liberation Front meeting, circa 1968-1975. (Source: Diana Davies / New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Kady Vandeurs and Marsha P. Johnson at gay rights rally at City Hall, 1973. (Source: Photo by Diana Davies / New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, ca. 1989-1990. The Rudy Grillo Collection, Rudy Grillo / LGBT Community Center Archive.

Police Violence is a Constant

Stonewall was not an aberration. Instead, it was a culmination, the boiling point of tension between law enforcement and LGBTQ+ communities, whose identities were criminalized, and who had faced discrimination and harassment under the false pretense of law and order. State-sanctioned police violence persisted in the years before and after Stonewall, as did the resilience of LGBTQ+ people targeted. Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people in particular have been subject to circumstances where their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender non-conformance, and race have all been used as a pretense for police abuse – and their leading voices in resisting police violence must be recognized and celebrated.

In 2020, on the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, the NYPD pepper sprayed and struck demonstrators with batons. And, in 2021, police clashed with civilians during New York City’s Pride festival. These incidents reflect the proximity of violence in the policing of LGBTQ+ communities in the starkest of ways: that, on days of joyful commemoration, law enforcement violence was directed at those celebrating the resilience and strength of the LGBTQ+ community in confronting abuses.

Police Violence Occurs Within a Deeply Problematic Criminal Justice System

These occurrences of law enforcement violence constitute just some of the many ways in which LGBTQ+ people are harmed by those supposedly tasked with perpetuating justice. Over-policing and criminal justice system discrimination also disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ people — particularly LGBTQ+ people of color, who endure cross-cutting discrimination that has myriad unjust consequences.

LGBTQ+ people have historically experienced disparate police harm and been targeted while facing bias across every layer of our public safety system. For example, law enforcement officials have disproportionately profiled transgender people on the basis of their appearance, clothing, and for doing innocuous things, like traveling to school. Gay men have also been unjustly targeted by law enforcement for decades, with police engaging in undercover operations specifically aiming to criminalize same-sex conduct. Throughout history, police raided bars frequented by LGBTQ+ people not only in New York City, but throughout the country.

Members of LGBTQ+ communities not only face disparate police harm, they are also underserved by law enforcement. Indeed, LGBTQ+ people are overrepresented as victims of violent crimes — and disparate policing enforcement, and the inefficacy of policing as providers of safety, is a clear contributor to these disparities. Moreover, when investigating crimes in which victims are transgender, law enforcement agencies at times fail to recognize people’s gender identity, thereby impeding investigations and alienating victims, witnesses, and loved ones.

The disparate treatment, fueled by homophobia and transphobia, and bolstered by systemically unjust treatment, is not limited to the law enforcement sphere. Unfortunately, LGBTQ+ people have also been subject to horrific bias and intolerance in the courts, including through jury discrimination, as well as anti-LGBT and anti-HIV comments. They are also disproportionately incarcerated in the United States, and highly over-represented across our entire criminal justice system. As a 2021 brief from the Prison Policy Initiative emphasized, LGBTQ+ individuals “are arrested, incarcerated, and subjected to community supervision at significantly higher rates than straight and cisgender people … And while incarcerated, LGBTQ+ individuals are subject to particularly inhumane conditions and treatment.”

New York Police arrest two guests at the National Variety Artists' Exotic Carnival and Ball, October 28, 1962. (Source: Bettmann via Getty Images)
Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality marking the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, New York City, June 28, 2020. (Source: Photo by Rob Kim / Getty Images)

This concerning reality undergirds much of the resilience, uprising, and pushback to police involvement in gatherings that celebrate Pride and beyond. Public safety systems must have LGBTQ+ identities and people in mind — and recognize the history and particular dangers these communities face when intersected with race.

Despite constant pushback from police and government forces, Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people, especially TGNC people of color, have led instrumental moments and movements that have paved the way for crucial civil rights progress. While Pride is about celebrating love and freedom of expression, it is also a recognition of the resistance against police violence and the sacrifices made to achieve basic legal rights, dignity, and liberation for all people.

Defending LGBTQ Rights

LDF is proud to work with and alongside diverse coalitions in demanding comprehensive civil rights for members of communities targeted with discriminatory policies and threats of violence because of who they are. In the courts, LDF has used its voice in defense of same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and the rights of LGBTQ+ students in particular.