As the sun set on a momentous day in queer history, the New York City LGBTQ community huddled at the birthplace of the modern movement for a jubilant celebration of historic gains and a sobering call for action to continue the fight for progress.
Nearby streets were still largely deserted due to the coronavirus pandemic as a crowd of a couple hundred people surrounded the Stonewall Inn on June 15 just hours after the Supreme Court ushered in employment protections for queer workers in a landmark 6-3 decision that came five years after the court declared same-sex marriage legal nationwide.
A diverse slate of speakers, standing in front of the entrance of the Stonewall Inn, took turns with a bullhorn emphasizing the importance of the new protections, highlighting the experience of Black transgender women who are constantly under attack, and echoing the emerging movement to defund police departments and reinvest in communities. Activists also issued reminders that employment protections are only worth it if organizations are mindful of racial and gender diversity in their hiring practices.
Rainbow Flags, Trans Flags, and adapted Rainbow Flags with black and brown stripes to focus on communities of color waved in the air, couples embraced, and sounds of cheers were audible from down the street on a cool Monday evening in Greenwich Village. At one point during the hour-and-a-half-long rally, a person in a top-floor apartment adjacent to the bar closed their window in an apparent response to the loud cheers that erupted from below.
But the speakers, having waited long enough for this moment, made it clear they weren’t about to sit back and stay quiet. That was especially evident the day before when an estimated crowd of 15,000 or more people showed up to march for Black trans lives in Brooklyn.
TS Candii, a sex worker and activist who has been a leading figure in the movement to decriminalize sex work in New York State, acknowledged the historic moment and used the opportunity to deliver impassioned remarks about just how close the State Legislature is to repealing a loitering law known as a ban on “Walking While Trans” due to the way cops have used the statute to stop and harass transgender women of color without cause. To this point, the legislative effort has attracted enough co-sponsors in the upper house to ensure its passage, and Governor Andrew Cuomo endorsed it earlier this year.
“What we need now is pressure on the higher power, the higher people in the state capital,” said Candii, who also led the crowd in “sex work is work” chants.
“We have to bring the bill to a vote because Black transgender women like myself, we get stopped and frisked for just walking down the street or the clothes we’re wearing,” she said. “We get criminalized because of fashion.”
Jason Walker, a gay activist who has also been active in HIV/ AIDS work, was joined by his mother as he, too, encouraged the community to keep a focus on the future.
“This is a shared day of celebration, but it’s also a shared day of reminders that there is still much work to be done together to ensure that equal rights and civil rights are implemented,” he said, before pointing to the need to address unemployment and prioritize key vulnerable demographics like homeless youth. “We’ve got to continue to stay vigilant, continue to hold space for each other, and we have to continue to center Black women and trans and cis women.”
Marti Gould Cummings, a drag artist, activist, and 2021 Manhattan City Council candidate who was beaten by the NYPD during a protest earlier this month, also had a turn to speak in front of the crowd.
“We have to defund the police. What does that mean? We have to put money into the communities that have been impacted the most,” Cummings said. They also echoed calls to shift funding toward areas like healthcare, education, homelessness, and affordable housing and stressed that white folks who remain silent are being complicit in racial injustice.
Tanya A. Walker, co-founder of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group, used her time to invoke the late Marsha P. Johnson, describing her as “the most beautiful person you’d ever want to meet.”
“Marsha really cared about the young kids,” Walker said. “She would feed the homeless kids out here prostituting and selling their bodies to eat and live. And she would ask them to go back to school after their parents threw them out.”
Among others who spoke at the event included Cecilia Gentili, drag artist Peppermint, LaLa Holston-Zannell, Brooklyn district leader candidate and Lambda Legal staffer Samy Nemir-Olivares, and Jay W. Walker. Some current and former elected officials were in attendance, including out gay Manhattan State Senator Brad Hoylman, who is the lead sponsor of the effort to repeal the “Walking While Trans” ban in the upper house, and out lesbian former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
Importantly, even the Gay Liberation Front — which capitalized on the momentum of the Stonewall Uprising and led the formation of the 1970 Christopher Street Day Liberation March — was represented with a sign that read “GAY LIBERATION FRONT.”
The rally attracted a crowd of queer folks and allies alike, including those who rolled in on bicycles and others who brought their dogs. Some other folks in the audience brought signs, too, and nearly everyone donned face coverings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Max Chen, who was looking on from the Christopher Street sidewalk, said he wanted to go to Stonewall so he could celebrate the landmark ruling alongside other LGBTQ folks.
“It’s awesome, though it’s still crazy that equality is a thing that is political in 2020,” Chen told Gay City News. “It should have happened a long time ago.”
On the other side of the crowd, neighborhood resident Bruce Poli said he wanted to drop by Stonewall to witness history for a second time.
“I was down here and gave a big hug to Don Lemon on the day when marriage passed,” Poli said. “This, though, was an enormous surprise and decision. The fact that [Supreme Court Justice Neil] Gorsuch, a conservative, would do this now, is remarkable, because this actually affects people’s lives in huge ways.”
He added, “Against everything that’s happened, finally, something positive.”
To sign up for the Gay City News email newsletter, visit gaycitynews.com/newsletter.