By Tanner Luther and Tynan Jackson, Social Change Interns
It was 50 years ago today that Marsha P. Johnson, standing in Greenwich Village’s scorched Stonewall Inn, threw a shot glass at a mirror, yelling “I got my civil rights!” Since called “the shot glass heard around the world,” that essential moment marked an escalation in the conflict between police and LGBTQ+ patrons, now known to history as the Stonewall riots. Often cited as the birthplace of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, Stonewall’s significance in the larger context of LGBTQ+ activism has risen in profile even more so in recent years. As we reflect on Stonewall’s significance during Pride Month, let us strive to remind ourselves that Pride Month is not simply an opportunity for brands and organizations to co-opt the narrative of the LGBTQ+ rights movement without demonstrating commitment to the community itself, especially its most marginalized members: trans and gender-nonconforming people of color. Through promoting their stories, brands and organizations can empower these individuals with visibility and help them resist oppression.
As a social change agency, Metropolitan Group has committed ourselves to promoting a message of inclusivity and intersectionality during Pride Month and throughout the year. When revisiting the legendary Stonewall narrative, corporate and nonprofit entities should promote the incredible stories of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two drag queens of color who played integral roles in the Stonewall riots and the growth of a cohesive LGBTQ+ activist movement in the United States. The two lived during a time when discourse surrounding gender identity was still a burgeoning field. (They did not self-identify as trans women, but this was also at a time before the modern LGBTQ+ lexicon was widely proliferated.)
In the discourse of the modern LGBTQ+ movement, contemporary thought leaders and activists are turning to Marsha and Sylvia’s story to help understand and center marginalized narratives of the modern community. Trans and gender-nonconforming (GNC) people of color as a demographic experience disproportionate amounts of violence – 45% of black trans women reported being verbally harassed and 14% reported being physically assaulted in 2014. This should be considered a human rights crisis for society as a whole. If we can allow the atrocities of violence and murder to affect our most vulnerable, it makes it easier to overlook other forms of violence and we as a society become less humane. To end violence against trans women of color (WoC), it is the responsibility of LGBTQ+ organizations, community leaders, and all organizations who claim to be concerned with social justice to protect and uplift the voices and the lived experiences of trans WoC and GNC people in the community.
So why should organizations turn toward Sylvia and Marsha’s stories specifically? Moreover, why should they have a responsibility to do so? The proliferation of Marsha and Sylvia’s stories is already well on its way (see Netflix’s recent film The Life and Death of Martha P. Johnson and Paris is Burning). Organizations promoting their stories would not be pioneering uncharted waters here; they would be building off a powerful movement, increasing the intersectionality of LGBTQ+ narratives and promoting essential empathy for trans women of color. While the push for this intersectionality has already begun, it is imperative that it continues to grow through greater activism, beyond allyship and support, from organizations and brands. To that end, Pride Month should not be seen as a simple marketing tactic, but a genuine opportunity for movement-building and discussion on how all sectors of society can be activated to create transformational societal change. With large platforms and finances to boost their message, these entities have the ability to define and promote LGBTQ+ narratives of intersectionality and inclusivity.
Americans are becoming more and more cognizant of the idea that LGBTQ+ rights are human rights. From a business standpoint, publicly supporting LGBTQ+ rights is a smart decision to attract and retain LGBTQ+ stakeholders and employees, proof that the economic incentive for non-discrimination and inclusivity is a strong one. But when invoking the spirit of the LGBTQ+ rights movement with their rainbow logos, brands and other organizations are — consciously or unconsciously — placing themselves in the midst of a narrative that begins with Stonewall. To honor Stonewall and empower trans and GNC people, corporations owe a debt to Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson to center their activism at the forefront of LGBTQ+ history, providing trans women, gender nonconforming people, and LGBTQ+ people of color with historical role models who looked and behaved as they do. Representation in history provides these groups with the vital assurance that they have always existed and that any attempt to downplay their presence in history is not based in reality. So, then, what are corporations charged to do? Promote LGBTQ+ voices in your workspaces and outreach. Create an internal culture and workspace that is welcoming and inclusive of LGBT+ people. Support LGBTQ+ rights organizations. And above all, commit to uplifting and empowering LGBTQ+ people as an oppressed class rather than just another marketing demographic.
About the Authors:
Tanner Luther is a Social Change Intern at Metropolitan Group’s Portland office. He studies history and philosophy at Oklahoma State University and writes and records episodes for the Amplified Oklahoma podcast. His interests include LGBTQ+ and medieval history, local politics, and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Tynan Jackson is a senior studying Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. At Harvard he has dedicated his time to connecting Boston residents with legal services and tutoring in PBHA, as well as to the Expressions Dance Company, and as Director of Programming for the Black Pre-Law Association. He currently serves as Inclusivity Chair for the Black Men’s Forum.