The Black, Transgender Origins of Pride

A text by Petite Pretzel

This new Pride flag highlights the beginning of the LGBTQIA+ Pride Movement in the US led by Black Trans women/MaGe like Marsha P. Johnson and Ms Major, as well as Trans PoC like Sylvia Rivera and Victoria Cruz.
The flags center Trans and Queer Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, who endure disproportionate murder rates and other transphobic targeting.

Black people, in particular black people and sex workers, have fought for LGBT rights by rising up against police harassment. Today’s celebration has grown out of yesterday’s political adversity – an adversity that still persists. Outsiders – ethnic minorities, queer people, gender non-conforming people and sex workers – have long been targeted by police. Queer people also opposed police brutality in 1959 at the Cooper Do-nuts cafe in Los Angeles and in 1966 at the Compton’s Cafeteria riot before the more famous 1969 Stonewall riots. People of colour from both the East Coast and the West Coast led activism for LGBT rights. “It wasn’t all those crewnecked white boys in the Hamptons and the Pines who changed things, but the black kids and Puerto Rican transvestites who came down to the Village on the subway,” American novelist Edmund White recounts. Queer activists of colour like Martha P. Johnson in New York and Felizia Elizondo in San Francisco blazed the way.

“It was against the law to wear long hair. It was against the law to dress like a woman. If the police [saw] you on the sidewalk walking, they would take you to jail for obstructing the sidewalk,” Elizondo, a Latinx transgender woman, remembers. Cops arrested people for having a different gender presentation than that listed on their ID and for homosexual acts, which remained illegal in the United States until 2003. The Cooper’s Do-nuts riot of 1959 was triggered when LAPD attempted to arrest three men simply for patronising a known gay hangout. Drag queens, transwomen and others threw plates, coffee and donuts until officers withdrew to summon backup. Their return with reinforcements caused a riot so large the main street shut down. This act of resistance is considered the first gay uprising in modern history.

The Compton’s Cafeteria riot of 1966 kicked off when a transwoman reacted to a police officer grabbing her shoulder by throwing a cup of coffee in the man’s face. The authorities had been aggressively raiding queer establishments and simultaneously ignoring a serial killer who targeted their community. Donna Personna, a longtime queer activist and former sex worker, remembers “intense violence” from johns and from the San Francisco Police Department. The cafeteria was a community hub where she and her peers could check up on and care for each other. Personna, raised in a Mexican Baptist household, considered the cafe her home and the patrons her sisters. The cup of coffee proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back; “women…[threw] sugar shakers through the glass windows and drag queens [beat] police with their purses.” A newsstand went up in flames and a police car was wrecked in the ensuing chaos. The women were unsurprisingly arrested but the riots continued for three nights.

A late-night scene in Gene Compton’s Cafeteria. The cafeteria was a popular destination for queer people of all kinds: hustlers, queens, hair fairies. This photo shows an Imperial Court of San Francisco event at the cafeteria. The date and names of the subjects are unknown.
Photo: Henry Leleu, Courtesy the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Sylvia Rivera was meant to go to Martha P. Johnson’s birthday party on the night of the Stonewall Riots in 1969. They were both transgender sex workers who became politically active in the New York scene at the same time; Rivera was a Puerto Rican drag queen while Johnson was African-American. They both frequented Greenwich Village, which was frequently targeted by police as a gay neighbourhood. Cops used entrapment tactics to arrest men for solicitation and raided bars, revoking their liquor licenses if they had “disorderly” patrons. When the NYPD set upon the Stonewall Inn, the tension had reached breaking point. The officers roughly hauled staff and customers out of the bar. “We were not taking any more of this shit,” Rivera declares. “It was time [to fight].” People outside began throwing bottles and the riot on Christopher Street continued for six days.

Protesters took to the streets in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots in lower Manhattan in the summer of 1969. Stonewall marked a turning point in the gay rights movement.

It’s worth noting that many people would not have identified as transgender because the vernacular at that time was different. For instance, the 1966 revolt was reported with the headline “Drag queens protest police harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria”. Later, “transgender” and “transsexual” were largely used in reference to trans people who had and had not had sex-change operations. Growing up a feminine Latinx boy, Elizondo was called “joto,” “queer,” “sissy.” “Transvestite” and “cross-dresser” further described a spectrum of gender nonconformity. The words used to identify queer people were (and continue to be) overwhelmingly pejorative, although of course some are being reclaimed. There is some irony that the bravery of so-called deviants and ‘sissies’ created the possibility of queer liberation.

We cannot allow Pride to be whitewashed. It is not just a party, but an opportunity to reflect. The systematic targeting of black and brown people by police is an indisputably central element in queer history. People of colour continue to be on the frontlines today. Martha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Donna Personna and Felicia Elizondo are only a few of the heroines we celebrate and we are inspired by their example as we march forward.

Written by studio team member Petite Pretzel.

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