Rioting for Rights: The Legacy of Pride

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Guest column by Alex Grandstaff, Spring 2020 Starkloff Career Academy practicum student


“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” – Audre Lorde

Oftentimes, the lives of famous figures in social movements are flattened and simplified, streamlined to fit the heroic narrative that marks them as champions for a single cause. This narrative not only diminishes the legacy of those who’ve paved the way before us, but it does us all a disservice by making it seem as if we can choose only one of our identities to fight for and tuck away the others for history’s footnotes.

Audre Lorde was a black disabled lesbian writer and activist, and her oft-quoted statement, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives,” was said in her 1982 address of Malcom X weekend at Harvard University. She made this statement in the specific context of black liberation, to emphasize that even individual challenges are not solitary.

As a white disabled queer person, this passage has stuck with me for years and informed how I show up in movements. It feels particularly relevant during this pride month as a viral pandemic continues to grip the world, and a systemic one of racism racks the United States.

If I want an equitable world, my approach to activism and life must be intersectional. I must acknowledge all of my self and also recognize that while I may have overlapping experiences with other queer or disabled people, the places where our identities differ will give each of our maps unique shape. Just as an able queer white person must trust my description of living with a disability, I must trust the description a disabled queer person of color gives me of how being a person of color shapes their queer and disabled experiences.

Ignoring the ways race impacts our lives and pretending as if my whiteness does not smooth the road would mean reducing ableism, homophobia and transphobia so they no longer impact white people. We do not achieve justice, freedom or equity by only caring about our own struggles. Our world becomes larger when we put our skin in the game for injustices we could easily ignore.

Our collective freedom is tied to one another’s. The LGBTQ+ movement evolved from multiple identities with common interests, by different experiences coming together to rattle the country in the face of McCarthy Era policies. These strategies drove us from public life and disproportionately impacted LGBTQ+ people of color.

Today, I can openly be who I am without fear of arrest or police violence thanks to decades of riots, protests and lobbying led primarily by LGBTQ+ people of color like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, two of whom were disabled.

The figures we praise as heroes now were smeared in papers and courtrooms in their time. Both disabled and LGBTQ+ rights movements are marked by decades of pushing back against eugenicist policies that institutionalized, sterilized and forced our predecessors from public life.

Yet today, I and others can still legally be fired, denied housing, health access and find little recourse for hate crimes in much of the United States.  Today, costs rise for special education but budgets don’t.

Today, police brutality disproportionality impacts black disabled people. Today, disabled LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are imprisoned in the United States without medical care. Today, we have yearly vigils for all the trans lives taken by bigots.

How do we build a better tomorrow on the foundation made for us by our predecessors?

Call your local officials. Encourage reforms that build public programs that emphasize social service interventions such as housing, mental health, food and employment services over policing. Learn about LGBTQ+ history and disability history. Study the past outside of your culture of origin, see the ways things overlap and intersect, and share what you learn with others.

Support education reforms in K-12 and higher education that integrate these histories into the curriculum, instead of waiting for designated months to talk about them. Be a part of history now: volunteer, donate, start conversations. Discover just how big and varied your community is.

The first pride, triggered by police raiding Stonewall Inn as they had raided so many LGBTQ+ spaces around the country for decades, was a riot. Today, it is a parade.

What else, I wonder, will become a celebration in our lifetimes?

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