Check your own privilege: Challenging the oppression and prejudice that divides us

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June 2, 2011
By: Jason Lydon/TRT Columnist
We are regularly told that the Stonewall riots were the beginning of the Gay Liberation struggle, but it is far more complex than that. As the Civil Rights Movement was getting stronger and successes were being won, a multi-racial movement of queer working class, poor, and gender non-conforming people began organizing their own communities of resistance. In San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood many queer and transgender young people were organizing the first organization for queer and transgender young people, The Vanguard. These young people and their older transwomen allies were regular patrons at Compton Cafeteria. At the time it was illegal for individuals to wear clothing of the “opposite” sex, thus making any place transgender people gathered a target for police harassment, the Compton Cafeteria was no exception. In August of 1966 transgender patrons and their allies were fed up with the police harassment and collaboration by the business owners and they fought back. Coffee was thrown in faces of cops, windows were smashed, and people fought back in the streets. The uprising went on for numerous nights until finally things settled and patrons were able to go back to the cafeteria with less harassment. We all know the chant, when we fight, we win!

No one moment began the movement, rather it was a culmination of many moments including Compton, Stonewall, and a culture of resistance that reached far beyond the bars, cafeterias, piers, and parks frequented by queers and transgender people. The Gay Liberation Front, GLF, formed in New York City immediately after the Stonewall Riots. They were considered part of the New Left; they chose their name specifically because of its allegiance with the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. It was understood that gay liberation would only come with the liberation of all people and the end of war and militarism. GLF chapters quickly sprang up around the country, from San Francisco to Boston.  GLF chapters marched in anti-war rallies, joined anti-police brutality marches, and included jails along the route of early gay pride parades.

On Wednesday May 18th I attended a book release event at the Harriet Tubman House in the South End.  The event was centered around Michael Bronski’s new book, _A Queer History of the United States_, published by Beacon Press. Along with Michael speaking there was a panel that included Spectra Asala, founder of Queer Women of Color and Friends (QWOC+); Gary Bailey, Simmons School of Social Work; Amit Dixit, Boston LGBT Film Festival and The History Project; Laura Godtfredsen, Stonewall Communities Inc.; and Ellyn Ruthstrom, Bisexual Resource Center. One of the incredible aspects of the event was that it was co-sponsored by such a large variety of people including the Bisexual Resource Center, the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition, The Multicultural AIDS Coalition, Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, and others. Due to the realities of oppression within our GLBT communities, such as racism, patriarchy, transphobia, ageism, biphobia, it is too often that we are unable to come together to recognize the complexities and celebrations of our interconnected histories.

The voices that were at the event are voices that need to be interacting with each other more and more often. This is one of the great possibilities of pride month. Many anti-racism trainers will remind us that diversity and multiculturalism are not simply theoretical ideals to work towards; they are the wonderful fruit of doing the hard work of anti-racism and anti-oppression work. It is not enough to simply tokenize individuals, asking one or two people/groups to validate the dominant groups work.  We need to build authentic relationships across organizations and across identities. To do so, we must first take account of ourselves and check our own privilege. From there we can take on the work of challenging the oppression and prejudice that divides us. When we take on this difficult challenge we strengthen ourselves and each other. For Pride this year, take account of yourself, look around at your queer space and see who is and who is not in the room. Why is that? What brought you there? What keeps other people out? In our efforts to build the world we dream of we may stumble, but take some risks during Pride, knowing we have so much potential in our midst.