By Ed Holtom
Four years ago today, I went to my first ever Pride parade in London. It was the first time I went to a gay club - Heaven. In a ripped denim crop top and distressed denim shorts, we queued anxiously in a line that stretched all the way back to Charring Cross Station. What awaited was a true epiphany of desirability, and confirmation that my identity was not as isolated as I had previously thought. At the age of 17, it was a hugely affirming event for me. At the time I had no sense of what it took for a Pride parade to even exist in London, or for all these fellow queers to be able to come out and celebrate with one another. I took it for granted that spaces and events such as this were part of our culture since time began. I was honoured and excited at my future within it, but I wasn’t aware of any real cultural heritage.
Pride Parades and gay clubs have formed a huge part of my identity, and have allowed me to be more comfortable with who I am and what that means in the world. Of course, the micro and macro aggressions that accompany the life of any queer individual have, too, played a large role. On this day, four years ago, I realised that people who had similar experiences to me were brave enough to come and celebrate who they were for the whole world to see. So bold, beautiful, emotional and visceral was this celebration of queerness that I did not even imagine the lengths that had been gone to in order to achieve it.
Today, I feel a profound sense of gratitude to those who participated in the first riot at the Stonewall Inn which started the Gay Liberation movement in 1969 (n.b: riots can work). I feel admiration and awe at the courage of trans women such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who risked their lives for the injustices that gay people suffered. In the face of certain punishment, violence, and a high chance of death, they declared that enough was enough.
And yet, though they instilled a sense of community and showed us our power in speaking up with one voice, black trans women have been fundamentally left by the wayside in the gay liberation movement. Almost immediately, the movement was co-opted by white gays who saw it as an opportunity to gain parity with their white, straight counterparts. It was not an intersectional movement. White gay people actively sought to exclude black queer individuals from the movement the latter had created, as they did not think that their inclusion would be beneficial to their goals. A reductive gay rights movement was formed around the liberal ideas of equality under the law, as opposed to liberation for queer individuals. The equality sought was not inclusive of those black trans individuals who had risked their lives to create the movement in the first place.
The knock-on effects of this approach to gay rights can be seen today in the haunting statistics that surround the lives of trans individuals. According to Stonewall and YouGov, today in the United Kingdom, two in five trans individuals experience hate crimes pertaining to their gender identity. One in four trans individuals have been homeless for a period of time. The life expectancy for trans individuals is significantly lower than their cis-gender counterparts, and for black trans women, the outlook is even worse. You cannot help but wonder if these statistics would look different had the gay rights movement been intersectional.
Things do not need to stay the same. Increasing rates of trans-visibility in the media may go some way to educating people about the true reality of the lives of trans individuals. By analysing gay history within the last fifty years we can see that so much of the privileges that we experience today are thanks to the sacrifice of black trans women.
Our work is not done. Today in Poland, ‘LGBT Free Zones’ are in place around the country, as politicians deride the destruction of ‘family values’ that our community is supposedly responsible for. I and most queer people know what it is to fear for our safety, to fear being targeted for the way that we dress, walk, speak, look or act. We also know the lengths we have gone to conceal our identities to make ourselves more palatable for the heteronormative world. The freedoms that we enjoy in the United Kingdom, to live most of our lives unbothered, are not enjoyed by our trans and non-binary counterparts.Yes, all of us experience oppression, but there is no doubt that trans individuals have it the hardest. It is no doubt that white gays, like myself, have historically played a part in the continued oppression of trans individuals.
Moving forward, if we are to achieve the right to live by the values we so readily espouse under the rainbow flag, active efforts must be made to listen to and support LGBTQ+ individuals of colour, and special effort must be made in preserving the hard-won rights of transgender people. Progress has been made, but the emergence of TERFs threatens this. We see more clearly than ever a social movement that is co-opting principles of equality for it’s own benefits, without inclusion of those who are in the most need of being lifted up. If cis gay people do not step up now to play their role, the LGBTQ+ community will continue to erode. Moreover, we will be doing a great injustice to the members of our community to which we owe our proudest, happiest moments.