When I sat down to write a blog post to honor the Stonewall anniversary, I wasn’t sure exactly where to start. The complexity of the events of this month and this anniversary threatens to overwhelm my capacity to integrate them. June was chosen as LGBT Pride Month to commemorate the Stonewall riots of June 28, 1969, which launched the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement. What is often left out of the story of Stonewall is the fact that trans and gender non-conforming people, in particular trans women of color, were on the front lines of this riot sparked by yet another police raid on a gay bar. In 1969, Sylvia Rivera was a 17 year old with Puerto Rican roots active in the civil rights and anti-war movements who refused to go quietly when the police attempted to arrest everyone present in the bar that night. Sylvia, along with others in the crowd, including her African-American friend Marsha P. Johnson, another transwoman and sex worker, fought back by throwing beer bottles at the police. The ensuing riot resulted in days of protests in Greenwich Village’s Christopher Street and served as the catalyst for formation of the Gay Liberation Front and other groups organizing for LGBTQ rights. The Pride parades that are held all over the country in June were originally intended to mark this occasion when the some of the most marginalized people resisted their oppression and worked together to secure their right to live and love with dignity.
June 2016 is also the month in which a gunman opened fire on Latinx night in a gay bar in Orlando, Florida. Twenty-three of the 49 killed were Puerto Rican. The party going on at Pulse on June 12th included a drag show and many of those dancing that night, just like that night at the Stonewall Inn in June 1969, were young, trans and gender non-conforming. The Orlando shooting has been called the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, which may be true if you define the terms narrowly, but that framework ignores the part of U.S. history that includes widespread massacres of Black, brown, and Native people. Massacres like the Battle of Nooherooka, North Carolina, where nearly 1,000 Tuscarora Indians were killed or captured and 1,000 more were sold into slavery. Or the 1866 Memphis Massacre in which a riot broke out when a White police officer attempted to arrest and jail a Black ex-soldier. Within three days, 46 Black people had been killed and over a hundred homes and buildings had been burned. Or the 1921 bombing of an affluent Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma known as Black Wall Street. In less than 12 hours, 3,000 African-Americans were dead and over 600 business destroyed as KKK-led mobs dropped bombs on the area and burned buildings. We will likely never know all that motivated Omar Mateen to walk into that bar in Orlando and kill 49 people before being killed by police, but we do know that the victims of the Orlando shooting were among the most marginalized in our society, and like the victims of these other massacres, were located in the crosshairs of racism, classism, xenophobia, and U.S. colonialism.
If only the complexity of the month of June ended there. June 17, 2016 marked the first anniversary of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston where 9 Black people were gunned down by a White shooter in the church sanctuary during Bible study. Just two days later, Black communities around the country would celebrate Juneteenth, which commemorates the day that news of the end of the Civil War and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation reached slaves in Galveston, Texas, a full two years after the official end of slavery in the United States. I grew up about 30 minutes from Galveston and had never heard of Juneteenth until I was doing reproductive justice organizing in Atlanta a few years after college. This June also marked the beginning of the month-long observance of Ramadan in which Muslims around the world fast from sun up to sundown to celebrate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. For Muslims, Ramadan is a time of cleansing, peacemaking, and recommitment to the faith and helping those in need. While no one attempted to blame the Charleston shooting on White people or men or children of divorce, all identities that the shooter carried, news that the Orlando shooter was a Muslim of Afghan heritage drew immediate calls from some for a ban on Muslim migration into the U.S. Since the Orlando shooting, threats of violence against Muslims have made some too afraid to attend their local mosque. Some mosques have hired armed guards to patrol the grounds during prayer services. And in the midst of all of this gun violence, the most talked-about legislative proposal to address this issue would have furthered racial profiling and Islamophobia by using no-fly lists to prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns.
In light of all of this, perhaps it’s fitting that June is also PTSD Awareness Month as June 27th, the day before the Stonewall anniversary, was designated by Congress in 2010 as PTSD Awareness Day to honor an Iraq War veteran who took his own life after returning home. Those of us who work with clients with PTSD know that it is not only the wars fought abroad that can result in post-traumatic symptoms. Living at the intersections of oppression based on race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and immigration status takes its toll on the strongest of nervous systems. Life at these intersections can look and feel like living in a war zone. Many of my clients feel a sense of relief when they are able to view their symptoms - anxiety, hypervigilance, nightmares, anger, irritability, insomnia, emotional numbness - as a function of post-traumatic stress and no longer as a character defect. When I first heard about Minority Stress Theory, based on social science research on increased mental and physical health problems among racial and sexual minorities, my first thought was, duh. But that dismissive response didn’t take into account the power of being able to talk back to the voice in your head that sounds like the voice of your oppressor. How easy it is for us to internalize the endless messages we encounter about the relative lack of worth of our lives when we stand at those intersections of oppression. How easy it is to blame ourselves and our bodies for not being able to tolerate the psychic abuse we endure on a daily basis. How easy it is to blame each other when our common enemies are so relentless.
On this Stonewall anniversary, I hope we can honor the complexity of our collective struggles with not only kindness to ourselves and those who share our identities, but also with determination to speak and act on behalf of those who do not share our identities but who share our desire to be free. Happy Pride.
Heather Branham, LCSW, a therapist based in Asheville, NC, specializes in helping individuals, couples, and families navigate the complexities of gender, sexuality, and family-building.