It’s been 50 years since the fateful summer of 1969, when in the early hours of 28 June New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, leading to an unexpected act of defiance. What began as yet another in a long string of humiliating busts on queer spaces throughout the country, ultimately concluded in a set of riots which would forever change history’s course.
The uprisings provided an unprecedented sense of community and agency to a then-fledgling LGBT+ movement, marking the transition from early “homophile” groups to the out-and-proud Gay Liberation Front and pride marches held throughout the western world. All of this has led to the Stonewall riots being cherished as an emblematic part of LGBT+ history, the reason why Pride month is globally celebrated in June. And yet, as we commemorate their golden anniversary today, there’s a crucial part of the story which is constantly left out.
The Stonewall Inn provided a safe haven for LGBT+ people in New York, but even more importantly, it was a gathering point for queer homeless youths and street workers. Marsha P Johnson, a homeless, African American self-proclaimed drag queen and later transgender activist, is credited as having played a critical role in the uprising against the police, although her contribution has often been erased from many popular accounts. Homeless and poor gay teenagers formed a large bulk of the rioters, including a young student named Mark Segal, who an hour after the beginning of the raid scribbled “tomorrow night Stonewall” on a nearby pavement and wall to attract further crowds.
Half a century has gone by and while LGBT+ rights have advanced significantly throughout the world, homelessness, inequality and poverty still remain rampant issues within the queer community. Yet, as Pride has increasingly assumed a polished, corporate-endorsed facade, many have been tempted to view the LGBT+ rights movement as some kind of “metropolitan, middle-class” exercise in identity politics.
Not only is this notion incredibly simplistic and in itself inherently queerphobic, but it also ignores how poor and homeless LGBT+ people are among the most brutally oppressed members of society. With far-right populism on the rise and the inherited legacy of systemic inequality still plaguing the world, it’s time we fully acknowledge Pride’s fundamental role as part of the fight for economic justice – and why now is the time to do so.
In the UK alone, a self-purportedly “LGBT+-friendly” and “tolerant” country, one-quarter of homeless people self-identity as LGBT+, compared to roughly 6 per cent of the general population. According to a 2015 study by the Albert Kennedy Trust, parental rejection stands as the key cause of LGBT+ youth homelessness, followed by domestic abuse and violence, with 77 per cent of respondents claiming their sexual orientation or gender identity served as a major reason for them being thrown out of their homes.
But this only takes into consideration the direct consequences of queerphobia. When you consider the increased prevalence of mental illness and substance abuse as a result of childhood bullying, marginalisation and low self-esteem, it’s clear that the risk of homelessness and poverty is significantly enhanced for the LGBT+ community, especially in the shadow of Tory funding cuts to some of the country’s most impoverished areas.
Even if one looks beyond the homelessness crisis, queer people still face some of the most tangible effects of anti-LGBT+ prejudice – for instance, one in four transgender people have faced discrimination while searching for places to rent. The collective impact of queerphobia may not be immediately visible to those outside of the LGBT+ community, but the truth is that such forms of systemic prejudice and discrimination ultimately end up affecting all of us. When you consider that every homeless person is estimated to cost the UK government roughly £24,000-£30,000 per annum, it’s not a stretch to argue that queerphobia is quite literally harming our economy.
Looking beyond Britain’s shores, the connection between anti-LGBT+ sentiment and poverty becomes even more apparent. In the US, which in spite of giving birth to Pride also holds some incredibly queerphobic regions, LGBT+ homelessness is nothing short of an epidemic, with up to 40 per cent of the country’s 1.6 million homeless youth being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
In Jamaica, which inherited its 19th-century homophobic laws from the British empire, queer youths are aggressively driven out of their communities and relegated to living in storm drains, thus calling themselves “gully queens”.
Anyone who is closely involved in the fight for LGBT+ rights will instantly realise that Pride is much more than a celebration of identity – it’s a quintessential part of the struggle against poverty and homelessness.
It’s for this very reason that we must wholeheartedly reject the “liberal bourgeois” label which many, especially on the far-right, attach to Pride and the LGBT+ community. Pride is for all, yes, but Pride is also a movement which radically challenges systemic structures of oppression. Pride didn’t begin in cosy living rooms and coffeehouses – it started in the streets, outside a gay nightclub, led by rioters who were poor and queer.
The continued trope of Pride being some kind of fanciful by-product of “snowflake” culture gone too far is not only immensely offensive to the countless people who’ve had to fight for the right to express their identity, but it also masquerades a deep-seated form of queerphobia. The notion that LGBT+ rights, especially those that go beyond merely recognising the community’s existence, are “superfluous” or “middle-class” plays into the traditional rhetoric of totalitarian regimes, which have consistently condemned homosexuality on the grounds of being a “Western bourgeois disease”.
For this reason, as either members of the LGBT+ community or its allies, we must bring discussions on poverty, homelessness, imperalism and economic injustice back to the forefront of our efforts.
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