Towards a fruitful middle age: On the 4th decade of the movement and counting

By Victoria M. Rodríguez Roldán, Task Force Holley Law Fellow

When I was 19 years old, I had the opportunity of meeting someone who had been in the Stonewall Inn that fateful summer evening that the New York Police raided the establishment. She was (and still is), an elderly woman, and to a college sophomore like me who was excited about working in the Obama campaign back then, it was like a mix between seeing a historic icon and a religious experience. After all, for me, events like Stonewall had happened a full 20 years before I was even born, and could only be learned about in books (and not the type of books assigned in most schools, mind you). But here was someone who remembered what I considered to be prehistoric events which now make up part of the legends of the movement.

As I think about the history of our movement I think it’s worthwhile to look into how far we’ve gone and how far we still have to go. If the movement is by age going towards menopause, let’s make it a good one.

In 1969, when the famous events at Stonewall happened, to say that things were bleak is perhaps a major understatement. Pride was a term that had no association with LGBT people – some activism had started in continental Europe, particularly Germany and Austria, to be completely destroyed with the ascendancy of the Nazi Party. In the post war United States, some organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis existed, and Dr. Harry Benjamin was starting what would later become the WPATH standards for transgender health. In 49 of 50 states, sodomy was still an enforced crime, the military sought to push LGBT service members out of the closet to then give them the infamous “blue discharge”, which would become a virtual scarlet letter on one’s future aspirations, the bars that existed at the time (often the only safe place for LGBT to congregate or meet) would often be raided by police departments.

When combined with many of the factors that were going on at the time which are often still issues today – the castaway homeless kids that had nothing else to lose, the marginalization and the alienation by society at large, it led to a strange final spark that we see in the events in Stonewall. When Richard Baker and Gerald Nelson brought their case to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1971 for their right to get married, one of the justices rotated his chair to not face their attorney in oral arguments. This is in a great part, the historical context in which we see four years later, the founding of the Task Force (at that time the National Gay Task Force) in New York City itself.

The origins of the modern American LGBT rights movement – dating from the days of Stonewall and when Harvey Milk was being elected to the San Francisco City Council, thus look like a distant, remote story, like when adults reminisce the places of their childhood.

And it’s not unwarranted in its own way: The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is dying, marriage equality is becoming the law in many parts of the country, non-discrimination laws are being passed in the unlikeliest of places, LGBT elected officials have gone from a few city council seats throughout the nation to the U.S. Senate, a quiet revolution has been expanding transgender access to updated documents, and many other developments are going on that most people in 1969 would have never even remotely imagined.

Yet at the same time, often the reason why one reminisces one’s childhood playgrounds is because a lot has not changed. And indeed, when one scratches the surface one sees also the things that have remained unfortunately much like the days of Stonewall, despite all the political advances.

Nationally, around 40% of homeless youth self identifies as LGBT. In New York City, where so much of this entire journey started, half of the city’s 3,800 homeless youth are LGBT. We never did justice for the homeless youth that were in the Village that summer evening.

In the 2009 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly a quarter of Massachusetts high school students identified as LGB had attempted suicide, four times more likely than their counterparts. In the Transgender Discrimination Survey by the Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, a full 41% of transgender people surveyed had attempted suicide.

In the same survey, over a fifth of all African American transgender respondents had reported physical violence and assault as a result of their being transgender.

In this very day and age, transgender immigrants in detention face months if not years in solitary confinement – a form of torture under the UN conventions – in DHS detention centers while being pressured to consent to deportation, often to countries where they face even greater risks of harm due to their being transgender.

Same-sex couples still face much higher rates of housing discrimination according to HUD’s most recent study, and one-fifth of transgender people surveyed in the Transgender Discrimination Survey have reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives directly because of being transgender.

We have achieved a lot as we head through our 4th decade as a movement – but much like democracy and freedom is the most vulnerable when people are unable to enjoy its rights, so are the rights of the LGBT community when many of its members are simply focusing on survival. That’s our assignment for the next forty years of the movement in America: Ensuring that all LGBT people can enjoy these rights rather than those of us who have had the luck and privilege of being able to live the dreams that were mentioned almost 45 years ago.