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Pride essay: Whose freedom?

by Terry Beswick

Terry Beswick, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, discussed the then-proposed Castro LGBTQ Cultural District at a March 2019 community meeting.
Terry Beswick, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, discussed the then-proposed Castro LGBTQ Cultural District at a March 2019 community meeting.  

LGBTQ people are free, right?

Yes, we've come a long way in the 50 years since police broke up the peaceful "Gay-In," San Francisco's first commemoration of the Stonewall riots against police harassment and brutality against gays in New York City.

Indeed, this Pride Month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that LGBT people are protected from discrimination in employment under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The law that most famously outlawed racial discrimination also includes "gay and transgender" people.

That's something to celebrate.

And yet, the ruling comes in the wake of police murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, and so many other Black and Brown people, which has quickly broadened into a national discussion of systemic racism and white supremacy.

It also comes during a continued wave of killings of Black transgender women across the U.S.

And it comes in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately affects African American and Latinx people, exposing disparities in access to health care, employment, income, and housing that leave them particularly vulnerable to infection, illness and death, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

So which LGBTQs are free, exactly?

When I was a part of ACT UP in the late 1980s — a group that was primarily gay, white, and male, like myself — this suburban kid got quite an education in the ways that society institutionalizes discrimination against people of color, and how this resulted in disproportionate access to health care, in particular.

And yet the focus of my work for over a decade — and of so many other gay, white, male activists — was on accelerating the pace of research for safe and effective treatments.

I'm proud of the work we did. And yet I am not proud that once we had access to the drugs that would save our own lives, so many of us largely turned our backs on the underlying issues of racial and social justice, which continued to kill our brothers and sisters of color, gay and straight.

If we survived, many of us simply moved on.

The history of the gay rights movement is littered with similar examples. As we have gained a seat at the table, we have often failed to lift up those most disenfranchised among us, namely people of color, trans, and gender-nonconforming people. And even when we have been inclusive of the full rainbow spectrum of the community, we have often insisted on narrowing our focus to winning LGBTQ rights, i.e. rights for the privileged white folks among us.

But if there is anything I have learned in the last several weeks of the revitalized Black Lives Matter movement, it is that we have so much work left to do.

"When you solve it for Black, queer, and trans people, you solve it for everyone," SF Pride board President Carolyn Wysinger said at a recent forum.

Like so many others, I have been deeply inspired by the racial justice movement of young people calling for real change in our country. I'm hopeful that this is more than a moment, and that this time, we as LGBTQ people remember that we are not free until we all are free.

Terry Beswick is executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. He is also a San Francisco Pride 2020 community grand marshal. For more information, visit https://www.glbthistory.org/

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