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Pride Month: On The Stonewall Riots, Ecology, And Intersectionality

Happy Pride, comrades! It’s June again—this month we celebrate collective liberation, radical joy, desires, and unashamed love. Through this piece, we honour our fearless queer ancestors’ fights for reclamation and keep them alive in our words and movement.

How it started

Pride Month goes back to the Stonewall Riots. The 1960s and preceding decades were not welcoming times for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans. For instance, solicitation of same-sex relations was illegal in New York City. LGBT individuals flocked to gay bars and clubs, places of refuge where they could express themselves openly and socialize without worry. However, the New York State Liquor Authority penalized and shut down establishments that served alcohol to known or suspected LGBT individuals, arguing that the mere gathering of homosexuals was “disorderly.”

Thanks to activists’ efforts, these regulations were overturned in 1966, and LGBT patrons could then be served alcohol. But engaging in gay behaviour in public (holding hands, kissing or dancing with someone of the same sex) was still illegal, so police harassment of gay bars continued and many bars still operated without liquor licenses—in part because they were owned by the Mafia.

On June 28, during yet another police raid and fed up with constant police harassment and social discrimination, angry patrons and neighbourhood residents hung around outside of the bar rather than disperse, becoming increasingly agitated as the events unfolded and people were aggressively manhandled. At one point, an officer hit a lesbian over the head as he forced her into the police van— she shouted to onlookers to act, inciting the crowd to begin to throw pennies, bottles, cobblestones and other objects at the police.

Within minutes, a full-blown riot involving hundreds of people began. The police, a few prisoners, and a Village Voice writer barricaded themselves in the bar, which the mob attempted to set on fire after breaching the barricade repeatedly. The fire department and a riot squad were eventually able to douse the flames, rescue those inside Stonewall, and disperse the crowd. But the protests, sometimes involving thousands of people, continued in the area for five more days.

It was a galvanizing force for LGBT political activism, leading to numerous gay rights organizations, including the Gay Liberation Front, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and PFLAG (formerly Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

Coalition Building

Let’s not forget that Stonewall was a riot, an act of defiance not simply against transphobia, but against racial discrimination and police brutality. Pride does not exist in a vacuum. Pride has always been intersectional. “Queer is a coalition-building word,” American writer and activist Eli Care writes. The rejection of queers as “unnatural” and as “crimes against nature” has a long history of precarity and policing. An example is the United States in March 2004 when country officials in Tennessee voted to amend the state’s criminal code so that “the country could charge homosexuals with crimes against nature.

We see Popes reiterate that to ignore this human ecology—by engaging in destructive unnatural behaviours—would be on par with sin. Such discourse reinforces the entrenched idea of queers as unnatural; it affects how queers think about—and relate to—natural spaces, the environment, and environmental language and issues, and it complicates queer experiences of ease in nature. A lot of queer environmentalism, then, is reclaiming the environment, and using nature as an organising focus.

Reframing and reclaiming the “natural”

Queer interventions into the uses of “nature” and the environment expose the dark purposes to which nature and environmentalism can be put: how the very language of nature and environmentalism can often mask harm to humans and nature. A queer ecology then exposes the violence that emerges from these taken-for-granted terms.

As Alison Kafer writes, “Although concern with the environment has long been an animating force in disability studies and activism, “environment” in this context typically refers to the built environment of buildings, sidewalks, and transportation technologies.” The social model tries to will disability away by saying that stairs can be replaced by ramps.

But what about a steep rock or a sandy beach? Disability still exists. According to Alison Kafer, the “natural environment” is not so distinct from the  “built environment”. The natural is also built. Social arrangements have been mapped on to nature: take campgrounds in the United States, for example, where the campsites are made to face each other so they can monitor the behaviour and discourage queerness.

As Mei Mei Evans argues, “One way of understanding the culturally dominant conception of what constitutes ‘nature’ in the United States is to ask ourselves who gets to go there.” Access to wilderness determines our very understanding of the environment itself.

We tend to think of definitions of “nature”, “wilderness”, etc as self-evident, assuming their meanings to be universal, stable, and monolithic. Nature, however, is historically and culturally grounded. What is needed then is an interrogation of these assumptions, of the binaries of self, nature, and human.

Further reading

If you’re looking to pour over and immerse yourself in more queer literature this month, here is a list of readings that resist the neoliberal corporatization of Pride, exploring queer liberation, disability theory, sexual freedom, and much more. We’ve drawn from and referred to some of these texts to broaden our understanding of queer environmentalism in the paragraphs above so if you’d like to delve deeper into themes explored in this piece, this resource list is a good place to start:

1. Feminist, Queer, Crip by Alison Kafer: An exploration of the intersections between environmental justice, reproductive justice, cyborg theory, transgender politics, and disability that are typically discussed in isolation.

2. Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire edited by Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands: This collection stands as a powerful corrective to views that equate “natural” with “straight” while “queer” is held to be against nature.

3. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation by Eli Care: Eli Clare’s writing about his experiences as a white disabled genderqueer activist/writer. This one took us beyond identity politics and into themes of class, race, urban-rural divides, gender identity, and environmental destruction.

4. And finally: How is queerness represented in the environmental movement? You do not want to miss this conversation between Green Is The New Black and Isaias Hernandez, of @queerbrownvegan!


FEATURED IMAGE: via Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A person standing against a wall with a rainbow projecting on their face and the surface behind them.