This month President Obama released a proclamation recognizing June as LGBT Pride Month. Just a couple of days earlier the Anti-Violence Project released its annual report documenting the violence experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people. According to this report, this past year we witnessed a 21 percent increase in physical violence against LGBTQ people. The proximity of these events is not coincidental; they highlight a dilemma we face as queer activists (of color) where our representation is regarded more than our reality.
In 1995, my aunt Urvashi Vaid, a lesbian activist, coined the term “Virtual Equality” to describe a political moment in the United States where the gay movement had achieved visibility without actually obtaining substantive access to power. Virtual equality was offered as a critique of a type of politics invested in representation––but not actually shifts in livelihood. While gays and lesbians had achieved unprecedented attention, they were still vulnerable to harm. Almost two decades later, as another queer brown activist, I find myself confronting the same curse of virtual equality––inheriting a movement that seems more invested in superlatives than statistics.
When Obama decided to recognize LGBT Pride, I wonder if he did his research. Pride, as we celebrate it today, was established to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, an event that is often attributed as the beginning of the LGBT movement in the United States. Stonewall was not a corporate parade; it was a riot against police brutality that was initiated by trans and gender non-conforming people of color like Marsha P. Johnson. The same people who started our movement are still fighting for their lives today.
Despite recent media attention of transgender people of color––like Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox––these communities are experiencing increased violence. According to the AVP report, almost 90 percent of the LGBTQ homicides this past year were people of color. Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of homicide victims were transgender women. Of the survivors of violence, 32 percent expressed experiencing hostile attitudes from the police.
Not much has actually changed since 1969: the police are still profiling and harassing trans people of color. Representation does not trickle down to justice.
This June, I want us to take a moment to revisit Vaid’s idea of virtual equality and be more critical of how the lip service given to LGBT rights has not really translated to much on the ground. If we really commit ourselves to justice for all LGBT people, we must recognize the ways in which Pride has failed trans and gender non-conforming people of color. Obama’s words ring hollow when we recognize that it’s not actually getting better for our communities, it’s getting worse.
In this light Pride isn’t a cause for celebration; Pride is lethal. Pride is lwarping the truth: rainbows make us forget that the storm is still happening. Equality isn’t cause for celebration. Equality is a mirage: it is more about representation than reality. Our government wants to pretend that we are equal by giving us words, not giving us safety or housing.
As LGBTQ activists not only must we resist violence against our communities, we must also resist distorted media representation. Despite what Obama and your favorite Netflix series might suggest, violence against LGBT people is still the norm. It often feels like the bulk of the work we have to do as grassroots queer and trans activists is combat the (mis)representation of our stories. How are we supposed to actually build collective power to end violence when we spend most of our time doing damage control? How are we supposed to build a movement when we are forced into always having to be reactive rather than proactive?
This June I want us to think about the disconnect between a television screen and a back alley. I want us to stop only glorifying the success stories without also naming the prevalence of violence. I want us to recognize how representation does not mean rectification. Representation has and continues to distract us from the reality on the ground. The progressive narrative that it’s somehow getting better for LGBTQ people prevents us from recognizing that this narrative is just that: a story, a fiction, a fairy tale. How are we supposed to be proud when the very government that proclaims this month LGBT Pride month is routinely harassing and criminalizing LGBT people of color?
If there is one thing to celebrate this month, it is the legacy of resilience of trans and gender non-conforming people of color. It is the fact that despite staggering and chronic conditions of violence, our communities continue to find ways to support one another, and resist. So this June for the 45th Anniversary of Stonewall, I invite you to dissent and reclaim our representation. Instead of participating in Pride festivities that distract us from reality, I invite you to join me on the streets to continue the work of the Stonewall Riots for the 10th Annual Trans Day of Action coordinated by the Audre Lorde Project – a march for the rights of trans and gender non-conforming people of color.
Our communities do not need lip service. We need safety and security. We need jobs and affordable housing. The LGBTQ community is not a political concept, theory, or abstraction. We are bodies facing routine and systematic attack. This Pride, I’m not interested in virtual equality, I’m interested in liberation. Join me?