I haven’t been this sad or this mad (or this appalled by Presidential callousness) since the early days of the AIDS epidemic. It was the mid-1980s, and I was a young lawyer living in Washington, D.C. Then we were fighting another pandemic: AIDS. It was hitting hard, and my friends were dying in droves while President Reagan and the federal government either did nothing or made things worse.
Since COVID-19 began sweeping across the U.S., it has been hard not to reflect upon those early days of AIDS. Wondering how things might have been different if the government had responded to that crisis with even a portion of the urgency to which they have responded to COVID-19. But because the victims were almost entirely gay and bi men and trans people, very few people in power cared.
The horrific murder of George Floyd was only one of the most recent—and most visible—examples, thanks to the bravery of 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who stood her ground to record the brutal killing of Floyd on her phone. Because of that bravery, his murder has become a much-needed and long-overdue flashpoint for action. It has prompted a groundswell of unrest demanding change.
I honestly believe, and I fervently hope, that we are seeing the start of a powerful revolution. Political scientists define revolution as a fundamental and relatively sudden change in political power and political organization which occurs when the population revolts against the government, typically due to oppression or political incompetence.
Never before in my lifetime have Americans risen up against government because of its incompetence, its failure to adequately address some of our society’s most plaguing problems, and its flagrant disregard of anti-Black violence by law enforcement. Elected officials across the nation (our President notwithstanding) are finally responding in unprecedented numbers and with unprecedented speed. There is talk like we’ve never heard before. Talking and marching are important first steps. Plus, we need action that results in real, fundamental change. And that will require determination and hard work and continued community pressure.
What is the responsibility of the LGBTQ movement during this time? We are—and must continue to be—deeply involved.
LGBTQ people, especially LGBTQ Black people and other people of color, have long been victims of police brutality born of bigotry. As a result, since its inception, our movement, including our Center, has been engaged in the fight against police violence. In fact, almost all of our own community’s early uprisings were in reaction to police brutality. This includes not only Stonewall, but also the nation’s first queer riot at Cooper Donuts right here in downtown Los Angeles in 1959, ten years before Stonewall.
Our movement has made enormous progress (although so much more remains to be done) in changing the culture of law enforcement as it relates to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. For more than 50 years, the Center has led that battle in Los Angeles. I believe our movement has much to contribute in support of Black-led efforts to change law enforcement as we currently know it.
Moreover, queer leaders have been key players in the Black Lives Matter movement and BLM organizations since the very beginning. I take great pride in the fact that among the women who founded the BLM movement, and among its most powerful current leaders, are queer activists. One of these is Angeleno and dynamic queer artist Patrisse Cullors.
Powerful forces in our country have misrepresented the BLM movement. Put simply, they devalue Black lives so they distort what this powerful and important movement is really about, in hopes of weakening it. This has been happening at a time when white nationalism is being nurtured across the nation, including from the highest office in the land. And these forces are doing the same thing now, with their reaction to the current call to “Defund the Police.” Thankfully, despite some initial confusion about what this call to action really means, there has been a great deal of media focus on clarifying what is real and what isn’t.
The LGBTQ community knows what it’s like to be misunderstood. We have been accused of everything, from seeking to destroy the family to eroding the moral fabric of our entire society to bringing God’s wrath in the form of natural disasters and terrorist bombings. So, I’m skeptical when I hear people characterizing movements which they aren’t a part of. Such mischaracterizations are exactly what is happening now by forces opposed to Black-led efforts to make critical change in the very nature of law enforcement and how all of government works to more effectively build community health and safety.
That’s what “Defund the Police” is all about. Building community health and safety.
Patrisse Cullors is an inspiring thinker, speaker, and writer. One of her more thoughtful discussions concerns the concept of abolition. She says: “What does it look like to build a city, state, or nation invested in communities thriving rather than their death and destruction? To ask this question is the first act of an abolitionist.” And “with abolition, it’s necessary to destroy systems of oppression. But it’s equally necessary to put at the forefront our conversations about creation. When we fight for justice, what exactly do we want for our communities?”
The LGBTQ movement’s purpose, and the Center’s entire mission, has been about ensuring that our community, our entire community—Black, Brown, White, Asian, Indigenous—not just survives, but thrives. It has been about fighting for what is right and articulating what we want, and what we demand, for our community. It has been about holding governmental entities, including law enforcement, accountable and changing an entire culture. We haven’t always been polite. We haven’t always been peaceful. We haven’t always been understood, even by some of our own. But we’ve always persevered, moving inexorably forward in our fight for justice.
The Center is a committed ally in support of BLM and other Black-led organizations, using the strength and power we have built over the last 50 years to stand with them as they lead this transformational movement for revolutionary social change.