By SAGE. This article originally appeared on the SAGE blog
LGBTQ+ History Month presents an opportunity for us all to #LookBack at our shared history so that we may understand the gravity of what generations of activism accomplished and so that our collective history can inform the actions and decisions of our future.
Our elders have shown us that our history is still alive and well in the present, not because they are stuck in the past, but because the lessons of the past continue to help us build a more loving, accepting, and understanding future. Join us in examining some of the powerful moments of our community’s history and reflecting on how we can carry the lessons we have learned into our futures.
Reimagining Uprisings for 50 years
On the night of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Uprising completely changed the course of modern LGBTQ+ history. When police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular place for LGBTQ+ people to gather, the crowd spontaneously came together and fought back, forcing the officers to retreat. This sparked a wave of protests that united the Village residents and LGBTQ+ communities across the city and country to demand the right to live without fear of being arrested.
One year later, this instrumental protest was reimagined as the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, a peaceful way for LGBTQ+ people and allies to take to the streets in solidarity and keep the spirit of Stonewall alive. During its first year, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles all hosted marches, each attracting only a couple of thousand marchers. 50 years later, The New York City Pride March was hailed as one of the largest events in the City’s history, with an estimated 4 to 6 million New Yorkers and visitors taking place in events throughout the city. Learn more.
The Aftermath of the Stonewall Uprisings brought about more than just the annual Pride March. Conceptualized by a group of gerontology students, SAGE was born in the ‘70s as an organization to serve and advocate for our communities elder pioneers.
Early LGBTQ+ rights activists innovate on successful protest tactics
On April 21, 1966, 3 members of the Mattachine Society, an early organization dedicated to fighting for gay rights, entered the Julius Bar in Greenwich Village and declared that they were homosexual. At the time, the New York Liquor Authority had veiled discriminatory laws that prohibited serving LGBTQ+ patrons in bars on the basis that homosexuals are “disorderly.” Innovating on the successful sit-ins of the civil rights movement, Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell, and Randy Wicker decided to stage a “sip-in.” As expected, they were refused service. This event was covered by The New York Times and The Village Voice, after which the State Liquor Authority released a statement clarifying that the decision to serve individuals or not was up to the bartenders. Soon after that, the Commission on Human Rights stepped in and declared that homosexual individuals had the right to be served in bars. Learn more.
Harnessing a flag as a symbol of inclusivity
Gilbert Baker was notorious in the 1970’s San Francisco LGBTQ+ community for his flamboyant drag costumes, tactful political banners for street demonstrations, and as the head of the Gay Freedom Day Celebration’s Decorations Committee. In 1978, local activists, along with City Supervisor Harvey Milk, asked Gilbert to create something that could become a new symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. The result was an 8-stripe rainbow flag: hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, and purple. A year later, this design was revised; the hot pink stripe was removed due to the unavailability of flag fabric in this color, and the turquoise stripe was removed to create an even number of stripes that could be displayed on either side of streetlamps during the parade.
Fast forward nearly 40 years, Philadelphia stepped into the national spotlight with a new version of the Pride flag, the same but with the addition of 2 new stripes: black and brown. These stripes were added to call specific attention to people of color within the LGBTQ+ community and to symbolize the community’s commitment to greater inclusion of diverse and intersectional identities.
In 2018, Daniel Quasar iterated even further, releasing the Progress Pride Flag: a design featuring the original 6 stripes overlayed by a 5-strip triangle on the left side containing the black and brown stripes as well as white, pink, and blue stripe representative of the transgender flag.
Most recently, an even more inclusive version of the flag was released in 2021, which incorporates a new triangle in the center of the arrow: yellow with a purple circle representing the intersex community.
The flag is simply a symbol and cannot be used to hide the truth that racism, sexism, transphobia, and bigotry are challenges we continue to confront within our own community. However, to have a symbol that evolves with our community allows it to accurately reflect the original value of inclusivity from which it was born. Learn more.
Vital partnerships between city, county, and community save lives
AIDS hit Seattle hard during the ‘80s. The nationwide homophobia and lack of federal action left counties and cities with almost nonexistent AIDS relief support. Community activist organizations including Dorian Group, the Greater Seattle Business Association, and the Seattle Gay Clinic, came together with the Seattle-Kings County Department of Health to rally the Seattle City Council for a program that could effectively provide education, referral, and counseling services. The City Council received them, and on July 11, 1983, Ordinance 111216 passed, declaring a state of emergency and allocating emergency funding for the program’s creation.
Over the next five years, the partnership flourished, establishing funding for virus antibody tests, providing temporary housing and hygiene services, and establishing a pediatrics project. They even won one of the first federal grants for AIDS protection granted by the Centers for Disease Control, with which the Seattle-Kings County Department of Health opened an independent unit focused entirely on AIDS prevention. Alongside the City departments, The Northwest AIDS Foundation and the Chicken Soup Brigade stepped in to provide meals and shelter to people living with AIDS. A Seattle chapter of ACT-UP spearheaded advocacy projects for increased AIDS funding and supportive legislation. All of this support, services, and research would not have been possible without the confluence of state, city, and community organizations who recognized that it was through partnership that they could create the biggest impact. Read more.
Creating a memorial to withstand time
While helping to organize San Francisco’s 1985 candlelight march honoring the lives of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, long-time human rights activist Cleve Jones learned that over 1,000 San Franciscans had been lost to AIDS. To honor these individuals, he asked marchers to write the names of those lost on placards to be taped to the walls of the San Francisco Federal building in a patchwork, paper quilt. This scene birthed the idea of creating a national memorial for those at risk of being forgotten by history.
In June 1987, Cleve Jones created the first panel of what would become the Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, and with Mike Smith, Gert McMullin, and several others, organized the NAMES Project Foundation. The public response was immediate; handmade panels from across the country flooded into the San Francisco workshop alongside donated sewing machines, equipment, and volunteers. The Quilt was displayed for the first time on October 11, 1987, when 1,920 panels were laid across the National Mall in Washington, D.C. during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
By 1992, the Quilt contained panels representing every state in the USA and 28 additional countries. Learn more.
Expanding the narrative of the trans experience
Transgender advocate and head of Transgender Michigan, Rachel Crandell, was tired of hearing the same narrative of trans violence over and over again. Since 1998, Transgender Day of Remembrance has been a day to honor transgender and gender nonbinary homicide victims. But Rachel wanted a day that celebrated transgender individuals, rather than mourned for them. Tired of waiting, Rachel made one herself in 2009, dictating that March 31 would be Transgender Day of Visibility. She organized a panel outside of Detroit and posted on Facebook urging others to organize events for their peers and communities. Rachel was shocked by how quickly the grassroots holiday was acknowledged and celebrated across the country and abroad. Today, millions of people recognize March 31 as International Transgender Day of Visibility, a day to inspire hope, celebrate the trans experience, acknowledge the resilience of transgender and gender nonbinary communities, and empower individuals to live authentically. Learn more.
Just this past year, the Trans Legacy Project captured and celebrated the many vibrant ways that transgender elders refuse to be invisible through a stunning physical and virtual gallery experience. Check it out here!
Bridging gaps in support systems, connecting across generations
Gloria Allan, also known as Mama Gloria, was blazing trails and living unapologetically since the height of Chicago’s South Side drag ball scene. Gloria was lucky enough to be raised by a family that supported her transition during the ‘50s and loved her for her authentic self. However, she was acutely aware that this was a privilege denied to many. In 2012 she opened a charm school for trans teenagers and young adults as a safe space to learn about everything from table manners, to job interview tips, to advice on sex, alcohol, drug use, and how to locate a safe bed for the night. In every walk of life, Mama Gloria took it upon herself to give younger generations what their parents, families, and communities had denied them. Phillip Dawkins, who became close to Gloria while writing the play Charm, emphasizes that “History was very important to Mama. It was very important to her to teach her babies that they are not the first people to walk this struggle. She really wanted them to know about transgender pioneers like Chilli Pepper and Alexandra Billings and the Baton club. She wanted them to know they were not alone.”
Mama Gloria passed away in June of 2022 at the age of 76. She was the recipient of the Carmen Vázquez SAGE Award for Excellence in Leadership on Aging Issues at the 2021 National LGBTQ+ Task Force Creating Change virtual conference. Later this month, SAGE will also award her the Joyce Warshow Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously at our annual Gala and Awards in recognition of her tremendous impact on our community. Learn more or check out her documentary.
The evolution of a slur
Since it first appeared in English in the 16th century, “Queer” is a term that denotes a deviance from normality; something odd or incorrect. In the early 1900s, the word queer was weaponized against homosexual individuals, becoming a slur used to brand them as different, dangerous, and lesser individuals.
For modern generations, however, this word has not only been reclaimed as a source of pride but has also evolved far past its original meaning. In fact, it is difficult to assign a single meaning to the word, as it is used fluidly by members of the LGBTQ+ community to encompass a broad range of identities. And as both individuals’ identities and language evolve, so too has our community acronym. What was once simply LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) has evolved into LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning), or at its most expansive, LGBTQIA2 (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Two Spirit).
As is the case with all evolution, we must recognize that individuals of different generations have different relationships with the words we use. LGBTQ+ elders still remember the trauma of being called queer and the threat of fear and violence that the word entailed. While it is encouraging to see our community’s language and labels evolving to be more inclusive, expansive, and compassionate, we must remember and respect the history from which our words have evolved. Learn more.
Up until 2021, SAGE used the acronym “LGBTQ+” rather than “LGBTQ+” because surveys of our elders indicated that they had a strong aversion to the word queer, and the traumatic memories it evoked. However, new surveys in 2021 revealed a shift in our community’s mindset. As a part of SAGE’s recent strategic planning process, in 2021 we conducted constituent research among a diverse cross-section of elders both in NYC and across the country. From that research, we learned that the vast majority of today’s elders in our communities are comfortable with the addition of the Q to the LGBTQ+ acronym. In fact, more than 75% of the elders surveyed were comfortable with LGBTQ+ organizations that include the word “queer” in the acronyms they use; 85% of non-cis elders were very comfortable or somewhat comfortable with using LGBTQ.