Pride began as a protest against police brutality.
Over 50 years ago, transgender women of color led an uprising against the New York Police Department following its violent raid of the Stonewall Inn.
According to journalist Dick Leitsch, who has been identified as one of the first to report on the events at Stonewall after witnessing them first-hand, the uprising came on the heels of police raids of various LGBTQ+ clubs and bars in New York’s West Village, in what appeared to be an organized effort to shut them all down.
Leitsch wrote that there was something about the NYPD’s targeting of Stonewall in particular that struck a chord in the community and propelled the rebellion: “The ‘drags’ and the ‘queens,’ two groups which would find a chilly reception or a barred door at most of the other gay bars and clubs, formed the ‘regulars’ at the Stonewall. To a large extent, the club was for them…. ‘drags’ and ‘queens’ had no place but the Stonewall….”
In other words, according to Leitsch, the club was the most “tolerant and broadminded gay place in town.” It served to protect people from the streets, “or from getting arrested as vagrants.”
The Stonewall resistance, now remembered as a galvanizing force for LGBTQ+ activism and Pride celebrations across the U.S., illuminated the shocking license with which police officers could oppress and inflict violence upon people in the LGBTQ+ community. But that authority was not unique to the NYPD. Across the U.S., the sweeping authority of vagrancy, loitering, and “suspicious persons” laws gave police departments nearly unlimited power to brutalize and criminalize people. This had destructive consequences for LGBTQ+ communities nationwide.
The ACLU News archive documents the ways in which the police weaponized vagrancy laws against marginalized communities, and the ways in which the ACLU fought back through legal advocacy and representation. Like any good historical record, it also drives home the ways in which the past is not past: it is still with us in the form of laws and policies that continue to drive the criminalization of LGBTQ+ people, and especially transgender women of color.