As we move toward liberation for queer people, we look to LGBTQ+ leaders past and present


“As long as my people don’t have their rights across America, there’s no reason for celebration.” — Marsha P. Johnson

This month is the first Pride I’ve spent with my person since her release earlier this year. After years of separation, we hold space together in reverence for our matriarchs and forebears, LGBTQ people criminalized and brutalized for asserting our right to exist and to be ourselves, and we hold tight to our friends inside whose lives are threatened daily by the prison-industrial complex.

In 2018, my first summer free, I marched with Lambda Legal in the Pride parade in NYC. Throngs of bodies pressed against the new metal barricades, celebrating their freedom to live and to love Outside and Out loud. As I made my way to the Stonewall Inn, my phone rang. Inside it was dark and cool and the music was thumping, so I ducked into a bathroom to accept a call from my person. We could hardly hear, but I tried to tell her where I was, where I wished she was, too, before I pressed back into the crush, wondering how long before I could hold her in public, freely and fearlessly, finally.

In 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots, when a common raid triggered a collective act of resistance, gay sex was illegal, queer consorting “disorderly,” and heteronormativity enforced by the police. 50 years later, prisons still literally place people in one box or another. Once imprisoned, labeled “state property,” our bodies are no longer our own, and consensual sex is illegal. Any display of love and solidarity is policed, “deviant.”

LGBTQ people are overrepresented at every stage of criminalization, and once ensnared in state punishment systems, violated and held in solitary confinement at similarly disparate rates. The Department of Justice opened an investigation into GA prisons last year, naming violence against LGBTQ people as a priority, one year after the Southern Center for Human Rights called for DOJ intervention as our state prison system descended to new depths of violence amid the unmitigated spread of COVID-19. The department of corrections stopped reporting the unprecedented numbers of deaths, each representing an incalculable web of loss, and instead responded with bureaucratic neglect, complicity, and more violence: the torture of solitary confinement, a deadly response to problems jails and prisons cannot solve, only perpetuate. 

In the streets of Atlanta, Black trans and queer folks have long led the fight for real community safety solutions — including the fight to close the city jail, a monument to the criminalization of race and poverty. When Ju’Zema Goldring was arrested for jaywalking and held over 6 months in jail on a bogus drug charge, her case exposed the Atlanta Police Department’s quota system, for which officers are perversely incentivized to make more arrests, and to arrest people for the harshest charges, perpetuating an overreliance on charging, jailing and disappearing people.

Black trans people- 1 in 2 of whom have been criminalized- still lead the fight for access to healthcare and bodily autonomy and against state violence and neglect. Ashley Diamond won the rights of trans people in GA prisons in 2015, only to have those rights repeatedly denied. In a recent article, she wrote: “It is my hope that whatever your prison horror, my friends, you walk in love, stand strong in faith and forgive those gatekeepers that grossly mistreated us, not for them but for us, so that we will have peace and will be able to fight for our ultimate prize: Freedom.”

In the decades since the Stonewall riots, the movement started by Black and Brown trans and queer people like Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Riviera gained momentum and often excluded them from the storyboards. But we give thanks and look to them for hope and guidance, who created an all-inclusive space for all of us to be honored, worthy, and held in community, bravely loving ourselves and one another.