50 years after Stonewall: New York City's transgender community feels left behind

Fifty years after the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village gave birth to the modern gay rights movement, some in the city's transgender community say it hasn't shared in the progress gained by others. Violence, police harassment and job discrimination are still a daily struggle, they say.

'Within the larger LGBT+ acronym, the T still kind of remains silent,' activist says

Transgender activist LaLa Zannell says the gains made by the LGBTQ community since the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York 50 years ago have not been shared equally with the transgender community, which still faces discrimination on a daily basis. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

Standing in front of the Stonewall Inn in New York City's Greenwich Village brings mixed emotions for LaLa Zannell. She feels pride for the black transgender women like her who helped lead the fight for LGBTQ rights here 50 years ago, but she also feels that her community hasn't shared in the progress gained since then.

"There's been a lot of visibility and there's been lots of progressive legislation across the country, but within the larger LGBT plus acronym, the T still kind of remains silent," she said.

Her emotions bubble up to the surface when a high school tour group passes by and she sees a guide reading a version of the Stonewall story on an iPad. 

"Stonewall was a riot, never forget it. It was led by black and brown folks like me," she yells across the street as the guide, students and their teachers look away nervously. 

On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a routine occurrence at the time. On that night, however, the LGBTQ community, fed up with constant harassment, fought back. That led to days of riots and protests that ultimately sparked the modern gay rights movement. It's the reason Pride is celebrated in June. 

Zannell said that too often that story of the Stonewall uprising leaves out key players like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, both transgender women of colour who were at the forefront of those events 50 years ago. 

"We had no choice but to fight back. We got tired of what was happening to us," Zannell said 

Marsha P. Johnson hands out flyers in support of gay students at NYU in 1970. (Diana Davies-New York Public Library/Reuters)

She said the erasure of their role speaks to the larger marginalization of the transgender community. From issues of homelessness and job discrimination to mass incarceration and police harassment, she said there is still a lack of empathy toward transgender people. 

According to a 2015 online survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 58 per cent of transgender people say they've been harassed by police. Since 2018, according to reports by The Advocate and Human Rights Campaign, at least 36 transgender women have been killed violently across the United States, many of them women of colour.

Zannell said there has also been a reversal of rights for transgender people during the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, including the ban on transgender soldiers in the military and the proposed rollback of rules protecting transgender people from discrimination in health care. 

Birth of a movement

Millions are expected in New York City this weekend as it hosts World Pride to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn. 

It began that night of June 28, 1969, with a routine police raid on the bar that was the heart of gay culture in New York at the time. 

"I would say that at least a third of the people, if not more, were trans people," said Mark Segal, author of And Then I Danced: Travelling the Road to LGBT Equality. He was 18 and at the Stonewall Inn that night.

"People of colour had to be at least half of the people there, if not moreso," Segal said, "and the reason being is really simple; they didn't have jobs and they had nothing to lose."

A sign that was reportedly hung following the police raid in 1969 is displayed in the Stonewall Inn in New York. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

He said from the protests emerged the Gay Liberation Front, an inclusive group that had members across racial lines and included transgender activists. But, Segal said, after about a year, other groups, made up of largely white men, took over the movement, favouring a more mainstream approach. And that left transgender women on the sidelines.

"We had people of colour, we had trans faces, we had youth and that had never happened before," Segal said of the movement born out of Stonewall. "But unfortunately after that first magical year came an organization called the Gay Activist Alliance. They didn't like that diversity for the most part."

'Stigma to being transgender'

The progress the LGBTQ community has achieved since 1969 has been well-documented, but the feeling that the gains made have not been distributed equally is acutely felt in the Jackson Heights section of the borough of Queens in New York. There, transgender women of colour like Joselyn Castillo say they're afraid to walk the streets at night.

"There's a stigma to being transgender," Castillo said through a translator. "If I go out after 10 p.m., police assume I'm doing sex work and will harass and threaten me with arrest."

She said she was out once with her brother to get medicine from a pharmacy when they were approached by police officers who demanded they prove they were related and she wasn't engaging in sex work.

Trans-community activist Bianey Garcia with Make the Road New York, a community organizing group focused on new immigrants, said police use a liberal interpretation of loitering laws to arrest women for what amounts to "walking while trans." 

The riots at the Stonewall Inn were followed by protests through The Gay Liberation Front in 1969. (Mark Segal)

"If you are dressing sexy, [the police] can stop you and ask you many questions: Why are you walking or why are you talking to people? It's really upsetting seeing our community treated that way," Garcia said.

She said some in the transgender community do turn to sex work, often as a last resort when all other options are exhausted. Garcia said job discrimination is still a major hurdle for the trans community.

"It's super difficult because no one is going to tell you I'm not going to give you this job because you're trans. They put many barriers up and don't give it to you," Garcia said, noting a recent push to decriminalize sex work at the state level failed to pass before the legislative session ended for the summer.

The apology

The New York Police Department has been attempting to modernize its treatment of the transgender community but a 2017 inspector general's report found a 2012 update to police protocols hadn't been properly implemented. The report found that between 2012 and 2016, only six of NYPD's 77 precincts received training on the updates for dealing with the transgender community. 

The NYPD did, however, offer an apology to the broader LGBTQ community earlier in June. NYPD commissioner James O'Neill did what many in his post had refused to do before and apologized for the police actions 50 years ago at Stonewall.

"I do know what happened should not have happened. The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple. The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive and for that I apologize," O'Neill told a gathering on June 7. 

While the apology was warmly received by many gay rights groups, Zannell was not impressed.

"Will it take another 50 years for you to apologize for the things that you're doing today? An apology without action is nothing."

No time for celebration

Apologies aside, Zannell said the push for equality for the trans community doesn't start with police but within the LGBTQ community.

"The infighting that happens, still to this day, it's sad that for 50 years it's been like this, no progression or real investment in the equitable advancement of trans black and brown folks," she said. 

That's something longtime activist Segal has noticed in the way national gay and lesbian rights groups treat transgender issues.

Transgender woman Joselyn Castillo says she's afraid to walk outside at night for fear of being mistaken for a sex worker by police. Many in the transgender community in Jackson Heights, in Queens, say police harassment is still an ongoing issue. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

"I don't see them writing about the trans people, mostly trans people of colour, who have been murdered or beat this year," Segal said. "I think our community needs to demand more."

For Castillo, the gap that exists between the trans community and everyone else casts a shadow over this month's Pride festivities.

"Because trans people here don't have job opportunities, don't have the opportunity to live freely, I don't think this is a time to celebrate," she said.

Messages and memorials

In May, the City of New York announced it would create a memorial to honour the memory of the transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. The city said it would be the first permanent monument in the world honouring transgender people. 

For Zannell, it's a good step in documenting and honouring the history of transgender activists. She challenges people to get to know a transgender person as a way of humanizing them. 

"I challenge you just to talk to a trans person. They have the same ambitions as you. They just want a piece of American pie, a piece of the American Dream, that's all they want."


Steven D'Souza

Senior Reporter

Steven D'Souza is a Senior Reporter based in Toronto. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.