The Fight for Queer Rights is a Fight for Freedom for All

Author: Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir

Translated by: Melkorka Edda Sigurgrímsdóttir

On the 25th of May 2020, George Flynn was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis in the United States. In the wake of his killing there have been riots that made waves throughout the world – Iceland included. Peaceful protests quickly turned into physical conflict between protestors and the police, as the authorities condoned police brutality against protestors and enacted military law. 

These incidents are connected to a long history of police brutality, where authorities around the world have for decades used force and police brutality systematically against black people. The abuse that they have had to endure is enough to awaken seething anger in anyone, especially when the legitimacy of their actual experiences is drawn into question.

This is something that queer people are all too familiar with – many times we have faced prejudice from those who have tried to justify their prejudice or downplayed the seriousness of prejudice against us. The fight for queer rights is entangled with the fight for equal rights for all, as queer people aren’t just queer. Homeless people, sex workers and disenfranchised queer people have all played a big part in moving forward the modern day revolution and the fight against police brutality.

The Stonewall riots

We cannot forget the violence that police forced upon patrons of the Stonewall Inn which led to the Stonewall riots in 1969 – the riots that led to what we call Pride today. The riots led to the first formal Pride protest on Christopher Street in New York which was later named the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade.

It is impossible to definitively list the chain of events that happened that fateful night. Many stories tell of how the riots started and they are different depending on who you talk to. No matter what, it cannot be denied that the group at Stonewall was a diverse group of queer people that had many a time found themselves outcast from society due to prejudice and violence. Included there were black trans women, non-binary people and drag queens – including the more frequently mentioned Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

One description from the riots say that Marsha climbed a lamppost outside of the Stonewall bar and threw a bag full of bricks on the hood a police vehicle— it was known at the time that sex workers carried bricks in their bags to defend themselves against violence.

Marsha was a black sex worker that at the time identified as a drag queen, as did Sylvia, and the pair of them were the founders of the Gay Liberation Front of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which was created to assist homeless queer youth and sex workers.

It remains unclear how they would identify today, but in various resources they have been referred to as trans women. From historical records, both spoke of being drag queens, transvestites and just simply Marsha and Sylvia. Their gender expression was almost always feminine and they used feminine pronouns. The nuances of gender and expression throughout time remind us of how our ideas and understanding are constantly shifting and how it can be problematic for us to apply modern definitions and understanding upon people whose identities were formed in a completely different time, or over 50 years ago.

A revolution for all of us

Regardless, it’s clear that Marsha and Sylvia were members of the trans community and both played a major part in raising awareness of queer issues during the riots and in the years that followed.

The Stonewall riots have been very contentious within the queer community as different groups have tried to take ownership of the riots and even tried to nullify the participation of trans people, black people, homeless people and sex workers. This has caused a lot of pain within the queer community and formed a hierarchy or narrative of who can and cannot be a part of the revolution. All such ideas ignore the spirit of the riots and Pride itself, which were protests against police brutality and the prejudice that queer folks experienced then, and still do today, especially disenfranchised queer people.

It is obvious that a diverse group participated in the riots and many of them experienced violence as a result, and dealt with homelessness due to prejudice and being cast out from their homes due to being queer. To me the spirit of the protests and the meaning behind them will always be more important rather than who threw the first brick. To me, it was a collective effort.

Queer paradise in Iceland?

Even though these events may seem distant to us here in Iceland, queer people here have certainly had to fight for their rights. The first Pride march in Iceland depicted this, where queer people marched for their rights, for things such as inclusion in the workplace and general civil rights. A lot has happened since then, and while Iceland has made some great progress since the first Pride, we still have a long way to go.

Queer people, especially refugees, asylum seekers, trans and intersex folk are still subjected to prejudice and discrimination in Iceland and their legal rights have not yet been secured. We need look no further than to 2019 to see a queer person arrested by the police during the Pride Parade, and the many recent examples of queer asylum seekers being deported to countries they escaped from due to extreme homophobia or transphobia. Prejudice still festers in Iceland; for instance within the world of sport, or within the healthcare system, where gay men are still not allowed to donate blood.

It is therefore important, more than ever, that we do not ignore our history and the diverse group of people that have taken part in this fight for equality and equity. Even though Reykjavík Pride is absolutely a time to celebrate how far we have come and our vivacious culture, we also have to remember that Pride is, and will always be, a protest. 

All around the world we are seeing a dark undercurrent rising, where the rights of queer people are being stripped away. This leaves many of us very vulnerable, in particular those of us who belong to other disenfranchised groups, such as queer people of colour, homeless people and sex workers.

The fight ahead

This undercurrent isn’t just rising abroad, but also right here in Iceland, and in the 2020 presidential election, right-wing populist Guðmundur Franklín received 13,000 votes. His politics are on par with the politics of Donald Trump, President of the United States and Jair Bolsonoro, President of Brazil. It is cause for concern that such a large group of people supports such dangerous politics, which fundamentally go against our civil rights and liberties. This is, in my opinion, a threat to our entire society and our democratic practices.

So let us continue fighting for a more liberal, equal and just society where we can all live in peace and harmony – as queer and happy as we can be. The fight is far from over.In the words of Marsha P. Johnson: “No pride for some of us, without liberation for all of us.“