Her name was Aimee Stephens, and on one quiet day in 2013, she decided to write a letter to her boss. Sometimes that’s all it takes, an act of courage so simple yet so staggering it changes the course of a nation. Stephens asked to be seen for who she was, and for the right to continue, as she put in her letter, to do her very best at work.
Aimee Stephens passed away before she could witness the the groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling that protected her and others like her from the blatant discrimination she faced at the hands of her employer. It is often this way with change makers. They come in all forms and shapes: quiet, loud, brash and boisterous or firmly stoic and resolute. But they all have an eye for what is just and unjust, and even more, they have the courage to demand justice, even while knowing that justice may not come in their lifetime. They persist nevertheless. Because Stephens asked, and then insisted on her rights, millions in the LGBTQ+ community no longer need to fear discrimination on the basis of who they are, or who they love. They gained a privilege that so many cisgender, heterosexual workers never even had to consider.
The poignancy of such a ruling occurring during the 50th anniversary of the very first Pride March is sublime. That it correlates with the fervor of the Black Lives Matter movement is powerful, given that Pride commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots. In his book, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked a Gay Revolution, David Carter interviewed Michael Fader, a Stonewall regular who described the riots thus:
We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of [expletive deleted]. It wasn’t anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration… Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us…. All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it’s like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.
It is a well worn meme this summer, but it bears repeating, that the first Pride was a riot, a protest that insisted on the basic rights too long denied LGBTQ+ individuals, and on the front lines of that protest were Black and Brown LGBTQ+ individuals like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera whose intersectional identities insisted that they demand the rights and privileges that were due to them. Neither Johnson nor Rivera lived to see the changes that their activism wrought, but they never stopped working for social justice. They never stopped insisting on their rights. Stephens’ victory in court is a major step in the right direction, but the disparities that plague Black and Brown communities are compounded for our Queer and Trans communities of color.
Pride is a time to celebrate, and it is a time to increase the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community, but it is also a time to harness the power of collective voices, and for those with privilege to amplify and ally with those who are not in spaces of power. Happy Pride, the work continues.