By Kevin L. Nadal, Ph.D., City University of New York
Every June, people across the United States and in many parts of the world recognize Pride Month—a month devoted to celebrating the history and experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people. In 2019, Pride Month is especially remarkable, as it marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City. At the time, it was illegal for LGBTQ people to gather in bars and other public spaces, due to overtly homophobic and transphobic laws. It was quite common for the New York Police Department (NYPD) to take advantage of these laws by raiding gay and lesbian bars and arresting clientele; in order to avoid being publicly “outed” or shamed, the individuals arrested often bribed officers in exchange for their release. On June 28, 1969, when NYPD officers raided the Stonewall Inn, the patrons fought back—resulting in several days of anti-police riots and protests. It was documented as the first major uprising that led to LGBTQ community organizing and advocacy for civil rights (Duberman, 2013).
Since Stonewall, there have been several major victories for LGBTQ rights. For instance, while many states had put an end to sodomy laws as early as 1961, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled in 2003 that sodomy laws were unconstitutional—thus decriminalizing sodomy on the federal level (Kane, 2007). Further, while several states began to allow same-sex marriage as early as 2004, SCOTUS ruled, in 2015, that state marriage bans were unconstitutional, resulting in the legalization of marriage equality across the United States. Additionally, in 2009, President Obama put an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies in the U.S. armed forces, allowing LGBTQ people to serve openly in the military; President Obama also signed the Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, adding sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in federal hate crime law (Nadal, 2018). And just recently, NYPD Police Commissioner James O’Neill publicly apologized on behalf of the entire police department for the wrongdoings of the police during the Stonewall Uprising fifty years prior (Gold & Norman, 2019).
Despite these encouraging signs of acceptance for LGBTQ people, there are still many types of legal obstacles that LGBTQ people may face. For example, while many states prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (and some states also prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity), there is no federal law that ensures that people cannot be discriminated against in education or employment based on their sexual orientation or gender identity (Resnick & Galupo, 2018). Many states have introduced “religious freedom” bills that permit individuals and institutions to legally discriminate against LGBTQ people if the individuals’ or institutions’ discriminatory behaviors align with their religious beliefs (Bindewald, Rosenblith, & Green, 2017).
While these types of injustices may affect LGBTQ people as a whole, there are also many disparities currently impacting specific subgroups, including, but not limited to, transgender people, LGBTQ people of color, and transgender women of color. Violence, in particular, has been especially problematic for LGBTQ people of color. In 2017, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that 71 percent of anti-LGBTQ hate crime homicides involved people of color, that 52 percent involved transgender or gender-nonconforming victims, and that 40 percent involved transgender women of color. In 2018, it was reported that there were 29 murders of transgender people in the United States and that an overwhelming majority of these victims were Black transgender women (Human Rights Campaign, 2019). Not even halfway through this year, there have been nine reported homicides of Black transgender women, three of which occurred in Dallas alone (Gold, 2019). Given these staggering numbers, some advocates have called for a “state of emergency” for Black transgender women.
It is imperative for practitioners who work within the criminal justice system, the mental health system, or both, to be aware of the many issues that still continue to negatively impact LGBTQ people. It is important for practitioners to be aware of the many biases that they themselves may have when they work with LGBTQ people, including the implicit biases of which they may not be aware of. For instance, many heterosexual and cisgender therapists may be judgmental of sexual behaviors they are not familiar with, may consciously or subconsciously push for gender conformity or gender role norms with their clients, or may even pathologize values and standards that do not match their own. In doing so, they may actually create an unsafe environment for their clients that then causes them to drop out of therapy—a trend that is common among LGBTQ people (Vetlman & Chaimowitz, 2014).
Further, it is especially important for practitioners to consider intersectionalities in all of their work—that is to say, the ways that people’s multiple marginalized identities may negatively impact their life experiences and the way that they navigate the world. Such cultural competence is especially important given the decades of research finding that communities of color and LGBTQ people still tend to underutilize mental health services because of stigma, lack of culturally competent therapists, and even the re-traumatization that occurs when they experience bias in psychotherapy (Nadal, 2018).
Specific to the criminal justice system, it is crucial for policy makers, law enforcement officers, judges, attorneys, and others to follow the lead of NYPD Police Commissioner O’Neill by acknowledging the historic mistreatment of LGBTQ people by the systems in which they work. While individuals may not necessarily believe that they have personally enacted overt homophobia or transphobia toward others, they must recognize that systems have historically mistreated LGBTQ people and that there are many individuals across these systems who continue to do so. Individuals who are truly committed to advocating for LGBTQ communities must actively combat homophobic and transphobic policies, microaggressions, and normalized biased behaviors. Being a part of the solution means speaking up when any injustice occurs and integrating social justice principles into one’s professional roles. While being vocal may be difficult, especially when one is the lone or dissenting voice, it is the only way to push for social change and equity for historically marginalized groups.
In conclusion, while Pride is a month that is and should be celebratory, it is also a month to be reflective. We can celebrate our histories, our identities, and the many ways that we can live as our true and authentic selves. We can both celebrate and reflect on how far our country has come in becoming more accepting of the rights of LGBTQ people. And we must also reflect on the many other obstacles we must overcome in order for LGBTQ people to have the equitable rights they deserve.
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