Identity

LGBTQ Celebs Believe the Fight for Their Rights Is Not Over

On the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Billy Porter, Hayley Kiyoko, Josie Totah, Alicia Garza, Danica Roem and more reflect on that critical event and its legacy.

by Emma Goldberg and Sabrina Bleich
Jun 26 2019, 3:53pm

Image by Hunter French, photos courtesy of the participants.

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular LGBTQ bar, sparking six days of demonstrations demanding civil rights for the community. The uprising is heralded as the birth of the modern gay liberation movement. A year later, on its anniversary, the first Pride march was held in New York City. History is marked by moments when the balance of power shifts — when the courage of communities, often young and marginalized, enable social transformation. The uprising at Stonewall was one of these.

Ahead of Stonewall’s 50th anniversary, VICE asked leading LGBTQ figures— spanning generations and fields of work—about the legacy of the uprising. From artists and entertainers to organizers and politicians, from those who came of age in the Stonewall era to a new generation of queer voices—each interviewee brought a different story, and a distinctive viewpoint on LGBTQ history and their hopes for the future.

If you could go back and share one question, comment, or story with protesters at Stonewall, what would you say?

Billy Porter, performer, singer, and actor (Pose) : What was the tipping point for the rage that demanded you finally fight back? We’re at another tipping point right now. My rage is so overwhelming all I want to do is fight. It’s not really healthy but sometimes it’s necessary, so my question would be what was the tipping point for the rage and how did you harness it?

Chrystos, two-spirit poet and activist: All I’d say is “megwetch, gracias, thank you,” because Stonewall was the beginning of the end of the bar raids I experienced as a young dyke. They are the Rosa Parks of the queer movement — a seemingly ordinary act of resistance which changed everything.

Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter: I would ask how [they]wanted to be remembered, what [they] imagined was possible? I would ask you what [they] think we’re doing well now and where we may have lost our way? As it happens, time can soften and distort our best intentions, and those with power and privilege can revise the bold, audacious vision that has inspired so many. Today, [their] uprising is celebrated by millions around the world, and while the party goes on the politics behind the party don't always accompany it.

Hayley Kiyoko, singer, songwriter, and actress: Without your bravery, I could not be where I am today. Your willingness to fight for acceptance and our basic human rights has paved the way for future generations of the LGBTQ community to thrive. You are all an inspiration.

DeRay McKesson, Black Lives Matter activist: To continue to tell the truth in public. Protest, at its root, is telling the truth in public. And when we think about issues of identity, so often, people have been told that the only way to live is really quietly. That the only way to be safe, is in the shadows. And if I went back — I’d just want to give a reminder, that we have to tell our truth as publicly as possible.

We’re seeing monumental advances for LGBTQIA representation — but of course, there are always more stories that haven’t been told, experiences that haven’t been represented. Let’s say you’re given a platform to share a new, untold story. What’s the story?

Alok, writer and performance artist: I am committed to the queer ordinary. So much of the representation that we have access to is about positioning us as spectacles, rarely permitting us access to the quotidian. In other words: no, life is not always glamorous and exceptional, sometimes it is unremarkable. I’d love to tell the story of a gender non-conforming weather reporter. Documentary style. How they became passionate about weather, how they deal with their anxiety before going in front of the camera, their thoughts on climate change and what we can do about it.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD : When I was starting my family, I quickly realized that there weren’t actually all that many ways that we were represented in media. Raising young kids, it was always difficult to find books, cartoons, TV shows, that were representative of our family. That’s why it was so important to me to incorporate a new category into the GLAAD Media Awards just two years ago: Kids & Family Programming. I’m excited to see this category of storytelling continue to grow.

Danica Roem, Virginia Delegate and the first openly transgender state legislator: My mind keeps going back to the families of the young black trans women who I covered as a reporter, who were brutally murdered between late 2015 in Montgomery Village* and six months later in Rockville. I go back to the stories of what happened afterward in that community, especially when someone who has been violently taken away from the world, how that affects the other people who identify like them and who knew them, it strikes fear into the community. When we’re talking about our most vulnerable populations in particular, why is it that a black trans woman in Baltimore has a life expectancy of 34 years old? I’m 34 years old.

Josie Totah, actor (Jesse, Glee): Kids with disabilities is a genre of people misrepresented on television. Normalizing the idea that you can have special needs and be gay, or be black and dyslexic — those stories will push this moment forward.

What’s an LGBTQIA issue or question you’ve changed your mind on?

Eliza Byard, Executive Director of GLSEN: When I graduated from high school, my graduation present was Bowers vs. Hardwick. When that happened, I wasn’t particularly out to anyone but it was a huge moment of coming to terms with what I was going to face as a lesbian in the United States. At the time, I thought, “Okay, we just need to convince folks through evidence and legal arguments. We’re going to turn this institution around. The Supreme Court will come to understand how this decision was wrongly taken and facts will win the day.” Over time, that did happen, but it required not just facts and evidence and speaking to the institution directly, but so much work to change the social condition around the institution as well.

Sarah Kate Ellis: While I believe that the fight for marriage equality was an incredibly important milestone for our community, I realized that marriage wasn’t the finish line. There is so much more work for us to do before we achieve full acceptance for LGBTQ people. We need to focus on the alarming rate of transgender women of color being murdered across our country and the globe, we need to focus on the complete lack of transgender portrayals in major studio film releases, we need to focus on the fight for racial justice, ensuring LGBTQ people are protected at home and at work.

Lea DeLaria, comedian and actor (Orange is the New Black) : I used to be more extreme in terms of people being out in the public eye. As I’ve gotten older and a little bit more understanding of life, I’ve realized that people can only be where they are. It’s hard to be out. If it wasn’t, then everyone would be right? I speak at universities a lot and some say, “I’m not out to my parents and I don’t know how.” If you’re not out to your parents and you don’t know what to say then you’re probably not ready to be out to your parents. When you know what to say, you’ll say it. Until then, love yourself and give yourself a break. This is not easy stuff.

In a movement that often demands the personal become political, how do you create healthy boundaries? How do you care for yourself in moments when your boundaries are crossed?

Tiq Milan, writer, media consultant and advocate: I think creating healthy boundaries is really about being able to say no. No is power. It’s a part of our culture as trans folks to always be accommodating and say yes. But being able to say no is revolutionary. With no explanation and no fear of any kind of repercussions.

Billy Porter: I’m working on that. We got to a space after the AIDS movement where we felt comfortable and we felt like things were moving in the right progressive, inclusive direction. Now we’re back at the same place where we were before it feels like to me. It feels like we’re going back into the streets to fight for shit we already won and I think the best thing that I’ve done for myself recently is limit my news intake, limit the 24 hours news cycle, limit the punditry, limit the commenting on what’s going on.

Sage Grace Dolan Sandrino, youth activist and GLAAD Campus Ambassador: I think that one thing that is really important to address is this recent commodification of activism, especially activism from Gen-Z queer folk. And especially POC queer folk that are Gen-Zers. I think the media wants to tell a specific story and they demand that your social media timeline be full of reposts and political commentary. For a lot of trans people and queer folks, our activism is purely existing and we know what’s going on in our community and we can feel it. We don’t always have to speak about it.

Janetta Johnson, formerly incarcerated advocate and executive director of the Transgender, Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice Project : I pray and meditate. I’m a very spiritual person and I listen to old gospel music, and a lot of that music is about overcoming and praying to your creator and focusing on the power integrated in myself.

Adam Rippon, Olympic figure skater: So often our personal lives and our political views get intertwined because you can’t live your everyday life and not be reminded of people’s rights being taken away. When I’m talking with somebody I put it all out there because that’s who I am, my political views, and the things I stand up for all go hand in hand.

Buck Angel, adult film actor and producer: Self-love and caring is the number one thing that we as a community have to learn to do. We’ve lost self care. It means you are first. Before and above the community. What you need to do is to understand that you are important and your work is important and what you do is important.

What’s a third-rail issue we need to tackle head-on now for the long-term vibrancy of the LGBTQIA movement?

Alicia Garza: There was a lot of energy around marriage equality and I personally would like to see that same energy around trans people and making sure that their dignity is intact and that we defy the statistics of Black trans women having an average life expectancy of 35 years old.

Tiq Milan: I’ve been working with this organization called Rainbow Railroad . And their whole thing is helping LGBTQ refugees. I think this is a place where there needs to be more conversation. We’re in a really contentious place with immigration. There are a lot of brown, queer people who are trying to get into this country because they’ll be killed otherwise. I think it lends itself to larger conversations about anti-blackness and imperial ideas of American exceptionalism.

Sage Grace Dolan Sandrino: I think that we really need to focus on trans and queer students in schools. And that doesn’t just mean making sure they can use their preferred gender pronouns and their chosen name. It means including our history alongside the cis, heteronormative history in the curriculum. It means making tangible space for these students in their own studies in the school.

What’s something you’ve learned from older generations of LGBTQIA organizers, and what’s something you’ve learned from younger generations?

Adam Rippon: I think from the younger generation I’ve learned fearlessness. There’s so many young people in the queer community who are so much younger than I was when I came out and so open about who they are which I find really inspiring. For the older generations I have such a sense of gratitude for what they’ve gone through and lived through, and it’s because of them that I have the life I have today.

Cameron Esposito, comedian and host of the podcast Queery : I think patience. Being able to let yourself rest requires a little bit of patience for the status quo. I think that patience is something that is not present at all in the younger generations and it shouldn't be. And maybe it is too present in older generations. But that’s good because it helps us stay balanced.

Hayley Kiyoko: I’ve definitely been inspired by the older generations who were courageous enough to live openly. I always say you have to see it to believe it, and I think growing up I knew that there were other people like me. But what I’ve learned from younger generations is that we don’t have to wait until we are adults to live our truth. There are many young artists and activists who are normalizing the LGBTQ narrative in their work. I couldn’t be prouder to be one of them.

*Correction 6/26/19: As the result of a transcription error, this article previously stated that black trans women were murdered in Louisiana rather than Montgomery Village in a quote attributed to Danica Roem. This article has been updated. We regret the error.