Identity

Major LGBTQ Orgs Across the US Are Waking Up to Racial Justice

“It is critical that LGBTQ organizations do not think the quest for LGBTQ equality is separate, distinct, and devoid of the quest for racial justice. If I'm not free as a Black man, I cannot be free as a gay man.”
July 1, 2020, 2:24pm
BLM
Photo by Brandon Bell via Getty Images.

Bamby Salcedo knows that America’s current system of policing doesn’t work because it didn’t work for her.

Before serving as executive director of the TransLatin@ Coalition, Salcedo spent 14 years in and out of prison. At the time, she recalled that she was “homeless, a sex worker, and a drug addict” and was arrested numerous times for doing what it took to survive with limited opportunities. According to research from the Center for American Progress, trans people are twice as likely than the average American to be unemployed and four times as likely to be living in poverty.

Salcedo experienced routine violence and dehumanization in the vicious circle of recidivism, saying that she was sexually assaulted “both on the streets and also in jail.” In a 2015 report from the National Center for Trans Equality, 58 percent of trans Americans who had interactions with law enforcement over the previous year said they had been harassed, misgendered, verbally abused, or assaulted.

“I shouldn’t have gone through those horrible experiences, but this system says we are not worth it and not worth investing in,” Salcedo said. “People in law enforcement need to see us as humans, as someone who is just like them.”

While Salcedo and other trans women of color activists have long been fighting the issue of police harassment and violence, many other large nonprofits have historically overlooked their concerns. But now, as protesters in more than 2,000 cities and towns call for an end to America’s ongoing police violence epidemic following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—as well as countless other unarmed Black and brown people—in the hands of the police, LGBTQ nonprofit organizations have joined that fight. In addition to echoing demands to defund and transform law enforcement, many groups say they will be refocusing their efforts around racial justice.

“A lot more organizations are really taking a new look at what they do, how they do their work, and making sure that their work is more grounded in racial justice issues in a way that they may not have before,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a leading LGBTQ organization that has long aimed to raise awareness around the epidemic of trans murders in the U.S.

Salcedo and David’s organizations were joined by more than 350 LGBTQ groups in signing onto a June 17 letter calling on national and local lawmakers across the U.S. to redirect resources currently allocated to law enforcement toward social services. The nine-page document, which was coordinated by HRC, calls for that funding to instead go to “direct assistance programs, affordable housing, education, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and early intervention programs.”

In the letter, local and national organizations including Lambda Legal, The Trevor Project, and PFLAG called to shift front-line responsibilities to health care professionals when responding to mental health crises and for the end of predictive policing. The practice of predictive policing, in which bias-ridden algorithms are used to identify “high-risk” areas.

“When celebrating Pride Month this June, we must remember that the protests and riots from Compton’s Cafeteria to Stonewall were sparked by Black and Latinx transgender women calling for police reform due to harassment and mistreatment of LGBTQ people,” the letter states. “We commemorate the history of the LGBTQ Movement, namely our resistance to police harassment and brutality across the nation, when such violence was common and expected.”

David said the May 29 death of Tony McDade, a Black trans man shot and killed by Tallahassee, Florida police, is a reminder that LGBTQ groups have an important role in the fight against police violence. “It is critical that LGBTQ organizations do not think the quest for LGBTQ equality is separate, distinct, and devoid of the quest for racial justice,” he said. “If I'm not free as a Black man, I cannot be free as a gay man.”

Beyond the national call to action, many organizations are taking a stand in their local communities.In Washington, D.C., for instance, more than a dozen LGBTQ organizations hosted an educational forum on June 12 to discuss divestment from law enforcement, which culminated in an email campaign urging the D.C. Council to defund the Metropolitan Police Department.

Capital Pride, which has helped spearhead these efforts, said that the coalition hopes to see the municipal government focus on “preventive measures so there would not be a need for violence.”

“As opposed to having the police be the first line of defense, the police should be the last line of defense,” said Natalie Thompson, the group’s vice president of records management.

Many LGBTQ nonprofits and community organizations have also begun looking internally to ensure they are not perpetuating racial inequality in their own policies. In May, more than 100 LGBTQ groups signed a statement committing to further “anti-racism and end white supremacy, not as necessary corollaries to our mission, but as integral to the objective of full equality for LGBTQ people.” Signatories included national nonprofits like GLAAD, National LGBTQ Task Force, and GLSEN.

But the statement lacked clear guidelines on how these pledges will be implemented, and some wonder if they are just lip service.

Diamond Stylz, executive director of the Houston-based nonprofit Black Transwomen, Inc., said the trans community has “been screaming to the top of [its] lungs” about police brutality for “decades” and was ignored. She pointed to the 2008 murder of Duanna Johnson, a 43-year-old Black trans woman who was beaten by officers in Memphis, Tennessee and subsequently found dead months later.

Although a handful of LGBTQ nonprofits called for an investigation at the time, Stylz wishes that Johnson’s murder had received the same level of outcry as Mathew Shepard in 1998 or Tyler Clementi in 2020, whose tragic, untimely deaths spurred a national call to action regarding anti-gay hate crimes and bullying. Justice for women like Johnson was instead put on the backburner while mainstream LGBTQ organizations focused on marriage equality, she said.

“It's not until recently that we’ve started having a serious conversation about the intersectionality of oppression and how we have to start looking at the least of us in order to really make the change,” she said.

Salcedo agrees, noting that trans erasure is an unfortunate part of the history of the wider LGBTQ movement, and the damage done “continues to this day.” Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who helped to lead the 1969 Stonewall riots, “were pushed to the side” in the 1970s by mainstream organizations that hoped to present a heteronormative image of the community, she noted. When the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, a forerunner to the Equality Act, was introduced in Congress, HRC initially supported a bill that left out trans people before backing inclusive legislation. The group later apologized for that decision.

“We didn’t advance in parallel with the broader LGBTQ community,” Salcedo said. “As trans people, we are about 40 years behind economically and legislatively. We’re still trying to catch up.”

As LGBTQ groups engage in a call to action around racial justice, Salcedo hopes they also use this moment to reflect on the role they have played in oppressing marginalized segments of their own community. One way to address that legacy, she said, is to invest in trans women of color that have been erased and criminalized at every turn—whether elevating trans people to positions of leadership or supporting the work of local community groups. Stylz’ organization, for instance, provides critical resources and funding to trans women who are survivors of violence and police brutality.

As someone who found herself routinely targeted and imprisoned for simply trying to live, Salcedo knows what it would have meant to have people looking out for her. “I think my life would have been different,” she said. “I'm 50 years old, and I just got a Master’s degree. By now, I should already have my own home. I'm getting there, but it has taken me a long time.”