On June 28, 1969, the New York Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn, a fixture of the Greenwich Village LGBTQ community. Unlike during previous raids, this time, people fought back, resisted, and rioted. Stonewall triggered a series of uprisings against the criminalization and police brutalization of LGBTQ people. Direct action–based community organizing led to the birth of the Gay Liberation Front, furthered the groundwork for the modern gay rights movement, and filled June with Pride.
More than 50 years later, queer liberation is still inextricably tied to resistance of police violence. In 2020, an overdue national reckoning with structural racism is exposing patterns of police brutality and increasing public awareness about how marginalized groups are disproportionately harmed by the criminal justice system. Modern law enforcement was largely built from patrolling enslaved people and has historically functioned to criminalize groups that threatened dominant white, patriarchal, heteronormative structures, including Black people, people experiencing poverty, immigrants, and LGBTQ people.
Policymakers and researchers alike are currently confronting racism in law enforcement and weighing calls to invest in communities by defunding police departments. Acknowledging that the justice system not only replicates and enforces structural racism but often simultaneously criminalizes LGBTQ people and regularly fails to keep them safe can only add to these conversations.
Police have a long history of targeting queer spaces and criminalizing LGBTQ people
LGBTQ history does not include protection by and good relations with law enforcement. As recently as 2003, LGBTQ people in the US could be jailed simply for acting on their identities. (They still can be in much of the world.)
American sodomy laws and laws regulating gender presentation perpetuated LGBTQ oppression for decades. Throughout the 20th century, it was common for police across the country to infiltrate and attack queer community spaces and businesses.
Today, even with major advancements in LGBTQ rights, police still regularly discriminate against LGBTQ people. During recent demonstrations against police brutality, activists have documented targeted police violence against queer spaces acting as medic stops for protesters. Just this weekend, the New York Police Department used pepper spray and batons against queer demonstrators on the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Uprising.
The racially divided criminalization of sex work also affects how LGBTQ people are policed. The 2015 US Transgender Survey found Black transgender people were 50 percent more likely to report that their interactions with police suspecting them of sex work led to an arrest than non-Black respondents. In a 2015 Urban Institute study of young LGBTQ people, 15 percent of respondents reported that simply having condoms when stopped by police was enough to justify sustained questioning, and even arrest, for prostitution-related offenses.
LGBTQ people are overrepresented in rates of incarceration and prison victimization
This history could help explain why LGBTQ people face higher rates of incarceration and are particularly vulnerable to carceral violence. LGBTQ people of color, especially Black transgender women, suffer disproportionately from structural issues in law enforcement.
- According to an analysis of the 2012 National Inmate Survey, self-identified lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) people are incarcerated at a rate of 1,882 per 100,000—a rate three times higher than the heterosexual US adult population. More than 40 percent of women who are incarcerated identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, compared with only 5.1 percent of all US women.
- The 2015 US Transgender Survey found 2 percent of the transgender population had been to prison or jail—nearly double the share of cisgender people in the US.
- Fifty-eight percent of transgender people reported some form of police mistreatment in their encounters with law enforcement.
- Transgender people are also extremely vulnerable to being killed by police and correctional staff. On May 27, Tony McDade, a Black trans man, was killed by a police officer in Tallahassee, Florida.
- Less than 10 percent of all American youth identify as queer, but in 2017, 20 percent of youth in juvenile justice facilities were LGB. Eighty-five percent of incarcerated LGBT and gender nonconforming youth were people of color.
- According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, while incarcerated, more than 30 percent of LGBTQ people experience sexual victimization, compared with only 8 percent of heterosexual people. Transgender people who are incarcerated are five times more likely to be assaulted by correctional staff and nine times more likely to be assaulted by other incarcerated people.
Coronavirus transmission in prisons and jails is a queer issue
In American prisons, more than 68,000 people who are incarcerated have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Although there are not clear data on the exact rates of infection among LGBTQ people who are incarcerated, many are likely exposed to the coronavirus because of their overrepresentation in prisons and jails.
LGBTQ people are more vulnerable to COVID-19 because they use tobacco products more than the general population, have higher rates of HIV, and are more likely to have asthma, experience stress, and have chronic pain—preexisting conditions linked to structural barriers, such as longstanding anti-LGBTQ bias in health care, that affect both health-seeking behavior and access to adequate care.
Given these preexisting health vulnerabilities and the concentration of LGBTQ people in prisons, which are COVID-19 hot spots, lack of significant policies addressing incarcerated people’s health concerns during this pandemic threatens the health of the LGBTQ community as a whole.
We need research, action, and policy that address police brutality and carceral violence against LGBTQ people and center Black LGBTQ expertise
Though modern Pride events now look more like colorful, corporate parades, the movement is rooted in organizing and community care. Black and brown LGBTQ people have never stopped fighting for their rights and lives in the 51 years since the Stonewall Inn Uprising, and the work of foundational activists including Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Stormé DeLaverie, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis can inform ongoing reckonings with violent systems and the reimagining of society. As the country confronts deeply rooted anti-Black racism in law enforcement and its entanglements with homophobia and transphobia, Black LGBTQ experiences must inform the path forward.
Law enforcement as it exists today does not make LGBTQ people feel safer. And during a global pandemic already disproportionately affecting LGBTQ people, law enforcement’s ability to carry out violence is particularly worrying. Police are often forgoing protective facial coverings at protests and using chemical weapons that irritate the respiratory system. Considering the history of LGBTQ criminalization, the disproportionate rates of carceral victimization, and the LGBTQ liberation movement’s roots in the fight against police brutality, calls for “no cops at pride” are contextualized in evidence.
As policymakers and researchers reconsider the future of policing in the US, they can turn to the voices of LGBTQ people who have been directly affected by police and carceral violence to guide conversations and address continued LGBTQ marginalization through criminal justice mechanisms.