A Movement to Overcome
At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, on the site where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, stands a 13×26 foot sculpture, “Movement to Overcome.” Michael Pavlovsky’s work depicts a steep rock wall, with hundreds of human bodies scaling its sides. Some have their arms around the shoulder of another to keep them from falling, some are reaching for the next hold, and some are pointing the way forward. Almost every person is supporting someone else on their shoulders.
For me, there is no better representation of what movements look like.
That monument comes to mind as I reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Like the figures in Pavlovsky’s sculpture, LGBTQ people today stand on the shoulders of those who fought back with bricks and heels on Christopher Street.
Looking around GLAD today, I see Stonewall’s legacy reflected in the gains for LGBTQ rights we and others have won. I see it fiercely resonating in the vision and actions of the people continuing the fight.
For many, Stonewall is embodied by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who with fellow freedom fighters – many who were trans women of color, drag queens, and others rejected by the rest of the community – refused to apologize for living their lives out and proud. GLAD’s Public Information Manager, J.D. Melendez, knew Sylvia when she supported a group of queer kids fighting for some space of their own in New York just before she died. He says of Sylvia and Marsha: “They not only showed us who we could be, but also, who we should be.”
Like the hundreds of figures in “Movement to Overcome,” we will never know the names of the vast majority of those on whose shoulders we stand. Pavlovsky designed his sculpture to represent, in his words, “the anonymous individuals that we know nothing about now that lived the civil rights struggle and participated in it.”
For five nights in June 1969, fed up with being mistreated, hundreds came to Christopher Street to fight and take care of each other. Those revolutionaries stood on the shoulders of pioneers who came before them. Across the nation, people inspired by Stonewall organized in their communities. That legacy grew into our modern LGBTQ movement.
Among many striving to carry on that legacy, I am grateful to be guided by the wisdom of those whose shoulders I stand on. When GLAD’s board president Joyce Kauffman came out in 1975, Stonewall was fresh. In her words: “It was scary to be out. It was brave to go into the streets and announce you were gay. To even say lesbian was revolutionary. It was a radical existence.” In that revolutionary spirit, Joyce became an attorney dedicated to helping LGBTQ people imagine, create and protect families of our own.
Like Pavlovsky’s figures pointing the way up, Stonewall is a symbol of hope in the U.S. and across the globe. GLAD’s Community Engagement Manager Qwin Mbabazi is an asylee and organizer from Uganda, “For many African LGBTQ movements,” Qwin says, “Stonewall is the epitome of HOPE. It’s like that small glimpse of light when all is going dark…[you] know that they won the great fight, and we can too.
We may be worlds apart from the time of Stonewall – and the incredible hope and resilience especially of LGBTQ youth won’t let the clock be turned back. Yet, too many Stonewall revolutionaries never saw the progress they propelled. And too many of the challenges we faced in 1969 remain. Police violence, youth homelessness, institutionalized discrimination still impact the most vulnerable among us.
I am reminded of Dr. King’s declaration of the Civil Right Movement’s moral imperative to address homelessness, joblessness, and poverty in the Black community. Our struggles to end racial injustice and to achieve LGBTQ equality are intertwined; our struggle doesn’t end until everyone in our community is free. Like the figures on that great rock wall, we must climb until we achieve true justice.
This Pride season, 50 years since Stonewall, should be one of both celebration and protest. As Sylvia said to J.D. just a week before she passed, “Keep fighting, my babies.”