Starting A New Tradition: An Invitation to the Christopher Street Liberation Day Cookout

by: Lindsey Dietzler 

For centuries, queer and trans* folks had been hiding in the shadows of America’s cities, towns, and countrysides. Afraid of having their lives ruined, many chose to assimilate themselves to heteronormative culture rather than face persecution for who they were.

Those who didn’t were subject to having their names run in newspapers as homosexuals, often losing their friends, families, and jobs. Those who sought refuge in the few bars that catered to a secret but blossoming underground queer community found themselves constantly subjected to police raids in the only places they felt safe. More often than not, the police raids were brutal- people were beaten, raped, and held in custody for days at a time.

In the summer of 1969 the United States was abound with civil unrest. Women and African Americans were in the streets fighting for their civil rights while anti-war activists were out vehemently protesting the Vietnam War.

It was a hot night in June. Judy Garland had just died. Folks began to gather in what was becoming New York's queer mecca, Greenwich Village, to mourn the loss of their icon. The Stonewall Inn, which had become a haven for self exploration, was teeming with folks from all across the rainbow spectrum that night. Everyone stood together in love, loss, and solidarity.

The police entered the bar ready to bully the patrons as usual. But this time things were different. Emotions raw and tensions high, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn were ready for a fight. In what will forever live in infamy, it was the high heel of a femme presenting person that night that started the Stonewall Riots.

Crowds gathered outside the Stonewall Inn and people began to cheer on those resisting the brutality of the police. Before long, the crowd was setting fire to garbage cans and tipping over police vehicles. Decades of being abused, raped, outed, shamed, bribed, and dehumanized had finally come to a head.

The courage and strength of a few who had enough inspired thousands to fight back that night. The Stonewall Riots had given birth to the Gay Rights Movement.

One year later, Christopher Street Liberation Day commemorated the brave souls of Stonewall but also created visibility in the streets of New York City. It became known as the first Pride Parade in the United States. In the years that followed many other major US cities began to host their own parades and liberation days.

Today nearly every major U.S. city has a celebration of its own. In many U.S. cities, there are now several bars designated strictly for queer folks, and in some even entire neighborhoods.

In Chicago there are at least a few dozen bars that cater to the community, but nearly every single one of those bars is patronized primarily by gay white cisgender men. Boystown over the years has become a very safe place for these men, where they are free to roam the streets holding hands or enter bars in drag without fear of brutalization or persecution.

The Chicago Pride Parade, which is celebrated by nearly 500,000 people from all over the country annually, is a huge spectacle full of beer promotions, politicians vying for our votes, corporations seeking our "disposable" incomes, and lots and lots of shirtless men, sometimes women, and rarely trans* folks out to celebrate.

While the parade itself is open to anyone who wants to participate (for a fee, of course), most organizations that cannot afford to design a fancy float are lost among the hundreds of corporate sponsored floats complete with free giveaways, Speedo’d dancing men, very embellished drag queens and sound systems that would put the Double Door to shame.

The past two years I have participated in the activist contingent of the Pride Parade with Join the Impact Chicago. It felt really good to get out there and be one of the few political voices in the parade. It felt good to chant along with fellow activists and people who dedicate their lives and time to pursuing the fight that started that night at Stonewall. But at the end of the day, i still felt unheard. As our chants were drowned out by the Britney songs blaring on the PA in front of us and the Pink songs from behind, I realized that taking back Pride and Boystown is a futile attempt.

As many of us who are not affluent cisgender white gay men have discovered, Boystown can be a very unwelcoming place at times. I for one have experienced more transphobia in Boystown than I have in any heteronormative spaces I have frequented in the city. Many people of color encounter racism daily from business owners, residents, and police in the neighborhood. Many trans women who seek safety and understanding in Boystown meet the same police brutality queer folks were encountering prior to the Stonewall Riots. This is more than forty years later, in the neighborhood that is supposed to be safe, in the neighborhood where we celebrate our pride.

Over the years, I have found my community in the various queer spaces organized by Chances Dances and Queerer Park. I have found my sense of community through various performances cabarets like Shits and Giggles and various organizations like Genderqueer Chicago and the Chicago Women's Health Center. I have found my sense of community through organizing various events from sit-ins, to fundraisers, to kickball with some amazing folks around this city.

All of these spaces have given me the opportunity to explore and find myself. They have been both celebratory and affirming of my trans* experience. They have allowed me to experience a wealth of diversity in not only the people I have met but how each and every one of them might have completely different identities.

This year, instead of feeling like we need to assimilate to the Boystown model of what it means to celebrate Pride, let's start a new tradition. On Sunday, June 24th, let's celebrate Christopher Street Liberation Day with a cookout and a dialogue in Palmer Square Park at 2pm.

Let's talk about what community means to us- past, present and future. Let's create a space that is safe for queer folks in every possible shade of the spectrum, beyond the rainbow flag. A space that celebrates all gender identities, all people of color, all ages, all abilities, all love, all family, all queerness.

Lindsey Dietzler is a trans/queer rights activist and community organizer. He is a co-founder of Video Action League and founder of CAMP: A Queer Sports League. Dietzler received his Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Studies from Columbia College Chicago. He is currently working on organizing a new queer/philanthropic dance night in Logan Square. Dietzler enjoys dancing, riding his bike and snuggling with his cat.

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