a queer black activist’s advice for a more mindful pride 2019
“Stonewall doesn’t just belong to LGBTQ history. It belongs to black history.” Frank Leon Roberts speaks on intersectionality ahead of his New York panel, ‘After Stonewall: 50 Years of Black and Brown Resistance’.
Frank Leon Roberts is the kind of black man white people fear the most: successful, educated, outspoken and unapologetically political. The New York-native advocated for black lives -- clarification: all black lives -- for over two decades, becoming best known for his Black Lives Matter syllabus, which Roberts describes as “an educational campaign to get everyday people engaged in the history and future of the movement for black lives.”
“I’m really interested in having transformational conversations with everyday people,” Roberts tells me from his office at NYU, where he teaches an interdisciplinary course titled Black Lives Matter: Protest and Resistance. He speaks with a powerful air of passion and self-assurance, seamlessly hopping from prescient insights on queerness to race to gender and back again. “My career has always been one foot in the academy and one foot in ‘the streets’.”
As a self-identified queer man, Roberts stands out from traditional black activism in that he’s never shied away from advocating for black LGBTQ folks. Historically, the black queer community has been ignored and erased by black leaders and queer leaders. We’ve been rendered voiceless for too long. So in his college years, Roberts started the first NYU club for queer black students -- a result of his dissatisfaction with how the campus’ Black Students Union did little to fight for black LGBTQ voices. Today, Roberts is hosting one of the few Stonewall 50 events in New York focussed on black LGBTQ identities. The panel -- After Stonewall: 50 Years of Black and Brown Resistance -- will feature exciting voices like DeRay Mckesson and Elle Hearns and examine the often overlooked black and brown roots of the Stonewall riots. Roberts is making sure brown and black are included in this year’s rainbow.
“We’re trying to remind people that you can’t talk about Stonewall without talking about the legacy of being disruptive, of being a troublemaker,” Roberts tells i-D, lamenting the commercialisation of Pride in recent years. “Stonewall is not about rainbow flags and vodka brand-sponsored parties. It’s about queer people using their anger as a force for social change. We want to remind the public of that.”
Here, Roberts talks to i-D about the connection between Stonewall and the Black Lives Matter movement, the legacies of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, and how we should really be celebrating Pride Month this year.
How did you become an activist?
Roberts: I think, like many young activists, I got my start as a campus organiser. When I got to NYU, there weren’t a lot of people like me there. I wanted to create a space for people who shared my experiences. So I founded Shades, NYU’s first queer students of colour organisation. Then, right out of college, I started working for Johnny Corkin as his research assistant on the movement for racial reparations. Then, I went on to co-found the National Black Justice Coalition in 2004. That’s when I really started thinking about the intersection of race, gender and sexuality. Today, I’m the founder of something called Black Lives Matter Syllabus, which is a grassroots educational campaign that tries to engage everyday people about the history and the future of the movement for black lives.
What was it like being one of only a few black gay students at NYU? Two decades later and there still aren’t many of us at the university. I felt the same feelings of loneliness and alienation when I attended the school.
Originally, I was the president of the Black Student Union. There was this tension… The union didn’t really want to seriously talk about gender and sexuality in the way that I wanted them to. So Shades was my answer to the problem. I don’t know -- it was just the right thing to do at that moment.
Let me be clear: NYU back in the early 2000s was a lot different than it is today. I would be in class in the morning, then chilling at Christopher Street at the piers in the afternoon. It was this experience of being in a West Village that, at the time, was dominated by queer people of colour. But I couldn’t take those folks back with me to campus. Starting Shades was my attempt to bring Christopher Street into the halls of NYU.
How did your upcoming panel at The Schomburg Center, 50 Years of Black and Brown Resistance, come about?
The Schomburg -- which houses the Baldwin papers -- was interested in working with the Baldwin/Hansberry project (a new nonprofit I started recently that seeks to mobilise the next generation of black LGBT leaders) for World Pride and hold a conversation that will speak to Harlem.
When thinking about Harlem, I wanted to force a conversation about how Stonewall is linked to a broader history of black resistance. So when we start from the realisation that Stonewall was first and foremost a riot against the police, we begin to understand that it didn’t just pave the way for the modern-day Gay Rights Movement. It also paved the way for Black Lives Matter. The protestors at Stonewall were fighting against police violence and policing.
So we can’t talk about Stonewall without also talking about Ferguson. We can’t talk about Marsha P. Johnson without also talking about the legacies of Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi [the founders of Black Lives Matter]. These things are related even though they’re rarely talked about in the same sentence.
That connection is interesting. Especially because Stonewall has become, for a lack of a better way of putting it, “accepted” into history. The NYPD recently admitted the raids were “wrong”. And yet, the Black Lives Matter movement and protests still have many critics.
A lot of panels happening this month will be asking, “What has happened in the 50 years since Stonewall?” Ours will be asking, “What will the next 50 years look like?” What can we take from Stonewall as a road map to pave the way forward. To build a movement where trans women of colour are allowed to lead. A movement where queer people of colour are central to how the LGBT community defines itself. That’s what I hope to do with this panel and the great thinkers we’ll have on it.
How do you feel about people who try to remove the legacies of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera from the story of Stonewall?
It’s an example of the work that remains to be done. We have to resist the legacy of whitewashing Stonewall and turning it into a white gay man’s movement. Doing so benefits all of us. Because we begin to actually think in an intersectional way.
Stonewall is a perfect example of an intersectional flashpoint movement in American history. It sparked the gay rights movement, but, at the same time, it is linked to a history of brown people rising up against police violence. Stonewall doesn’t just belong to LGBTQ history. It belongs to black history. And so part of the work in this moment is thinking of Stonewall in an intersectional way.
You’re talking a lot about intersectionality. Frequently -- even with James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry -- the queerness of monumental black figures and activists gets left out of our history. Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis, Josephine Baker, etc. It still feels like the two identities fight against each other. How are you working to support and discuss black queer identities?
Fannie Lou Hamer said it best, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” So when we say “Black Lives Matter”, we have to mean all black lives. Like Audre Lorde said, “Without community there is no liberation.” And community can’t mean the erasure of our differences. Our differences are something that need to be celebrated. It requires us to think about how we all sit at multiple intersections.
If you don’t mind me asking, have you reconciled the tension between your queer and black identities?
I’m kind of used to it by now. I’m always looking for spaces that affirm love. Whether those are black spaces or queer spaces. Places where I can show up with all of myself and be celebrated. That’s a lifelong journey. Especially in a country grounded on anti-blackness, anti-gayness, etc., etc., etc…
I don’t think I’ve reconciled anything, but I’ve learned to live in the space of contradiction. I think that’s where activism starts. Where we just live in the contradictions and in the intersections. I’m fighting for a world where people get to bring all of themselves to the table, whatever those selves are.
And what are you hoping to accomplish with the hashtag #BlackStonewall50?
The hashtag is an attempt to remind the public, that, again, Stonewall is linked to this legacy of black resistance. While people have debated ad nauseam who threw the first brick. That’s actually irrelevant. What we know for sure is that the people central to the riot were black people. And it’s not coincidental that Stonewall happens in 1969, just four years after the Black Panther Party was established, taking on a lot of the same issues related to police misconduct. So #BlackStonewall50 is about establishing Stonewall as part of a history of black resistance to police brutality.
What specific advice do you have for i-D readers who want to have a more mindful, productive Pride Month?
The question shouldn’t be, “What are you proud of?” It should be, “What are you resisting?” If Stonewall is about resistance and rebellion, then that should be what we’re celebrating.