Why We Should Compare the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter and Why This Time is Different

Samuel J. Aronson
6 min readJun 11, 2020

In the decades after the riots which occurred in June and July of 1969 originating at New York’s Stonewall Inn, a mafia-run bar which catered to an LGBTQ+ clientele, a popular narrative took hold: the rioters were catalyzed to action not only by the police raid on the bar, but also sadness sparked by the funeral of Judy Garland, the acclaimed film star and beloved gay icon, who was laid to rest earlier that day in New York City. There are no contemporaneous accounts of the protestors attributing their action to the death of Judy Garland, but still the narrative persists. Stonewall was not the first social action undertaken by queer people to demand civil rights, but it is often cited as the origin of what has come to be called “gay liberation.” Why? And what does it have to do with the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the country today? Everything.

It is often assumed that revolutions happen when social conditions reach their nadir, or when these same conditions are slowly improving, but that is not true. In his seminal February 1962 article in the American Sociological Review, Toward a Theory of Revolution, James Davies dissected scores of revolutions across the millennia and concluded that “[r]evolutions are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal.” He went on to say that revolutions are the inevitable outcomes of these reversals because “[t]he actual state of socio-economic development is less significant than the expectation that past progress, now blocked, can and must continue into the future.”

Stonewall was such an inflection point for LGBTQ+ Americans, as was the early days of the still raging AIDS epidemic. In both of those periods, queer life was still mostly criminalized, but progress was occurring, if slowly. Then, the hobnailed boot of the state, either in the form of active violent repression or malicious neglect, usually a sickening synergy of the two, caused or exacerbated gay suffering and death.

The AIDS Quilt runs along the National Mall toward the U.S. Capital building in Washington, D.C., in 1996. (The Names Project)

Recently, many people have overtly rejected comparisons of the Black Lives Matter protests to the LGBTQ+ rights movement, but there is both a logical, and hopeful, reason to see the parallels. Since the first enslaved people were forcibly brought to American shores in 1619, our country has been built by, for, and on the backs of a system of white supremacy. Just as racism has pervaded this land since before there were states to unite, homophobia was found enshrined in buggery laws in England and its colonies. What makes today different, what made Stonewall different, is not that the bigotry is new, nor is the discontent of the oppressed… today we are witnessing a revolution because the systematically oppressed are rightly so unwilling to return to a period of oppression.

The relative freedom and prosperity brought to ex-slaves by the American Civil War and reconstruction was quickly and brutally turned on its head by violently racist state governments throughout the country. It would take nearly a century, from 1865 to the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and massive public protests, to begin to reverse the legal and societal impunity enjoyed by white bigots. This progress, which moved in fits and starts, took a giant leap forward with the election of Barack Obama as the 44th American President. Not only was his election significant because he was the first African American to hold that office, but his administration, for all its faults, was intentionally diverse: hiring and promoting women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ Americans. Not only was Obama’s human resources department intentional about supporting marginalized communities, but so was his policy-making. During President Obama’s tenure, for the first time healthcare was enshrined as a right, LGBTQ+ Americans could serve openly in the armed forces, and he left office with a prosperous country flourishing around him.

Today we have one of the highest unemployment rates since the great depression. The government has gutted environmental and workplace protections, which adversely harms the most economically and socially marginalized in our country, who are usually people of color. For example, due to the policies of this administration gutting health and safety regulations, energy companies have been given nearly free rein to both contaminate groundwater supplies and institute dangerous labor practices. Those sickened by the policies which favor the private sector over human life have less access to health care because the government has taken affirmative steps to make it less available. Suddenly the alignment of bigotry and greed reaches a tipping point. There was a crescendo of pain brought by thousands of people of color dying in disproportionally high numbers due to COVID-19… and then another white police officer, who could easily assume he would be shielded from accountability by the racist security state, is filmed, slowly extinguishing the life from a black man, simply because he can. That whiplash, going from Eric Holder and Barack Obama to Bill Barr and Donald Trump, is where revolutions begin, and that same whiplash is why this revolution has the power to last.

One cautionary note: a taste of liberty and freedom can lead to complacency. “Gay liberation” may be passé, but LGBTQ+ Americans are not, by any means, liberated. In many states being LGBTQ+ is a legally permissible reason to be fired from a job. Men who have sex with men cannot donate blood, but many states allow parents to subject their queer children to the torture of so-called “conversion therapy,” despite the clear evidence this only serves to harm people. The month of June is “LGBTQ+ Pride Month” in the USA. However, what began fifty-one summers ago as a rebuke to police brutality and institutionalized harassment of queer people has, in many quarters, devolved into an open-air, month-long bacchanal.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

Instead of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson leading the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, we have carnivals filled with floats sponsored by multi-national banks who manage to open branches in cities across the world, but cannot be bothered to open a branch in predominately minority communities, forcing the residents to use payday lenders and other predatory financial institutions. In my hometown of Washington, DC, our pride parade regularly features floats from companies that make billions of dollars manufacturing weapons of war and surveillance… instruments frequently deployed against people of color and queer people. The corporations who sell rainbow attire and pride merchandise use the profits they make off our purchases to donate to politicians who vote against our civil rights, but vote for judges who are willing to uphold those same bigoted laws. The same police departments who do not protect trans black women are featured in these parades, and the festivals showcase straight white women singers. Instead of spending our queer dollars giving a stage to people who don’t need a bigger platform, why not feature queer artists? In a majority-minority city, we could make sure those are queer artists of color. To paraphrase the Navy officer Oliver Hazard Perry, we have met the enemy, and they are us.

But this time can be different, and it can be lasting. The ingredients for a revolution are all here, and it seems like we are following the recipe. I hope the finished product brings us a better world. As my political hero Robert Kennedy said after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., “let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Samuel J. Aronson is an Assistant Dean in the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC. He studies the role of science and technology in the Holocaust.



Samuel J. Aronson

Holocaust Historian and Georgetown University Associate Dean