'People like Sylvia and Marsha P. Johnson were the avant-garde who fought for clearly defined political change but even now, there are still many people on the outskirts.'
Many people know the story behind Pride Month: it originated from gay Pride parades in New York in 1970 that were organised to mark the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. What’s perhaps less well documented is that, at the time, although the gay rights movement was starting to flourish, some didn’t want transgender people – or those who cross-dressed – involved.
‘Because they were so visible, they got the brunt of police brutality and the brunt of social disdain; in many ways they were the tip of iceberg for the queer community,’ explains Michael Bronski, Professor of the Practice in Media and Activism in Studies of Gender, Women and Sexuality at Harvard University. He has been involved with LGBTQ+ politics as an activist and author since 1969. ‘By and large, cross-dressers or those who visually demonstrated some form of gender exploration were not really welcomed within the mainstream gay community or at pride marches because they were so obvious and considered a bad image,’ he recalls.
One of the most famous incidents was in 1973, when the late gay and transgender activist Sylvia Rivera was forbidden to speak at a Pride march because of her appearance and advocacy for low-income trans people of colour. It didn’t stop her: she grabbed the microphone and told the crowd, ‘If it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.’ Fast forward to now, Michael believes that, despite a huge shift in society, there is still a long way to go when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues. ‘People like Sylvia and Marsha P. Johnson were the avant-garde who fought for clearly defined political change but even now, there are still many people on the outskirts.’
'The more we raise our voices, the more we can address issues; it’s the only way forward for a thriving community.'
Jazzmin Dian Moore
One of those raising awareness for LGBTQ+ rights today is Swiss-based trans activist Leedonal Moore, also known as Jazzmin Dian Moore. Over the years, their activism efforts have included launching the Youtube channel #iamhuman, where they interviewed interesting people from the LGBTQ+ community; co-founding Pink Nights events that raised money for LGBTQ+ charity organisations; and being a presenter on Gayradio Zurich (now Queerupradio).
Most recently though, one of their biggest moments was being asked onto Blick TV to comment on last year’s US presidential election (Jazzmin holds dual citizenship). ‘I was the first black trans person who has ever been asked to do something like that in Switzerland, so it was a huge milestone for me. I am a spokesperson for Democrats Abroad, but I was also representing the LGBTQ and trans community,’ recalls Jazzmin, who has been given several awards for their work, including the Miss Drag Queen Switzerland crown in 2008.
‘At that time, I had been living in Switzerland for three years and, as beautiful as it is, there is still ongoing homophobia and racism. In that moment, I felt accepted and included.’ These days, Jazzmin spends the majority of their time educating people on LGBTQ+ issues, whether through inclusion consultancy for corporate companies or moderating talks for queer youth as part of a call-to-action campaign against homophobia and transphobia by the city of Bern. ‘The more we raise our voices, the more we can address issues; it’s the only way forward for a thriving community,’ says Jazzmin, who also uses social media as a platform. ‘Facebook, for instance, is interesting because you don’t always get a big public response, but behind the scenes, I get so many e-mails and private messages of gratitude for helping others have the courage to speak out.’
'Drag has become an integral part of culture in a way it never has before, which is great because it breaks down the ways that people have demonised those who have cross-dressed in the past.'
Michael agrees that social media can be used as a powerful force for good. ‘Queer communities can use it to organise political action and get the word out about legislative bills, which is really useful. It’s also great for community formation.’ He believes that the most pressing issues facing the LGBTQ+ community today are discrimination, the fight for equality in the classroom and violence against trans people. ‘I think that we’re having a massive resurgence of the religious right in the US which we haven’t seen in these numbers since the 1970s and with that comes the discussion around gender identity. Trans people, particularly trans women of colour, have a much higher rate of being physically attacked on the street,’ he says.
One big change is that drag as a performance art has moved from the margins to the mainstream. ‘Drag has become an integral part of culture in a way it never has before, which is great because it breaks down the ways that people have demonised those who have cross-dressed in the past. The problem is that when something becomes more mainstream, then it’s less oppositional and takes the political teeth out of it,’ continues Michael, who thinks that a Richer Life is finding moments of contentment with yourself before you imagine ways of making the lives of others better.
'When diversity, equality and inclusion come together and thrive - that for me is a Richer Life.'
Jazzmin Dian Moore
In America, for instance, there’s the controversial Drag Queen Story Hour – where drag queens read stories to children in libraries, schools and bookshops – which began in San Francisco six years ago and now takes place across the country. Plus, of course, the global phenomenon that is the reality television show RuPaul’s Drag Race. ‘It’s great of course, but it’s a television show; it’s not an accurate image of what it’s like to be a trans woman on the streets of New York today,’ says Michael.
For Jazzmin, it’s important that society makes the distinction between drag and non-binary. ‘Typically in the past, drag queens were the loudest and queerest so they received the most attention. Many of them were actually non-binary people, but society saw one big colourful group trying to express themselves. Nowadays things are more separate,’ they say. ‘The trans community has suffered greatly with discrimination but more recently we have started raising our voices. We are as valid as every prism of the LGBTQ+ rainbow and we need to be heard. We need more recognition, more acceptance, more tolerance. When diversity, equality and inclusion come together and thrive - that for me is a Richer Life.’