The first Pride march was a riot, a protest, an act of resistance. When drag queens and other queer folks rioted in 1966 and later in 1969, it was in reaction to consistent and brutal harassment of queer spaces and the people who frequented them. In many cases, police acted legally under laws designed to criminalize queer people, such as “female impersonation” and antisodomy laws. Today, bailing queer people out of jail during Pride Month is honoring the legacy of the first Pride march by addressing the continuing impacts of mass incarceration on queer folks.
As queer Americans have gained social acceptance and legal rights, Pride marches have become commercialized and endorsed by political officials, spurring criticism and calls to honor the roots of Pride while uplifting the many struggles queer people — and queer people of color in particular — still face.
Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts queer people in general — and queer women in particular. While queer women (defined as lesbian, bisexual, and women who have sex with women) comprise only 3 percent of all U.S. adult women, 42 percent of women in prison and 36 percent of women in jail are queer-identified. Of the approximately 35,560 queer women currently incarcerated in local jails, many (approximately 20,736) of them have yet to be convicted of a crime and are sitting in a cell simply because they cannot afford cash bail.
Jails often fail to keep queer people safe from harm at the hands of guards and other incarcerated people, and criminal justice programming can fail to take into account the unique needs or family structures of queer women. This is in addition to the many secondary or collateral consequences of pretrial detention — losing a job and missing work, court-mandated fines and fees (public defender costs, sheriff’s fees, etc.), debt, and derogatory marks on credit. For low-income queer women and all people who cannot afford bail, any of the above financial shocks would be devastating to their financial stability and personal well-being.
On top of all this, some law enforcement officers still hold biases that queer people are inherently more criminal than our heteronormative and gender-conforming counterparts, and fail to properly document and report antiqueer hate crimes, reporting them as antiheterosexual hate crimes instead.
While the queer community has made strides in gaining civil rights over the last 50 years, we are still subject to legal and social discrimination in areas ranging from what bathroom we can use to whether we can adopt children. After decades of progress, fierce backlash in the form of state and federal legislation and court cases has many in the queer community questioning just how secure our civil rights are.
Last year, Pride saw a resurgence of protest and resistance. The activist group No Justice No Pride disrupted the Washington, D.C., Pride parade; the next day, thousands filled the streets in the National Equal March for Unity and the National Bail Out freed queer people from jails across the country. It is because of the enduring legacy of the first Pride that the bailouts of queer people during this month are a powerful act rooted in Pride’s founding spirit of liberation.
MARGARET GOFF is a research analyst in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where she focuses on incarceration, juvenile justice, and policing technology.