New York’s Stonewall Inn was a prime cruising zone. Young queer hustlers, transgender and lesbian sex workers, cross-dressing butches, and other marginalized folks hung out there. (The same can be said for the Black Cat in Los Angeles and numerous bars in San Francisco.) Slut-shamers may want to paint over parts of our history, but the sexual backdrop of the birthplace of LGBT rights can’t be erased.
We still debate words we use to describe and define ourselves by, and many of them reflect a step away from sex. We’re not homosexuals; we’re gay or same-gender-loving. But in medical offices, I’m MSM — a “man who has sex with men.” MSM of the past are familiar with white rooms and hospital beds, places where so many of our relationships ended. We were defined by the sex we have, our risk factors, play partners, and our fuck buds. I cannot separate my identity from the sex I love.
Most antisodomy laws in the U.S. were created in the early 19th century and predominantly invoked in cases involving straight people — only later did conservatives employ them to enforce antigay discrimination. Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 invalidated antisodomy laws, but some jurisdictions are still trying to enforce them. Around the world there are still nearly a dozen countries where homosexuality is punishable by death. Sex is one of the most vital and beautiful things in life. To take that human need and use it to hunt down our brothers and torture or kill them is unimaginable. We are marching for the freedom to have sex without fear. And we also march for those who can’t.
Gay and bisexual men who are a generation older than me remember a time when sex was riskier than Russian roulette. Many went a decade without it in order to survive. We’ve lost so many brothers, mentors, lovers, fathers, and would-be husbands. To fight AIDS, we had to kick down the closet door and invite America into the privacy of our underground sex lives. Marching for Pride was part of that uphill battle. Sex once amounted to death. In some places, especially in the South, queer people of color are still battling Stage 3 HIV (classified as AIDS), and some still succumb to it.
Closeted queer men will ignore symptoms and avoid going to clinics for treatment because they’re terrified to admit they’ve had gay sex. Others will go into a clinic only to be met with judgment and discrimination from their doctors. Still others won’t take PrEP because they don’t want to be slut-shamed. That kind of stigma kills.
If you’re HIV-negative, taking PrEP (the daily dosage of an HIV prevention pill) is one of the most responsible things you can do as a sexually active trans woman or queer, gay, bi, or same-gender-loving man. If you’re poz, using treatment as prevention (TasP) is easy if you can get your viral load down to undetectable levels. Even the CDC agrees undetectable equals untransmittable. You are now free to let go of the crippling fear that has accompanied sex for so many of us for so very long. We can finally fuck without fear.
Marsha P. Johnson was a sex worker. In fact, many protesters on that historic night at Stonewall were. The Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York (LesbianHerstoryArchives.org, pictured) includes extensive coverage of lesbian sex workers. Working in adult industries has helped countless LGBT people. Some do it for fun, some do it for spare cash, but many do it just to survive when our families kick us out (queer youth in New York City are still seven times more likely to depend on sex work than heterosexual peers, according to the Urban Institute).
Most of our lesbian, gay, bi, and trans forebears assumed they’d never be able to participate in the conventions of family life. That was a reason they rejected society’s rules about what kind of sex they were permitted to have. Queers launched the free love movement. The history of sex-positivity in America and the history of Pride are the same. The simple notion of sex as revelry and reverie should never leave.
The leather community, a group literally defined by the kinds of sex we enjoy, was among the first to organize against AIDS. You might clutch pearls at seeing human rubber pups, bare-breasted dominatrixes, and scantily clad biker boys at your local Pride parade, but they are part of a community that acted fast against a plague. AIDS forced us to suddenly talk about what we were doing sexually — something that kinky leather folks have a knack for. Bringing sex into the spotlight is something we did at underground leather bars years before HIV and will continue to do long into the future.
From its roots, Pride was a political act. And so is having the kind of sex we want to have with who we want to have it. That was a rebellion against the institution of monogamy and ideas about women as property. Today, lesbian and bi girls have higher rates of teen pregnancy, thanks in part to bullying. Meanwhile there are panels of men making decisions on women’s access to contraceptives. Being in control of our own bodies is critical to LGBT rights. Pride is the antidote to efforts to control and limit sex — which politicians are still trying to do.
All body types should be welcome at Pride. Ignore the naysayers. Showing skin (and feeling sexy), according to some, cheapens Pride. Here’s a better way to look at skin: Bodies are neither inherently ugly nor beautiful. But they are incredibly powerful, strong instruments. They are vehicles through which all experience happens. They endure massive amounts of stress and do incredible work. To celebrate anything in life, whether it’s your identity or your sex or your history, is to celebrate your body, your mechanism. Show it off.
There’s always a pushback to progress. Right now we’re in a tough one. We’re outnumbered. Our enemies are kicking at the door.
Many queer people can’t believe the state of affairs. The violence against men in Chechnya and the epidemic of anti-trans violence here paint a bleak picture. There is no greater time to do what we do best. We must march together as one family, undivided, with liberty and justice for all.