In June of 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn for a liquor license violation, “beating the bar’s patrons with nightsticks and brandishing their guns.” A riot erupted, and by the end of the night, cars were overturned, fires were set, and dozens were arrested or hospitalized.
Among the crowd of LGBT folks at the bar that night was Marsha P. Johnson – a Black, gender nonconforming woman who has since been identified as one of the first to push back against the police action.
She went on to join the Gay Liberation Front, and participated in the rally that took place on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots. This rally grew into the giant Pride events we still hold around the world more than 50 years later.
Johnson also continued as an activist and organizer with gay rights organizations like ACT UP and through informal street events. Through these actions, she regularly engaged with police, and claimed to have been arrested over 100 times.
Her life ended following a pride parade. She was found floating in the Hudson River with a massive head wound. At the time, the police declared her death a suicide.
As an LGBTQ worker, I’ve seen some harassment in my career – but nothing that approached the levels faced by Marsha P. Johnson. A teammate left some inappropriate materials on my desk. A manager made offensive jokes about me to a room of my peers. One of my direct reports asked for reassignment to a straight-identifying leader. Yet in each of these cases, colleagues called out and corrected the behaviors before I was even aware of them.
Those companies reprimanded the offending team members. They did it because they truly believed the team members acted inappropriately and their actions had no place in the cultures the companies cultivated.
Going a step further, the Supreme Court recently ruled that employees cannot be discriminated against or fired from their jobs simply because of their sexual orientation. This decision added legal protections for the 52% of LGBTQ workers who live in states that previously didn’t provide those protections on their own. For the 11 million LGBTQ American workers, that’s a really big deal.
As I reflect on these milestones – and other progress made in the short time since Marsha P. Johnson began her protest – I am well aware that a lot of the work has been done by marginalized individuals who had to sacrifice much more than I have.
As a white male, I’ve been able to blend in with executive teams and boardrooms where my LGBTQ status isn’t visibly on display. And my career has grown faster and further as a result of this ability to hide in plain sight.
The people who have given the most and done the most to advance the platform I now stand on have been those who are in a number of disadvantaged groups simultaneously. They’re people like Marsha. They have been the poorest, the most disadvantaged and the ones whose minority status isn’t as easily hidden. Indeed, it’s often been this intersectionality that has forced them to act to change their circumstances. Because a number of factors were conspiring to give them no other choice.
It’s not right to ask so much of those who have so little. Especially when those of us in power can do so much more, and do it much more easily.
So today, I’m calling on my peers in positions of power to pay it forward to someone else. We have the ability to implement change in so many facets of the workplaces we lead (not to mention the larger world). And we can do it without suffering the bashed in skull that Marsha suffered. We aren’t likely to be harassed or arrested. Together, we can simply declare change and new policies in our workplaces. We need no other reason than our belief that it’s the right thing to do.
Let’s truly lead, and make the workplace better for everyone. And then, let’s go tackle the world.