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LGBTQ Communities & the Criminal Justice System

It was a routine raid on a gay bar when cops rounded up patrons of the Stonewall Inn 51 years ago on June 28, 1969. But this time it ended differently. This time, the LGBTQ community fought back, with hundreds of people throwing coins, bottles, and bricks. The riots in the West Village went on for days, and the Stonewall uprising is now viewed as a watershed moment for LGBTQ rights.

But even as 15,000 people gathered in Brooklyn earlier this month to say that “Black Trans Lives Matter,” and even as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal, the struggle for LGBTQ rights continues.

Professor Kevin Nadal (The Graduate Center, John Jay College) looks at the history of this struggle in a new book, Queering Law and Order: LGBTQ Communities and the Criminal Justice System.

The book, Nadal said in an interview, “covers the history of LGBTQ people and the justice system — including issues related to police, courts, prisons, legislation, immigration, and family law. It talks about how our system has been discriminatory towards many groups, including LGBTQ people, and how people with multiple marginalized identities (such as LGBTQ people of color) have historically had an even harder time navigating these systems.”

The book is also a call to action: “We need actual policies and major reform on all aspects of the justice system,” Nadal said.

Arrests for cross-dressing and sodomy were ubiquitous for much of the 20th century, and attacks on LGBTQ people have not only been ignored by law enforcement, they’ve also been perpetuated through police brutality and prison violence. Nadal notes that this mistreatment often has a racial component: Queer Black people have been brutalized and murdered by police officers, Black and brown transgender women are often profiled or arrested for being sex workers. Queer and trans immigrants are also profiled and harassed by police.”

The LGBTQ community has also been pathologized by mental health practitioners, forced to endure everything from electroshock treatments to conversion therapy. “As a psychologist, it was also very important for me to highlight all of the mental health consequences of our faulty system and to tie into community resources and personal narratives, so that people understood that actual human lives were at stake,” he said.

Looking back at Stonewall, Nadal pointed out that accounts of the riots have whitewashed the fact that many of the rioters were “Black and brown street kids. … We need to remember this. We also need to remember that Stonewall was an uprising. It wasn’t a peaceful protest. It was the only way that LGBTQ people could vocalize their concerns and be taken seriously.”