It was a Friday evening in August 2020, and I was late to meet with a friend. Saje and I agreed to meet despite the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic because we had only ever met virtually on Zoom and Morningside Park was between our apartments. Sweat soaked through my mask as I rode my bike through the Upper West Side to Harlem. I’m alert to my surroundings not just on roads, but also when I hop off my bike to walk through the park. Thoughts were running through my head, as just in July at least six transgender women were murdered in the United States, adding to a year already full of tragedy.1 Despite increased acceptance of queer people in mainstream society, violence against queer people, particularly trans women of color, had risen in the last six years and was at an all-time high.2 As I walked past a pair of police officers, my eyes flashed into a defiant glare while my heart raced—the realities of police brutality were made clear this summer, so I knew their presence did not guarantee my peace. My gaze softened to focus on a trotting dog further away; a little closer, children swung from monkey bars.
At last I saw Saje, sitting on a short wall, hunched over, staring at her phone, legs tucked underneath her. I made a greeting noise. Saje looked up to see me enthusiastically waving. Upon recognizing my pink hair, her body unfurled: her spine straightened and she used both arms to wave back. I felt a rush of happiness and relief that Saje, who is a Jewish trans woman, was safe and sound. I apologized profusely for being late to our meeting place, attributing my fear to recent transphobic violence, and we started to share our experiences of being trans with each other. We followed threads of conversations ranging from Burning Man to NYC neighborhoods to tarot to pets until the streetlights blinked on, the moon rose over the rooftops of brownstones, and fireflies faded in and out of the darkness. Before we said goodbye, Saje reassured me that she felt comfortable and safe walking herself home, but I asked her to send me a message on Signal as soon as she got home. This was our first in-real-life meeting, but I was invested in her safety as she was now a part of my queer extended family.
In light of recent and ongoing violence against trans women, I was worried about queerphobic vigilantes—people who enforce the “law” of cis-gender heteronormativity through inflicting bodily harm on queer and transgender people. To better understand their motivations, it helps to conceptualize gender as an act of social performativity. Judith Butler, noted queer theorist and feminist philosopher, posits that the expectations placed upon gendered subjects are idealized and reinstituted through the daily performances of life, forming socially accepted gender norms with the status of universal “law.”3 When a person’s performance of gender does not match the gender they were assigned at birth, their existence becomes socially unacceptable, unrecognizable. Visibly queer and transgender people challenge the social power of norms that underwrite the gender binary; moving through the world requires a certain amount of caution.4 When this “law” is violated, its reproduction as a social norm is threatened and “enforcement” looms. Because gender is a regulatory social norm that shapes (and is shaped) by laws, whether explicitly in legislation or implicitly through cultural traditions, “enforcement” may take the form of policing, social ostracization, or even death.5 The “law” of binary gender roles is “enforced” by the vigilante: someone who takes “justice” into their own hands. A sobering statistic: since 2012, an average of 22 transgender and gender non-conforming people lost their lives annually for refusing to perform and reproduce accepted gender norms.6
But queer people are not merely victims. To draw vigilantism away from its violent connotations and reclaim its connection to justice, I argue for a “queer vigilantism” that destabilizes notions of gender norms, expands the meaning of community, and transforms public spaces into safer spaces. What becomes of a vigilante who questions the types of laws they uphold, the methods that they use, the community they are impacting?
Through analysis of two events in the history of queer activism, I argue that queer vigilantism requires a culture of care rather than violence and breaks the binary between public and private space.
Because queer narratives have never been mainstream or culturally dominant, gaps and fuzzy areas in queer history are rampant, while more palatable stories are retold until fully mythologized. Prioritizing singular events obfuscates the collective nature of queer actions and uprisings. Two under documented queer protests—one that predates 1969’s Stonewall Uprisings and one during the infamous summer of 2020—may be considered premature or insignificant amidst the rest of queer history, but are illustrative examples of queer vigilantism.
Contexts: Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Riot (1966) and Reclaim Pride March (2020)
In 1966, daily life in the United States was being tumultuously transformed by the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power movement, and youth-oriented counterculture, as well as multiple high-profile assassinations. In the Tenderloin, a neighborhood in downtown San Francisco sandwiched between a shopping district and an office district, the tensions between the queer folks—drag queens, cruisers, runaway teens, hustlers—and the police were reaching a boiling point.
On a weekend in August, management at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, located in the Tenderloin at the corner of Turk and Taylor Streets, called the cops on a noisy group of queens. This was not a new course of action for the employees of Compton’s, since the 24-hour cafeteria was a popular place for queer folks to gather in the neighborhood. The police were used to roughhousing residents of the Tenderloin—a “vice” district that the police monitored and controlled—and were especially vicious to “street queens” who had little power to seek justice.7 The effects of urban renewal and redevelopment in the mid-60s turned the Tenderloin into the last remaining enclave of affordable housing in downtown San Francisco. Newcomers were starting to displace trans women. Increasing street “sweeps” favored the interests and property rights of businesses like Compton’s.
In the book Transgender History, noted historian Susan Stryker describes the scene, pieced together from recollections of people who were there that fateful August night:
A surly police officer…grabbed the arm of one of the queens and tried to drag her away. She unexpectedly threw coffee in his face, and a melee erupted. Plates, trays, cups, saucers, and silverware flew through the air at the startled police officers, who ran outside and called for backup. Compton’s customers turned over the tables and smashed the plate glass windows before pouring out of the restaurant and into the streets. The police wagons arrived, and fighting broke out… all around the corner of Turk and Taylor. Drag queens beat the police with their heavy purses and the sharp stiletto heels of their shoes. A police car was vandalized [and] a newspaper stand was burned to the ground…8
2020 had begun with the 45th President’s impeachment; a renewed, cautious hope that comes every four years with the General Election; and the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic. In early March, people across the nation began to practice mutual aid work to fill in the gaps of inadequate government response to the pandemic, even as social gatherings were banned to curb the spread of disease. Before long, organizer-created Google Documents with links to local and national resources went viral (no pun intended) and evolved into “how to start a mutual aid group” toolkits.9 By early May, dozens of neighborhood-based and citywide mutual aid groups were operating in New York City, centering the needs of the neediest and providing neighbor-to-neighbor support through exchanges of food, money, and skills.10 That energy to act collectively and in solidarity with one another continued even as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths fell sharply in New York City.
On May 25, 2020, police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man.11 This was neither an isolated incident nor an outlier—106 Black people had already been killed by police officers earlier in 2020,12 including Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was pursued and murdered by armed white residents of a coastal South Georgia neighborhood on February 23,13 and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician who was shot eight times when officers raided her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 13.14 For a nation that continues to suffer from the trauma of the long history of unaccountable violence against Black people, and was in the throes of a deadly pandemic that disproportionately affected Black people, Floyd’s killing was a flashpoint that reignited the fire of civil disobedience. The first weekend of June, an estimated half-million people protested in the streets of 550 cities and towns across the US.15
Clearly, June 2020 would not be a year for a normal Pride Month filled with parties and floats. Corporations and politicians would not march side by side with queer folks down a police-protected parade route—only partly because the parade had been canceled due to COVID-19 concerns by Heritage of Pride, the nonprofit organizer since 1984. The very first Pride March in New York City was the June 1970 Christopher Street Day Liberation March, which commemorated the first anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, a series of riots against police brutality that kickstarted the LGBTQ liberation movement.16 Over time, as mainstream acceptance of queer people grew, the marches became parades with many organizations, businesses, and politicians supporting the festivities by providing funding and supplies. At the same time, the parade had grown into an increasingly elaborate production. Corporate revenue helped take the financial burden off advocacy groups and community-based nonprofits, but the presence of Fortune 500 companies at the march sent a different message about economic and social justice.17
In 2019, Reclaim Pride Coalition, a direct action group that grew out of a “resistance contingent” of Heritage of Pride, successfully organized the Queer Liberation March, a corporation-free alternative to the Pride Parade. The Coalition criticized involvement of a contingent of gay New York City police officers to march in uniform, and many were opposed to police barricades and surveillance. The march’s slogan was “No Cops, No Corporations.” In 2020, Reclaim Pride Coalition took their activism one step further by calling the march the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives & Against Police Brutality. Renaming the march codified refusal of police “protection” and honored the Stonewall Rebellion, which, like the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, was a direct response to police violence against queer people. Calling out that the march was for Black lives countered the perception that the Pride Parade was a spectacle for and by white queer folks and made the march a protest in solidarity with people who had suffered the most at the hands of the police, in 2020 and in years past.18
On Saturday, June 28, the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives & Against Police Brutality stepped off from Foley Square at 1:00 pm. Tens of thousands of queer people marched west to Church Street, north toward TriBeCa, and then up 6th Avenue to the historic Stonewall Inn, the location of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising (the events of which precipitated today’s Pride Marches). Many held bold signs that spoke truth to power: “NONE OF US ARE FREE UNTIL ALL OF US ARE FREE”; “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER”; “DEFUND THE NYPD.”19
As marchers headed west toward the end of route and a rally in Washington Square Park, tensions with police officers began to heighten. An officer moved to arrest a marcher for drawing on a police car with a permanent marker and the crowd responded with chants of “Let him go!” An officer yelled, “Get out of the street!” and shoved marchers back with his baton.20 Protestors pushed onwards, chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” in verbal and physical defiance. The police escalated by attacking protestors with pepper spray, shoving a woman on a bicycle to the ground, and punching people with impunity.21 Instead of vacating the street in fear, fellow protesters remained on the street to take care of each other, chanting “Go home!” at the police.22
The irony was not lost on Jake Tolan, one of the March’s organizers, who commented: “Fifty-one years after the Stonewall Rebellion, the [New York Police Department] is still responding to peaceful, powerful, righteous queer joy with pepper spray, batons, and handcuffs. Thank you, Commissioner Shea and the entire NYPD, for continuing to show us why you should be abolished.”23
Culture of Care / We Keep Us Safe
“Care,” in this context, refers to relational care—care with (acting in solidarity) rather than care for (providing and receiving care) or care about (emotional investment and attachment). Furthermore, practices that constitute a “culture of care” do not apply only to family members (chosen or not), but are extended to communities, peers, and strangers. Joan Tronto, scholar of the ethics of care, defined care in this broad way: it is the things we do “to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, ourselves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web.”24 In queer vigilantism, practicing care with others is a bedrock, often existing before an “act” occurs.
For trans women and other queer folks living in the Tenderloin in the 1960s, care was survival. Because housing and employment discrimination barred transgender people from finding places to live and work, they often resorted to survival sex work. A high concentration of trans women lived in the Tenderloin because police would often pick up queens from other neighborhoods and drop them off there.25 A silver lining to the harassment, violence, and discrimination that trans women faced was that 24-hour restaurants in the Tenderloin, like Compton’s, became (relatively) safe community gathering spaces. Even in the midst of such an uncaring time and place, people could go to Compton’s day or night, not only to be nourished by food but also to see and be seen by other people. Their fellow community members were their chosen family, making sure that “everybody’s OK, everyone made their coins, everybody’s coming down off drugs and didn’t overdose, and that you didn’t go to jail that night.”26 The safety that this community care created was particularly essential for trans women whose blood relatives had abandoned them. Networks of relational care were created by the vigilance of Tenderloin’s trans women for and with each other, providing the foundation for queer vigilantism.
It is not surprising, then, that the trans women at Compton’s that night were highly vigilant. Not all of the trans women and queer folks at Compton’s came from the same places or families, but their near-universal experience of societal rejection, as well as near-constant harassment by the police, heightened their collective vigilance, especially in safer spaces like Compton’s. An unexpected show of defiance by one community member sparked others to throw dishes and cutlery, upturn tables, and spill out into the street—almost as if people had been waiting for an inciting moment to finally protest together. These acts of solidarity were made possible through the accumulation of vigilance in response to cumulative abandonment, oppression, and violence against the community. Collective safety was made possible, against all odds, through the vigilance of queers for each other.
What seems like a “violent” response by the trans women does not negate the spirit of queer vigilantism because it was used by the most vulnerable to project bold disobedience, non-conformance, and rebellion against police brutality. Whereas violence is the point incited by the traditional vigilante, a queer vigilante resorts to physical altercations to protect themself and their community in the response to systemic harm. The police were not there to protect but to harass the trans women, so the queens protected members of their community with what they had—which manifested in throwing dishes as well as utilizing their long-standing culture of care to enact collective action in a moment’s notice.
Fixation on the queens’ so-called “violence” against law enforcement ignores and erases the everyday, very real violence that trans women have experienced in a society that abhors their very existence; it robs the protestors of agency to materially change their living conditions. To oppose or reject traditional vigilantism does not require “nonviolence” in the traditional sense—that is, conforming to romanticized and ahistorical notions and optics of “peaceful protest.”27 Instead, queer vigilantism requires care that is cultivated within a community long before a collective act of solidarity occurs, whether that act involves violence or not.
For the 2020 Queer Liberation March, practicing a culture of care was required in all forms of communication. The Reclaim Pride Coalition is made up of a wide range of activists of different ages with varying experience from different grassroots organizations, including folks from the direct action movement AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP); the nonprofit Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders (SAGE); and the NYC Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Their structure is staunchly democratic: at weekly meetings, members of the Reclaim Pride Coalition convene to hear proposals, discuss and debate them, and vote on them. Anyone who is at the meeting can vote. If a proposal receives anything but an overwhelming majority, it is given more discussion and another vote. Every voice matters; after a vote passes by an overwhelming majority, members accept it and move forward. Voices are heard and accounted for. A culture of care is clear in the system that Reclaim Pride Coalition set up to communicate with each other to achieve consensus on direct actions, very much in the tradition of ACT UP.28
In practice, this led to radical external-facing changes that made the march not just an LGBTQ pride parade, but an act of protest in solidarity with Black lives. While the organizers renounced rainbow-washing by corporate sponsors like the year before, the coalition also decided to refuse police presence and “protection” at the 2020 march. (All police attention and interaction were unwanted. Nevertheless, an NYPD helicopter surveilled the march and officers lined the route on the ground.) The march’s name, “Queer Liberation March,” was appended with “for Black Lives & Against Police Brutality.” The coalition achieved consensus on a proposal by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color organizers, revealing that care did not merely apply to process and structure, but also to relationships with people and movements.
Despite the inevitable presence of internal conflict among members of Reclaim Pride Coalition, acting in solidarity was the priority for the collective. This internal culture of care was transmuted into an external communications strategy that constituted queer vigilantism. In the weeks leading up to the march, a Statement of Purpose was featured prominently on their website to transparently communicate the mission, values, and goals of the 2020 march. On June 23, one week before the march, a post with three images titled “COMMUNITY AND SAFETY NOTES” was published to the @queermarch Instagram account.29 Besides detailing spatial logistics of the march (where to show up and at what time), the post set expectations on marchers’ behavior and offered caring alternatives where needed: center and protect Black Trans / queer folks, people in wheelchairs, and elders; wear a mask and socially distance; pass out masks and hand sanitizer; come with a friend, but if you are alone we will march together; and consider wearing a hat or bring an umbrella to keep yourself cool, but there will be street medics available for first aid. On the day of the march, @sethmrosen tweeted “I saw 99.9% of people at today’s @queermarch in masks. Super impressive.” @queermarch quotetweeted and added: “WHO KEEPS US SAFE? WE KEEP US SAFE!”30
The posts across platforms reinforced the internal culture of care that had brought the march into existence and extended it to a public community of participants. Care was used in public social media messages to maintain transparency and expectations; take charge of the narrative; and preempt disruption. Queer vigilance kept the event safe and accessible, especially for those who have experienced systemic harm. While traditional vigilantism occurs in discrete acts of violence, acts of queer vigilantism materialize with fluidity at the scales of interpersonal, intraorganizational, and external communications in order to prevent violence from happening.
Transforming Spaces through Care
From reproductive labor and housework to empathic listening and nurturance, cisgender women and femmes traditionally bear the burden of providing care within their relationships, and it is more often than not at home in the “domestic sphere,” invisible, and unpaid.31 Cisgender men, on the other hand, are expected to provide for their families by making money through public labor—and to remain stoic and rational when under pressure—“caring” as an absence of emotion.32 These normative gender roles dictate the space in which the roles are performed, producing another binary between private and public space. Even typical queer spaces are private—bedrooms, bathrooms, interiors of bars, and nightclubs.
However, just as the male and female gender roles make up a false binary, the dichotomy of private versus public space is not as clear-cut as theories make it out to be. Public space in many industrialized Western countries is often car-dominated, consumer-focused, and under constant surveillance. Private spaces are no longer private as technological innovations and the internet-of-things products mine, store, and sell users’ personal data.33 It is inadequate to analyze public and private spaces by mere typology because capital, management, and control add inseparable layers of complexity. A non-normative reading of care (private space) versus labor (public space) requires taking those social complexities into account, as well as recognizing the agency of individual behaviors and collective decisions in transforming types of space. By asserting that “the personal is political,” a rallying call by second-wave feminists in the late 1960s to challenge the nuclear family, acts of queer vigilantism use, in public, what is typically performed in private to blur the edges of the spheres.34
The riot at Compton’s started inside the restaurant, a publicly accessible meeting and social space managed by the restaurant’s owners. The Tenderloin neighborhood was a place where transgender folks could be themselves, but they were not exempt from police harassment; in fact, the high concentration of queer people in the Tenderloin turned it into something of a “gay ghetto.”35 Trans women were a common sight in streets of the Tenderloin in 1966, be they queens soliciting sex work to afford to spend nights in a cheap hotel room, or those who lived out on the street.36 This hypervisibility of trans women in public—mixed with a conservative attitude toward queer people and urban renewal’s agenda to “clean up” the streets—made them the “wrong” people to be taking up space. Compton’s Cafeteria, by being cleaner and safer than the streets of the Tenderloin and open 24 hours a day, effectively became queer people’s hangout space, as long as they were paying customers. But as soon as the queens were no longer merely consumers, they became trans women who did not have a right to exist in space—inside the cafeteria or not. Compton’s management called the police to make their indoor space exclusionary, to forcibly evict unworthy patrons from their establishment.
It was appropriate, then, that rioters broke Compton’s plate glass windows and spilled out onto the street, pulling passersby into the chaos. The riot was as much a reaction to the situation at the cafeteria as it was to years of queerphobic policing throughout San Francisco. Breaking the barrier between interior and exterior—semi-public and public—and bringing the displays of solidarity and care to the street made clear that the issue was not a private matter between customers and management, but a public matter between queer people and the city. If the riot had remained inside Compton’s, it would have been just another night of police harassment, but the public show of queer solidarity and care made it queer vigilantism. The riot called into question: are queer people ever safe in private or public? Who gets to take up space? Who gets to be part of the public?
These questions were also at the heart of the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives & Against Police Brutality, where tens of thousands of queer people and allies gathered and marched in the streets without a permit. The march started off at Foley Square, a triangle-shaped city square in Lower Manhattan bounded by Lafayette, Worth, and Centre Streets, roughly the size of half a small Manhattan block. Reclaim Pride Coalition organizers selected Foley Square for the start of the march not only because it is wheelchair accessible, but because of its history as a protest site: numerous public demonstrations have taken place there, including Occupy Wall Street in 2011; a rally to protest the decision in the death of Eric Garner in 2014; a protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016; and the “NYC Stand Against Trump” rally in January 2017. Though bounded by car-dominated streets and surrounded by blocks of stony, tall, civic buildings, Foley Square’s openness and visibility from many directions made it an ideal meeting place.
The procession was more protest than parade. The people’s takeover of the public street disrupted usual vehicle traffic, slowing the movement down to the pace of the march and bringing the scale of activity to individual and collective human bodies. As thousands of people marched while holding signs that called for abolishing the police as well as remembrance of Black and Brown people taken too soon at the hands of police violence, volunteers handed out free water and food. Just like at Compton’s Cafeteria, these acts of community care in the streets transformed the public spaces, for the time that the march was happening, from sites of anti-queer and racist violence to safer, accessible spaces. This was especially true for marchers who were Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), who were there in defiance of death.
The marchers’ response to police brutality at the end of the march was a public display of solidarity and unity in the place where anti-queer and anti-Black violence often happens: the street. The marchers were largely white and able-bodied, but physical representation should not be the arbiter of success in a society whose structures and infrastructures are inaccessible to BIPOC and/or disabled people. That community care was practiced by white people and BIPOC alike resists and redefines the racialized conceptions of care work. The responsibility of care for people who had been shoved, punched, or pepper-sprayed did not apply only to oppressed members of BIPOC communities, as it has historically; white allies also kept vigil during the march and used their privilege to push back against police violence. The march did not look like a typical “protest,” but June 2020 was not a typical time. It was by collective queer vigilance, from the selection of the stepping off point to the acts of mutual aid and community care, that the over-policed streets were transformed into safer spaces for queer people.
Queer vigilantism is focused on accessibility, care, and justice for one’s own community; a struggle for power rooted in solidarity with, in which care is the point. Traditional vigilantism, in contrast, embodies reactionary acts of revenge. While care may not usually take shape as a nighttime riot in the Tenderloin, and typical vigilantism may not look like ensuring an accessible and violence-free protest march through the streets of Lower Manhattan, both Compton’s riot and the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives & Against Police Brutality are examples of queer vigilantism. Because the state continues to refuse to examine its criminalization of oppressed BIPOC communities, queerness, and disability, this reframing vigilantism through a queer lens refuses the limits that are placed on our whole selves in a punitive framework. It shifts notions of accountability from crime-prevention to harm reduction, from violence and punishment to care.
Admittedly, this redefinition is far from systemic change. But in tumultuous times of great social upheaval and reactionary conservatism, reframing the context of words can provide the necessary linguistic agency to propel us into a more just future.37 Expanding the scope of the vigilante to encompass its queer fluidity in multiple scales frees it from its violent connotations, providing the beginnings of a model to move toward building a more liberatory world. We’ll know we are there when there is no need for any vigilante of any type, queer or not—because cultures of care will be the norm, and harm will be repaired through restorative justice. Until then, queer vigilantism, through conscious practices of solidarity between the most vulnerable and allies, transforms public space into queer safe spaces, moments and places where glimmers of a better future shine through.
From the complexity of the two examples of public queer space analyzed in this essay, it is no wonder that private spaces are the focus of most queer spatial studies and scholarship. Even gay and lesbian bars, which are technically open to the public, are considered private spaces once entered because they are among the safest places for queer people to be themselves. But this binary of public space as unsafe, and private space as safe, is a false one, like so many binaries are. Both the riot in 1966 and the march in 2020 called into question the safety of and access to public space for queer people, and then modeled the methods of fostering safety and access through cultures of care. The street became an in-between space where the binaries of public versus private, unsafe versus safe, and cis-gender norms versus transgender deviations were actively dismantled through collective acts of care. In this way, queer vigilantism transforms public spaces—considered neutral by default, but violent for many BIPOC and/or queer people—into actual safe spaces. The care practiced through relationships and collective solidarity breaks the binary, opening up the possibility for new ways to think about queer space.
As Saje and I headed our separate ways from the park, I mapped out my route home in my head. Night had fallen and the moon was a waning crescent, so I switched on the lights on my bike to counteract the darkness. I rode on well-trafficked arterial streets, reveling in the slightly cool breeze against my skin, skipping shortcuts and staying alert to my surroundings. The few pedestrians, delivery people on electric bikes, and ride-share drivers who were still out in the night seemed careful to acknowledge my presence, and I theirs, as we encountered each other and then continued on our separate journeys. It was as though we had each other’s backs, even as we moved in different directions. The return trip felt faster than getting to the park; I messaged Saje first that I had arrived home with no incident. When I finally received Saje’s message of safe passage several minutes later, I breathed a sigh of relief. My watch was over, for now.