Editor’s note: REI has partnered with Minority Veterans of America (MVA) since 2018 on both the local and national level through initiatives like #OptOutside, Hear Her Out, Outside with Pride, national legislative advocacy to enable outdoor access for veterans, and a growing body of work exploring the connection between time spent in nature and positive mental health. Through this partnership, MVA receives financial sponsorship, in-kind benefits and support for events the organization hosts locally and nationally to build a more inclusive community for underrepresented veterans.
This op-ed reflects the opinions of Stephanie Merlo, Minority Veterans of America Richmond Chapter Leader and President-Elect of Virginia Pride.
In the late evening of June 27, there were over 600 people gathered at Diversity Richmond—a safe haven for LGBTQ+ folx and organizations and known for its thrift store—to participate in the Stonewall Rising – LGBTQ March for Black Lives. Following recent nationwide protests and marches over the senseless acts against the Black community, many people had come together that night in hopes of promoting awareness and change. There is a growing list of names of those who have been lost due to the constant cruelty given by police officers but often go unnoticed and unheard of, especially within the LGTBQ+ community. These increasing demonstrations, along with the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising on June 28, 1969, which was the LGBTQ+ community standing up against police brutality, sparked a fire within a group belonging to that very community to stand up against that inhumane behavior, once again.
Richmond, Virginia, is known for being the former Confederate capital. There is a city street decorated with monuments of those who were leaders—Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee to name a few—in that fight to hold their right to have slaves. While these monuments may have been seen as depicting fallen heroes in the late 1800s and early 1900s, today they are a constant reminder of a previous time and a slap in the face to anyone of color as they pass by. (On July 1, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the immediate removal of multiple monuments, including Confederate statues.) I could not stand by any longer. As a leader within my LGTBQ+ community, a lesbian and a person of color, I needed to do something. I had to do more. So, in late May, I made plans with a colleague at Minority Veterans of America (MVA) to lead a march in efforts to bring awareness for both communities. We put together a small committee of people with different backgrounds and talents—including Lindsay Church with MVA, Lacette Cross and Luise Farmer from Black Pride RVA, Rebecca Keel from SONG (Southerners of New Ground), and James Millner and Robert Dvorak with Virginia Pride—and began mapping out the logistics.
Once word started to spread, people were asking me why I wanted to do a march. My response was always the same: I watched in horror the torture of George Floyd. It hit me so hard because it reminded me of my own father and his gasps for help when police in Texas yanked him from his vehicle for a traffic violation. At that moment, they threw him on the ground, put their knee into his back, cuffed him, and tossed him into their squad car. I was 7 years old at the time, and for whatever reason, they took me out of my father’s vehicle and threw me in there with him. I went to jail with my dad.
Me being an outspoken lesbian, I saw that many people within my LGTBQ+ community were not standing up and were not expressing their concerns over the loss of Black lives. Scrolling through my Facebook, Instagram and even Twitter, all I saw were Pride flags. Yes, June is Pride month, but I cannot feel pride when part of my community is in constant fear. It always bothered me that we do not support one another unless it is Pride related. Never mind that members of our community are being profiled or targeted, or families are being taken and detained at borders. We seem to be more upset that we cannot have our monthly Pride fest because of COVID-19, nothing more.
Some white LGBTQ+ community leaders will say they are uncomfortable, or it isn’t their place. My questions to them are: What makes you feel uncomfortable and why would it not be your place to stand up for human rights? Isn’t that what your organization is about? Human rights? Gay rights? If it isn’t LGTBQ+ related, you want no part? Never mind the fact that anyone of color who might have to work within these organizations might feel similarly uncomfortable while being on an all-white cisgender board. Many POC (people of color) within the Queer community are faced with those walls daily—unable to express their feelings, unable to bring in their culture, and most importantly, not being heard. People do not see or understand that our community suffers from this as well. We have Black trans lives lost at a constant rate, and no one talks about it. This is why we should march. This is why we need to shout. This is why we need to stand up.
We decided the march should be held on June 27 to honor the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. If you are unfamiliar with Stonewall, allow me to educate you for just a bit. Stonewall Inn was a little gay club in New York’s Greenwich Village. This place was continuously raided by police, and the Queer community was constantly faced with police brutality. So, on those early hours of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall riots began. Two trans women of color were leading the frontline: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. These riots lasted for six days and carved a path for Pride celebrations to come. Tying together both the Stonewall Uprising anniversary and the Black Lives Matter movement just seemed right in my mind.
Fast forward to the present time and the day of the Stonewall Rising March here in Richmond. What started as a crowd of around 300 people in the Diversity Richmond parking lot around 7pm grew to more than 600 people just a half-hour later. We began by hearing from a few speakers, singing the Black National Anthem and sharing a disclaimer on what to expect.
After 30 minutes of speeches and songs, the actual march got underway. There was a sea of colorful Pride flags, large posters of the faces of those who have been lost, drummers, and even a huge puppet. People chanted, people sang, people held hands and raised them in solidarity.
“I didn’t want to sit behind a computer and make supportive posts anymore or join a conversation with close friends,” participant Casey Smith said about why she joined the march. “As a lesbian woman, who simply asks for respect to understand my human rights, why would I ever deny the opportunity to give that in return?”
Within the ranks of participants were over 100 cyclists who acted as escorts and created barricades to block traffic along the mile-and-a-half long route to ensure the crowd’s safety. The breeze of a rider going by was welcome due to the 90-degree heat and constant humidity Virginia tends to have. Oncoming vehicles made a point to stop and add to the chanting and giving cheers while beeping their horns. Residents were stepping out of their homes, waving and shouting with the crowd; some even joined in and marched along. You saw unity and support throughout communities and within the city, and I could feel the love. We were marching for overall human rights.
The march led to the Richmond Police Training Academy, which of course had police officers in riot gear, at the ready. They were dressed head to toe, carrying shields and nightsticks and donning gas masks. An armored vehicle was behind them. I observed many officers even laughing, which we felt was taunting and antagonizing demonstrators. Participant Crystal Suber said she immediately felt there was the possibility of being gassed. “It honestly scared me,” Suber said. “I thought I would be gassed for sure. I thought, ‘Wow. Really?’ Then my thought immediately went to my friends whose kids were marching alongside us on their scooters. We fell back to find them and kind of made sure if anything happened, they would be safe. We shouldn’t have had to feel that threat at all.”
One of the speakers asked that we turn our backs to the police, as they were not worth our attention. The cyclists created a barrier between the police line formation and the peaceful demonstrators. There was a lot of tension in the air. Police officers were walking back and forth behind their line, and they seemed nervous as many paced. They stood in silence, but nonetheless, it created an intimidating presence. They had to listen as one by one, speakers came up to share their stories, their feelings and their truths.
Although the police presence was obvious and absolute, participants in the march sat down to watch and listen to the many speakers and reflected on their words. Virginia State Sen. Jennifer McClellan was also in attendance to listen to what others had to say and even shared a few of her thoughts and sentiments. The unity was felt.
After the last speaker said their final words, everyone turned around to head back to Diversity Richmond. To my knowledge, there were no rubber bullets fired, no tear gas tossed, and no arrests made during the march. We returned with even more energy. Voices sang louder and chants held more feelings. Shouts of “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE” were amplified. We wanted to let Richmond Police know: We are here and cannot be deterred. I thought we were going to get gassed. I was even ready for it; I had a gas mask in my backpack just in case, and so did my wife. I was so relieved when the police officers did not act out and demonstrators were left unharmed.
I walked with my wife ahead of the march to meet the participants back outside Diversity Richmond. There was a light pole in the middle of the parking lot, so I jumped on top of the base to watch and witness the ongoing energy radiating from the crowd. With my megaphone in hand, I shouted that I was so proud of my community for coming out and standing up for others, as well as for themselves. “This is a fight that will not end today, tomorrow, next week, or even in the next year. We must keep speaking out. Silence will do nothing,” I told them.
One by one, demonstrators began to leave. Some stuck around to talk, connect and reflect. Many gathered up groups to head over to the Marcus-David Peters Circle, which honors a Richmond man who was gunned down by police while experiencing a mental health crisis and who was unarmed. Others wanted to chat with me and fellow organizers.
As my wife and I drove home, I reflected on how the march went and my feelings behind it. I felt proud of Queer community leaders again. In a weird way, I felt like the march was my Pride parade. We did not have floats or anything. We just had each other, which held more power than any float could provide.