Dinner gala at DePaul highlights overlooked LGBTQ+ social justice advocates

DePaul students and faculty gathered on April 24 for the Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera Dinner Gala to commemorate two of the influential activists of the Stonewall riots. The two trans women helped pave the way for future activists in the modern LGBTQ+ movement.

Mycall Riley, head of the LGBTQIA Resource Center and organizer of the event, said it served as “a commemoration of the two activists and other trans and nonbinary folks that often get ignored by mainstream media.”

The goal of the event was “to remember Stonewall and the radical roots of LGBTQ+ activism, the progress made and the progress we still need to make,” according to Riley.

The Stonewall Inn was a refuge for the LGBTQ+ community, located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. In the 1960s, gay bars were frequently the target of raids as well as police violence toward the community.

On June 28, 1969, following a raid of the bar and police harassment a riot broke out between patrons and the police.

Johnson and Rivera, two drag queens of color, were at the forefront of the riot, which is thought to be a defining moment in the American gay liberation movement. 

DePaul sent a message of solidarity and ensured that, as an institution, they will show support by being a safe and welcoming environment for members of the LGBTQ+ community. The event was sponsored by the LGBT studies program, LGBTQ+ Resources Center, Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity and other departments and organizations motivated to promote social justice reform on campus.

Opening remarks were given by Ron Caltabiano, dean of the music school. He told his story of growing up around the LGBTQ+ rights and civil rights movement, and how activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera shaped the way he came to live his life and participate in social movements. He said the two activists inspired him to take action, and have inspired so many others to do the same. He felt that the world was on its way to electing a more diverse body because of the work of Johnson, Rivera and other activists of the time.

“We guided ourselves through Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall,” Caltabiano said. Fifty years after Stonewall, community members filled the room to celebrate the progress made.

Students and faculty gathered in the Cortelyou Commons on April 24 to celebrate the legacies of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans women who advocated for LGBTQ+ rights.

The event had an impact on the students attending. Alyssa Befumo, a freshman studying peace, justice and conflict studies, said “the event made me feel that on DePaul’s campus I had a place to feel recognized, and this event made me feel that my story would be validated by the institution I chose to attend.” She attended the event because, like Johnson and Rivera, she is an activist, “fighting to open the minds of a close minded world, and pave the way of progress for future generations.”

In addition to commemorating the legacies of Johnson and Rivera, the event shed light on the importance of media representation.

The LGBTQA Resource Center invited keynote speaker Zachary Stafford, journalist and editor in-chief of LGBT-interest newspaper The Advocate, to discuss his work and give light to the modern story telling of social justice movements.

A DePaul alum, Stafford discussed the ways media has told the stories and how as a society “we need to give people the space to grow.” Strafford first described the “cancel culture” of the media, and how with one quick tweet the world is to judge those that fail.

“We are all still human and we fail,” Stafford said.

“Celebrities are put on pedestals in society, and people don’t like to see them as flawed,” he said.

He reminded the audience to not be so quick to judge Rivera and Johnson because although they were influential activists, they had personal struggles as well.

He went on to discuss how if many of our historic figures had had media platforms like Twitter to share all of their words, many would not be given the full stature they hold in today’s culture.

Strafford went on to discuss the “token effect in media,” saying that personal narratives are only told about “first times” or are stories about influential deaths, and they get warped into more of a symbol than an actual message, giving a perspective that the stories of other activists and people in the community need to be “given the space” to be heard, not just those activists who are always being remembered. Although they are important, the stories not told are “the second, or third” of a community.

“There is light where you seek it,” Stafford said.

He added that “change will come” and that the work of two celebrated activists has paved the way for progress, but that it should pave the path “to stumble and to fail” because a part of progress is being able to learn and grow.