Note: I was having a conversation with a friend of mine one day, who happens to be a transgender man, and we were discussing the lack of involvement from the rest of the queer community, in regards to trans issues, and why some were saying that they did not understand why gay men and women should fight for transgender rights. My friend told me “We are all traitors to gender aren’t we?” It’s true. Simply by being a queer man, I am a traitor to the societal expectation of what my gender is “supposed to do.” So often, this community forgets what we all have in common. Many of the younger generation are not aware that our very history is built on the back of the transgender community. Author and educator Lee Harrington has submitted this timely piece.
By Lee Harrington
In the early morning of June 28th, 1969, police began a raid of Stonewall Inn. Home for the most marginalized parts of the LGBTQ community, Stonewall had been a safe haven for drag queens, trans people, butch lesbians, femme gay men, and homeless queer youth. With yet another raid happening, the patrons finally had enough, and what comes to be called the ‘Stonewall Riots’ began.
At a time and place where the police would take people into bathroom to see if their genitals matched their clothing, they would arrest those who were crossdressing. When a butch lesbian named Stormé DeLarverie was clubbed over the head for speaking up against her mistreatment, violence broke out. Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman of color, was turning 25 that night, and was among the first to fight back.
Silvia Rivers, a trans woman of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, was outside. When the fight spilled out onto the street, she was one of the first onlookers to respond physically, throwing a bottle at the police. This was not just an issue of harassment against the patrons of Stonewall. This was an issue of LGBTQ rights, period.
Marsha and Silvia. Trans Women of Color.
Before there were pride parades, there was the Christopher Street Liberation Day March. Before the yearly marches, there were the marches that flooded the streets the nights after Stonewall. It was not one encounter. It was ongoing. It was powerful. At the front there were transgender people – especially trans women of color.
In recent years, as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and queer people have gained the right to marry a spouse, no matter their gender, I have seen those same populations leaving the T in LGBT behind. The T is given lip service, but rarely handed the stage.
Though we fought an anti-transgender bathroom bill in Anchorage, and won (the first place to do so nationwide), it was uncomfortably close at 53% to 47%. Nationwide, these bills are happening time and time again, by making transgender people boogeymen that might assault women and children. Not just any transgender people – transgender women. Amidst all of this online, I am seeing cisgender (non-transgender) gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals saying that transgender people deserve it. That diverse orientation is normal, that we are “just like the rest of you,” but that being transgender is a mental illness. Or that transgender people need to just be quiet and disappear.
I’m exhausted. I’m tired. I’m mad… at my own “community.”
I see trans women being looked down on by drag queens. I see femme and butch lesbians deriding trans men for giving into the patriarchy (or stealing said femmes, or vanishing as said butches). I’m even seeing binary men and women who happen to be transgender throwing their non-binary siblings under the bus by saying “women should be able to use the women’s room, no matter their history,” removing the rights of androgynous and gender fluid people from having a seat in the loo.
Before the word “transgender” was popularized, “Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries” (STAR) took to the streets as some of the most visible individuals in the protests and marches for LGBTQ rights. Founded by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, this group was founded to help homeless young trans women and drag queens of color. STAR was often the one held up in press images as being iconic in the gay rights movement, just as many visibly trans and gender non-conforming people are used today by the press. Marsha was murdered, and the murder remains unsolved even today.
Many of the gay rights movement actions lay on the shoulders of trans women. Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in August 1966 was one of the first recorded LGBTQ rights actions in US history, led by trans women in San Francisco who had also been repeatedly harassed or assaulted by transphobic police.
Before there were pride parades, there were marches. Before the marches, there were riots. Before gay marriage, there were trans women who stood up against violence, hate, and ongoing oppression. If you enjoy your LGBTQ rights today, you owe trans women. Trans women, especially trans women of color, who are being murdered worldwide at a horrible rate to this day.
Christina Leigh Steele-Knudslein, the organizer of the Miss Trans New England contest, was murdered January 5th. Viccky Gutierrez, a Latina immigrant whose friends said her “warm smile would give anyone comfort,” was murdered January 10th. And on. And on. Transgender people. Especially trans women. Especially trans women of color.
So what are you doing to stop the violence against transgender, gender non-conforming, and gender diverse people. Whether you are straight, gay, lesbian, queer, omnisexual, asexual, or hell, just human – what are you doing. To quote Alaskan activist MoHagani Magnetek, “this is not a trans rights issue, this is a human rights issue.”
Speak up for transgender people when we are not around. Encourage your school to have rights for trans youth, even if there aren’t any trans youth at your school. Let trans people tell other people that they are trans, rather than outing them. Avoid giving trans people “tips” on how to be the gender they are. Challenge anti-transgender jokes in LGBTQ spaces. Be political, because LGBTQ rights don’t stop just because you got to marry your spouse. Thank you to those already at our side. Now the rest of you get to help save our lives.