Every June, we’re told a similar story about Pride: Trans women of color led the fight for LGBT rights, and we have to honor them because they still suffer the most. Like all tragedy genres, this narrative dramatizes the sacrifice of its heroes in a feel-good message — things will somehow get better, despite the grisly truth of past and present, if we only turn our attention in the right direction.
Alongside poorly contextualized statistics about violence, murder and life expectancy, the idealization of trans women of color reassures that our noble victims left us with a road map to a better world than the one that treated them as disposable.
If we zoom out for a moment, however, the story doesn’t add up. If Black and Brown trans women are the most oppressed in our communities today, just as they were in 1969, yet they have also held the keys to revolution this whole time, why has nothing materially changed? After 50 years of Pride, why are its apparent figureheads still imperiled? What’s missing from the frame?
The real problem is not that we haven’t centered trans women of color enough during June, it’s that this circular story of trans women of color’s tragedy and triumph is itself a refusal to reckon with history.
Pride Month’s roots in the Stonewall riots of 1969 have always been something of a mythology. For decades, the gay liberation movement and Christopher Street Day — the original name of the parade — were attributed to gay and lesbian activists without acknowledgment of poor, trans people of color. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson’s names found their way back into the conversation, after historian Martin Duberman’s landmark book “Stonewall” examined what really happened, alongside the stories that formed out of the dust of the riots.
Contrary to the way Stonewall is narrated now, there was fierce resistance — mostly from White gay and lesbian activists and Stonewall veterans — to acknowledging the role of drag queens, sex workers, Black and Brown youth, and other people who were not perceived as respectable enough for a movement increasingly banking on narrow legal victories like marriage equality.
But the rift that today’s idealization of trans women of color covers up goes all the way back to the turn of the 1970s. Rivera got involved with the emergent Gay Activists Alliance in New York City in the aftermath of Stonewall — until, that is, she was pushed out for being Latina, poor and femme.
Instead, she went on to found, with Johnson, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a mutual aid collective that took up different causes than the increasingly trans-exclusionary gay and lesbian movement. One of Rivera and Johnson’s signature achievements was opening a STAR House for the many homeless trans youths of color living on Manhattan’s West Side. Pooling resources to keep the youngest of their children safe and fed, Rivera and Johnson hoped to one day open a school on the building’s top floor. As a political organization, STAR marched with the Black Panthers and Young Lords, joining a broad coalition of activists challenging white supremacy, American imperialism, and the capitalist system that criminalized their lives and kept them deprived of housing and welfare.
But the split between the gay and lesbian movement and STAR’s politics came to a head in 1973. That year, the gay liberation movement won one of its first major victories when the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. What is less often noted is that the next edition of the manual was the first to include entries for “transsexualism” and “gender identity disorder of childhood.” The gay and lesbian movement found it profitable to sell out trans folks by insisting on their gender normativity and leaving those they had rejected after Stonewall to bear the brunt of psychiatric power and social stigma.
That same year, Rivera was barred from the stage at the Christopher Street Day parade. After having to physically fight her way onstage, Rivera delivered an excoriating indictment of gay liberation. The speech reached a crescendo when Rivera screamed: “I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation, and you all treat me this way?”
Far from its figurehead, only three years after Stonewall, Rivera already had to call out the gay liberation movement for its abandonment of the poor, trans community and Black and Brown political issues. When we see Rivera’s name, like Johnson’s, invoked in an apparently unbroken line from Stonewall to today, we are witnessing the erasure of this historical conflict, the one actually responsible for the continued marginalization of trans women of color’s lives.
The new mythologization of trans women of color as tragic figures and feel-good icons avoids the difficult reality that the “LGBT” movement that many corporations are eager to use to improve their image — while some still quietly donate money to anti-trans legislators — has not so much failed to center trans women of color as actively worked against them, time and time again.
When thousands gathered in Brooklyn a few weekends ago for “Brooklyn Liberation: An Action for Trans Youth,” they did so explicitly “in the name of Black trans liberation” and against Pride politics as usual. It would be a mistake to sweep this important movement for an explicitly Black trans liberation in the tradition of STAR under the rug of a general “LGBT” banner and use the names of Rivera and Johnson to endorse the depoliticization of Brooklyn Liberation’s demands.
How many more years will June be a month to pretend trans women of color matter by using their images and namesakes? It’s time to learn our history.
Jules Gill-Peterson is an associate research professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Histories of the Transgender Child.”