Will Another Historic Movement Leave Transgender Women Behind Again?

Black Lives Matter has commanded National attention since May, but the deaths of Black transgender women are barely acknowledged.

As a Trans woman who moonlights as a moderator for high profile streamers that are on the front lines of the Seattle and Portland Black Lives Matter protests, I have witnessed the power of voices unified against a common enemy. I have listened to the chants of names honoring those we’ve lost- brutally and unnecessarily- to the terrifying reality of police brutality. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery- names we all know- or should all know, who were murdered in vicious forms of street justice by authorities.

As a moderator, I have seen people come in and say the most frightful, racist things about the protesters and the movement. I’ve seen viewers express violent desires to see protesters killed, proudly type out racist slurs, usually bookended with “MAGA” or “Trump 2020!” I’ve seen protesters referred to as terrorists, as radical liberals, as haters of America who should be executed. But, it’s the internet, right? People muster unthinkable courage to show their ugliest, most dark thoughts from behind their screen. Even worse is having had to watch these protesters and live streamers endure these same threats from detractors who show up to agitate and provoke violence. They do this explicitly so Fox News will feed this into the homes of conservative middle America: “Look how terrible these anarchists are. They’re so violent!” And they’re oblivious to the circumstances, blissfully, because the misinformation fed to people inclined to be racist is more comfortable for them to accept than the truth. It emboldens their own hatred and stirs them into dangerous acts of retaliation… sometimes that is simply coming onto a live feed at 2 am to spew hate… sometimes it results in them plowing a vehicle at high speed through a crowd in the street.

I’ve watch both of those things happen live, right before my eyes.

We are at a tipping point in history, one long overdue. We have come face to face with the realities we’ve just accepted as indelible. Unchangeable systems we just had to live with; Conditions we simply must thrive in because we were literally bred to feel powerless against the archaic, behemoth systems that shackle us into absolute subservience and acceptance of our conditions that grow more restrictive and volatile by the day. It was time for change.

These moments have come before. Women’s liberation, racial integration, the fight for civil rights… and Stonewall.

Stonewall stands out to me in particular as a trans woman and armchair historian. I’ve read the books, watched the documentaries, spoke to people who were there- am even friends with some of them on social media. I’ve researched the events, not only of that monumental night of June 28th, 1969, but also the aftermath of the nights, days, weeks and years later that brought the gay community from the discreet darkened shadows of dive bars to the steps of the Supreme Court where gay men and women were granted marriage equality on June 26, 2015. 46 year later.

Within the Stonewall movement through the years, Transgender people were vital to its progress. We know the names of some of the more visible transgender figures like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Bubbles Rose Marie and Andorra — all trans women of color. However, while they marched alongside the crowds of mostly white gay men and lesbians women wrestling the strong-arm of an oppressive government for acknowledgement and equality, they, themselves, would not reap any rewards when the battle was over. In the afterglow of various milestones made by the lesbian and gay community, transgender men and women were not acknowledged and were more often perceived by many at the time as a hindrance to their progress… a blemish on the movement. Thus, many gay folks shunned transgender people in their initiatives. Some still do.

During the AIDS epidemic throughout the 80’s and 90’s, transgender women like Rivera and Chelsea Goodwin created safe houses for those who were gender variant to find shelter and an environment for support- earlier, the former founded STAR House (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and the latter, Transy House in Brooklyn.

In an interview, Stonewall Pioneer Sylvia Rivera who was famously shouted down when trying to speak from the stage at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Rally in Washington Square Park. By her lesbian and gay comrades, the same ones she had marched with and fought for- even advocated for when they were jailed- were misgendering her, calling her a man, trying to humiliate her as she tried to address them… ending her speech with an emotional battle cry; “Gay Power.”

She never spoke from that platform again. She wan’t allowed.

Even today, a Veteran of Stonewall, Fred Sargeant, has tried to erase the presence of transgender people from history. A gay man, Sargeant spent the 50th Anniversary of the historic riots misgendering Marsha P. Johnson, claiming she wasn’t transgender (Transgender was not a part of our cultural vernacular back then.) and that the events were “Predominantly white men.”

Most transgender people I know do not attend modern day pride events. They either say they don’t feel welcome, experienced harassment or ridicule when they do, or are deliberately excluded despite corporate sponsors advertising it as Trans friendly. At several Pride events in 2018, radical feminists took their place at the front of the parade line to carry a banner that attacked transgender women, passed out pamphlets that vilified them and campaigned to have them excluded from gay and lesbian events.

In an interview before her death, Sylvia Rivera said of Trans exclusion from the gay movement she had fought for; “I was hurt… and I felt that the movement had completely betrayed the Drag Queens and the Street people. And I felt that the years I had already given them had been a waste. I went home, locked up the house, if it wasn’t for Marsha I wouldn’t be here right now. I got 60 stitches in my arm. She came home and found me bleeding to death.”

In another interview while living on the streets near the Chelsea Pier, she told Randy Wicker, her dear friend “I tried. I tried to get us help. The street people like me… the state will help the gays, but we can’t get any help. So we’re out here. We have nowhere to go. Some of us are sick, some of us have AIDS and are dying… and we get nothing. They (The gay community) turned their back on us. They won’t fight for us.

All these years after Sylvia’s death, I wrote an article called “The Fracture between the Gay and Transgender Community” that explored the increasing hostility and outraged expressed by gays and lesbians toward transgender people. The comments exploded with gay people attacking me- calling me mentally ill, saying I was an embarrassment to the LGB community… demonstrating with impeccable precision every world I was saying had been true.

Which leads us to the most fragile and marginalized of our community: Black Transgender women. A community that has witnessed a disproportionate number of homicides compared to other minority communities. Every year, on the Transgender Day of Remembrance we honor the dozens of murdered Black transgender women, many whose killers were never arrested.

2020 alone has been a particularly deadly year for Black trans women… in 2019, there were 27 transgender or gender non-conforming black women murdered. in 2020, with the year only half over, there have already been 23 Black transgender women killed. The murders of these women are escalating every year.

As I sit and listen to the crowds of sometimes thousands of protesters chant “Back Lives Matter” along with the names of the men killed by police, I think of the black Trans women murdered every year, often in horrific, inhumane ways such as being set on fire in a dumpster, dismembered, beheaded, even 4 in one week alone, who never receive justice.

As a transgender woman I have sat here in this dark reality for years now, reading the frequent headlines about Black trans women being killed. Once, it happened less than 20 miles from me… a 21 year old girl, JoJo Stryker, whose killer was never found… in fact, police asked her mother to “Let it go.”

It should be just as intolerable when police let people get away with killing Black trans women as when they actively kill Black men. All Black Lives Matter, don’t they?

I have watched hundreds of protests around the country by now. I’ve seen the police brutality up close, to chilling effect. I’ve watched it happen in a terrifying, cavalier fashion that dares the public to do anything about it now. I watch as Protesters meet them on the new battlefields every night, demanding change for their sons, their brothers, their fathers and friends- for themselves… and in the hundreds of hours I have sat and watched this unfold in real time I once heard them chant “Black Trans Lives Matter” and immediately I was reduced to tears… In those chants was the hundreds of voices of murdered trans women whose names I knew, whose stories I’d read about, but who remained in a vacuum of LGBTQ oriented news publication and websites, never leaving our echo chamber so that the greater world might know they were here… and they’re not anymore. They were, in the greater scheme, invisible in life and then again, in death.

For a brief moment, I felt they were being afforded the acknowledgement and tribute they deserved from people outside my own community. It was fleeting, but still so very poignant and powerful.

It was unfortunate that just minutes later, I watched as a male protester stood of the flatbed of a truck positioned outside Ted Wheeler’s house, the Mayor of Portland, and bellowed through a megaphone; “Ted Wheeler you’re a dirty F*ggot! You coward!” while surrounded by cheers from others.

My heart sank.

I Know the transgender women that are there fighting on the frontlines to send a message to government that police overreach will no longer be tolerated also heard that. I know because I moderate for one of those Trans women out there fighting for Black lives every night.

It is vital that Black Transgender women be just as central to this movement as the men whose names we all know, whose families we all mourn with. Just as we were equally victims of the political and police abuse alongside our gay brothers and sisters pre-stonewall, black trans women have long been the victims of the same system that has killed cis black men. Their deaths may not have catalyzed the movement in the way that George Floyd’s did, and that’s okay, this needed to happen no matter how we got here…

… But we cannot let history repeat itself and allow Black Trans women to be rendered inconsequential to the movement or their deaths will be in vain.

Actor, Filmmaker, LGBTQ+ & Women’s Rights Activist All work copyright phaylens@gmail.com https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store