A salute to radical trans trailblazers who continue to change history

Activist, writer, and artist Reina Gossett marches for trans rights. Photo: reinagossett.com
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Transgender rights are taking center stage. Today’s trans leaders confront job and housing discrimination, police abuse and brutal prison conditions.

Bold militants are challenging and changing the status quo. One result: on May 13, the White House sent out a directive stating public schools must allow transgender people the right to access the bathroom of their choice. It may appear a small victory but it’s not. Self-appointed “potty police” have harassed, intimidated and attacked trans people.

As a matter of fact, over 50 percent of all transgender people will be sexually assaulted. They aren’t the problem, they’re the survivors.

Why the hostility? Because their very existence directly defies patriarchal societal norms. As the Radical Women Manifesto notes, transgender people “suffer extreme bias because their lives are a direct threat to the ‘sanctity’ of the nuclear family.” It’s hard to justify women’s second-class status in the home and at work if the very concept of gender is fluid.

By refusing to accept biology as their destiny, trans folk break the fetters of gender and sexuality roles and stereotypes. Targeted by bigots and bullies, transgender people learn early on to stand up against bigotry for themselves, and others. It’s not surprising that these rebels are striking back!

Not going to take it! Before Stonewall came the Compton Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco. Compton in the Tenderloin had been a hangout for drag queens, transgender women and gay hustlers — many who were poor and people of color. In August 1966, tired of continual harassment by police, people fought back. The boycott of Compton’s put the trans community on the historical map and spearheaded organizing.

Jump forward to June 1969 and New York City’s Stonewall Inn. Different place, same bull, with the local cops hassling the drag queens, street kids, people of color and sex workers. Until one night when it all changed. Despite Hollywood’s recent attempt to whitewash history, the Stonewall Riots leadership was colorful, and of color.

Prominent figures included Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Black transgender people, and Sylvia Rivera, a transgender Latina woman. Rivera later said, “All of us were working for so many movements at that time. Everyone was involved with the women’s movement, the peace movement, the civil-rights movement. We were all radicals. I believe that’s what brought it [Stonewall] around.” Sounds right!

All three struggled to survive; housing and jobs were hard to come by. When needed, they turned to sex work for income, as was and still is common for many transgender folks. Not surprisingly, they spent their lives fighting against police abuse and for prison reform and economic opportunity.

Rivera and Johnson were uncompromising that the mainstream gay rights movement address issues of racism, sexism and poverty. They founded S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in 1970 to house drag queens and transgender women and youth.

Today Miss Major continues to organize against police brutality and the rampant imprisonment of trans women of color as the director of the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project.

Carrying the torch. These leaders paved the way for others like 1990s ground-breaking author Leslie Feinberg, who wrote on trans history in Transgender Warriors. Self-identified as “an antiracist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female revolutionary communist,” Feinberg made connections about LGBTQ rights being a working-class issue.

Pfc. Chelsea Manning courageously released documents to WikiLeaks in 2010 exposing the U.S. military’s role in unjustly detaining innocent people at Guantánamo Bay prison and killing unarmed civilians in Middle East. Railroaded by a military court, Chelsea was sentenced to 35 years. A travesty — and one that many are still fighting to turn around.

In the meantime, Manning continues to be outspoken for trans rights in prison, for ending solitary confinement, and against the U.S. military and the destruction it imposes.

CeCe McDonald tackles police abuse and the prison industrial complex — tools the state uses to oppress people. In 2011, McDonald, a Black transgender woman, was sentenced to 41 months for defending herself and friends against a racist transphobic attack.

International outcry got CeCe released. Now she demands prison funds be redirected to schools, jobs and housing while spotlighting the high rate of incarceration of trans women of color. CeCe also unapologetically calls out sexism, racism and transphobia within society and in the queer community.

Undocumented trans activist Jennicet Gutiérrez bravely challenged President Obama and his immigration policy at an LGBTQ White House reception in 2015. She demanded an end to deportations and the mistreatment of trans women in custody. She was booed by members of the LGBTQ community who should have had her back, and ushered out by Secret Service. She continues to fight for the rights of undocumented immigrants.

In addition to those whose names make the news, many unsung transgender champions are forging links between all the oppressions affecting the queer community. In the hands of these strong, independent and capable fighters lies a vast potential leadership that can provide strength to all movements for change. In the spirit of Compton and Stonewall and the radical activists who came first, the struggle for liberation will continue!

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