Nearing her death in 2002, Sylvia Rivera, no less outspoken and uncompromising in her old age, expressed a wish to see the current generation of queer activism “destroy” the Human Rights Campaign, which she had come to regard as highly emblematic of the kind of exploitation and backstabbing of trans people by the wider queer community that she had experienced and fought against her whole life (such as jumping on stage to condemn Jean O’Leary’s hateful comments about the trans women and drag queens in the audience at a Stonewall rally in 1973, pointing out how the event they were supposedly commemorating was largely the actions of trans women and drag queens).
Rivera had been on the very front lines of the Gay Lib movement, and queer-rights activism, from the very beginning. And over and over again, she saw herself and other trans women used, exploited, dismissed, whisked out of the public eye whenever it was necessary to keep up appearances, and erased, with our rights being repeatedly used as bargaining chips to be compromised on behalf of less “extreme” requests of the queer community. The life and activism of Sylvia Rivera paints an intensely tragic (and damning) portrait of this history of betrayal. She gave herself utterly to the cause of queer rights, only to be silenced and pushed aside whenever the discussion turned to her own liberation.
And one of the organizations she saw as being unforgivably complicit in that history of betrayal was the HRC.
By now, you’ve undoubtedly seen or at least heard of Lana Wachowski’s speech given upon acceptance of a “visibility award” from the HRC. No mention was made in her speech of the problematic history of the HRC’s treatment of trans rights. That’s fine, though… I’m not interested in judging Lana. But in the day and weeks that followed, her speech received an almost unprecedented level of public and mainstream press, praise and acclaim. It was widely regarded as beautiful, moving, inspiring, and so on. Lana has since become a more positively regarded media figure than she was before. The mainstream reaction was unabashedly positive. It did a great deal for both her, and more so for the HRC itself.
Still, however, in that wave of attention there was virtually no discussion of the complex relationship between the HRC and trans rights, historically or otherwise.
How trans people, and being trans, are seen in the mainstream cultural imagination is changing. It’s changing a whole lot, and it’s changing very very rapidly. To be completely honest, this can be really really scary to be even peripherally caught up in. Lana’s speech would not have been received the way it was even just three years ago.
Similarly, the transitions and disclosures of other public figures like Janet Mock, Laura Jane Grace, Chaz Bono and Mina Caputo have been much more beneficial for their overall careers and the positivity with which they’re generally regarded, whereas the opposite would likely have been the case just a decade ago or less. This is a pivotal moment in the history of trans rights and trans visibility.
The things about it that are scary are too numerous to really get into. Some of them are even personal, involving my own small roles in this moment (which is more often about other people and other stories than myself and my own). But a singular aspect that concerns me is what the nature of this visibility will end up leading us towards. What will fighting for trans rights and awareness become?
I’m not wholly cynical about any of it. But to see the trans community, as imagined in the mainstream, cozy alongside the HRC, nonetheless fills me with a great deal of unease.
Much has been written about how the gay rights movement gradually shifted its direction and aesthetic. Where once it was an intensely radical movement, the overall signifiers of gay male identity became increasingly consumerist, classist and assimilationist (while underlying issues of racism, misogyny, able-ism and body-shaming all continued more or less unchecked). Being out as gay shifted from a radical act of empowerment to a chic and urbane style, defined by the right kind of well appointed loft, the right kind of gym-toned body under the right kind of tight Armani t-shirt, the right kind of fish with the right kind of wine, and the right kind of sexy designer underwear to go off before having the right kind of sex. And the actual activism of gay rights imploded to two singular issues: DADT and same-sex marriage, both of which were questions of participation in kyrarchial systems. Things like “Will & Grace” and “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” ended up being the kinds of public visibility that were regarded as successes for Gay Liberation.
The question that sneaks around in the back of my head is how long until we end up with a trans equivelant of “Will & Grace”, some empty PrettyWittyPeople sitcom, or a trans equivelant of Queer Eye (we already briefly had TransForm Me, with Jamie Clayton and Laverne Cox, but it didn’t achieve a comparable level of mainstream visibility), wherein trans “empowerment” is hooked directly to mainstream consumerism and purchasing the “right” look. There’s already so much horrible, toxic commodification of female beauty and uncritical acceptance of a universalized way a woman “should” look extant in The Trans Community under the concept of passing that such a TV show could easily be embraced by us, and easily lead us right into selling ourselves to mainstream acceptability at the cost of everything honest, radical and powerful about us; at the cost of genuine empowerment; at the cost of all of us being permitted into acceptance, rather than just the ones that are useful to the system as-it-is. At the cost of ending up being as far from the genuine fight for queer rights as are the HRC.
Right now it’s Transgender Awareness Week. I have lots of doubts and worries about this idea, but I’m also hopeful that it will end up being more of a positive a force than otherwise. At the very least, I’m much more comfortable with drawing awareness to the needs and concerns and lives of trans people who are alive than the deeply problematic and exploitative “memorializing” of dead trans women of colour by white trans people for the sake of their own PR that is Transgender Day of Remembrance. However, I worry about every other week becoming implicitly cis awareness week. I worry about people not taking into consideration that every week is “trans awareness week” for those of us who are, you know, actually trans. I worry about people using it as an opportunity for temporary involvement which they then use to absolve themselves from feeling any need to give a shit about us during the other 51 weeks of the year. And I worry about it being commercialized, a way to buy away your guilt about transphobia and cissexism (especially if such commercialization were to become linked to TDoR).
I worry that eventually, people are going to start selling “Trans For A Day!” t-shirts. Available in either pink or baby blue. As this rapid, scary, strange transformation going on in mainstream visibility and conditional acceptance of trans people continues, I more and more come to regard such crass exploitation, simplification and commercialization of the question of trans rights and trans oppression as an inevitability. Effectively, the Transgender Day of Remembrance dance party writ large, across our culture as a whole.
(yes, TDoR dance parties actual happen; usually thrown by white trans guys)
Where are we heading? How is this all going to play out? And what would Sylvia Rivera say about it?
Something that keeps me from being wholly cynical and resigned in the face of our increasing public visibility occurring alongside some disturbingly ahistorical attitudes, some dodgy alliances with organizations who haven’t the most sterling records in their treatment of trans rights, and numerous (perhaps superficial) resemblances to the push for mainstream gay acceptability that precipitated the “de-fanging” of the gay rights movement, is the fact that trans people have never really been all that comparable to gay men and lesbians in terms of our socio-cultural position, and how we’re perceived. Our implications have always been different. People’s reactions and perceptions have always been different. Our oppression has always been different. And most important to this, what I’m dealing with right now, is that our needs have always been different; more immediate and, arguably, more inherently radical.
While it’s undeniable that the present (though shifting) understanding of trans rights as a relatively minor “fringe” issue, and more extreme/radical than the issue of LGB rights, is connected to our having been betrayed and tossed out of Gay Lib back in the 70s, and therefore missing the boat on that ride into mainstream acceptance. But that’s not the only thing going on. For instance, a large part of the motives for our erasure and dismissal by Gay Lib was the fact that we were already seen as “too extreme” to be accepted, and as somehow damaging the otherwise marketable image of benign, harmless same-sex love. There were other things going on at the time too, like the intense transphobia being pushed by second wave feminists like Janice Raymond, which didn’t sit well with feminist lesbians, but the main issue was that transsexuality and transgenderism were already perceived as too weird, too disgusting, too scary, too threatening to mainstream sensibilities, too threatening to the established orders of gender and patriarchy and all that, too radical, to be included in the package Gay Lib was trying to sell. We were the “extreme” element that could be compromised and thrown aside in negotiations with straight politicians to demonstrate that the gay and lesbian activists were reasonable, and could understand their “concerns” about such… “intense elements” of the community.
In short, we were already “too radical” before we were kicked out of the movement. A movement we were, true to our radical nature, instrumental in bringing about.
As I alluded to earlier, drag queens, cross-dressers and trans women (the distinctions were considerably less clear-cut back in the 60s) were key players in the Stonewall riots. Reportedly, the very first act of civil disobedience after police stormed the Stonewall was the trans women and drag queens refusing to go to the bathroom to have their genitalia inspected (anyone found to be a “man dressed as a woman” would be arrested… and such people were in fact often the primary targets of police raids on gay bars at the time, given that you couldn’t arrest someone simply for them seeming to be the kind of person who intended to have gay sex that night). It’s also well established that Stonewall primarily catered to the most marginalized and down-and-out members of the queer community: trans women, sex workers and queer people of colour, as well as various street kids. It was a bit of a different crowd than in most raids, people with less to lose, and less easy to threaten.
The trans role in the Stonewall riots gets consistently erased, and Stonewall has long since become, in the public imagination, a “gay riot” that had nothing to do with trans women at all. It tends to be a sore spot for me. I don’t know exactly why, but I really do get angry about this. We were there. We were both the primary victims and primary agitators. And yet we’ve been wholly swept aside, as history has been written by those privileged to do so. Most galling of all is how many organizations naming themselves after Stonewall in some manner have ended up ignoring the needs of trans people, downplaying the role of the “T” in “LGBT”, outright excluding trans people, or even adopting overtly cissexist or transphobic positions and policies.
But at least Stonewall does, after a fashion, get remembered. The Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco’s tenderloin, which preceded the Stonewall riots by three years, tends to get ignored in the wider narrative of LGBT history, which I can’t see as unconnected to the fact that it was more or less wholly an action of trans women, where there’s really no way to realistically imagine it as having been a “gay & lesbian” thing rather than a trans thing (not that that stops would-be LGBT historians, particularly in San Francisco, from trying). This riot was, however, vitally important in establishing the movement for gay rights in San Francisco… a movement which, again, ultimately came to erase trans people’s contributions, ignore trans people’s needs, and push trans people out of visibility. Today, the gay Castro is gentrified as fuck. Trans women still remain in the considerably less posh Tenderloin, many still homeless, still poor, still at risk, still doing sex work for survival.
This is not simply some historical pattern from the 60s. Trans people (quite often women) playing key roles in radical activism is an ongoing thing. Those roles being erased, overlooked, or devalued is likewise ongoing. For instance, a small group of four trans women anarchists played an extremely key role in Occupy Wall Street, such as establishing the online infrastructure (including the “official” twitter account) through which protestors could efficiently and democratically organize. The inherently democratic, anarchic “no leaders, no idols” approach of OWS partially enabled the contributions of those trans women to go unacknowledged, as well as for trans and other gender-related concerns to end up relatively low on the list of Occupy’s priorities (as publicly perceived, anyway), and I wouldn’t want to jump to the conclusion that any of those women are necessarily clamoring for individual recognition of their contributions (in fact, I’m pretty sure excessive individual recognition would contradict most of the values Occupy stands for)… but recognition of the fact that trans women can and very frequently do play important roles in contemporary radical activism is something I believe needs to happen. For everyone’s sake.
Another example of trans people playing incredibly important roles in radical political activism only to have such contributions erased would be the complicated issues surrounding Private First Class Bradley (possibly Breanna) Manning, the whistleblower who leaked evidence of war crimes to wikileaks, and is now on trial for treason. There is considerable evidence that Manning was, at the very least, struggling with gender identity and leaning towards the pursuit of transition, but nonetheless has been appropriated as a “gay man”, and is widely referred to as such in the media. It’s incredibly rare that ANY story concerning Manning even acknowledges that there were any questions surrounding their gender identification whatsoever. Even Manning’s supporters, who parade them as a hero, refuse to acknowledge the question of their gender. Personally, given the historical context of erasure of trans activism I’m referring to in this post, I’m inclined not to trust the hyper-skepticism about Manning, and agree with the belief that it’s extremely like they are, indeed, transgender. And extremely unlikely they’re not.
My point is that radical, aggressive, political agitation has always been a part of transgender history, however much that history gets overlooked by the mainstream queer narratives. We were always at the front lines, pushing back against oppressive, heterosexist cis-patriarchy. That part of who and what we are, and what we represent, has always been ignored or directly erased. And cis queers (as well as many other groups) have always benefited from our actions, while rarely ever sticking their own necks out on our behalf. I don’t consider any of our politically radical history to be coincidental. Rather, I consider this to be reflective of other inherent aspects of who and what we are, and what it fundamentally means to be trans.
There’s an old saying I’ve been fond of for a long time. “Revolution is always impossible until it is inevitable”. I forget who said it originally. The basic idea is that as long as people are given the option of sticking with the status quo, as long as that remains, more or less, a choice, they’ll take it. Offer them bread and circuses, and they’ll take the bread and circuses. There’s some really cool stuff that deals with it in a much more complex and interesting way called Social Justification Theory. To offer an embarrassingly simplistic summary: It’s always more cognitively “easy” for someone to internally justify a social system to themselves, even if their marginalized within it, as long as the psychological threat to their sense of self worth (or immediate threats to their safety and health, or that of their family) don’t outweigh the psychological risk and cognitive dissonance of having to reject the social system they live within (which is a much bigger than it seems).
Trans people never exactly had that choice. We’ve always, by way of either what we are or our unavoidable needs, been forced into the position of being at odds with the system in which we exist. In other words, for us, revolution was inevitable; even if only the personal revolution of “transition” itself. Trans people, especially trans women, have always been fundamentally a threat to the assumptions on which patriarchy has been built, so our very existence was always a sort of revolutionary or radical thing. We could never vocalize that existence without it being potentially taken as politically aggressive. Likewise any attempt to insist upon, or force, recognition. Likewise any gesture of visibility, intentional or accidental.
This is not to say that no trans people have ever tried to support or justify the systems in which they live. I’m repeatedly saddened and disgusted by the numerous anti-feminist, misogynistic, patriarchal, racist, able-ist, conservative and otherwise kyrarchial beliefs I encounter amongst trans people, as well as the abundant internalized transphobia and cissexism, and the whole mess of problems we call trans-fundamentalism and transnormativity. And yeah, some trans people bend over backwards in an attempt to convince themselves that they do indeed fit into the system and the system is just: HBSers being a pretty tragicomic example. But no matter what she believes, an HBSer woman will continue being seen as a threat to cis-patriarchy, and will continue being treated as such… not in any significant way at all differently than the other trans women she so viciously contrasts herself to.
Our existence has always been oppositional to the system, and in almost all cases, the various actions that comprise and define a trans life as apart from a cisgender life are all, however small or personal, however necessary and beyond our real control, radical actions. We don’t choose to be trans, it’s simply something that just sort of happens to some people… but it pretty much always ends up putting us in the position of needing to choose self-determination, autonomy, and personal agency over the social values and systems around us… indeed usually in opposition to them. The implicit codes of patriarchal culture often suggest that “becoming” trans, “becoming” a woman, is the absolute most shameful, abhorrent and incomprehensible thing that a man (or someone so designated) can ever do. We do it anyway, (in so far as “becoming” is really what it is at all… which is a simplification at best, an inaccurate and erasing generalized assumption at worst), we do it because we have to, because it’s… just what happens. It can be simple and it can be intensely complex, it can be a linear and singular process or it can play out in an entirely different kind of narrative, it can be personal and it can be social, it can be “elective” or a deeply felt need, it can be one choice or a series of differing choices, it can be fluid or stable, it can be liberating or terrifying… there are no universals. But it’s certainly radical.
Patriarchy has always responded in kind. Even where trans people are recipients of numerous other privileges, those privileges are always going to be limited by the fact of hir “trans-ness”, and operate differently (sometimes only conditionally). And where trans people are not the recipients of general privilege, and instead stand at an intersectional point of oppression, all those oppressions are magnified and delivered exponentially. Suicide, violence, poverty, homelessness, addiction, survival-sex-work, sexual assault, harassment, discrimination in housing and employment… none of these things are uncommon for trans women, and are entirely too common for trans women of colour, trans women with disabilities and trans youth.
This makes it all the more of a situation where playing along with the system as it is has never really been much of an option for trans people. The rioters at Compton’s Cafetaria and at Stonewall were faced with a kind of marginalization that would be unimaginable to most gay or lesbian people running any agencies or organizations or charities named in Stonewall’s memory (though still quite comprehensible to many trans WoC, homeless trans youth, trans sex workers, and others… others typically excluded from consideration by the organizations bearing that name). They were in a situation of absolute, suffocating desperation, anger, poverty, terror and hunger. They had almost nothing to lose. But they had their anger, and they had their pride.
Funny how little currency that word has left for us… pride.
I’d like to think that it’s those subtle and essential, unavoidably radical and revolutionary, bits of what being trans means that are going to stick around and matter. Societal privilege, media attention, being welcomed into capitalism and the military-industrial complex and consumerism and television and marriage and politics and all of that stuff can be handed out to us, sure (though almost certainly conditionally, and to only a selected few considered the “good kind” of trans people). It seems that ball is already rolling, and there’s no way to stop it. Soon enough there will be a variation of transgenderism that is acceptable in mainstream media culture. But what I hope is that those subtle bits I mentioned will end up smuggled along with it.
I hope that we really are as much of a threat to patriarchy as their fear, revulsion and hatred always suggested. And I hope that in trying to play the okey-doke assimilation game with us the way they played it with gay men, they’ll end up inviting in a lot more trouble than they imagined.
I hope that we will always be what we’ve always been.
At the very least, I hope we don’t forget what, and where, we’ve been as we try to figure out where we’re heading, and why.
And I hope Sylvia Rivera will be proud of us when we get there.