Transgender Women Of Color Are Pioneers Of The LGBTQ-Rights Movement. Why Are They Still Fighting For Their Lives?

"Celebrate Pride. But know that the community does not have equity.”
Transgender rights activists protest the recent killings of three transgender women, Muhlaysia Booker, Claire Legato, and Michelle Washington, during a rally at Washington Square Park in New York, U.S., May 24, 2019.
Transgender rights activists protest the recent killings of three transgender women, Muhlaysia Booker, Claire Legato, and Michelle Washington, during a rally at Washington Square Park in New York, U.S., May 24, 2019.

The start of LGBTQ Pride Month came with an exciting announcement in New York City: Two pioneering transgender activists, vanguards of the gay-liberation movement, would be getting statues in Greenwich Village, immortalizing their vital roles in the 1969 Stonewall rebellion — which has its 50th anniversary this year and is widely considered to be the official start of the movement.

“The LGBTQ movement was portrayed very much as a white, gay male movement,” Chirlane McCray, first lady of New York City, said at the official announcement. “This monument counters that trend of whitewashing the history.”

News of the statues, the first in the U.S. to commemorate transgender individuals, was celebrated on social media, where Raquel Willis tweeted, “Monuments don’t make up for the mayhem, but this is beautiful.” Many others, including Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and Queer Eye costar Karamo Brown, weighed in with praise and shout-outs to the activists.

Still, there was a lot that the valiant effort could not make up for, and many wounds it doesn’t seem likely to heal — especially for people like Sharron Cooks, a transgender activist in Philadelphia.

Cooks spent June 1 eulogizing and then burying her dear friend, Michelle “Tameka” Washington, who was one of four black transgender women murdered, in cities across the country, within just 12 days of each other.

“On the first day of Pride Month, we laid our sister to rest,” Cooks posted on Facebook. “Pride Month will never be the same for me.”

Along with Washington, who was remembered by loved ones that day as “beautiful,” “outspoken” and “a mother figure,” the recent spate of murders has claimed the lives of Muhlaysia Booker in Dallas, Claire Legato in Cleveland and an as-of-yet unidentified trans woman in Detroit, all of whom were gunned down. A fifth transgender woman, Amber Nicole of Denver, was brutally beaten by two men outside a nightclub, leaving her with facial nerve damage and a broken jaw. And most recently, on June 3, the body of Chynal Lindsey, 26, was pulled out of a Dallas lake by police, showing “obvious signs of homicidal violence.”

The anti-trans violence has sparked a flurry of national media coverage, plus vigils and rallies across the country.

“We will not be erased!” yelled a fired-up speaker into a megaphone at one such demo — Keep Your Hands Off Trans Bodies in New York City, held on the Friday before Memorial Day. A crowd of nearly 300 had gathered beneath the stately arch of Washington Square Park, forming a thick ring around each speaker who spoke or screamed from the heart — “Stigma is weaponizing murderers!” and “Black trans lives matter!”

Some, like Olympia Perez of Black Trans Media, could not contain their fury. “Black trans people have been here forever — and on their backs, you guys stand!” She directed her rage at the many white and non-trans people who took up space at the front of the crowd, referencing the legacies of activists such as Johnson, who worked tirelessly for LGBTQ rights only to be found dead in the Hudson River, after a suspected but never-solved homicide, in 1992.

“Marsha!” Perez screamed in anguish, smacking the ground with an open palm, “Stand the f*ck up and show them!”

Four days later, hundreds of mourners filed into the Cathedral of Hope church in Dallas, where the funeral of 23-year-old Muhlaysia Booker received a crush of media attention (and even a subsequent social media post by none other than Prince Harry and Meghan Markle).

Demetrius Freeman / Reuters

“She would always say, ’Mama, I’m willing to die for my transition, my respect and what I believe in,” Booker’s mother, Stephanie Houston, told the crowd, which included lots of local and national press — interest likely piqued by the fact that Booker had been viciously attacked in a parking lot in broad daylight, in a video snippet that had gone viral just a month before she was killed.

Those recent scenes — of funerals and rageful rallies — have stood in stark contrast to the excitement oozing through many queer-activist circles, where preparations have been underway for a particularly auspicious Gay Pride Month: This year marks not only the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, which started when patrons of the Stonewall Inn bar pushed back against an anti-gay police raid, but of the arrival in NYC of the annual international WorldPride festival, from InterPride, after past stops in Rome, London, Tel Aviv and Madrid.

The entire month, and especially the last weekend in June, when the annual NYC Pride March takes place, will be a lavish display of dance parties, celebrity appearances, parades, film screenings, concerts, drag performances, rallies and, of course, marketing opportunities.

It’s pretty safe to say, then, that the commemoration of those so-called “riots” of 1969 is now more a riot of rainbows and glitter. And many transgender people, believing they’ve been left behind by the larger LGBT movement, are not feeling it.

“World Pride should be about re-shifting resources to those who need it the most,” New York Transgender Advocacy Group executive director Kiara St. James, organizer of Keep Your Hands Off Trans Bodies, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “While cis[gender] queers will converge on NYC to celebrate Pride, the reason for having it was Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transwomen of color. Their ‘children’ are still dealing with lack of housing and healthcare and employment opportunities. So, celebrate Pride. But know that the community does not have equity.”

“Celebrate Pride. But know that the community doesn't have equity.”

- Kiara St. James

Elle Hearns, a social-justice organizer and founding director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, launching June 21, adds: “We all want to celebrate. I would love to get on a float and just really be happy going to Pride. But I also understand who’s not there.”

Too many missing

Media interest in anti-trans violence may be at an all-time high. But, says Hearns, “One of the biggest points is that this is actually been happening for decades.”

It’s only recently that statistics on transgender killings, believed to be widely underreported, have been more reflective of the reality. Since 2015, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an average of 24 transgender individuals have been murdered each year, and disproportionate numbers of the victims have been trans women of color. The deadliest year on record since then was 2017, during which activists tracked at least 29 such deaths, with killings by acquaintances, partners and strangers, some never identified. In 2018, there were 26 such recorded murders, and in 2019, so far, there have been seven.

From left, Michelle "Tameka" Washington, Claire Legato and Muhlaysia Booker, all murdered within days of each other.
From left, Michelle "Tameka" Washington, Claire Legato and Muhlaysia Booker, all murdered within days of each other.

(And anti-transgender violence is, of course, not limited to the United States. A 2016 Transgender Europe report found that over 2,000 trans people had been killed since 2008, with Central and South America accounting for nearly 75 percent of those total trans killings; just last month, the body of a trans woman from Veracruz, Mexico, was reportedly discovered by police, beheaded.)

Further, the results of a 2015 survey (the most recent available) by the National Center for Transgender Equality found the following: that 20 percent of black transgender individuals were unemployed (twice that of the cisgender black population); 38 percent were living in poverty (compared to 24 percent of non-trans people of color); 42 percent had experienced homelessness; 53 percent had been sexually assaulted; and 6.7 percent were living with HIV — more than 20 times the rate of .3 percent in the general U.S. population.

There is also this shocking statistic, cited often by the country’s largest LGBTQ non-profits (though the exact source is not apparent): that the average life expectancy of transgender women of color is just 35 years old.

“One of the biggest problems that trans people face — more specifically, black trans women — is the lack of access to healthcare, employment, housing, social support and everything that can help an individual thrive,” transgender-rights activist and media personality Ashlee Marie Preston, who marked her 34th birthday last year by launching the hashtag “Thrive Over 35” to raise awareness of the short life expectancy, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson

“And what happens is, when you don’t have access to housing, healthcare and employment or social support,” she continues, “you get caught up in the growth of the prison industrial complex. You have to engage in street economy, which adds an additional layer of risk to your life. And that cuts into your life expectancy.” Plus, Preston explains, “the fact that some people say ‘I experienced racism’ or ‘I experienced sexism’ or ‘I experienced a transphobia,’ many people aren’t able to imagine experiencing all of those simultaneously.”

Sometimes, in fact, even with all that’s been gained since Stonewall — marriage equality, parenting rights, and various protections in employment, housing and healthcare — it can feel to some, especially transgender women of color, like not much has changed at all, particularly when one looks at the current administration’s anti-trans policies, which take away rights in areas of military service, healthcare and housing.

“For what good it did my trans girls, it might as well have not happened,” Miss Major, a longtime transgender activist and veteran of the Stonewall rebellion, told HuffPost in 2018 of the legendary uprising.

History repeating itself

That feeling — that the “T” of LGBT is oft forgotten by the larger movement, and even more so for trans individuals who are not white — hits home especially hard if you watch the iconic, heartbreaking clip of Sylvia Rivera getting booed as she addressed the largely white, cisgender crowd at the 1973 Gay Pride rally in New York City.

“Y’all better quiet down!” Rivera screamed from the stage, accusing those rallying of belonging “to a white, middle-class white club.” She had joined forces with Marsha P. Johnson to form STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), a queer-youth advocacy group, but had to struggle with Pride organizers to get any time to speak at all. “I have been to jail! I have been raped!” she finally yelled into the mic, her voice raw with emotion. “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 treat me this way? What the f*ck’s wrong with you all? I believe in gay power! Revolution now! Gay power!”

In a later interview about that moment — footage that’s included in the 2017 David France documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson — Rivera says that she went home from that rally and attempted suicide, and survived only because Johnson found her in time. “I was hurt, and I felt that the movement had completely betrayed the drag queens and the street people,” she says. “And I felt that the years I had already given them had been a waste.”

Decades later, many trans activists feel similarly frustrated and forgotten.

“It’s very disrespectful to the legacy of the queer liberation movement when the LGBTQ community at large refuses to prioritize the wellbeing and survival of trans women of color — given that Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera quite literally built the movement on their backs,” Preston says. “They started a nonprofit where they were just renting hotel rooms and apartments from the money they were making from sex work, so that they could take young LGBT kids off the streets who were kicked out by their families for being who they are.”

Sylvia Rivera in 1994.
Sylvia Rivera in 1994.
AP Images

Although Johnson and Rivera (who died of liver cancer in 2002) are often credited with actually sparking the Stonewall uprising — or throwing the first brick or Molotov cocktail, as the legends go — both denied having done so. They were certainly key players on the scene, though, and their years of advocacy both before and after are undeniable, hence the plans for NYC monuments.

But whether or not that sort of public acknowledgment or visibility translates into actual change is yet to be seen.

Some give big props to the strides made regarding transgender visibility in pop culture, most recently with the FX series Pose, kicking off its second season on June 11. The show, produced by Ryan Murphy and Steven Canals and written and directed by transgender pioneer Janet Mock, broke ground by casting actual transgender actors to play transgender characters, and tells the story of New York City’s 1980s drag ball culture — first told to a larger audience through Jennie Livington’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, and thrust into the mainstream spotlight with Madonna’s “Vogue” that same year.

“Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera quite literally built the movement on their backs.”

- Ashlee Marie Preston

Mock spoke about the potential power of such representation on Pose on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in 2018. “We have five women with different dreams, who have love, desire, who want to be desired, who are funny, who are villains,” she said, which educates viewers in many ways. “You show people that, number one, it’s not scary, that they’re not horrible people, that they’re not freak shows — that instead they’re humans that you care about… They’re invested, and I hope that it doesn’t just entertain and inspire, but that it also moves people to care and hopefully do something.”

Preston also sees Pose’s potential to change hearts and minds. “I think it underscores the level of humanity that is universal that anybody can connect to,” she says. “We all know what it feels like to be thrown away. We all know what it feels like to be discarded. We all know what it feels like to not know if you’re going to survive or not. We all know what it feels like to want to be held and like want to have purpose and want to be seen.”

Still others are skeptical, including transgender artist and activist Reina Gosset, aka Tourmaline, who was speaking in general about visibility when she told Teen Vogue in 2017, “While trans visibility is at an all-time high, with trans people increasingly represented in popular culture, violence against us has also never been higher. The push for visibility, without it being tied to a demand for our basic needs being met, often leaves us without material resources or tangible support, and exposed to more violence and isolation.”

And Hearns believes that the power of Pose may be overstated.“I think Pose is necessary, but I also see that organizing is necessary and [that it] doesn’t change the conditions for everybody because there are five trans women who are stars on a show,” she says. “What’s happening in the White House, Pose is not shifting.”

What needs to change

Preston — who first gained wide recognition when she called out Caitlyn Jenner for being a “fraud” for her support of Trump in a 2017 video that went viral — does not mince words about who she believes is to blame for trans women of color being left behind by the LGBT movement.

“Every time that I hear another black trans woman was murdered, there’s this flame of rage that ignites in the pit of my belly, because I want to hold the other communities accountable for not showing up for us the way that we show up for every other community at the intersections of our identity,” Preston says. “I want to ask the LGBTQ community why they aren’t prioritizing black trans lives. I want to ask the black community why we aren’t prioritizing black trans women. I want to ask women why we’re still not considering trans women as women and as part of the larger national conversation around intimate partner violence, which is an extension of some of these deaths.”

“The truth,” she continues, “is that many gay white men use their sexuality as a shield to absolve them of the responsibility of dismantling sexist, racist and transphobic mechanisms within our community systems of oppression.” Instead, Preston says, some of these men believe “‘if I lean into my own oppression, then I don’t have to do the work to liberate other people’… I’m not saying that [no] gay white man knows struggle. What I’m saying is that your race and your gender aren’t contributing factors to your struggle.”

Activists Ashlee Marie Preston, left, and Elle Hearns.
Activists Ashlee Marie Preston, left, and Elle Hearns.
Getty Images; Elle Hearns/Instagram

Cooks, in the wake of her friend Tameka’s murder, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she believes the answer is complex and nuanced, and that it partly lies within the trans community itself. “I think, ultimately, there is a lot of internal work that the trans community needs to do and that needs to be addressed,” she says, noting that, too often, trans women are killed by people they know. “Trans women have to do a better job at building our self-esteem and our self-worth, and not settling for less than we deserve.”

She also points a finger at various LGBTQ nonprofits, however, for not putting trans women of color into positions of power. “How many trans women do we have in the nonprofit world? How many are sitting on boards? A lot of the gay and lesbian and bisexual orgs aren’t really offering the economic opportunities.” (At the Human Rights Campaign, the “largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization,” the executive staff and other higher-ups is largely white and cisgender, similar to the makeup at other national organizations, including the Family Equality Council, Lambda Legal and GLAAD.)

“A lot of these nonprofit organizations claim they are about the advancement of all LGBTQ people,” Preston also notes. “The reality is, they have a propensity to screen ‘black trans trauma porn’ to rake in donor dollars. But when it’s actually time to benefit from those dollars, trans women of color are always at the back of the line.”

The scope of the problem is huge, Hearns, notes, because the LGBTQ movement, as she sees it, is not reflective of the communities it purports to represent. “My hope that the Marsha P. Johnson Institute will restore our belief that all of our people are worthy of everything — and in order to believe that, you really have to start with the people who have nothing. That is my take on Pride.”

That’s why Hearns is launching the Institute in the middle of June, she explains, “because we recognize how quickly the celebration will overtake what we understand about the history. Stonewall was a radical protest. It was a radical demonstration. It was a radical movement. And so, over the last 50 years, that movement has become not only sanitized, but it has stopped making radical demands, because of the desire to be seen as ‘normal.’”

It’s why Pride, for Hearns and many other activists, such as the organizers of the Reclaim Pride Coalition in NYC and similar efforts across the country, are pushing back against mainstream festivities this year. “We are celebrating from very ahistorical perspective, and it’s painful to just see the celebration and the corporations who have really embraced Pride — without actually embracing what they need to do to alleviate the reasons why Pride exists in the first place,” she says. “You cannot shake hands with the police and then use trans people in a campaign with rainbows on. That’s just not what this is about.”

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