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Trans Women of Color Were and Are Leaders in the Fight for Human Rights

09 Jun 2020

In the days since the murder of George Floyd, we’ve seen widespread protest, in the name of justice, for his death at the hand of police brutality. When I first saw the video, I had no reason to think that this person—his life, and his loss—would be the catalyst for what may prove a seismic shift in the global fight for racial equality. These moments seem to happen in cycles. We witness a cluster of deaths; the victim is always an innocent and unarmed Black person caught in a confrontation with an officer. Then a second person dies, then a third, and sometimes a fourth. Video footage goes viral. Those at fault aren’t charged. Protest happens. Hashtags and slogans litter the internet. In the end, nothing really changes. Most of us go back to our lives, at best a little more aware of racial inequity, at worst a little more desensitized to senseless, unnecessary violence perpetrated against Black people.

But this time, it’s different. It feels different, wholly so. Folks previously reluctant to speak up are now boldly proclaiming that Black lives matter. Protests are happening in all fifty states. Footage of mass demonstrations in London, Madrid, and Rome, among other cities, is widespread—as is the simple truth that the world over, people are no longer standing for white supremacy. The phrase “anti-racist” has, in the last two weeks, become part of a global cultural lexicon. This dialogue has ballooned, creating space for people living at the intersections of Black and other identities, to be heard. Perhaps it’s a matter of timing: George Floyd’s death happened only six days before June—Pride month—and only weeks after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Or perhaps it has to do with the death of Tony McDade, an unarmed Black trans man, at the hands of Tallahassee police only two days later, or the violent attack on Iyanna Dior, a Black trans woman, in Minneapolis on June 1st. What’s clear though, is that we are living in a moment of greater visibility for all Black lives, including Black trans lives. 

I have to admit that I’m fascinated by the timing of all this. That the world seems to be erupting at the outset of Pride—a month-long celebration of everything and everyone queer—lends an eery, historic atmosphere to the change that’s underway. That the names Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are lifted and lauded, now more than ever before feels a bit like the thread tying everything together. Johnson, a Black trans woman and drag performer, and Rivera, a Latinx trans woman, both had a hand in the Stonewall Uprising and its subsequent commemoration, the first gay pride march, starting in three cities the following year: New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It also marked the start of the Gay Liberation Front: a coalition of folks committed to fighting for gay rights and housing homeless gay youth. For these reasons, the uprising, which began as a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the West Village that served the most marginalized of the queer community (butch lesbians, queer people of color, and trans men and women,) holds a critical place in queer history. The movement is a crucial outgrowth from a night when New York City’s queer community said enough with police brutality and made the choice to fight back.

Both women are often credited with throwing the first stone, rock, or glass that ignited the violence. And in recent years, both women are touted for their tireless advocacy, as well as catalyzing what has become an annual month-long global event celebrating the queer community. The expansion of Pride into a movement that has relied on collaboration with police, and infiltrated corporate marketing schemas is, taken at face value, a sign of how widespread acceptance of queer life has become. Same-sex marriage is commonplace, and even the most conservative political pundits claim to support certain policies that benefit the queer community. And yet, with new footage emerging every day of police attacking protestors all over America, police brutality is as pervasive as ever. It is no longer covered up, no longer hidden in the bowels of the American justice system. It is everywhere, blatant, and undeniably in our faces.

Trans women of color were leaders in the earliest moments of the modern gay rights movement. And trans women of color are at the helm of the Black Lives Matter Movement, a movement created specifically to honor all Black lives. Trans women of color have a legacy of claiming space in social movements and holding that space for anyone who needs it, even when the people who need it are the people who marginalize them. I’m reminded of those who express outrage at police brutality against Black bodies but remain silent in the face of violence against Black trans women. I’m reminded of the way the organizers of the gay pride march, in those early years, tried to exclude Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivero because they thought their presence would damage the cause. I’m reminded that when it comes to police brutality, we are fighting the same war we’ve been fighting for decades. And I’m reminded that no matter what, we must keep fighting.  

Written by Denne Michele Norris for Youth To The People

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