By Alexander Lee and MC Ettinger
Date Published: June 01, 2006
People often fail to realize that although the contemporary gay rights movement is currently utilizing much of its resources for marriage rights, it is a movement that has rebellious, even revolutionary roots. Even fewer people realize the crucial role that multi-racial, mostly working class, transgender and gender variant people played in this history.
The notorious shoe which set off New York’s now famous Stonewall Riot in 1969 was slung by the legendary Sylvia Rivera, a Latina transgender woman. One year later, Rivera co-founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which organized transwomen of color in New York until the mid-90s. Rivera was also a member of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican revolutionary group that was part of the growing anti-imperialist movement in the US at the time. Now deceased, Rivera was an agitator and activist who pioneered gay and women’s rights issues within the Young Lords, alongside other powerful anti-imperialist women of color. She continued to be very active in the radical queer liberation movement in New York City until her death.
The context in which Sylvia Rivera and other transwomen of color rebelled that day was as a response to intensive police profiling and targeting. However, the gay movement has forgotten that our roots of activism came out a moment of anti-imperialist consciousness and action characterized by the Anti-Imperialist Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the Black Power Movement of that era. While the words to describe the conditions have changed over the years, gay people, led by those of us most visibly challenging the gender oppressive conception of “normality” and “decency” which privileged whiteness and class, were fighting for our civil and human rights against state oppression.
While it was Stonewall which led to the genesis of countless gay protest marches all over the country immediately following the uprising, the San Francisco Bay Area witnessed a similar occurrence of collective queer resistance in an event described by transgender historian and scholar Susan Stryker as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. Compton’s Cafeteria, which no longer exists, was a popular all-night eatery in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco which thousands of transwomen, men, and gender variant people have called home for decades. Then, as now, many of its residents were immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Seen as “undesirables” disgracing the city, Tenderloin residents were the frequent targets of vice squad harassment and abuse.
In 1966, a group of regulars, transwomen, and young gender variant gay people were enjoying their coffee and doughnuts at Compton’s when a cop made one insult too many. A trashed cafeteria and one torched police car later, multiple arrests had been made and San Francisco was never the same for transpeople and their allies. It is an event that radicalized the local gay community and helped make San Francisco the west coast queer political hotbed we know today.
As the gay rights movement matured and began to pose a more serious threat to the US federal and state governments, the New Left of which it was part suffered continual attacks from COINTELPRO, which undermined the movement’s unity and encouraged friction and distrust. However, as marginal acceptance of gay people improved, internal struggles along the lines of sex, race, class, and “passing” began to define the movement. This led to transgender and gender variant people being pushed to the sidelines in favor of this expansion in the gay (now lesbian, gay and bisexual) movement, and marginalized as a source of shame for those “LGBs” for whom assimilation was more easily achieved.
Despite (or because of) being pushed out of the leadership of the new LGB movement that emerged in the decades following the uprisings at Stonewall and Compton’s, the rampant discrimination and grinding poverty experienced by many transgender people has changed very little. The transgender community continues to experience extreme levels of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. Transgender women of color in particular are most vulnerable because of the multiple layers of oppression they experience as women, as women of color, and as transgender women of color. Not surprisingly, transgender women are vastly overrepresented in US criminal justice systems, and at the same time are over-represented as the victims of individual and state-sponsored hate crimes.
Even a transgender person with race, class, or educational privilege is likely to face downward class mobility as a consequence of transphobia. Leslie Feinberg, well known multi-issue radical and transgender activist, has proposed in hir book Transgender Warriors that colonization and industrialization have intensified rigid gender hierarchies for the benefit of the perpetuation of capitalism. Thus passing unambiguously as a woman or man, or fitting into the “gender binary” is necessary to avoid stigma and marginalization from the gender-rigid free market economy.
The pressure to pass has only intensified as globalization creates a huge low-wage service sector, which demands an intelligible gender expression from its workers. For those whose gender expressions or identities do not or cannot pass, the only option left is to find work in the criminalized economies of drugs or sex work. Participation in this underground economy of course leads to police profiling and disproportionate representation in the prison industrial complex.
Transgender and gender variant people also experience transphobia within the field of health care. Psychiatric professionals currently act as gatekeepers for people who may opt for hormone therapy or surgery as part of their gender transitions. More dangerous still is the rampant mistreatment of transgender people within the medical industrial complex, which systematically denies humane treatment of a broad range of health issues from life threatening to the mundane. There are well documented cases of transgender women being left to die during life saving emergency procedures when medical personnel discovered their transgender status and either refused or were “too shocked” to resume treatment.
Like many immigrants whose movements are being increasingly policed in today’s globalized world, transgender or gender variant people––regardless of race or national origin––often find themselves a new class of undocumented people. This occurs when one’s gender presentation is inconsistent with state issued identification. Here the complex interplay of state and medical industrial complex power in exercising control over a person’s body and life is central to understanding the complexity of injustice we all face. Without the “proper identification,” many transgender people are forced to live in a virtual limbo that other undocumented immigrants know too well, inhibiting access to travel, proper medical care, employment, housing, public assistance or even driving or acquiring a driver’s license.
Once you understand the issues transgender people face, it is not hard to see the connection between human rights for transgender people and reproductive and self-determination rights for women. Likewise, it is not such a leap to see the potential for solidarity between transgender people and undocumented immigrants, or the similarities between psychological and sexual humiliation of strip searches of detainees in the US’s current “war on terrorism” in Iraq and those forced on transgender, gender variant and intersex people in US prisons and jails.
While marginalized in the larger LGB political movement, transgender people have continued to develop their own political movement. Transgender Menace chapters continue to fight important battles against transphobia in different sectors of society. Taking its inspiration from STAR and other libratory movements of the 1960s and 1970s, TransAction was formed in San Francisco in the late 1990s to tackle the ongoing problem of law enforcement hate violence against transgender people. In the new century, transgender activists continue to fight the prison industrial complex as part of the Trans/Gender Variant in Prison Committee, also in San Francisco. TransJustice in New York has continued in the spirit of STAR, focusing on the needs of transgender people of color.
As the transgender political movement in the US continues to mature, mainstream power structures are becoming increasingly accessible. For example, in San Francisco transgender people have been able to access local government entities to win city-funded transition-related health care as part of the city’s public health benefits. Furthermore, traditional state anti-discrimination laws that include transgender people as a protected class are becoming increasingly common in the US as a result of the work of transgender and gay attorneys and lobbyists.
These changes in large part are due to mainstream LGB civil rights organizations making efforts to reunify with the transgender community. While this trend is due in no small part to the decades of protesting our marginalization from the LGB movement, the cost of rejoining the gay movement now in its conservative adulthood is that the transgender community must now face the same political choices that the adolescent gay political movement faced decades ago that resulted in transgender people’s expulsion from the gay rights movement. The transgender community must now choose between defining its goals in terms of “liberation” or “civil rights.”
Whereas “civil rights” by definition means the rights a government grants to its citizens, “liberation” connotes a much more global and universal freedom that values human diversity and expression. Thus, the contours of a “civil rights movement” are necessarily defined by existing government structures and the societal status quo, no matter how fundamentally flawed. “Civil rights” wins are incremental and do not squarely challenge the hierarchies and systems of oppression, including imperialism, white supremacy, and even the gender binary.
Looking at the state of race-based US civil rights movements, ones that the white-dominated mainstream gay movement feels free to shamelessly co-opt, “civil rights” have failed to bring true justice for slavery or colonial genocide. Instead, we now live in a country where rather than fighting white supremacy and the legacies of slavery, progressives are distracted by the necessity of defending the meager crumbs of deeply-flawed “affirmative action” programs and other related government-granted benefits. What the government so miserly gives it can even more easily take away.
“Liberation” instead challenges dominant ideas of what it means to be human, and how human beings should treat each other and ourselves; it is a challenge to existing hierarchies and the systems of oppression that reinforce them, including government systems themselves. The transgender community’s highest promise to humanity is to liberate everyone from the gender binary, to explode this concept so that all people can experience the fullness of human experience. The gender binary currently confines people to a certain pre-defined set of choices and experiences, based on one’s anatomy at birth (or anatomy as shaped by the surgeon’s knife if one is intersex). While the women’s liberation movement has expanded these sets of choices and experiences for biological women (and to some extent, for transgender men), the binary still remains.
One of the most favored forms of rhetoric of civil rights movements is the use of the word “equality.” The gay civil rights movement is checkered with the word “equality,” as nearly every state has at least one gay civil rights organization with the word “equality” in its name, and no one can escape the Human Rights Campaign’s ubiquitous “=” on bumper stickers across the country. Because US society is rife with veiled inequality, the concept of “equality” as a goal for the gay political movement invites one to ask, “equal to whom?”
Since same-sex marriage or the right to be an out gay or lesbian person in the US military will not alleviate racism against gay people of color, the inhumanity of the prison industrial complex, or halt the advance of US imperialism, nearly all existing hierarchies will remain untouched even after gay “equality” goals are achieved. It will do little to mitigate the oppression of transgender or gender variant people. So now “equality” for the individual gay person means “equal to straight people in the same socio-economic situation.” This necessarily means that for the vast majority of gay and lesbian people, “equality” in the hands of the mainstream gay movement leads to a dead-end.
The path from “civil rights” to “liberation” is long, especially for a community as marginalized as the transgender community. As much as we have been able to win in places like San Francisco and New York City, our siblings in middle America are still grateful just to survive another day, and the contours of a global movement are not yet in focus. But the US trans community needs to decide whether it will make the sharp right turn that the gay political movement made in choosing assimilation through civil rights, or if it will fight for liberation for all.
While the gay political movement decided to limit its own liberatory potential in exchange for a place within American systems of oppression, transgender people do not have to make this same mistake. The community must now consciously decide what direction it will take, whether it will fulfill its highest calling to liberate all people from gender oppression stemming from the gender binary system, taking it back to our radical roots, or content itself with crumbs labeled “civil rights.”
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Mordecai Cohen (M.C.) Ettinger has been engaged in social justice struggles for the last 12 years on multiple fronts ranging from queer/transgender/intersex liberation, to Palestine liberation solidarity. He worked with TransAction since its inception and co-founded Jews for a Free Palestine.
Alexander Lee is a transgender person on the FTM spectrum of Chinese and Taiwanese descent. He is a second-generation immigrant, originally from Orange County, CA. He is also the founding director of the TGI Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that works to end human rights abuses against transgender, gender variant and intersex people in prisons and jails.