Trans people are on the vanguard, fighting from the margins

This story is part of a package. At the bottom of this article, read why Kate Sedgwick felt she had to write about issues facing trans women and their contributions to the LGBTQ movement. Also, see the schedule of Kentuckiana Pride events. 

Victoria Syimone Taylor, who started performing in the ‘90s as a showgirl doing drag at The Connection, said she has felt the sting of discrimination for being transgender from people “wanting to erase the ‘T’ from the LGBTQ.”

Today, she’s a DJ, at home in gay and straight spaces, but she told me, “You hear gay men all the time saying that they don’t understand the trans thing. And it bothers me, because it’s like, well, I could say the same about gay men. It’s the same thing. There’s a lot of racism and transphobia within our inner circles.”

Certainly, it is easy to imagine that discrimination against trans people would come from outside of queer spaces. For trans women to be fully themselves frequently means being conspicuous. Sexual orientation isn’t necessarily a visible trait, while gender performance is. Trans women face sexism, homophobia and racism, along with transphobia.

But trans people, especially trans women of color, face profound discrimination from within gay spaces and within the gay-rights movement.

Because the movement is so entrenched in showing that queer people are like everyone else, trans people have been marginalized and left behind when it comes to the fight for equal rights in the workplace and elsewhere. Trans activists say the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group that claims to support LGB and T rights, has failed repeatedly to include trans people in equal-rights legislation.

In much the same way the women’s suffrage movement exploited the voices and labor of black women, yet ultimately failed to advocate for their right to vote, the mainstream gay movement has largely failed to recognize and fight for the trans women whose lives and work have made the movement possible.

Trans visibility has made great strides. It would be hard to find someone who’s not familiar with the term “trans.” Prominent trans women of color, such as “Orange Is the New Black” star Laverne Cox, bring visibility to trans issues, even as they bat away invasive questions. But while there are more trans characters in television and film, they are often played by cis-gender (non-trans) men who receive accolades for bravery that living trans women seldom receive.

Exclusion from other aspects of everyday life also makes trans women frequent targets of violence. Because such crimes are not always reported, or even recorded as having involved trans people, the statistics are hazy. Trans advocacy groups do their best to collect numbers and get out the news. A 2016 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that for the previous year 16 trans and gender non-conforming people were killed. Of those, 13 were transgender women of color.

Twelve trans women of color have been killed already this year, according to GLAAD, a group that monitors media for the LGBT community.

One in five trans people have been homeless, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Many are children and teens, written off by adoptive and foster parents.

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracked a dramatic uptick in incidents of hate crimes and harassment in the lead-up to Donald Trump’s election, which continue at a higher rate than years past. So-called bathroom bills are popping up all over the country, including one expected to return in Kentucky’s next legislative session. They are designed to exclude trans people from public life. These bills center bigoted rhetoric that accuses trans people of predatory behavior and focuses on our genitals in an intrusive, harmful way.

Despite all of these challenges — or perhaps because of them — history shows that trans women of color have been, and are, the mothers of the movement for queer liberation — from the birth of the gay liberation movement at the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969.

Stonewall

The Stonewall Rebellion began in 1969 after a raid on a bar, the Stonewall Inn, in New York City, during Marsha P. Johnson’s birthday party. Today, we would call Johnson a trans woman, but she and fellow revolutionary Sylvia Rivera, identified simply as women. The term “trans” would not be popularized for decades.

As many as 200 were inside the bar when police raided the premises. A crowd gathered, an officer bludgeoned a drag queen. A drag king, Stormé DeLarverie, punched a cop back.

Who threw the first brick at Stonewall?

Was it a white, gay man, like the movie, directed by a white, gay man, would have you believe? Or was it more likely one of the trans women of color who could not bear to witness one more act of violence against her people?

Accounts of the rebellion vary, but some say Sylvia Rivera set it off, throwing a bottle at police. What’s not up for debate is the strength Johnson, a black trans woman, and Rivera, a Puerto Rican and Venezuelan trans woman, showed during and after the rebellion. Often homeless themselves, in 1970, they started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR as a caucus within the Gay Liberation Front, or GLF.

Dr. Kaila Story and Jaison Gardner, co-hosts of ‘Strange Fruit’ on WFPL. (photo by Kathryn Harrington)

‘They dare to defy’

Jaison Gardner and Dr. Kaila Story are cohosts of Strange Fruit on WFPL, billed as “musings on politics, pop culture and black gay life.” Both are focused on trans women getting their due. They are a black, queer charm offensive in service to the revolution, illuminating parts of the culture that need more attention, and analyzing them with humor and passion.

“I often think that as much as we throw shade to the drag queens, the trans people, they have been the ones on the front lines in our movement,” said Gardner, who cofounded Black Lives Matter Louisville.

“They’re the ones who have taken bricks to the head, gotten arrested. It’s never been those of us who are cookie-cutter gays — the lipstick lesbians, the passable men — we’ve never been the ones who made this movement move forward, you know. It’s been Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera — those people who aren’t passable, who are clockable, who dare to defy.”

Yet even the fiercest advocates for trans liberation have had plenty to learn.

Gardner recalled watching “The Jerry Springer Show” in his youth. “I’d see these trans women that were ‘fooling the boys,’ right? And so, in my mind, growing up in the ‘80s, people oftentimes conflated being a black gay man with being a drag queen or a trans woman, right?

“It was sort of like, ‘We’re all sissies; we’re all punks,’ and so for me as somebody who had my gender performance policed, right? ‘You walk like a girl, you are too sissified,’ right? Me, wanting to be more masculine, I was afraid of drag queens and trans women.”

“I completely agree,” Story said. “Black trans women, specifically, have been the mavericks of the movement. Their visibility has created so much insight, analysis, and then, within their own lives, so much terror, so much fear, even for them to walk the street, for them to be who they are. And again, I would say that it’s not fear so much as envy, so much as jealousy.”

Off the air, Dr. Story pushes for queer and trans inclusion at the UofL, where she is Audre Lorde Chair and professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Pan-African Studies. She works to make sure her trans students feel heard and respected, inside and outside her classes.

She said she can relate to the type of scrutiny trans people face in public. White people have interrupted her in queer spaces by focusing on, or even touching, her hair. Similarly, cis-gender people can display the same insensitivity with trans people, she said.

“Gay and lesbian folk make it that much more difficult for trans folks to exist, and they continue to gender police,” she said, explaining that they ask questions that focus on the transition, such as “‘So, um, what was your given name?’ ‘What did your parents name you?’”

Black trans women get a double dose.

Some people feel entitled to an explanation when they don’t understand something, but when that something is your very existence, it can be taxing. As Taylor said, “I don’t want my whole entire life to be a teaching moment to people. I want to be able to exist and be myself without having to explain it to everyone I come across.”

The politics of being trans

Dawn Wilson, a black trans woman, has been fighting for trans equality since the ‘90s. A scholarship was established for LGBT students at the UofL in honor of her work in 2015, and she serves as the Education Chair of the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission.

In 1995, she attended Southern Comfort, the first national transgender conference of its kind, in Atlanta, to meet other trans women of color. That year, someone from the Human Rights Campaign Fund, now the HRC, was there to educate attendees on how to lobby for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA. The bill would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity for employers with more than 15 employees.

“The first thing she says is, ‘You’re only going to get maybe two or three minutes… and they’ll shoot you out the door. You just want to get in one story, or maybe tell them that you vote in their district,’ and I’m sitting here going, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not right.’”

Wilson was sitting next to Phyllis Frye, who in 2010 became the first openly transgender judge in the U.S. Wilson, who had worked for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, turned to her and said, “You have one to write, one to talk, and one to listen, but you trade off between the three so you keep their attention and keep them off-balance, too. This is how the game is played. You’ve got to know bill numbers… You’ve got to deal with the House and Senate, because you don’t know who you’re going to be talking to.”

Frye encouraged Wilson to take over the seminar, which she did, but she’s sure the HRC was deliberately misinforming attendees. She sees it as an effort to declaw the message of trans advocates and strengthen the policy demands of more mainstream queers.

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Wilson said that, unbeknownst to Southern Comfort attendees, there was a version of ENDA that included gender identity and one that did not. The exclusionary version made it to the Senate floor to fail 49-50 in 1996. As Monica Roberts has reported on the blog TransGriot, the trans community felt duped and used, as it had back in the post-Stonewall days when the GLF booted STAR from its ranks and excluded anti-trans discrimination from proposed New York City anti-discrimination legislation in 1971.

In 2007, because of strengthening trans leadership and advocacy by groups like The National Transgender Advocacy Coalition, formed by Dawn Wilson and Monica Roberts, among others, U.S. Sen. Barney Frank introduced a version of ENDA that included trans people. When the bill failed in committee, trans people were once again excluded from the bill.

That year, HRC head Joe Solmonese had promised Southern Comfort attendees that the HRC wouldn’t support any trans-exclusionary bill. The organization raised $20,000 at the conference. Days later, Barney Frank and other legislators struck gender identity and expression from the bill in a bid to push it through after it died in committee. It failed anyway. The HRC was complicit in excluding gender from the bill, according to a 2010 article published in “Sexuality Research and Social Policy.”

The HRC did not respond to questions for this story.

In 2009, finally, gender identity was included in the bill, which has been proposed every year since 1974. It still has not passed both the Senate and the House.

Dawn Wilson (photo by Kathryn Harrington)

Helping themselves

The room was full last month for How to be a Transgender & Queer Advocate/Ally, which Derek Guy, an outspoken Louisville-area trans advocate and social worker organized to help people from all backgrounds. At one point during the event, Guy talked about the plight of trans children. He said he was exasperated after having seen too many potential foster parents exclude kids just because they are trans or queer.

“How are you going to be a foster parent if the first thing you say is, ‘I don’t want to take a kid who’s gay’?” he said, and then joked, “OK, I can promise you that 3 year old is gonna be straight for the rest of their life.”

Queer and trans teens are rejected by their families and end up homeless at a higher rate than are straight teens. While 7 percent of adolescents identify as trans or queer, they represent 40 percent of homeless teens, according to the advocacy group True Colors Fund.

Trans women have helped. Before opening STAR House in 1970, Johnson and Rivera were known to make space for the homeless hustlers, the trans and the queer, in whatever accommodations they had.

It was the same in Louisville, Taylor recalled. “Monica Wade let a bunch of kids stay at her house one summer. Didn’t ask us for rent, just asked us to respect her home and not to sleep with her husband. But she did that for a lot of girls [over the years].”

‘Frightened to death’

I spoke with Wade, a black trans woman who goes now by her married name, Monica Nolen. Now 74, she is still living in Louisville. In the ‘90s, she was an administrator whose work was in housing people with HIV. When I asked her how many trans women she’d put up in her own home over the years, she laughed and said she had no idea. “You had to help those girls if they needed food or a place to stay,” she said, “because they had no mentors.”

Taylor said, “Back in the day, you couldn’t get a job, and the few girls that were passing [as cis-gender women] that could get jobs were frightened to death that someone would come in and realize who they were and they may lose their job. So what other work was there but street work? And you know, I mean, that sets you up for drug addiction and being in bad situation where you can be abused maybe physically or mentally.

“I used to believe that the only job I would ever be good at was being a showgirl. I thought I’d perform till death because there wasn’t any example of a girl moving forward past the shows.”

Dawn Wilson recognizes how public narratives and rejection from friends and family can rob trans people of their self-worth. She recommends seeking out prominent trans people and advocates for resources. Local meetings such as those of Trans Man Louisville and Transwomen National are places for affirmation and support.

“United you’re stronger,” she said. “Divided, you’re not. When you come together, united, you can move things.”

Taylor credits an inner strength and persistence with her success outside of drag culture. She doesn’t want to be a role model, she said. “But I also realize that people do know who I am, and there are people that look like me that need this encouragement that they can go out and do.”


A Note From The Author on Finding An Identity, The Evolution And The Solution

I struggled for years with my gender identity before I even understood that’s what it was. I hated what I saw in the mirror. When I was naked in the bath, I was disgusted with myself. I thought those feelings were about my womanly body’s imperfections.

In my 20s, I did drag. I passed. When I took it off, I cried. I hardly ever cry. I retreated into my femininity, rather than focus on an impossibility. My masculinity was well-hidden, and I believed it to be an all or nothing thing.

I am attracted to men. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t lesbian who expressed butchness. I thought I wasn’t allowed. I felt so uneasy around butch lesbians and out trans men that my stomach would churn. I didn’t know what to say, or how to act. I discovered that it wasn’t because I was repressing lesbianism. I pushed the worries away.

At 37, I cut off my hair and got rid of all my dresses and skirts. At first, I felt I was taking an enormous risk. I felt exposed and terrified walking down the street. It took months to adjust. I worried about being rejected, but my friends were happy for me.

At the same time, I often feel like a conspicuous disappointment to the lesbians and butches I meet. It’s assumed I’m a lesbian. A lesbian motorcycle gang came into a bar where I do comedy, welcomed me as one of their own and then summarily dismissed and stopped talking to me when I told the truth about who I am.

This pales in comparison to the discrimination many trans people face.

It’s important to recognize that sexual orientation and gender are two different things, though. It’s because of the immense work of trans advocates that I was able to claim my identity as gender-queer, and to feel more comfortable with who I am and how I look than ever before. I am forever grateful for the work of those who came before me, and I hope to make life easier for those who follow.—Kate Sedgwick


2017 Pride Events

Thursday, June 15
Pride Weekend Kick Off Party
6 p.m.
Chill BAR Highlands
chillbarlouisville.com

Friday, June 16
2017 Kentuckiana Pride Parade And Concert
6 p.m.
The Belvedere

Friday, June 16
Bluegrass Leather Pride Night And Parade After Party
9 p.m.
PRIDE bar + Lounge
Search Facebook

Saturday, June 17
2017 Kentuckiana Pride Festival
12 p.m.
The Belvedere

Saturday, June 17
Inner Voices Concert
7:30 p.m.
Central Presbyterian Church
voicesky.org for tickets

Sunday, June 18
Sunday Funday Pride Cookout
3 p.m.
Chill BAR Highlands


Where To Connect, 
Find Help

GLAAD has a wonderful resource for allies who want to be better informed: glaad.org/transgender/allies

Transwomen National is a local support group for trans-femme people: transwomennational.org/

Louisville Trans Man is a local support group for trans-masculine people: louisvilletransman.wixsite.com/support

TransGriot is the long-running blog of Monica Roberts, a black trans woman, and is a great resource for those who want to be and stay informed about black trans issues: transgriot.blogspot.com/

The Louisville Youth Group is a terrific resource for trans people under 21: louisvilleyouthgroup.com/

The Kentucky Health Justice Network helps trans people who need medical advocacy and emotional support: kentuckyhealthjusticenetwork.org/trans-health.html

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