Friday, March 21, 2008

Transgender Pride: It’s About Time

Guest Post by Bet Power

When it comes to our rights, we transgender people cannot wait our turn. Yet that’s what Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) and the Human Rights Campaign told us to do when they stripped the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) of protections for gender identity/expression and left in only sexual orientation.

They also told us this: Let lesbians and gays (but only those who are gender-conforming) move forward under the law while trans people stay behind; “incrementalism” is a valid strategy for human rights; gender identity/expression would kill the bill; the votes were not there to pass the original, trans-inclusive ENDA; trans people first need to educate others more; and – most offensively – yours (Trans) is a new movement: put in more time, pay some more dues.

Tell that to Susan Stanton, the Largo, Florida city manager fired for transitioning to female. Tell that to 15-year-old Lawrence King, an effeminate gay boy bullied and then killed by a classmate who shot him in the head just because of what he wore.

It’s about time we look at history to see how long trans people have struggled.

Transgender is not a recent fad. In the United States, trans and intersex activism started before gay activism. In 1895, a group of New York androgynes started a group called The Cercle Hermaphrodites “to unite for defense against the world’s bitter persecution.” (Stryker: It’s Your History). It wasn’t until 1924 that Henry Gerber founded The Society for Human Rights, in Chicago. In 1950, the gay-male oriented Mattachine Society began; and in 1956, the lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis.

Trans people took part in the civil rights activism of the 1960s, including a group of 150 patrons in “non-conforming clothes” who were turned away at Dewey’s Lunch Counter in Philadelphia. They went on to protest and distribute information about gender variance.

Some would like us not to mention Compton’s Cafeteria, where the first recorded transgender riot against police oppression occurred in August 1966 in San Francisco, preceding the more famous 1969 Stonewall Riots in NYC by three years.

Some prefer to erase important historical facts about Stonewall itself, which started Gay Pride:

▼ Police routinely harassed bar patrons under old NY state laws prohibiting cross-dressing as well as men dancing with men.

▼ A transgender woman, Sylvia Rivera, threw a bottle at a police officer after being prodded by his nightstick (Duberman: Stonewall), perhaps the first act of resistance at the Stonewall Inn sparking several nights of riots. Rivera said, “That night, everything clicked. Great, now it’s my time. I’m out there being a revolutionary for everybody else, now it’s time to do my own thing for my own people.” (E. Marcus: Making History)

▼ A butch female wearing a man’s black leather jacket who was being brought to a patrol car put up a fierce struggle that encouraged the crowd to do the same (D’Emilio: Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities).

▼ Besides Sylvia Rivera, these transgender individuals – among others – are veterans of Stonewall: Marsha P. Johnson, Daria Modon, Miss Major, China Fucito, and Storme DeLarverie.

▼ When riot control police arrived at the Stonewall to rescue officers trapped inside the bar and break up the demonstration, a group of drag queens formed a chorus line, kicked up their heels, and taunted police by singing, “ We are the Stonewall girls / We wear our hair in curls / We wear no underwear / We wear our dungarees / Above our nelly knees!” (

▼ Throughout the first night of the riots, police singled out many transgender and transsexual people and gender non-conformists, including butch women and effeminate men, often beating them.

If it were not for the Stonewall veterans – including drag queens, trans people, and transsexuals alongside gays and lesbians – we would not have the community assets and organizations we have today, from GLAAD and GMHC to Lambda Legal Defense and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

It’s about time we move forward with a loud and proud 21st century Transgender Movement. We’ve come of age. Our time is now. Critical legislation is in need of your support. Until the LGBTI Movement stands up to oppression based both on gender expression/identity and sexual orientation, the federal ENDA and Hate Crimes bills may never pass. Trans people want to keep making progress along with gays, lesbians, and bisexuals – just like at Stonewall.

We hope to see you all at the first New England Transgender Pride March & Rally on June 7 in Northampton ( Remember Stonewall? That was us! “We’re fired up / Won’t take no more!”

Bet Power is the Director and Curator of the Sexual Minorities Archives, a national collection of LGBTI literature, history, and art since 1974, located in Northampton, MA. He is also the founder of the East Coast FTM Group (, monthly peer support for the full spectrum of masculine persons in the transgender community.

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