45 Years After Stonewall, the LGBT Movement Has a Transphobia Problem

Valerie Shaff/Sylvia Rivera Law Project

The late trans rights activist Sylvia Rivera, a veteran of the 1969 Stonewall riots. Image courtesy of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.


This week marks the anniversary of the Stonewall riots that inaugurated the modern gay rights movement in the United States, one that will be celebrated this weekend with Pride events in New York City and San Francisco. They feature transgender celebrities Laverne Cox and Janet Mock as grand marshals in the two respective cities, with other LGBT luminaries joining the festivities. The symbolic inclusion of these transgender women is an attempt by Pride organizers in both cities to signal trans inclusion as part of Pride's present.

Yet Pride—once known as Gay Pride—has long been a time of paradox as much as celebration, a time when the advances of the mainstream gay rights struggle muffles a more complicated history, one that from its origins has involved transgender people. It's a well-worn story that trans women like Sylvia Rivera were key leaders in the Stonewall rebellion whose anniversary Pride celebrates. The story that isn't told enough and, when it is, with too little force, is the degree to which trans people continue to be marginalized within the LGBT rights struggle, treated as tokens when convenient, yet denied the basic respect, rights, and resources needed for our equality.

It's less important that Cox and Mock serve as figureheads than that the LGBT movement treat trans rights with the same seriousness as it does the rights of gays and lesbians


Trans People Are Human Too

One of the earliest rifts between advocates for trans rights and those leading the charge for gay and lesbian rights happened when L&G rights leaders were willing to sacrifice protections for trans people in the 2007 Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), a touchstone event in the longstanding and unacceptable betrayal of transgender rights to gay and lesbian causes.  The trans activist Monica Roberts provides a comprehensive history of this struggle from a trans perspective, one that sows the seeds for an LGBT history that consistently includes trans people when convenient, yet sacrifices us in times of difficulty. (The 2007 ENDA passed the House of Representatives, but never got a vote in the Senate. A trans-inclusive version of ENDA eventually passed the Senate in 2013, but has seen no action by the House.)

The history of the gay and lesbian rights movement is one of framing its own struggle not simply as involving a specific group, but a fight for basic human rights. Indeed, the most powerful LGBT lobbying organization is called the Human Rights Campaign, with a name and logo (a yellow equal sign) that eschews gay-specific rhetoric and iconography. These symbols demonstrate the group's beginnings at a time when gay rights were at the limit of the U.S. civil rights struggle. Part of the success of the Human Rights Campaign as an organization is the argument implicit in its name, that fighting for the rights of the most marginalized social group in the U.S. means fighting for the principle of basic human rights for everyone.

However, just as the Human Rights Campaign betrayed its own name by sacrificing trans people during the time of ENDA, it continues to betray itself by apportioning its resources primarily towards gay and lesbian rights causes, at a time when trans people have become the most marginalized group in the American struggle for civil rights. If HRC's rhetoric is founded on the notion that it fights for the right to be human, then the organization must acknowledge that trans people are the most dehumanized group fighting for civil rights in the United States today. To have relied on this argument at a time when that mantle belonged to gays and lesbians, then to disavow it when another group has come into existence as a greater priority, only reinforces the shameful truth that the Human Rights Campaign only prioritizes the cause of human rights when those humans happen to be gay and lesbian—but not trans.

The HRC has made anemic gestures towards transgender inclusion, such as giving Lana Wachowski its Visibility Award and helping Sarah McBride in her effort to fight for transgender protections in Delaware. But these gestures are paltry in comparison to its massive efforts towards marriage equality, an issue that, while important for the gay community, pales in degree to the massive employment and health-care discrimination of transgender people.

"The Human Rights Campaign excels at the illusion of inclusion,” writes Monica Roberts. “They'll show up with a representative for a Trans Day of Remembrance, sponsor a trans-related conference here or there, or even tinker with their Corporate Equality Index to have trans specific issues reflected in it and trumpet it in a press release. But when it's time to put their money where their civil rights mouths are and actually use their Equal Sign bully pulpit, fiscal resources, political clout and influence to help push legislation that will result in human rights for trans people, they are MIA."

This imbalance of priorities underlines the major problem with HRC and its trans advocacy. While HRC makes gestures towards trans rights, doing so only highlights the hypocrisy of its position, using trans people for the sake of public relations and fundraising, but not actually putting our needs as a primary goal. That HRC is the most prominent face of LGBT advocacy represents the gay rights movement's shameful treatment of trans people. A Human Rights Campaign that truly values the mission inherent in its name must fully acknowledge that trans rights are a greater priority today, and shift its resources accordingly.


The Transphobia Epidemic

There is little to no discussion in mainstream media about what's at stake in the fight for basic transgender rights, which is that trans people are dying at alarming rates both of their own and in others' hands, because they are constantly subjected to transphobia—often brutally exercised. Now that many media outlets have gays and lesbians in positions of power, but far fewer trans people in comparable positions, the representational gap between gay and trans people has become increasingly glaring.

A number of media events has put this gap into focus, most notably the airing of the HBO movie of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, based on a play that became the touchstone for AIDS-related activism in the 1980s. Though the movie intends to memorialize the AIDS crisis, it also highlights the striking ways that trans people are dehumanized today in the same way gay people were thirty years ago. One of this work's major plot points is the extreme lack of reporting about AIDS in the early years of the crisis, specifically in The New York Times. An equivalent gap exists today regarding the lack of reporting on the epidemic of trans suicide and violence against trans people.

A recent survey of more than six thousand self-identified transgender people showed that 41 percent have attempted suicide, a staggering twenty-six times the rate of the general population. This percentage rises even more for self-reported victims of discrimination and violence, to as many as 78 percent for those who have experienced violence in school. Imagine the headlines if close to half of gay people attempt suicide. Yet the most play this statistic gets is in a New York Times advice column about how to broach the topic of transgender transition on social media—and has not even been discussed in other national news publications like The Washington Post and USA Today.

Compare this to the media attention surrounding the suicide of Tyler Clementi in 2010, a gay white Rutgers student who committed suicide after his roommate filmed him having sex. This merited front page coverage and 85 related articles in the Times, while trans people are being outed routinely and our suicides generally go unreported. For instance, the transgender writer Donna Ostrowsky, who contributed to the Lambda Literary Award-winning The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, committed suicide in New York on June 10 last year, and her death remained unreported by any media outlet, including the New York Times.

For Clementi, being bullied and harassed for being gay was shocking; for trans people it's so commonplace that the New York Times apparently doesn't even find it worth mentioning. And when the black transgender teen Islan Nettles was killed last year in an apparent hate crime, her story was buried on page 16 of the same newspaper while the Clementi case was front-page news. Clementi's death also became the inspiration for the Dan Savage-led "It Gets Better" campaign against the bullying of LGBT youth. Many celebrities and influential figures came on board, including gay notables like Ryan Murphy, Neil Patrick Harris, and Ellen Degeneres.

Yet from the beginning, the inclusion of T in this movement has rung hollow. Consider Savage's words in a 2011 interview with Terri Gross on NPR: "Things didn't just get better for me. All of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender adults I knew were leading rich and rewarding lives. We weren't the same people and we didn't have or want the same things — gay or straight, not everyone wants kids or marriage; people pursue happiness in different ways — but we all had so much to be thankful for, and so much to look forward to.

I'm not sure where Savage gets his trans friends, but the lives of mine are not nearly as rich and rewarding. My friend Trace Peterson, an acclaimed poet and academic, routinely experiences harassment and discrimination in liberal New York, where store clerks such as those at Zara's and Marshall's refuse to let her use the women's changing room and where students, colleagues, and strangers on the street misgender her on a daily basis, often in invasive and presumptuous ways. My friend Fallon Fox, a mixed-martial-arts fighter and the first openly transgender fighter in MMA history, endures the worst insults simply for displaying her talents. My friend G has experienced gender dysphoria throughout her life, yet sees no choice but to engage in sex work to fund her transition, work that involves sexualizing the very parts she doesn't feel belong to her. I myself have been subject to harassment, threat of violence, and misgendering to a degree that I never experienced when I identified as a gay man prior to disclosing as trans.

For me, as for many other trans people, it didn't and doesn't get better, and to treat us as though we're seamlessly part of the same LGBT umbrella is to hide the fact that we're being included for lip service. It's clear that when Savage describes his "friends," transgender is merely a footnote, a token inclusion that hides the actual lives of trans people in America today. For an "It Gets Better" campaign addressed to trans youth to work, things actually need to get better. And for many trans people, they do not. Such token inclusion is part of a larger trend that continues in the way that Pride is framed within the LGBT community.


The Fight over 'Tranny'

Over the past year, many members of the gay community have shown a severe lack of respect through their support for drag performer RuPaul's use of the word “tranny” to refer to trans people, citing its historical significance as a term for transvestites and drag queens, and the way in which queer people—and especially gay men—have historically used it as a term of familiarity or endearment.

However, just as the n-word originated as a purely descriptive term yet over time became a slur, the same is true for the way the t-word is being used for the trans community, where the casual use of the word to cause offense is rampant, and is deeply intertwined with violence. An example documented on video was captured at the recent L.A. Pride parade, when a man assaulted the trans comedian Rye Silverman and ended up being interviewed by "Funny or Die." When the interviewer asks him what happened, the man says he got into a fight, and when pressed for details the man says: "It was a tranny wearing a skirt. I was asking him why he was wearing a skirt." And when the interviewer asks, "Why wouldn't he wear a skirt?" the perpetrator says, "Well he's a man." His use of the t-word demonstrates how casually the word has become associated with trans harassment and violence.

While gay men and other members of the queer community hold on to their sentimental use of the t-word, the same word is being used to harass and attack trans people. After a history of living without privilege, many members of the gay community seem to be blind to their now privileged positions, of being able to feel affection and sentiment towards a term that is simultaneously being used as hate-speech towards other human beings with less privilege. Nowhere is this blindness more apparent than in RuPaul's continued defense of the word, and his reaction when Logo, the cable network that airs RuPaul's Drag Race, issued a statement distancing itself from his comments, RuPaul responded with the following tweet:

RuPaul's use of his economic power to bolster his transphobic position serves to affirm his own blindness to his privilege, after a history of gay struggle as a marginalized group. His pronouncement not only serves his own transphobia, but represents the many in the gay community who follow him in disrespecting the trans community through their support, becoming blind to their own acquired privilege after a long history of marginalization. It is in this way that gay pride comes at the expense of trans shame.


Trans Hearts Are Normal, Too

Finally, a truly inclusive Pride also requires a shift in the hearts of gays and lesbians, one that requires them to accept trans people as equals not just in name but in spirit.  In "The Normal Heart," Gay Men's Health Crisis director Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons), declares at the end of a eulogy for one of his friends who died of AIDS: "I'm mad. I'm fucking mad. I keep screaming inside, 'Why are they letting us die? Why is no one helping us?' And here's the truth, here's the answer: they just don't like us."

The "they" in these lines refers to straight people, the "us" to gay men. But I could very well be saying these lines today, except that the "they" has become gays, and the "us" refers to trans people. While gays and lesbians are willing to make us part of the LGBT umbrella, my only explanation for why they choose to ignore the more urgent needs of the trans community in favor of issues that primarily benefit gays is that they don't like us. If they did, then they would care more about how many of us are dying.

If they cared more, gays would prioritize our psychological and medical needs, given that gay-related health-care issues have established a broad funding base for a long time. If they cared, gays would expect themselves to adjust to us rather than have us adjust to their social norms, just as they asked straight people a generation ago.

Most importantly, gays and lesbians would also strive to respect and celebrate our desire to live as our true gender not just in their minds but in their hearts, something that I, and many trans people, consistently do not feel. We are regularly asked, often by gays and lesbians, why we make life difficult for ourselves by trying to be a gender we don't belong to, especially when our physical traits don't "match" our own perception of our gender. Somehow, the irony and hypocrisy is lost on people who only a generation before fought to be able to pursue what they felt were their own innate desires to love in ways that society deemed unnatural. Straight people also did not understand why gays had to make life difficult for themselves by desiring people of the same sex, but many lesbians and gays are now all too willing to insinuate that trans people's desire to belong to our true gender is unnatural.

For Pride to be a truly inclusive celebration, gays and lesbians must include their transgender compatriots not just in name but in their hearts. They must recognize our struggle as gays and lesbians themselves sought allies in their own struggle. Now that the gay and lesbian rights movement has victories to be proud of, gained in their plea for basic human rights, it's about time that they treat transgender people without shame, for this is the only way that our Pride can be genuine and complete.


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