Culture · Perspectives

“We Owe our Entire Lives to Trans Women of Color”

“We owe our entire lives to trans women of color,” says trans activist T.J. Jourian in the Keynote Address at the eighth annual Five College Queer Gender and Sexuality Conference at Hampshire College.

Almost 400 students, faculty and community members attended the conference which ran March 3rd and 4th. Hampshire College is the smallest and most progressive of the surrounding Five Colleges with a reputation of accepting, activist-minded students.  From its genesis, this conference has been conceived and run by Hampshire students as a response to needs they see in their community.  

“[The conference] can only happen right here and right now,” says Emily Rimmer, director of Women and Queer Services at Hampshire College.  

For the first year running, the conference has a theme; “survival.”  Rimmer explains that it was picked around the same time as the U.S. presidential election in response to the hateful rhetoric levied at the LGBTQ community by the Trump/ Pence campaign and its supporters.  

“We either survive together or we perish together,” urges Jourian in his speech.  This is not a metaphor. In the United States there is an epidemic of violence against trans women of color, many of whom are further endangered by poverty, inadequate health care and police brutality.  

In the United States there is an epidemic of violence against trans women of color, many of whom are further endangered by poverty, inadequate health care and police brutality.  

In 2017 alone, eight trans women of color have been murdered.  In 2016, the number was 23.  As Jourian articulates, “35 is the life expectancy of a trans woman of color.”

stonewallGay Rights in the United States would not exist without trans women of color.  In the Stonewall riots of 1969, patrons of a New York city gay bar fought back against routine police beatings and raids of bars that were havens for sex workers and members of the queer community.  Marsha Johnson, a trans woman of color was inside the Stonewall Inn when it was raided by police. Johnson and the other bar patrons (many of whom were trans sex workers who came to the Stonewall to unwind and find community after a night working the street) fought back against arrest.  

Gay Rights in the United States would not exist without trans women of color.

Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican drag queen, was one of the first bystanders to throw a bottle at the police. The Stonewall uprising triggered multiple demonstrations around the city and is cited by many as the impetus behind the foundation of the Gay Liberation Front and the entire Gay Rights movement.  Both women went on to become major figures in the New York Gay Rights activism scene, eventually co-founding the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) which provided shelter for homeless trans youth.  

Contributions of trans women of color to the Gay Rights movement are often left out of popular culture. A 2015 film depicting the Stonewall Riots chose to use a fictional cis, white, gay man as the protagonist rather than portray the real stories of struggle and sacrifice of trans women of color that characterized the riots.  nypl-digitalcollections-510d47e3-57b4-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99-001-w_4bcc96b47877095dcf535d990a2d4914-nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a black trans woman also at the Stonewall that fateful night, was interviewed by Autostraddle in 2015 regarding the revisionist history.  “For all the girls who are no longer here who can’t say anything, this movie just acts like they didn’t exist.”

 For all the girls who are no longer here who can’t say anything, this movie just acts like they didn’t exist.

It is exactly that kind of media erasure, combined with indifference by law enforcement and frequent mis-genderings in police reports that add up to a devaluation of the lives of trans women of color.  

Back at the conference, a workshop titled “The Makeup of Marsha P. Johnson: Understanding Disruption, Revolution, and Blackness with Make-up” unpacks the history of what it means to be black, femme and/or queer.  Workshop leader and Hampshire student, Sejeia Freelon says that a common theme in these identities is their “positionality to violence.”

Although each person in the LGBTQ community experiences marginalization and the threat of violence, some are more at risk because of other intersecting identities such as race, class, ethnicity, disability and gender. As Jourian sees it, “We must center those with the heaviest of burdens in our activism.”

Although each person in the LGBTQ community experiences marginalization and the threat of violence, some are more at risk because of other intersecting identities such as race, class, ethnicity, disability and gender.

Jourian, sporting a sweatshirt with “Fund Black Futures” written across the chest says he is worried about a kind of “trickle down” social justice that only protects the rights of cis, white women. He asks, “How can you do feminism without centering trans women of color?”

How can you do feminism without centering trans women of color?

Maybe that’s a question we all should be asking ourselves.

*For more information about what you can do to help trans women of color survive, check out this link from Autostraddle

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