By Aaron Rose
Last week, we shared current trans leaders’ reactions to the election results and their inspiring words of solidarity and encouragement. This week, as we recognize Trans Day of Remembrance, we pause to remember the generations of trans leaders who came before us. Whatever ability we have to embody our genders authentically and survive in the face of oppression is directly tied to the work they did, in their individual lives and on a collective level. We revisit some of their words today to see what they can continue to teach us about how to organize, how to love ourselves, and how to survive during these tumultuous times.
Marsha P. Johnson
Johnson was a veteran of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, and co-founded STAR (the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) along with Sylvia Rivera, to provide resources, support, and organizing for young trans people living on the streets of New York.
Johnson famously said that her middle initial, P, stood for “Pay It No Mind.” She was adamant that, when it came to her trans identity, “Honey...you can either take it or leave it.” It was other people’s job to get on board, and she had no patience for their intolerance.
When asked if she had any suggestions for people in small towns and cities where there were no organizations like STAR, Johnson replied, “Start a STAR of their own. I think if [trans people] don’t stand up for themselves, nobody else is going to stand up for [them].” Johnson reminds us of the importance of standing our ground and knowing that trans lives are worth fighting for, no matter what.
Learn more about her life in the documentary Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson, and the upcoming short film Happy Birthday, Marsha.
Like Johnson, Rivera participated in the Stonewall Riots, co-founded STAR, and organized for justice and equality for trans people in New York City. In particular, she fought passionately for trans people to be respected by and included in the organizing objectives of the other social movements of the time. At the 1973 gay pride rally in Washington Square Park, she delivered her famous “Y’all Better Quiet Down” speech and was booed off the stage. Later on, she recounted:
In these struggles, in the Civil Rights movement, in the war movement, in the women’s movement, we were still outcasts. The only reason they tolerated the transgender community in some of these movements was because we were gung-ho, we were front liners. We didn’t take no shit from nobody. We had nothing to lose. You all had rights. We had nothing to lose. I’ll be the first one to step on any organization, any politician’s toes if I have to, to get the rights for my community.
Rivera’s words remind us of the fierce resilience and determination to survive that has always been a part of trans existence. Her legacy also speaks to the fraught history of trans exclusion from mainstream LGB spaces, and of the importance of centering trans people, particularly trans women of color, in this work. None of us are free until all of us are free.
Lou Sullivan was an activist, a writer, and a gay trans man. He was among the first trans men to speak publicly about his gay identity, and he faced major barriers to accessing medical care like hormones and surgery. Many doctors refused to treat him, saying that he needed to choose - either he could be a man, or he could love men, but he could not do both. Sullivan organized some of the first peer-led support groups for transmasculine people and founded the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco before his death from AIDs-related illness in 1991.
When he was 14, Lou wrote in his diary, “My problem is that I can’t accept life for what it is, like it’s presented to me. I feel that there is something deep and wonderful underneath it that no one has found.” Lou had no roadmap for his particular gender and sexuality, but he pursued authentic embodiment and spoke his truth relentlessly. His words and his legacy remind us that, when you don’t see role models that speak to you, sometimes you have to create the representation you want to see in the world on your own.
Leslie Feinberg was a transgender activist, writer, and communist, famous for iconic texts like Stone Butch Blues and Trans Liberation. In 1998 Feinberg wrote about the way trans people are advancing everyone’s access to authentic self-determination:
Our struggle bolsters your right to your identity. My right to be me is tied with a thousand threads to your right to be you. We’re not trying to barricade the road you travel; we’re trying to open up more avenues to self-definition, and identity and love and sexuality. That’s a wonderful development for everybody.
Feinberg’s words tell us that, if our freedom is predicated upon someone else’s oppression, that is not true liberation. There has to be room for all of us at the table. Feinberg also reassures us that we have so very many people alongside us in this struggle, and we must take comfort in our shared yearning for a different world:
I can say this with certainty: If your life is being ground up in economic machinery and the burden of oppression is heavy on your back, you hunger for liberation, and so do those around you. Look for our brightly coloured banners coming up over the hill of the past and into your present. Listen for our voices – our protest chants drawing nearer. Join us in the front ranks. We are marching toward liberation.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
While TDoR is about mourning the dead, it is also about remembering and honoring the trans people who continue to fight and lead us forward through uncertain times. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is one of the oldest living trans icons. She participated in the Stonewall Riots and the decades of organizing that followed. This week, trans activist Reina Gossett released a new animated short of a recent interview with Miss Major, called “The Personal Things.” In it, Miss Major tells us: “Do the things that you feel you can do to challenge the status quo. Period.” We all have to find our own individual way to continue surviving, to continue fighting. The important thing is to keep going.
Aaron Rose (he/him/his) is an education strategist, curriculum developer, and activist who believes in the power of education to fuel social change. A lifelong New Yorker, Aaron is an avid history buff, a Harry Potter fan, and a reluctant recent coffee convert. Find Aaron online @aaronxrose and aaronxrose.com.