Sylvia Rivera, transliberation, and class struggle.

2010 March 18
by Lou

Key readings:

“Amanda Milan and the rebirth of Street Trans Action Revolutionaries” by Benjamin Shepard in From ACT UP to WTO.

Leslie Feinberg Interviews Sylvia Rivera: “I’m glad I was in the Stonewall Riot.”

The Transfeminist Manifesto by Emi Koyama.

Street Trans Action Revolutionaries (STAR) was founded as a caucus within Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in 1971 to put forth trans demands in the gay liberation movement. The co-founder of STAR, Sylvia Rivera, was a Puerto Rican trans woman who led the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969 along with other trans of color. Yet gradually, the gay liberation movement was co-opted by white middle-class  folks who are gender-conforming and became conservative. Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), a New York based gay rights group was founded by ex-members of GLF who did not appreciate its radicalism and wanted to form a single-issued organization that only focused on reformist gay rights. GAA’s conservatism and transphobia showed when they dropped the trans demands while advocating citywide anti-discrimination rights in the 70s. They saw actions put on by STAR and Sylvia Rivera as too “dangerous,” “crazy,” and “extreme.”

Trans folks were not only attacked by mainstream gay rights groups but also in their own neighborhoods. In the West Village, a gentrified gay neighborhood, trans sex workers, who were mostly homeless and of color, were kicked out of the streets by white gay homeowners because they were “low-class, vulgar transvestites” not the usual entertaining drag queens. A real-estate-driven Quality of Life campaign led by the city continually pushed for the closure of clubs where trans folks hung out. Fighting for trans rights is thus a class issue. Rivera, who was homeless herself, saw the link and pushed STAR to organize a community space for homeless trans folks as well as fight for labor justice. They found a building for street gay kids, fed them and clothed them, while the government was cutting the healthcare, taking away food stamps, and putting more people with AIDS, youth, and women on the street. In Leslie Feinberg Interviews Sylvia Rivera, Rivera reiterates the importance of not only doing community work but also fighting against the government and the ruling class. STAR joined the mass demonstration with the Young Lords, a revolutionary Puerto Rican youth group, against police repression in 1970.  STAR also built alliances with the Housing Works Transgender Working Group and the New York Direct Action Nextwork Labor Group to form picket lines at a club where a trans dancer was dismissed from work. Fighting for trans rights is a class issue–to resist the rich property owners who push trans folks out of their neighborhoods, to confront the managers that try to fire trans workers, and to fight back against the state that cuts back healthcare.

Trans folks of color have faced disproportional economic oppression and extreme forms of violence. The challenge of queer and gender liberation requires building organizing space for trans and queer folks in the Left. As organizers, my questions for you all are:

1. Many trans folks have formed identity-based organizations to fight for trans rights predomoniantly on the level of non-profits–why is there a lack of trans presence in the Left? How have we taken trans liberation in our anti-patriarchal politics or how have we failed to do so? How can we constructively to change this?

2. Based on Emi Koyama’s article Transfeminist Manifesto, some feminists have criticized Male-to-Female and Female-to-Male trans folks of benefiting from male privileges. How is the privilege politics–basing people’s legitimacy to struggle on the assumed privileges they have in a racist, heterosexist, patriarchal, and gender-binary society–limited and reactionary to the movement?

3. Hormones and gender reassignment surgeries are expensive procedures. Recognizing that transition is also often not what many transfolk desire, for those who do, access to these processes then becomes a class issue. Our vision of transliberation then also needs to include the class distinctions within the trans community. How are ways we can conceptualize healthcare and other class-related issues that we are already fighting for that also include demands related specifically to transliberation?

4. Cg’s article Thoughts on Politics of the Disbility Rights Movement talks about the limits of addressing disability rights movement with the medical model and the social model. Similar to folks with disabilities, trans folks are often pathologized by the medical system and have to get the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis to obtain hormones and surgeries. How can we apply the framework of disability rights movement to transliberation? How can we simultanously fight against the oppressive medical system, but also recognizing that many trans folks’ lives are entangled with medical treatments in a gender-binary society?

  • Will

    Good articles and tough questions you are asking. Here are my thoughts/ notes on the first question.

    The Benjamin Shepard piece got me thinking about how Trans folks were shut out from the labor market because of who there are. (This is important to think about as well cuz future movements are gonna be cross class movements of unemployed, students/ working class, and working class folks to name some of the layers who will participate. How will gender and sexuality shape the difficulties in forging such alliances?) This results in a situation where many Trans folks end up living on the street and becoming sex workers. The relationship of the left to these folks can be considered in light of where the left is generally found these days which is the university, trade union bureaucracy and some NGOs. In other words revolutionaries are not organically in these communities. This exposes the structural separation that the left has found itself from many layers of oppressed communities in the United States. The Left has to look at the mirror big time. If you want to organize Trans folks you gotta live in their neighborhoods, work where they work, etc etc. This is part of the answer.

    However I also know some Trans folks end up in parts of the traditional working class. I have met some of these folks in my years working at low waged jobs. What I think is important about these Trans workers is that they might have a stable enough economic life where they can contribute to building revolutionary organizations…They might also have a tendency to know other Trans folks who live on the streets…. I do think that it is important to get Trans folks out of the streets and into more traditional working class jobs. I guess we should ask why? Living on the streets put you in the frontlines against the violence of the police and the state, your job is precarious and so is your wage…

    The strength many revolutionaries have seen in the traditional working class is the decent pay, stable hours, and that immense capitalist power lies where workers actually work. I have seen how the nature of work sometimes creates the basis of solidarity where people might not agree with a Trans’ person’s lifestyle and choice but work with them to get the job done. I am not romanticizing workplace solidarity, but thinking about how such contradictions can be the basis for more radical learning experiences. This has limitations because folks can still not see Trans peoples’ contributions to society in a positive sense. Nor am I trying to come off as workerist, saying that looking through the lens of working class solidarity can solve everything for Trans people. I am thinking more about it right now cuz of the economic crisis and how work has to be a site of mass resistance.

    I gotta think more about how the revolutionary left has handled transgendered questions in a theoretical and ideological sense some more before opening my big mouth. But if folks have some thoughts, I would love to hear them… My other question is how have nationalists handled such questions.

  • JOMO

    hey wen,
    Thanks for leading this discussion and posting these challenging questions.

    I am going to take a quick stab at question 3, on how we can reconceptualize healthcare to include transfeminist demands.

    I am drawing from the way that Emi Koyama talks about this issue in her piece, Transfeminism, that you link above. In the section on Health and Reproductive Rights, Koyama states that the hormones that many trans women take are

    “similar in origin and chemical composition to what non trans women take for birth control, emergency contraception and hormone replacement therapy. As transwomen, we share their concerns over safety, cost and availability of these estrogen related pills. Trans and non- trans women need to be united against right wing tactics aimed at making means and information to control our bodies unavailable, if not illegal”

    This is very relevant to what we are experiencing these days with the ongoing, renewed attack on women’s reproductive choice. The recent debacle with the Health care reform — where Obama concedes to right wing Democrats and Republicans, to reaffirm that federal funding will not be used for abortion cases, is a case in point. This same healthcare bill that is essentially a concession to insurance companies and pharmaceuticals, not only sells workers and unions out, but also pimps women to the conservatives.

    That we have an overarching conception of women’s reproductive freedom, that includes the experiences and demands of trans women, working class women, women of color, is key because the lack of it gives ammunition to right wing forces that will divide and conquer us. This includes what Koyama talks about, that we conceive of reproductive freedom not only as access to abortion or birth control, but also as a way to “resist forced and coerced sterilization and abortion of less privileged women”

    Liberal feminism with its built-in racism and modernist chauvinism will not be able to do this, and neither should we let it. What results from the domination of liberal feminism is that there now is space for the racist right-wing to court women of color/oppressed women into homophobic, transphobic and anti-feminist agenda. This article describes these emerging political tendencies:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/27/us/27race.html?hp

    We are in a climate when the contradictions of healthcare are going to surface more and more. People are seeking new ways of talking about and understanding healthcare based on their own experiences of not receiving it. As Obama’s new bill increasingly shifts the cost and burden of healthcare away from both employers and the state, it will become the burden of individual workers and their families. With unemployment rising as well as wages decreasing, those contradictions are going to be immense. We need a vision of healthcare that fore fronts needs of all genders. The legalistic terms of “pre-existing conditions,” or different types of insurance policies do not even begin to cover the needs of our bodies and communities. Taking on this issue is a very concrete way for us to build a strong queer, anti-patriarchal movement. The healthcare issue also has the possibility to challenge questions and visions of the family. We will increasingly see how the nuclear family cannot take on the responsibility of healthcare for its members and we will have to project and fight for different visions to allocate healthcare resources.

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com Mamos

    I think some of the class dynamics Will lays out are worth paying attention to. I agree with Wen that the working class needs to organize to fight anti-trans job discrimination in the workplace. This is key for what Will talks about, folks having the necessary leverage and stability to wage a longer and more durable battle for transliberation. However, we also need to be able to relate to the immediate struggles for survival that transfolks on the street are waging. I was struck by how Sylvia Rivera organized a base of operations, a collective living situation where folks pooled their wages from hustling to support each other, and this gave them some stability which seemed to help them wage broader struggles as part of movements going on at the time. Creating and politicizing centers of community and power is crucial for organizing among unemployed and “lumpenproletariat” folks who don’t have the workplace as a centralized space to build solidarity and power. What Rivera talks about reminds me of the Panther’s survival programs in that sense. That’s one reason why fighting gentrification is so key, because gentrification destroys these community centers and scatters folks, making it harder to organize.

    The problem is, survival programs minus mass organizing and revolutionary politics can end up simply becoming nonprofit service centers. Advance the Struggle has a good analysis of how the legacy of the Panthers’ survival programs in the Bay Area is now used to justify nonprofit programs which collaborate with the state and the cops at the expense of working class and lumpen movements (for example helping the cops disperse folks during the Oscar Grant uprising). It seems a similar dynamic is going on among queer and trans nonprofits. They claim the legacy of the movement but if a new Stonewall broke out they would tell folks like Sylvia Rivera to go home and cool it. People emphasize community spaces and survival programs without a vision of how to fight gentrification, discrimination in the workplace, military interventions against fascism and hate crimes, etc. All of this takes more than nonprofits, it takes durable movement organizations and revolutionary organizations. It requires building the kind of alliances that STAR made with the Young Lords (which was hella inspiring!).

    Many queer and trans oriented nonprofits try to build alliances between the middle class (academic queer theory folks, social workers, donors, etc.) and lumpen/ unemployed folks like queer and trans folks who hustle to get by. What we need to start doing is building alliances between working class and unemployed/ lumpen queer and trans folks instead. That way working class folks can share some of the resources they have that unemployed or lumpen folks might need but they can do it with less social distance than middle class social workers do so it is less patronizing… like Will said, some trans folks who do have jobs know folks on the streets and if an alliance of that sort can be built then we can demand jobs for trans folks but we can also demand that unions and other working class organizations provide the necessary resources for unemployed and lumpen transfolks so they can organize themselves.

    I think this is also an issue that compels us to dissect the term “lumpen.” My understanding is it means folks who survive off of illegal activity instead of earning a wage. But there is a big difference between say gangsters and drug dealers on the one hand and sex workers on the other. Most sex workers are not taking advantage of working people the way some lumpen folks do. They also do labor that is exploited by a pimp – they are in a slightly more proletarian social relationship than say someone who preys on working poor folks and steals their shit or tries to get them hooked on meth. So there may be more of a possibility for example for transworkers employed in various industries to successfully demand support from the organized working class for trans sexworkers to organize sexworkers unions. I bet if sexworkers strike a lot of politicians would become very stressed out very fast!

  • Mikey

    Excellent notes and thoughts everyone.

    I noticed a few things that were relevant to our struggles today while reading these different articles.

    The first major thing is the repeated emphasis by Sylvia Rivera on the fact that the movement was complicated and overlapping back in the day. “All of us were working for so many movements at that time,” Rivera says, “Everyone was involved with the women’s movement, the peace movement, the civil-rights movement. We were all radicals. I believe that’s what brought it around.” This gives us a sense for the convoluted character of struggle at the end of the 1960s and heading into the 1970s that is exciting for me as we stand at what could be the precipice of a similarly dynamic moment in our history.

    Like other folks, I also found the discussion of the house that Rivera set up maintained by collective “hustling” very exciting. This provides the kind of stability necessary for long-term organizing and more sustained interventions in key issues. As Mamos points out, it is also radically different from the nonprofit sector that tends to dominate with a “service” model these days.

    I was also struck by the “united front” nature of the era, at its best. Rivera says as much when she talks about STAR just joining a Young Lords demo: “Later on, when the Young Lords [revolutionary Puerto Rican youth group] came about in New York City, I was already in GLF [Gay Liberation Front]. There was a mass demonstration that started in East Harlem in the fall of 1970. The protest was against police repression and we decided to join the demonstration with our STAR banner.”

    Again, these kinds of examples point to the exciting and dynamic nature of the struggle.

    One final thing that jumped out at me with regard to the Emi Koyama article was precisely what question two seeks to get at – the privilege question. Koyama argues against the reaction among trans women that being born male was actually a burden and not a privilege. She suggests that this is too simplistic a response because it denies the privilege trans women have access to growing up and as adults. In this, she brushes aside the real oppression these folks face – the bullying, the ridicule, the psychological pains of acting “manly.” This isn’t to say that Koyama isn’t sympathetic to these struggles – she certainly is.

    And yet her solution is very unsatisfying – she suggests that feminist women should recognize their own “non-trans” privilege. This kind of language begins to make it ever more difficult for folks to speak, and politics becomes about identity and not principles.

    This is a drag on the movement because it often means that the “most oppressed” or “least privileged” among us get a pass politically based on identity. In other words, their politics aren’t held up to the cold light of principles. This is especially dangerous when politics based on identities obscure liberal or even conservative politics.

    Generally, Koyama’s article is excellent, but in this instance, she struggles to break out of the language of privilege and identity that we all find ourselves mired in these days.

    This plays out in debate over strategy and tactics in the March 4 movement, when, for example, queer black liberals attack “white” insurrectionists not for their lack of organizing within oppressed communities on a long-term basis, but for “leading” youth of color on adventurist tactics.

    Once again, we see the need for perspectives that rise above the debates we’ve been mired in for so long between reform and revolution.

  • fatima

    i agree with Mikey that the solution Koyama offers is lacking, although it is clear that she is reaching to work out the contradictions. Why is her solution lacking? This lesson has been learned through a long history of identity politics- many race or gender based groups have broken up based on fractions between conservatives and radicals. Sylvia Rivera was talking about the GAA which was more conservative than the GLF which did not necessarily forefront trans issues the way that STAR was able to, and so on. Now, of course, many groups on the left or even in the liberal women;s movement have been broken up due to questions of “identity” but I think the true fault lines were the politics perspectives that were formed by these identities: working class women who were also of color saw there role as very different in capitalist society than as white women, while white women were trying to maintain their position in the states quo. So we do have to take into account the relationship between politics on the one hand, and identity and history on the other.

    So what is the alternative to saying people who have experience male privilege need to recognize it and so do white women? To me the answer lies in addressing why we should engage in a conversation about our “privileges” in the first place. Yes, perhaps someone was treated better than I was by institutions or individuals, or vice versa, but if we are fighting the same fight as equals, what does it matter now? Obviously, privilege exists because white supremacy, patriarchy exist, but to me, if its going to be an ideological question, it should lean in the direction of understanding how the rulers have used racism and patriarchy to divide the working class and how today, privilege politics are being used, often by middle class liberals, to do the same damn thing. Now, I’m not making a “black and white, fight and unite” argument, I certainly believe in the independent validity of organizations built by people of color, queers, whatever. but in my experience, privilege politics have allowed people to be self-righteous about being women of color or whatever and using that to justify their own undemocratic tendencies, thereby further dividing working class struggles. Do we prefer working with people who look like us or fuck like us but are going to smash our militant action in a movement, or do we prefer to work with anyone who has the same basic of understanding of what we are fighting for and how we are going to get there?

    On the other hand, what Emi Koyama is putting forward is one of the most, or the most, liberating perspective on identity politics i have seen in the feminist tendencies of today. many queer circles today still have these same problems which are dumbfounding to me. how can these folks hate on trans people and at the same time, criticize people they deem as not queer enough because they are bisexual, or are two femme women in a relationship so the absence of a butch lesbian somehow makes their relationship less queer, or people in a relationship where one partner has “transitioned” and they are living as a “hetero” couple because for them to be out is too oppressive? Some of these same old school folks who want to police gay and lesbian communities complain that too many people identify as queer when the identification of queer by folks who dont fit in the gay or lesbian model is important because it is one step towards what koyama and the rest of us are fighting for- a society in which no one is limited by narrow conceptions of gender OR sex. To me, fundamentally we are all queer. That if we lived in a world not shackled be patriarchy, there would be a million different ways to live and have relationships. But we dont. In this world being queer to me is about politically recognizing the limitations of patriarchal society and desiring to throw off those shackles and forge more liberating relationships. And thats why Koyama’s sympathy towards folks, all kinds of folks, whose lives are a battling ground for patriarchy is important. She realizes that we are here to fight the patriarchs, not each other, and that if we step into the role of deciding who is queer enough or not, we become just like the patriarchs. She implicitly critiques lifestyle politics. Its not enough to live a certain way to fight patriarchy and white supremacy. As Mamos and others have mentioned we have to build fighting organizations to do that and I think that is what Koyama is getting at.

    To address trans issues and the left. I dont know much about the history of the left per se, but the Young Lords Party example is extremely important. They were addressing queer issues in their org before others were on a widespread basis. They are one of the few groups in which women fought the patriarchy within and won, without the group being thrown into a fatal crisis. how were the young lords able to do this? Well, this is partly conjecture because I dont know the details of how queers and trans folks got involved in the YLO but when I read Will’s comment about how the left is rooted in the university, ngo and trade union systems right now and not in these communities, the YLO was definitely rooted in their community, fighting a working class struggle. Many of them were students and it shows the power of student organizing when actually connected to a community. the ylo was not able to successfully make the “labor turn” when they started trying to organizing in factories by sending members to work in them, things took a turn for the worse. but, that has reasons unrelated to their ability to organize within their community including trans people. If they had been able to make that turn more successfully, who knows, but it might have resulted a little more in what will is talking about, in trans people being able to enter more stable working class workplaces and being able to organize within them to merge the broader labor movement and the fight for trans liberation. However, its possible that in the current day, the power of organizing around sex work is something that will unite trans folks and other sex workers and the communities they are connected to to striking at “the point of production.” In Austin we have been talking a lot lately about the attack on undocumented folks by both official society parties and yet how desperately US capital needs undocumented workers. Its the same with sex workers, they are despised for their position in society, blamed for things that are a result of the racist and patriarchal forces of US capitalism, and yet if they were to disappear tomorrow, there would be a real shitstorm in the US.

  • David

    Thanks everybody for opening up an important conversation. I hope the following makes some sense!

    I am working with a few other people to start the Seattle Childcare Collective. Based on similar collectives in the Bay, DC and NYC – we want to provide free, competent and right-on childcare to organizations and groups that organize with working class women and families, especially immigrants and people of color. Anyways, Wen’s first question challenged me to think how we can genuinely and effectively work with a pro-trans and queer analysis. We can include it in our literature and mission statement, do various internal education, prioritize supporting the involvement of trans people. But this makes me wonder about how we can carry ourselves publicly. How we can not “tone down” our views, but also maintain understanding and humility when dealing with others who do not yet understand or are uncomfortable with dealing with trans issues and trans people.

    And in a way this also lead me to thinking about the cultures of organizations we are in and the cultures of meetings/gatherings we hold.

    In my relatively limited experience, the only groups I have seen try to be trans-friendly or what have you, are the types of counter culture white people who when doing ice-breakers ask what people’s preferred gender pro-noun is. These are also the same types to have vegetarian potlucks, quinoa, and gluten-free pita bread options and etc. This isn’t bad and does not make them the enemy, but I have felt for a long time that these type of group cultures are very off putting for others who aren’t “in the know.” I am for referring to people how they want to be referred, but at the same time to start a meeting off that way, to people unfamiliar with such terms, is hard for people. This could be fucked up of me but how do we balance ice-breakers with being welcoming to folks who are not used to such terms. Where is the line between meeting people where they are at while also challenging them to grow beyond their current understandings of things like gender and sexuality?

    Hell I like quinoa and my coworkers and family think I am a counterculture type white person, and it’s very off putting for me! I feel like the lifestyle politics that fatima talks about is more than just weak, it can actually get in the way of organizing. And more importantly, it’s not a good look for broader based movement building… As I type this it shows me that I need to get around my city some more and connect with other groups! Obviously the examples of STAR and the Young Lords show there are ways to work with a pro-trans analysis while remaining rooted in or connected with working class communities, I am just wondering how others have gone about it these days. I will definitely be bringing some of these questions up in future meetings of ours.

    I am excited about our project – as it gives the opportunity for some intergenerational and city-wide relationship building. In terms of this conversations, I can envision the small but important impact of children and families building trusting relationships with queer and trans organizers and volunteers of our collective.

    Finally, to build off fatima’s comment, have you seen A Day Without A Mexican?

    Okay this is enough for now. My lunch break is over. These are honest questions and concerns… If some of my thoughts were fucked up, feel free to let me know. Thanks everybody who contributes to this site!

  • Wen

    Hey Daivd,

    I feel your frustration and definitely agree with your criticisms on these lifestyle politics circles/scenes. Queer and trans liberation require mass mobalization instead of just individualist struggle on identity. The shift of queer struggle from class struggle occured because many middle-class academics have centered queer theories on postmodernism and identity politics which erased capitalism as the root of queer and strans oppression. Worshiped Foucaultian theories, they believe that “power is everywhere,” and thus by naming ourselves dfferently we could liberate our socially stigmatized identities (eg. “queer” instead of “fag.”)

    While recognizing this kind of vision for queer and trans liberation is very limited and pushes working class folks and people of color away because we are often not “in the know,” i think it’s also important to estabalish a culture that is comfortable to talk about gender and use the pronounces that people identify with. I’m not talking about a culture that strives to be politically correct 24/7–but i do think that it’s a first step to understand queer and trans folks’ experiences in this gender-binary and heteronormative soceity, and to respect our fellow comrades. Hope this makes sense!

    Great comments everyone!!!

  • http://gatheringforces.org BaoYunCheng

    Thanks for this post and the articles Wen. I think it’s important to begin to actively incorporate queer and trans lib into our organizing, and having a long-term vision of forming a cross street level-working class fighting organization like others have laid out.

    To respond to Mamos, I think we should prepare for more serious engagement with the “lumpen.” This means, in addition to looking to sex workers because of the similar oppressive social relation to that of the manager-worker, looking to other forms of “lumpen” activity, including youth who may be drug dealing or muscle for gangs. Because of statewide cuts to public education and unemployment in private sectors, more and more youth will engage in these activities that you differentiate because they prey on the working class (which I think may be a generalization, considering the more than a few middle-class kids I’ve seen in my high school drop out program for buying drugs). A movement fighting for trans and queer lib must also show relevance to trans and homophobic youth, and that can only be done by bridging trans and queer demands with other demands from the lumpen class.

    In terms of organizing practicality and safety, I’ve heard that one of the fears of organizing lumpen youth is due to their gang affiliation and danger directed towards us as organizers for appearing to counter-recruit, then wouldn’t the pimp-sex worker affiliation present an even more dangerous obstacle to overcome in organizing sex workers? I don’t think street level organizing can only pick off one segment of workers (sex workers) and leave other low-level workers (I would argue most drug dealers are substantially different from gang leaders) out to rot. I think Rivera’s alliance with the Young Lords and BPP leadership serves as an important reminder of such importance and that it can be done.

  • Will

    What would the economic or political impact be if sex workers went on strike? I am trying to think that through concretely. How do other folks imagine it? Has anyone written up a piece that discusses this theoretically or historically?

  • easy e.

    hey will,
    im not sure how to answer the questions that you’re posing here though i certainly do think they are worthwhile to think about and i will definitely have to think about them some more.

    but i did find some examples of sex workers going on strike. in london march 2000, sex workers went on strike to protest the government evicting them. here’s a short article on that: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/sohos-sex-workers-strike-over-threat-of–evictions-724255.html

    also in october 2007, bolivian sex workers went on strike. in bolivia sex work is legal but pros are mandated to go in for medical checkups. so workers went on strike refusing to go in for their medical checkups. this was in response to violent repressions against sex workers particularly in El Alto. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/americas/2007/10/200852513581911829.html
    http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1675348,00.html

    in soho, london the sex workers were successful in stopping the evictions. im not sure what the impact of the strike in Bolivia was. the following two articles do show that sex workers refuse to be divided and labelled as bad women. they see themselves as workers first. this i think is powerful and important for us to think about as well as we investigate possibilities of organising with sex workers.

    http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/26/122.html
    http://www.globalwomenstrike.net/NewStrike/NewSexWorkers.htm

  • David

    Thanks Wen, for the reply. It definitely makes sense and I am all for referring to people how they want to be referred. I also truly think that most people “in the know” or not are as well. I was more taking issue with the way some scenes operate overall… Anyways this has already been covered.

    Thinking more about your first question: I think the dominance of nonprofit in trans work is also just a symptom of the times overall. I don’t know how other readers have become politicized but it seems that most eighties babies like myself came up with nonprofits being THE main vehicle for any organizing. If that’s all that is around as you are coming up, with all it’s focus on fundraising, keeping things legal, careers being dependent on people remaining exploited and poor – it can be hard to imagine ways organizing outside of the non-profit world… Respect to the people on this site who are doing just that. I don’t want to take this conversation off of the main topic, the above statements apply to work Ive seen at queer and trans oriented non-profits. The more we can push people to think outside of what some call the non-profit industrial complex, the better.

  • Krisna

    Not that it had a huge emphasis, but it was incorporated into the conclusion of Koyama’s essay (which in general I dug); that is the issue of hate crimes.

    I bring this up because earlier this month in Austin, a couple of queer men were beaten by a gang of homophobes after leaving a known queer bar in the community. The march was organized by liberal queers who basically sacrificed us working class and people of color queers to the police so that white passing queer men might have a seat at the ruler’s table. I was pretty fucking pissed to say the least.

    The essential theme of the march was to increase more police “protection” and more hate crimes legislation. I kept thinking about Jomo’s piece, “What kind of queer liberation is that?” Prisons, where people are raped by guards and fellow prisoners alike. They wanna give us that and more police and more video cams in place of democratic rights or health care.

    We in ¡ella pelea! fought hard to legislate a different ethos and politics during the march but were overwhelmed.

    Anyhow, what we need are queer defense committees if we’re serious about defending queer and transfolk from violent attacks from the State and the Right. Not that those are separate from building workplace or community organizations, but that’s going to have to be talked about with it.

    That’s all. Thanks for this post, Wen. Very good questions and the responses have been important.

  • Krisna

    Sorry, that was a little convoluted. Hope folks can make sense of it anyway.

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com Mamos

    good comments folks. There are a bunch of threads of discussion started, I’ll try to take up a few.

    Bao, I agree with you we need to organize with other sections of the lumpen, not just sex workers. All I was trying to show with my comments is that sex workers are in a social relationship that more closely resembles wage labor than other sections of the lumpen. Perhaps I was over-stressing that point . But I agree with you we do need to prepare for a deeper engagement with rank and file gang members, drug dealers, etc, not only sex workers. Many of us already interact with lumpen youth on a daily basis through our work, and as you know one of my students tried to organize gang members to come out to the March 4th strike.

    In my mind safety is not the primary thing getting in the way of this, though it is a problem (more on this below). The biggest problem is the real class divide that exists between working class and lumpen folks even if we live in the same neighborhoods, have families and friendship circles which bridge the gap, etc. Jomo and I were just at the bus stop a few hours ago and we started chatting with a Black Department of Transportation worker who was emptying the trash cans about the possible garbage workers strike. He was saying several bus drivers have been attacked by youth and noone has done anything about it. He was responding with a very law-and-order, lock them all up and try them as adults kind of mentality which is fucked up and we challenged him on it. But the problem is if you don’t address working people’s very real concerns with this sort of thing then you will loose them to more conservative forces and that will only reinforce the prison industrial complex.

    I think what we need to do is build deep organizations in working class/lumpen neighborhoods that have a solid base among both employed and unemployed workers including many precariously employed young workers and former gang members. This will provide the social stability and respect in the community necessary to start bringing in current gang members, sex workers, etc. It will also help with the safety issue – gang leaders, pimps, etc. will be less likely to go against you for counter-recruiting if you have broad support among grassroots community leaders, working folks, and former gang members. I agree the Young Lords are a good example of this. At their best the Panthers were too, though at times the did not have enough Black working class support (which the League of Revolutionary Black Workers criticized them for) and this made it easier for COINTELPRO to manipulate former gang rivalries to mess up the organization (for example with the conflict with the United Slaves organization in LA, as the movie Bastards of the Party documents well).

    I’m not trying to be workerist… I’m not saying only the working class has revolutionary agency. Layers of the lumpen can as well but only as part of a much broader movement which attracts rather than repels the most exploited and oppressed layers of the working class, including regularly unemployed workers. This later group is the majority in Black and Brown communities, not the lumpen, and they are the ones most likely to be able to reach lumpen youth and encourage them to fight the system instead of each other.

    We also need to remember that not all of the lumpen is Black and Brown… there are a lot of lumpen white youth in Seattle and elsewhere. Some are homeless queer folks surviving through sex work or drug dealing, others are gang members. I could see a lot of them participating in a multiracial rebellions against the prison industrial complex because they live multiracially now and a lot of them identify strongly with communities of color.

    But then you also have lumpen folks like some of Jomo’s former students who were attracted to Neo-Nazi and white power ideology. They hate the coops and the state but are also white supremacist and they could be sucked into skinhead gangs or similar formations that build alliances between the disaffected petit bourgeoise and the lumpen. It is this milleu that could accelerate attacks on trans and queer folks as well as on immigrants and people of color. As Krisna suggested, a bunch of the Left will respond by calling for increased policing which is bad for the lumpen, queer folks, poc and the entire working class…. instead we need to fight the prison industrial complex AND the fascists at the same time in the ways Krisna suggests. I could see transliberation being one of the most important issues the Left will have to take up in the upcoming years because transfolks, especially transfolks of color will be some of the most targeted people in the country if the revolutionary Right continues to grow. The mainstream queer groups just don’t get it. I remember after a wave of vicious hate crimes last year there was a candlelight march through Capitol Hill, a queer community here in Seattle. We were all on the megaphone chanting anti-fascist, transliberation, and anti-racist chants and a lot of the middle class white gay dudes were looking at us like we were crazy. A lot of the queer folks who will be most affected by this shit were not at the march. We did hear some talk in the community though of folks arming themselves. I think this is also a key way queer and trans folks can win the respect and support of other layers of the working class, especially in communities of color – by saying “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it, don’t fuck with us” rather than pleading with the state for protection. Of course all of this requires a degree of organization, skills, and preparation the Left in general does not have right now which is definitely unsettling.

  • http://forademocraticuniversity.blogspot.com cg

    Wen-
    Thanks for a really key article highlighting the trans struggle and its links to class and race struggles. This is an important piece in moving beyond identity and privilege politics to thinking about both the real oppressions, and real struggles trans folks have led and been a part of.

    I want to address the question you pointed to regarding disability. I think, like the gay rights movement, much of the disability rights movement has been co-opted by a non-profit system that privileges a perspective that focusses solely on disabled identity, and does not look at the causes not just of disability, but of the different disparities that disabled folks of different class backgrounds, races, and genders face.

    I think that an important thing to remember is that there is in a way a kind of split in disability rights, that I think relates to trans identity and gender oppression. For disabled folks, there is a battle between fighting to be seen as “just like everyone else” and fighting for a new society that demands that not everyone has to be the same, and that people need treatment, care, and community that best suits their own needs. I think this battle is also waged on the grounds of gender, especially since so many transfolks might also suffer from ill-health, because of their class position, violence, or other life circumstances. This is different from the patholigization you talk about wen, which is the patholigization that people of color, women, immigrants, activists, and other people also face where they are separated from society and deemed different in an imaginary society that is otherwise homogenous. The struggle for the left in general should be to fight against this homogenization, or the idea of it, and for a society that takes the needs and desires of people as a necessary part of liberation for all oppressed folks. I think the questions you raise in your piece help us get there.

  • Lauren

    I wanna piggy back off one of Will’s early points – about the problem of the left not being organically rooted in trans communities. I would add that that points to a related problem — not sure if it’s a cause or consequence of the former — where taking up trans lib, women’s lib, anti-racist politics, etc., becomes bastardized in a sense. David pointed out how the left can often take up trans lib in narrow and alienating ways, and I would add that it often takes it up in very defensive ways. David’s point about keeping in mind the times we’re living in is relevant here (defensive describes much of working class struggle at this point in time) but there are larger problems behind this as well.

    An example of this defensiveness would be how you may not see left organizations taking up trans lib consistently or as part of an ongoing organizing campaign, but you will often see the left turn out to protest the latest killing of a trans person or for prisoner defense of a trans person wrongfully locked up. This is often reactive organizing from a defensive position that takes up the easier to see, easier to oppose forms of trans oppression (sexual and state violence), without putting forward an aggressive, positive program & practice.

    These “easier” to oppose forms are still absolutely a front on which trans liberation has to be fought. For reasons others have already pointed to, including the authors we’re reading from the post, many trans folks are on the front lines of what is basically a police occupation of our neighborhoods and cities. Organizing against state and sexual violence is both a question of principles & strategy – we principally oppose and fight back against sexual and state violence raining down on our people, and we also gotta defend ourselves if we’re gonna have any soldiers survive to organize and help build new organizations and movements.

    But this dynamic of taking up only the most egregious forms of trans oppression exposes a serious lack on the left to sink rooks in working class trans communities as Will pointed to *and* a lack of developing the theory and methods so desperately needed to make the former possible (or worse some are stuck in old theory/methods that never considered trans lib to begin with). What’s more, some on the left take up what they believe to be the most important issues for trans folks without actually having built the relationships in the community to know what issues or demands trans folks themselves are already expressing. It reminds me of two critiques I’ve heard made on different yet related issues:

    One, of some anarchist tendencies that only see anti-racist struggle as fighting the fascists and fighting the cops. These tendencies often fail to see how white supremacy permeates every facet of daily life for people of color, it doesn’t just come up when the cops are patrolling or when the local Neo-Nazis decide to march through our neighborhoods.

    Two, and this was a criticism made of a well-known socialist organization here in Austin, that some left tendencies take up campaigns they think matter to people of color based on essentializing POCs, assuming POCs don’t fight class struggle, we only fight based on racial identity. Just because I’m black doesn’t mean I only want to fight against the death penalty because it disproportionately murders black men; I also want to fight against unemployment, lack of access to quality education, etc. Similarly, just because someone is trans doesn’t mean they only want to fight against anti-trans street violence; as Koyama points out, they want to fight gentrification, for health care access, etc.

    This is a long-winded way of getting at what I think Mamos and others have laid out more positively and concretely: that part of the answer to Wen’s first question lies in sinking roots in trans communities (which are also working class communities, communities of color, etc.); in developing our theoretical and methodological weapons to be able to understand and articulate trans liberation as part and parcel of class struggle, women’s liberation, anti-racism, etc.; in building organizations and fighting campaigns that aren’t just reactive but put forward positive programs and practices and make transliberation an everyday part of our work.

    I can’t say I have anything to add on the question of organizing lumpen folks and organizing between lumpen & working class folks, as raised by Mamos, Bao and others. It’s definitely food for thought that I’m chewing over…

  • Lauren

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jordan-flaherty/new-complaints-of-police_b_544335.html?ref=fb&src=sp

    This article raises a point similar to what Koyama raises about medical officials pathologizing transgender folks by diagnosing them with gender identity disorder in order for them to qualify for certain medical procedures or treatments.

    The link discusses how the NOPD is using sex offender laws to target and criminalize sex involving queer & transgender folks, pathologizing them as being perverse, criminal, etc., in similar ways to pedophilia, rape, etc.

  • Jamusa

    All,

    Didn’t see it mentioned but folks should check out essay from the book “Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation edited by Tommi Avicolli Mecca, an early member of GAA/GLF and founder of RadicalQueens in Phily.

    In this book I read a couple pieces, one a personal reflection on the birth of RadicalQueens by one of its founders Cei Bell, and an essay on Sylvia Rivera, noted as the “Rosa Parks” of the transmovement.

    Hearing the stories of overcoming abuse, racialism, sexism, and more complicated finding an autonomous place in the Gay Liberation struggle highlights these two pieces. Cei Bell’s piece notes a conversation she had with the book’s editor Tommi Avicolli Mecca on femme vs. butch roles in queer relationships, as Tommi and Cei were supposed to be the femme in their relationship with more butch or masculine partners. This was something the transmovement fought from jump against the so-called homophile groups and individuals seeking acceptance from the white, patriarchal and hetereonormative American society. These queens wanted to be different, and the Bell and Rivera stories and struggles clearly show this. It’s not that they wanted an end to gay men who choose to be “masculine”, or very “feminine” lesbians or those who are “butch” or “aggressives” per say as long as these folks did not deny others identities…to be outwardly fabulous queens and proud of it. In the 1960s and 1970s this identity got people beat up and killed…or raped by straight and gay men. Still happens today whether its the cops, gay bashers, or abusive partners.

    And for both Cei and Sylvia (Black and Latin@ respectively) they dealt with white supremacy in the gay community. Many “homophile” bars didn’t allow in POC. Defacto it’s still that way in the Castro in SF, with middle to upper class white gay men controlling the neighborhood and having a strong foot in city politics. Read Mattillda Bernstein: http://www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com/gayrights_lip.html for a deeper critique of the struggles against the mainstreamification of the gay liberation movement in SF per gay marriage.

    Within the these pieces, and even more in some of the other essays in Smash the Church, Smash the State, is the role the Civil Rights and anti-war struggles played to shape the Gay Liberation movement and transmovement with that. Cei Bell, and especially Kiyoshi Kuromiya were part of SDS, Freedom Riders, and early GAA and GLF members. So gay liberation was a natural outgrowth of these movements, and their struggles against white supremacy and patriarchy were needed within the movement itself. What is a bit more missing from many histories of the gay liberation movement, past and present, is class struggle as many of the post above mention. The personal histories of Rivera and Bell and many other transfolks are having to run away from homes, living on the streets, or as working folks rejected by middle class gay folks…told they’re bad for the neighborhood…and dealing with police brutality.

    These stories get at the histories and objective conditions transfolks have dealt with, but what is needed is a deeper class analysis of the gay liberation struggle, and within the gay community itself…which has been done in bits and pieces and the literature is growing, but what some of the posts here on GF is hoping to develop more fully.

  • http://www.queerswithoutborders.com/wpmu Meowlatesta

    Good piece and discussion! Gonna post the piece on the Queers without Borders website and send it to our discussion list for the Workers Solidarity Alliance.

    Thanks for existing!
    -Meow

  • http://www.queerswithoutborders.com Abbey Volcano

    I’m really happy to see this piece– thanks for posting the links to other readings, as well. Nate sent a link over the Workers Solidarity Alliance list, which is where I originally got privy to GF.

    Out here in Hartford, we have a radical queer group– Queers Without Borders (www.queerswithoutborders.com). Most of us in QWB are also in the Connecticut chapter of the WSA and so we do a lot of talks and presentations focused on combining queer organizing with anarchist organizing– since they could both use a good dose of each other– the intersection/overlap is a powerful place. I’ll start cross-posting over at QWB.

    Glad to have found this site!

    Love and Solidarity,

    Abbey

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