Sylvia Rivera, transliberation, and class struggle.
“Amanda Milan and the rebirth of Street Trans Action Revolutionaries” by Benjamin Shepard in From ACT UP to WTO.
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?