BROOKE GLADSTONE So let's build on the lesson we just got on the limits of viewing the history of a marginalized people through their encounters with the medical establishment. What about trans people who never came close to a medical transition, who lived on the streets, stirred up trouble and demanded to be recognized, demanded justice? Marsha P. Johnson was a black trans woman who spent some crucial time in New York City's Greenwich Village in the 60s and beyond until taking her place in history.
REPORTER Why are you here today?
MARSHA P JOHNSON I want my gay rights now. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 1969, Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were pioneers in the gay rights movement. Among the first rioters at Stonewall, a village bar. It was the site of an uprising that helped unite a community of outsiders into a force, and it's commemorated annually in LGBT pride days around the world.
IMARA JONES People often say they threw the first break. The people that were there that night don't agree on who did that. So I don't think that we should say that, but what we can't say that they were instrumental in the Stonewall riot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Imara Jones, creator of TransLash media and host of the TransLash Podcast, notes that Stonewall has often been assumed, sometimes depicted, as a nice tidy place for mostly white gay men,
IMARA JONES Trans people, people who dressed in drag, who were of color – it was their bar, and for the people that were attracted to them. One of the reasons why the police decided to target it for a raid, was because it was not a white gay male space. Because they knew they weren't going to come across either a politician or a sign of someone wealthy in New York or other people who might be caught up in the dragnet that could cause the trouble. And so they targeted Stonewall and Sylvia and Marcia helped to lead the response that night and then for the next 6 nights and then from that decided to create an entire rights movement.
SYLVIA RIVERA Marshall and I, we were the liberators. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sylvia Rivera reflecting on that time decades later.
SYLVIA RIVERA The street people in drag queens were the vanguard of the movement. We were the one's that fought the cops off. And we're the ones that didn't mind getting our heads bashed in. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE They founded STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a radical collective in the early 70s that staged protests. Work to house homeless LGBT youth and sex workers, stood against police harassment and incarceration, and stood for free education, social services and food for all in need. They modeled a sort of visionary thinking that Imara Jones says black trans women still offer today.
IMARA JONES There is an essential understanding that if we created a society, for example, where black trans women could thrive, then that would be a society where everyone can thrive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A UCLA study released last year showed a rate of homelessness for transgender adults in the U.S. 8 times that of straight cisgender adults. Trans people are unemployed twice as often as cispeople, and for black trans people, it's even worse – 26 percent. 44 trans or gender non-binary people killed in the U.S. last year. 21 so far this year, which, though horrifying, Jones reminds us, is nothing new.
IMARA JONES Trans people have been targets of violence and extreme violence for time immemorial. As I mentioned to people all the time, Marsha P. Johnson was murdered in the 1990s and we still don't know who killed her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The role of black trans people is often abbreviated in the historical record, but a more complete history reveals a more complete path to the future. Take the transgender district in San Francisco, the first legally recognized transgender district in the world.
IMARA JONES One of the things that it sees very much as a part of its mission is not only to work for the preservation of trans history, which is of course pivotal, but also to work to rectify the injustices of the past by creating a housing program and an entrepreneurship incubation program and a whole host of other things. It is a living history. Imagine if that were the model for historical preservation across the country. If we looked at taking the Harriet Tubman Museum and it now being a center for actually educating and engaging and rectifying all sorts of racial injustice, inequities and if we did that for so many of our historic districts, the tenement district, even in New York. And what if it was centered on creating models for just housing? In and of itself, that's a radical vision.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The future is trans, you wrote, because the ways we've gone about organizing human life have changed in really fundamental ways. Trans people, just through our existence, show the power and the resilience of change and the possibility of how we can do things differently. We are creating a future less defined by gender roles and defined more by what we can create than what we can destroy. And because we've already had to do this work, we are essential to building this future. What is it then that trans people can envision that has the potential to affect everybody?
IMARA JONES What we know how to do is to think beyond yes and no. We know how to think in and's, and that ability to be able to see solutions where other people only see barriers is what we need in a future that cannot be based upon the way that we lived in the past, because the planet can't sustain it. The way that we have built hierarchical systems and societies where there are winners and losers, we cannot continue in that vein and believe that we have a future as a human species, it's going to work. And so that means that you need to begin to pull in people that fundamentally understand how to think differently about everything, and that's what we have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Amara, thank you very much.
IMARA JONES Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Imara Jones is the creator of TransLash Media, a cross platform, journalism, personal storytelling and narrative project. She's also the host of the TransLash Podcast.
Coming up, the relatively recent history of transgender depictions in film and TV, ranging from the dangerous to the ridiculous, but edging ever closer to the reality. This is On the Media.
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