By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Lateral oppression occurs when one member of a marginalized community oppresses another. This dynamic has been practiced, with demonstrably damaging results, by the LGB community toward its transgender counterparts repeatedly as the campaign for rights has proceeded since the Stonewall uprising.
It’s commonly known that among the Stonewall rioters were many transwomen and drag queens. One such participant was nascent trans activist Sylvia Rivera. Seventeen at the time, she’s reported to have shouted, “I don’t want to miss a minute of this. It’s the revolution,” when the uprising started, and to have thrown one of the first bottles at the police.
Following Stonewall, Rivera organized with the Gay Activists Alliance in New York City, as they worked to attain protections for sexual and gender minorities. Within a year, however, the GAA began to drop protections for drag and transvestitism (as gender expression rights were referred to then) from its agenda. In 1971, the GAA put forward a citywide Gay Rights Ordinance excluding those rights, officially splitting the LGBTQ rights movement, and jettisoning those who’d helped begin it.
The men making these decisions were able to do so, in part, because they benefitted from male cisgender privilege transwomen like Rivera lacked, and in doing so they perpetrated a bias toward the gender variant members of their community. Though LGBTQ minorities themselves, they preemptively assumed bigotry on the part of the politicians they hoped to court, and then acted upon it, hoping that excluding trans people would make their movement more palatable to the politicians they wished to court.
Rivera inferred the motives of her former comrades, saying later, “When things started getting mainstream, it was like, ‘We don’t need you anymore.'”
This abandonment proved fruitless. The gay-only ordinance failed to pass. Spurned, Rivera formed STAR — Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries — with fellow trans activist Marsha P. Johnson. STAR staged marches, and operated a shelter for gender variant youth experiencing homelessness, the latter a priority reflecting the precarious nature facing the trans community.
LGB activists, pursuing their own interests, eventually procured the passage of a sexual identity protections ordinance in NYC in 1986. Gender expression would not become a protected right in the city until 2002.
Those dates reflect the larger pattern of the advancement of gay and lesbian rights relative to those of transgender people in our country during the last forty five years. That marginalization following Stonewall, the decision on the part of those in the movement with the greatest social capital that mainstream society was ready to embrace sexual minorities, but not gender ones, i.e.: people like the decision makers rather than those different than them, left the trans community decades behind its gay and lesbian counterpart in terms of legal rights and social acceptance.
This dynamic that followed Stonewall repeated itself almost identically seven years ago in Congress with the maneuvering that surrounded the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Trans-exclusionary versions of ENDA were put forth in 1994, ’95, and ’96, all unsuccessfully.
The Human Rights Campaign, which shepherded these efforts, earned the extreme ire of the trans community, when its then-executive director Elizabeth Birch was reportedly overheard at an LGBTQ event saying a trans-inclusive ENDA would happen “over (her) dead body.” Trans activists began picketing HRC dinners and events to bring light to this lateral discrimination, and eventually, by 2007, their efforts appeared to have made an impact.
In 2007 Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. For the first time, HRC announced it would not support an ENDA bill that excluded trans protections. According to Transgriot founder Monica Roberts, the organization also raised $20,000 from the Southern Comfort Conference — an annual trans event in Atlanta — to support their efforts.
On September 27, 2007, however, gay congressman Barney Frank, acting unilaterally, decided trans protections would doom the bill, and struck them. In the wake of this, the HRC equivocated, saying it would not support the bill, but would not encourage congresspeople to vote against it, either.
The sense of betrayal within the trans community at this turn was mammoth. Donna Rose, the first trans member of the HRC’s board of directors resigned almost immediately, and while a coalition of 300 LGBTQ groups quickly formed, calling itself, United ENDA, and prevailing upon the Democratic Congress to immediately pass a trans-inclusive ENDA bill, the HRC stayed apart, and kept its silence.
Frank’s trans-exclusive ENDA passed the House in early 2008, but died in the Senate without ever reaching the floor. The parallels between this episode and that of the gay and lesbian rights ordinance forty years prior are so glaring they hardly require illustration: the presumption among gay male leaders that those around them were transphobic, the intra-community oppression, and the utter fruitlessness of yet another legislative abandonment.
These instances of lateral oppression by the cisgender members of the LGBTQ community toward their trans counterparts, are, I find, common knowledge among trans people I know. When I mention them to gay and lesbian friends, however, even ones well acquainted with LGBTQ issues and history, I don’t encounter the same familiarity.
This gulf, in my view, is harmful, as the history involved in these instances constitutes a pattern of injustice that can contribute to a sense of cynicism among trans people, resulting in occasional bitter sayings about our movement, such as “The ‘T’ comes last,” “The ‘T’ is silent” or “The GGGG community.”
I bring all this up not to stoke resentments, or point fingers, but rather to air out old wounds, so they might heal. Such healing is occurring already, I believe, as attention is given to trans issues, like health care access and coverage, gender identity protections in schools and public spaces, and the removal of surgery requirements from process of updating the gender markers on one’s IDs and documents. Actions like the HRC’s recent condemnation of the trans-exclusionary Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival help, as well.
Our community is big and diverse, and made up of people who likely all know what it is to be excluded. As Stonewall showed, though, we accomplish more when we turn our love toward one another, and practice the acceptance and equality we’re fighting for in the world with the people closest to us.