I was a bit jolted when I clicked on a Facebook link entitled “Transgender Issues Gain Prominence for 2014”. Seems like a reasonable title. Yet when I clicked, this title comes up:
I was blindsided by the historical whitewashing and cis-washing (in other words, the erasure of trans people) done by the title, honestly. This ostensibly little detail is the only part of the story that I’m focusing on in this post. It’s not so little when the wording stands out so aggressively and beats me and other trans folk with its lack of contextual understanding of LGBT history.
I’ll give the NPR staff the benefit of the doubt; I don’t believe they are intentionally ignoring transgender history; yet they are complicit in and illustrative of the sustained cis-washing of GLb(t) historiography. Certainly, a great many gay activists and Gay Inc. (HRC and related high profile orgs that work cautiously and rake in all the money) have done impeccably well in entirely erasing trans women of color especially and trans women in general out of the struggle for GLb(t) rights.
Media outlets take “respectable” white cis gay men and lesbians at their word far too easily due to the systemic, institutionalized, and social privileging and power of non-trans (cis) people over trans people (this is known as cis-supremacy), as well as the unhealthy mountains of white supremacy present in the GLb(t) movement. It would have been nice for NPR to do their historical research. And it is, equally, a reminder to trans folk that we must keep speaking and telling our histories, individual and collective.
It was, of course, trans women of color, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major, who bled in the streets at Stonewall in 1969. It was trans women who rioted at Compton’s Cafeteria in August 1966 three years before Stonewall. As respectable gay men were engaging in cautious and assimilationist politics, transgender women, sex workers, and queer youth were engaging in a more militant, visceral, impatient, and physical struggle.
It was trans people and people of color setting many of the proverbial fires that would “blaze the path” for LGBT rights. Black and brown trans women bled in 1969 so that buff white men today could hoist rainbow flags and neon thongs at Pride. (Semiotically: black and brown are absent from the rainbow flag but the source of the rainbow is white.)
I’m not exactly knocking historical homophile politics categorically (not now, anyway). However, the fact remains that the neo-homophile politics of today’s Gay Inc. largely appropriate the history, memory, and blood of the militant activists because it’s the sexier story. At the same time they are ignoring (erasing) the racial and class and gender composition of those activists. Trans women were pushed out of the early post-Stonewall gay rights movement. Their pivotal roles in its foundation are now muted and erased in the white, cisgender, wealthy, gay retelling and marketing of queer history.
The gay rights bus has undoubtedly come a long way toward equality. But it has done so by repeatedly jettisoning transgender rights and concerns out the window because they deemed trans folk too freaky and not respectable enough for the cautious, tepid strategies of the mainstream gay/lesbian movement, a movement started in no small part by trans women in response to the sustained harassment of trans women. Sylvia Rivera said of the bus:
…I’m tired of sitting on the back of the bumper. It’s not even the back of the bus anymore—it’s the back of the bumper.
Trans people are not some new passengers on this bus. We have been there all along, lighting a path for it and getting shoved out of the way and driven over by it. The rearview mirror of GLb(t) history reveals a shamefully bloody road rather than some shining, blazing path.
And that’s why NPR staff came up with this awful title. By the implication that we are following this path, we are again dragged behind this bus.