The U.S. government is reportedly considering policy changes that would attempt to definitionally “erase” transgender and non-binary people from federal civil rights law. In practice, this could make it nearly impossible for many of us to get a driver’s license or passport, go to the doctor for basic medical care, get food stamps or rent an apartment.
An attack on marginalized people from the administration behind family separation policies and Muslim travel bans is hardly a surprise. But there’s a reason the transgender community is in the government’s crosshairs. There was a target painted on our backs. And it was put there not just by the religious right and gender essentialist crusaders, but by the mainstream gay rights movement, which for the better part of the last century has repeatedly backed away from — and sometimes even fought on the wrong side of — the battles that most affect trans and gender nonconforming people.
The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, two of the first formally organized gay and lesbian rights organizations in the United States, actively discouraged members from engaging in “deviant” expressions of gender and sexuality. Rather than challenge the rigid and repressive gender roles of postwar America, they embraced them in the interest of political gain. For example, their “Annual Reminder” pickets for gay rights in the late 1960s had a strict dress code: Men had to wear white shirts and slacks, and women had to wear dresses. They fought against discrimination on the grounds that they were “normal homosexuals,” and trans people did not fit under that rubric. These groups thought that conforming to societal standards would advance their singular cause: acceptance.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, white, middle-class, cisgender gays and lesbians made advances in both legal protection and social status. States started decriminalizing homosexuality, the American Psychiatric Association declared that it was not a psychiatric disorder, and Elaine Noble, the first openly lesbian or gay legislator, took her seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. But those outside the mainstream continued to live in untenable conditions. For gender-nonconforming people, it was nearly impossible to find steady employment, and police routinely raided bars and establishments where they gathered.
Resistance swelled in uprisings like the Compton Cafeteria riot in 1966, in which trans women and drag queens resisted arrest at a 24-hour eatery in San Francisco, and later the Stonewall rebellion, where crowds led by trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, sex workers and youths fought back against the police who regularly harassed, beat and violated them. Gender-defiant activists such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson emerged as leaders. As a direct response to the failure of other gay rights groups to fight for the most vulnerable, they founded the collective Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, which provided a shelter for trans people in New York.
Still, the leadership of the Gay Activists Alliance cut trans people out of New York City’s landmark 1971 attempt to pass anti-discrimination legislation, by removing protections for gender identity and presentation. They claimed that such an “extreme” bill could never succeed. Even with this “compromise,” it didn’t pass until 1986.
Overt anti-trans sentiment came from the top down of the burgeoning gay rights movement. The predominantly white, cis, gay male leadership saw trans people as a threat to their slowly but surely growing social and economic power. It was echoed among some lesbian leaders who painted trans women as impostors and mentally ill, even as they fought against these labels for themselves. Some lesbian leaders even claimed that trans men were traitors to their sex. These attitudes have persisted within the movement.
When Rivera took the stage at a 1973 rally that would later be seen as a predecessor to Pride, she faced boos from the crowd and was referred to as a “man in a dress” as she spoke about the daily brutality faced by trans and gender nonconforming people on the street, in prisons, and at the hands of police. Later that year, Rivera and Johnson were banned from participating in the New York City Pride parade. In interviews, Johnson recalled organizers telling her that they gave the movement “a bad name.”
Despite their marginalization, trans people helped lead powerful LGBTQ organizing in direct response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and early ’90s. Leaders like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy provided direct health-care services, while others became prominent voices in groups such as Act Up that forced the issue onto the national stage when the U.S. government was trying desperately to cover it up. But the upper crust of national gay rights leaders continued to silence and ignore trans voices into the next decade. In 1993, the organizing committee of the National Gay and Lesbian March on Washington voted to keep the word “transgender” out of the official name for the march. While trans people fought for and gained more power and visibility within the movement and in society as a whole in the early 2000s, our advances continued to lag behind our cisgender gay and lesbian counterparts
In 2007, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ rights organization, infamously threw trans people under the bus by cutting a deal that left gender identity protections out of the Employment and Non Discrimination Act after promising trans activists that they’d fight for their inclusion in the bill. In recent years, the organization has continued to face criticism for silencing trans people at events: At a 2013 rally, a staffer asked an activist to lower a transgender flag to keep it out of view of TV cameras. HRC still doesn’t have any trans people in top leadership positions, where our lived experiences would help shape strategy and priorities.
To their credit, many large LGBTQ organizations have expanded their advocacy on trans issues. But the groups with the most funding, lawyers and lobbyists have too often focused narrowly on inclusion within institutions such as marriage and the military, while grass-roots trans activists fought on matters of basic survival: youth homelessness, criminalization of sex workers, systematic isolation and torture of trans people in U.S. prisons, police violence, forced unemployment and inadequate health care. Decisions at the top to leave trans people behind have always been justified as strategic considerations, couched in an ideology of “trickle-down rights,” whereby advancing the causes of the most powerful, least-oppressed members of the LGBTQ community will allow the more vulnerable and marginalized to eventually receive the same incremental gains. But these political maneuvers have had real life-or-death consequences for our community.
By prioritizing their acceptance within an unjust society, the mainstream gay rights movement helped sow the seeds that the Trump administration is now coming to reap. The government made a cold calculation: An open attack on existing gay and lesbian rights might fall flat — even to their base — but history told them that targeting trans people, who have fewer legal protections and less public understanding and support, would instill division among LGBTQ people. The White House wants to paint some of us as outcasts and extremists, and hope the rest will go along. There is no room for us to undermine each other’s struggles for justice. It’s time to fight not for assimilation, but for liberation. We are all targets. We are in this together whether we like it or not.
The administration’s latest attack must serve as a wake-up call. The LGBTQ community needs to unite behind our most vulnerable members like we’ve rarely done before. To do that, we’ll have to grapple with our history. We can’t go back in time, or undo what’s been done. But we can commit to doing better. We can respect and honor those who fought before us, and learn from the moments where they failed.