5 transgender activists on Pride's past and their hopes for the future

Hayoung Jeon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
ByAdryan Corcione

A look at Pride's past fifty years after the Stonewall uprising shows us that transgender people still face tremendous struggles to access housing, employment, healthcare, and other basic living needs. While transgender people are now more visible, the spotlight makes trans people of color — especially trans women of color — that much more susceptible to violence.

One example of over-policing and profiling is how overwhelmingly represented trans people are in the prison system. According to Lambda Legal, one in every six trans people — and one in every two Black trans people — has been incarcerated at some point in their lives. On June 7, 27-year-old Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, a valued member of New York’s house-ballroom community, was found dead in her cell at Rikers Island. On June 1, 25-year-old Salvadoran immigrant Johana “Joe” Medina Leon died shortly after reaching a hospital in Texas; she was finally taken there by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) officials days after reporting chest pain.

When faced with daily injustices like those, it’s difficult, as transgender people, to feel our resilience and acknowledge how we thrive. When media coverage seems far more interested with the death of trans people, there is significantly less space for living voices. Despite Pride’s radical roots, rainbow capitalism dictates how LGBTQ+ people celebrate and engage in dialogue every year, so those contemporary voices we do hear are often sponsored (and censored) by major corporations.

This was not the future our ancestors imagined. The Stonewall Uprising amped up a gay liberation movement that already existed — it included the demonstration at demonstration at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco and Cooper’s Donuts resistance in Los Angeles. But June 28, 1969 was a cultural tipping point that many LGBTQ+ people still relate to as we stare violence in the face, and consciously choose to fight back.

Mothers of the queer liberation movement, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a grassroots organization dedicated to housing homeless trans street youth. Both were also involved in the early development of the Gay Liberation Front, founded in response to Stonewall; Rivera was involved with the Young Lords, a revolutionary group of Puerto Rican youth. While these icons have passed, contemporary leaders have risen to perpetuate their legacies.

When we honor those who have passed, it’s important to celebrate those still breathing around us, integrated in the trans liberation struggle today. What are their demands of society? What do they want for youth and future generations? What future do they envision and how do all LGBTQ+ people fit into it? Mic interviewed five activists and organizers about their hopes and dreams of the future — and how queer liberation will look and feel like years from today.

Nala Simone Toussaint, Founder of Reuniting of African Descendants

Courtesy of Nala Simone Toussaint

In order to address equity, and what it looks like, we also [must] address gender-based violence against girls across the identity spectrum and as well as homelessness, and poverty. How does scarcity show up in our lives?

I want to be a “possibility model,” as Laverne Cox often says, to be remembered for racial and gender justice transformation that will take place. I wholeheartedly believe that we will dismantle all -isms: patriarchal systems, capitalism, all of that. We get to live in a human experience, where I see you and you see me.

In order for us to get to [global] liberation, none of us are free until we’re all free. When I think about global work, I know trans siblings of mine are being murdered for just simply being, because they have the audacity to live in their authentic truth where the world is saying, “no, you don’t get to live that way.” A lot of the work is connected to doing this global liberation work.

Stephen Wilson, incarcerated abolitionist organizer and study group leader

Freedom for the most marginalized folks means freedom for all of us. Many activists have truncated definitions and myopic visions of freedom—definitions and visions that are really about inclusion in systems of domination. We need to center trans/queer lived experiences in our movements.

I look forward to building strong coalitions and alliances. The younger generation is much more accepting and understanding of the diversity and fluidity of gender and sexuality. We have an opportunity to create ways for more people to become involved in the struggle against oppression. I look forward to creating and taking advantage of those opportunities to connect with others and build the movement.

After years of fighting to be included in systems of domination — the military and marriage, and promoting both of these as a panacea against homophobia/transphobia — we need to get back to our roots: liberation. It blows my mind that every June, the world talks about Stonewall, but forgets what set it off: police violence. Law enforcement has always targeted, persecuted, and erased us. It hasn't stopped, but if you listen to mainstream gay organizations, you would think it has, because those organizations are absent from the fight against mass incarceration and struggle against police violence. Moreover, these organizations promote solutions that all but ensure that poor queer/trans folk will be accosted by police. I hope we get back to our roots.

I hope that 100 years after Stonewall, the work I'm doing has been rendered obsolete. I hope we, those of us in the struggle, have achieved liberation. I hope no one, in 2069, has to fight for trans/queer folk to live and love the way we choose.

Isa Noyola, Deputy Director of Mijente

Courtesy of Issa Noyola

The persecution our community has faced happened because of war, harmful ideology, political and religious rhetoric, which has created this way to dehumanize people. How do we continue to undo that? How do we get back to being our full selves and living in our full, authentic truth as trans people, queer people, however we may identify? I’m inspired by trans, gender nonconforming youth who really play with the idea of gender, because they know it’s a social construct. They understand their identities can be fluid and even questioning gender is liberating. I find hope in new generations, of how they are pushing the boundaries of asking why do we believe certain things about gender and why are they deeply ingrained in our society.

The full vision is to really undo this dehumanizing process that has unfolded in our history, in our countries and communities. We see very clear-cut ways of how the state has punitively decided to enact that level of violence on our people. We see that clearly at the borders, detention facilities, in policy that regulate peoples’ bodies as property or commodities.

To me, these manifestations of what we’re seeing in various states like Alabama, the anti-abortion bill, or even laws that criminalize sex work that really think about peoples’ ability to have agency over their bodies as a question, that [the state] has control over. That has to be abolished. Our communities are working to challenge those ideas, to decriminalize and to reclaim our bodies, history, lineage, and identities—and to have full agency and control over how we name ourselves, how we live our lives and how we love each other.

Our work is on the backs of our ancestors, of folks who had very little, who didn’t have a formal organization, but they understood fundamentally that marginalization was dehumanizing. They were clear about who was attacking us. We need to keep pushing that understanding.

Jack Malstrom, Interim Director of the Portland Two Spirit Society

Courtesy of Jack Malstrom

My hope for the future is that people are really able to be who they truly are no matter what. [I want people] to connect with the cultures they have lost and the identities within those cultures to truly feel whole as themselves and to be able to express that to the outside world without fear of violence, judgment or anything else. I hope for a future where this is seen as a strength that should be highlighted and our talents are put to good use wherever we choose.

I want people to see the world realize our experiences are valid and our history is one we should never forget. We can learn not only from our recent past but even from our ancestors. We always have been here and we aren't going anywhere — that being who we are has always been a blessing but was labeled a curse [to] others. I hope we can finally shed the colonized view of gender and sexuality. We must continue to honor those who came before us and be truly excited for those who will come after.

Lane Patriquin, anti-fascist organizer

Courtesy of Lane Patriquen

Many young people seem to be manifesting the strong desire to return to the radical roots of the Pride movement, and I think that’s incredibly heartening. The more white and affluent sections of the Pride movement have strayed towards assimilation, embraced corporate sponsorship, and turned a blind eye to the most vulnerable sections of their communities. Meanwhile, I'm seeing this really strong current of anti-capitalist lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and two-spirit people coming up who are really engaged with the politics. They’re really focusing on how our liberation connects with anti-racism, economic justice, migrant justice, and decolonization.

Young queer and trans people have become the driving force behind other liberation movements. The anti-fascist movement for example would not have taken on the life that it has without the queer and trans people at the forefront. I'm really excited to see where this energy takes us. I hope that corporate pride will become a thing of the past as this new wave of the queer liberation movement steers us in a direction of solidarity with other social justice movements, focusing what really matters for all people who are being marginalized under our political and economic systems.