On the Back of the Bumper

On the evening of Tuesday, February 26, the ashes of Sylvia Rivera were taken from the standing-room-only Metropolitan Community Church in midtown Manhattan and placed in a horse-drawn carriage. The carriage, along with hundreds of mourners, moved slowly down Christopher Street, past the historic Stonewall Inn where the gay-liberation movement was born. When it came to a stop, Sylvia’s ashes were scattered off the piers on the Hudson River. It was a fitting end for a drag queen who had been in the forefront of enormous changes for the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender (GLBT) movement over the past 33 years.

The funeral was exactly what Sylvia would have wanted; indeed, she had made all the arrangements in the months before her death from liver cancer at age 50. Let’s face it: Sylvia -- reputed to have hurled the first beer bottle in the Stonewall Riot -- had learned long ago that if you wanted something done (never mind done right), you’d better do it yourself.

Sylvia had always remained on the outer fringes of the gay movement -- she spent a substantial portion of her adult life homeless and struggling with substance abuse and was famous for her street-smart, no-nonsense, fuck-you-in-your-face brand of politics. But in death she was widely mourned, both by her comrades in Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, or STAR (which she had co-founded in 1971 as Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), and by the most mainstream of gay groups. Indeed, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) -- one of the most respectable, conservative, and well funded of the national gay-rights groups -- issued a lengthy statement of respect for her that read, in part, "We are deeply saddened by the passing of Sylvia Rivera, a brave pioneer who helped pave the way for the future of GLBT Americans.... We are proud to honor her enduring legacy."

But the love fete didn’t go both ways. Rivera was constitutionally opposed to the top-down politics of HRC -- and that’s putting it mildly. "One of our [STAR’s] main goals now," she wrote in April 2001, "is to destroy the Human Rights Campaign, because 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. The bitch on wheels is back." Just weeks before her death, STAR issued a press release that called HRC "a separatist organization devoted to money and power that has insulted STAR and the transgender community through ignorance, arrogance, and transphobia." Indeed, in light of Sylvia’s Rivera’s true feelings, HRC’s reverential elegy seems not only smarmy, but hypocritical.

But what looks at first glance like a nasty in-fight between scrappy transgender street radicals and Beltway professionals -- the skirts versus the suits -- is actually a fight for the heart and political integrity of the gay-rights movement. While the gay community has always acknowledged the cultural importance of drag queens, cross-dressers, transvestites, transsexuals, and people of variant gender, the political movement has been focused on securing a variety of legal protections for women and men who, as a group, are identified by their sexual attraction to others of their own gender. The idea that the gay-rights movement might also fight for the right to express gender differently -- whether by appearing too butch or too femme, or dressing in clothing intended for (in that quaint phase) "the opposite sex" -- is fairly recent. The term transgender itself -- a very loose concept connoting pretty much anyone who identifies and presents him- or herself in ways outside of socially prescribed gender roles -- came into play only in the early 1990s and was popularized by works such as Leslie Feinberg’s 1992 Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come (World View Forum) and Kate Bornstein’s 1994 Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us (Routledge). It was an idea whose time had arrived, but it did not meet with complete acceptance within the pre-existing movement. The gay mainstream may have enjoyed the spectacle of campy drag shows, but it had little intention of fighting for the rights of a group that most "normal" people considered freakish or mentally ill.

When Sylvia Rivera argued for civil rights for transvestites and drag queens in 1971, she was far, far ahead of her time. Although she had support in the fresh flush of post-Stonewall politics, when she was a member of the leftist, radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF) -- whose antiwar, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist agenda was, well, liberationist in the widest possible sense -- that window of truly progressive queer politics was short- lived. GLF lasted less than two years. Meanwhile, the national movement became a narrowly focused gay-rights movement that, over the next two decades, would struggle for its members to be accepted by mainstream society as "normal" American citizens who were just like everyone else -- except for the fact that they were homosexual.

Drags and trannies not only ran counter to this image, they exploded it. They were the poster children for the mainstream’s worst possible fears. Though many straight people came to accept discreet homosexuals who practiced their vice in the privacy of their own homes, they had a much harder time with men and women who publicly violated gender norms. This was true in 1972, when the New York–based Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) deleted transvestite and drag issues from the first anti-gay-discrimination bill introduced to New York’s City Council, and to a large extent it is still true now.

Over the past 10 years, mass entertainment -- movies like La Cage aux Folles, Tootsie, and Boys Don’t Cry -- has helped lower fears and raise consciousness about gender expression, and most gay organizations now include "transgender" issues among the litany of their concerns. But when legislative push comes to shove, it is still nearly impossible to draft legislation (never mind get it voted on) that includes provisions to counter discrimination based on gender expression. Two immediate cases in point are the Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and New York State’s Sexual Orientation Nondiscrimination Act (SONDA), both of which would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. First introduced in 1992, ENDA stands very little chance of passing soon, but it has garnered support from the likes of Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Christie Todd Whitman, Coretta Scott King, and the late Barry Goldwater, as well as corporations such as General Mills, Ben and Jerry’s, and Eastman Kodak. SONDA has been up before the New York State legislature since 1971. It has passed the Assembly by growing margins every year, and this January it passed by an overwhelming majority of 113 to 27. After three decades, it’s still awaiting a vote in the Senate, but things are looking up: Republican governor George Pataki mentioned the bill in his State of the State address this year; and the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), a nonprofit lobbying group behind the bill, has hired William Powers, former chair of the New York State Republican Party, to lobby for its passage in the Senate. Neither of these bills covers transgender concerns or protects gender expression. (Rivera was fighting to include transgender rights in both bills at the time of her death.)

If you speak to the supporters of this legislation -- such as HRC and ESPA -- it is a simple case of political expediency: if these bills include gender-expression protection, they simply will not pass. And these supporters are mostly correct. It has taken more than half a century -- since the formation in 1949 of the Mattachine Society, an early homophile-rights group -- for Americans to seriously consider protecting women and men against anti-gay discrimination. But for many people -- homosexual as well as heterosexual -- deviance from accepted gender norms is far more threatening than deviance from standard heterosexuality. While there is some support to protect the jobs of openly gay or lesbian teachers, for example, those numbers plummet when the subject shifts to protecting those who do not conform to gender norms. Indeed, one of the right wing’s favorite scare tactics is to claim that passage of a gay-rights bill would allow drag queens to teach in public schools.

But this desire for expediency is caught in a complicated web of politics with a long history -- one in which nearly all parties recognize that the fight for gay rights cannot be pitched to mainstream acceptance alone. Almost all major gay- and lesbian-rights groups advocate a transgender agenda -- they think that gender expression should not be grounds for discrimination in jobs or public accommodation. It’s just that they won’t advocate it formally in bills such as ENDA and SONDA. Another bill before the New York legislature, sponsored by openly gay Democratic senator Thomas Duane, does include protections for gender expression, but it hasn’t passed the Assembly, and it doesn’t look viable. The bill’s dim future can be chalked up to mainstream gender-expression prejudice, without a doubt. But the fact that it doesn’t have ESPA’s active support is also to blame.

It is no wonder that transgender activists are both frustrated and infuriated by this confusing and, on the face of it, hypocritical scenario. But far from disappearing, the issue of legal protection for transgender people increasingly threatens to rip asunder the already shaky alliance between mainstream advocacy groups and the increasingly visible and vocal transgender activists. A recent acrimonious exchange between ESPA and the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) points both to what is at stake legally for transgender activists and to how quickly the two positions are hardening. In the end, NYAGRA used the specifics of the Dawn Dawson case to successfully refute ESPA’s claim that SONDA would "almost always" protect gay and lesbian transgendered people. Dawson is a butch-lesbian hair stylist fired last year by a Manhattan salon. Because other out lesbians were not dismissed from the salon, NYAGRA argued that it was specifically Dawson’s "gender presentation," rather than her sexual orientation, that caused her to lose her job -- which SONDA would not have prevented.

There are other signs of trouble. Local activist Sue Hyde, who works for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and is a founder of the Cambridge Lavender Alliance (CLA), notes that her organization has withdrawn its endorsement from ENDA because the bill excludes gender protections. Hyde says that "especially given the slim chance of [its receiving] serious consideration in this session of Congress, a trans-inclusive bill is very much worth consideration and worth fighting for." And she notes that while the Cambridge Human Rights Ordinance was passed in 1984, it was only in 1994, after lobbying by the newly formed Cambridge Lavender Alliance, that an amendment was added to "cover the group of people who would be most likely to be fired, denied housing or denied public accommodation -- people whose gender expression didn’t match their sex at birth."

Obviously, transgender activists cannot always rely on the integrity and good will of gay and lesbian groups like NGLTF or the CLA, and depending on what happens with bills such as ENDA and SONDA, transgender activists may find themselves fighting a serious endgame with the gay-and-lesbian-rights movement. By focusing so intently on securing legislation to ensure civil rights for a portion of the community, mainstream groups may be overlooking the larger picture, they claim. "It is crucial to pass anti-discrimination legislation with the widest possible scope," says New York–based activist Bill Dobbs, "but let’s not forget that it doesn’t guarantee anybody a job or a place to live. It is one small step to much larger social justice. We have to take off the blinders and realize the limits of such laws. We have forgotten our roots as a liberation movement and only see equality or civil rights as a goal."

One of the ironies here is that the transgender-activist community and the mainstream gay-rights movement deeply need one another. People fighting for legal protections for transgender people recognize that without the mainstream movement’s limited but ongoing support, gender activism would not have gotten as far as it has already. Conversely, mainstream groups -- understanding that there is enormous groundswell support in the GLB community for transgender rights -- must articulate support for those rights, both to maintain the moral high ground and to avoid alienating their constituencies. The overlapping connections among sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender are confusing and often difficult to articulate. But if the mainstream gay groups talk the talk without walking the walk, there is going to be trouble.

The death of Sylvia Rivera has re-catalyzed many both in and out of the transgender community. Her bravery, guts, and sheer streetwise bravado were an inspiration for three decades. Whether these activists will -- or can -- continue working with mainstream gay-rights organizations is an open question. But these days, Sylvia’s words are ringing in their ears more loudly than ever: if you want something done right, you’d better do it yourself.

Michael Bronski can be reached at mabronski@aol.com.

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