Transgender Rights: A Decades-long Struggle for EqualityWatch the video
TEXT ON SCREEN: June 1, 2015
ARCHIVAL (NBC Nightly News, 6-1-15):
LESTER HOLT: Caitlyn Jenner, the woman formerly known as Bruce Jenner made her debut in a big way.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 4-26-15):
CHRISTINA KAHRL (MLB WRITER & EDITOR, ESPN): We’re achieving greater and greater visibility in society.
NARRATION: Transgender visibility might be moving from the margins into the mainstream, but what does it mean?
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER (EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, TRANS WOMEN OF COLOR COLLECTIVE)): As long as trans women of color are suffering and dying in the streets, I’m going to hold off a little bit on the celebrations.
ARCHIVAL (LOCAL 10, 10- 2-15):
NEWS REPORT: The eighth trans woman murdered in the U.S. this year.
ARCHIVAL (FROM RALLY):
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER: Every breath we take is an act of revolution.
NARRATION: And while transgender people helped kick off the fight for gay equality, progress in their fight for civil rights has been decades in the making.
ARCHIVAL (FROM RALLY):
PROTESTERS: Trans lives matter!
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN (CONTRIBUTING OPINION WRITER, THE NEW YORK TIMES): What’s shocking is not Bruce Jenner coming out, What’s shocking is the way people treat us.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 20/20, 4-24-15):
BRUCE JENNER: That female side is part of me.
NARRATION: When Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Jenner, told the story about being born with a body that didn’t match her internal sense of who she is, many people gained a better understanding of what it means to be a transgender person.
ARCHIVAL (GOOD MORNING AMERICA, 4-27-15):
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: Well, finally, people have woken up and realized that they know someone who’s transgender.
NARRATION: With an award winning TV show about a family patriarch changing gender….
JEFFREY TAMBOR (ACTOR): This is me.
NARRATION: … And transgender actress Laverne Cox gracing the cover of Time Magazine, you might think society has reached a new level of understanding. Activist Lourdes Ashley Hunter says you would be mistaken.
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER): The community that I work for is wondering how they’re going to eat tonight, wondering if they’re gong to have health coverage, wondering if they’re even going to make it back to the shelter where they’re staying. I don’t want people to watch “Transparent” and say, “This is the lives of trans people.” Because it is not.”
NARRATION: In 2002, Hunter came to New York City at age 26, on a one way bus ticket from Detroit with $20 in her pocket. She planned on doing community service work in exchange for a place to stay. But when she went to a women’s shelter, she was turned away for being transgender. Then, she says, things only got worse.
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER: And so I found myself homeless and ended up having to be assigned to a men’s shelter called Wards Island. Wards Island housed about a thousand men, and every night there was a fear for me. I couldn’t sleep. I could remember a time where I went to take a shower, and a man came into a shower and raped me. And he had a razor blade. And there was nothing that I can do. When I went to the shelter staff to tell them what had happened to me, they blamed me. They told me that I didn’t have to be there, that it was my choice to live this lifestyle that I was living. And so, for me, having to have those experiences is just a snapshot of what we have to go through, just to live. Most trans people would rather sleep under a overpass, or in the park, than have to deal with that type of violence.
NARRATION: Hunter runs the Trans Women of Color Collective – to provide leadership and raise awareness… not only about current events… but historical ones as well.
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER: We come from a rich legacy of revolutionary freedom fighters. Historically, those stories have been erased from the history books.
NARRATION: What history remembers is the 1969 Stonewall Inn uprising, the birthplace of today’s gay rights movement.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 6-25-89):
NEWS REPORT: A routine police raid on an unlicensed bar; The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village.
NARRATION: But what’s been largely forgotten is the role transgender women played in kicking off that movement. Activist Randy Wicker describes how there were restrictions against serving alcohol to homosexuals in the 1960s, and…
RANDY WICKER (ACTIVIST): Being in drag was illegal in those days. Dancing was permitted, although, of course, a white light would come on if a policeman came and then you had to stop dancing or find a member of the opposite sex to dance with. They really reached a point where they said, we’re tired of this.
NARRATION: And so the next time the police raided, things took a different turn.
NEWS REPORT: Suddenly the customers were giving the police a hard time.
RANDY WICKER: For the first time, the clientele sort of fought back.
NARRATION: The protests lasted for days, and transgender people were among the hundreds who took part.
RANDY WICKER: Transgender people were the most motivated to fight back because they had been abused the worst by the system. But also the second thing they had nothing to lose. For them it was a great opportunity to get up on the soapbox and really give it to society. What have you been doing to us, you know? You’re so wrong.
NARRATION: One of the early icons in the fight for transgender rights was the late Sylvia Rivera.
RANDY WICKER: Sylvia always thought of Stonewall as the beginning of her activism to make changes in the world.
ARCHIVAL (TRANSY HOUSE):
SYLVIA RIVERA: I was grateful to be there to see the revolution being born.
RANDY WICKER: She really was the mother of the transgender movement.
NARRATION: Sylvia was a Puerto Rican street drag queen who, along with her friend Marsha P. Johnson, created Star House, a refuge for transgender runaways.
RANDY WICKER: These kids were going to end up being just ground up by the system you know, not being able to find jobs, being forced into prostitution. Sylvia and Marsha had lived it so they knew what they were doing.
NARRATION: The survival instincts that made Rivera a fierce advocate were at odds, she said, with a gay rights movement that was trying to establish a more conventional identity.
ARCHIVAL (TRANSY HOUSE):
SYLIVA RIVERA: We do not fit into their role of Main Street gay men and women.
NARRATION: Rivera stormed the stage after being excluded from a 1973 gay rights rally in New York City’s Washington Square Park. She demanded that transgender people be recognized as part of the burgeoning lesbian and gay rights movement.
ARCHIVAL (LEGACY OF RESISTANCE):
SYLVIA RIVERA: You all tell me, go and hide my tail between my legs. I will not no longer put up with this shit.
RANDY WICKER: She was considered kind of disruptive and a loudmouth.
ARCHIVAL (RALLY IN WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK):
SYLVIA RIVERA: I believe in us getting our rights or else I would not be out there fighting for our rights.
NARRATION: Sylvia Rivera died in 2002. That same year, New York State passed a gay rights bill that despite Sylvia’s dying wishes did not include protections for trans people.
RANDY WICKER: Even on her deathbed, she fought for the rights of her people.
NARRATION: Across the country, in California three years before Stonewall, a similar uprising had taken place. It had mostly been forgotten, until historian Susan Stryker stumbled on an obscure San Francisco gay magazine.
SUSAN STRYKER (DIRECTOR, THE INSTITUTE FOR LGBT STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA): I found this beautiful document and I open it up and in the centerfold is this thing that says “on a hot August night in 1966, Gays rose up.”
NARRATION: At Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, a 24 hour diner popular with transgender women, another routine police sweep erupted in spontaneous violence. Stryker made a film about the uprising.
ARCHIVAL (DOCUMENTARY, “SCREAMING QUEENS”):
NARRATOR: A police car was destroyed, the corner newsstand was set on fire and years of pent up resentment boiled out into the night.
SUSAN STRYKER: It was the first collective militant action against police harassment that we know of in US history by trans and queer people. The cops thought they were dealing with people who were like the lowest rung of society.”
NARRATION: Decades of those kinds of attitudes have taken their toll on the estimated 700-thousand transgender people in the U.S. About half are believed to be trans men, says Nick Adams, who works for GLAAD, an LGBT advocacy organization. There isn’t a lot of statistical information about the community, but it’s a diverse group. Adams says the focus now should be on those most in need.
NICK ADAMS (DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS, TRANSGENDER MEDIA GLAAD): Visibility really needs to translate into legislative changes that make the world a safer place for those transgender people who are really struggling.
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER: When you don’t have resources it makes you more susceptible to physical violence. Because now you’re disposable. No one cares about you.
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: Whatever people think is shocking about transgender people’s lives is nothing compared to the injustice that we have to face, every freaking day.
NARRATION: Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan teaches in the English department at Barnard College and has written a best selling memoir.
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: To be trans means to be visible. If you walk out your door it can mean you are at risk for violence.
NARRATION: Many transgender people have been the targets of violent hate crimes. They’re also at greater risk for suicide – as was the case of an Ohio transgender teen.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NIGHTLY NEWS, 12-31-14):
NEWS REPORT: Alcorn’s suicide note ended with a plea. ‘My death needs to mean something. Fix society please.’
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: What’s shocking is that young people like Leelah Alcorn have to throw themselves in front of a truck, rather than live their lives.
NARRATION: Transgender teens and adults say they routinely endure discrimination in employment, housing, access to public bathrooms and government willingness to acknowledge their gender status in official documents.
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: People fire us for being who they are.
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER: The trans community has been left out of legislative advances by the gay community. Our gay and lesbian counterparts moved on, and are celebrating life in ways that we have yet to experience. The priority is not marriage. Not for black trans women.
NARRATION: And while momentum now may be on the upswing, the movement that began nearly half a century ago still has a lot of obstacles to overcome.
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER: Silvia would be pissed the hell off that we’re still fighting, and struggling, and we’re still dying.
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: We’ll know our work is done when everyone can live the life that they love with honor and dignity.