ARCHIVAL (CBS, THIS MORNING, 12-2-20):
NEWS ANCHOR: In what’s being viewed as a watershed moment for the trans community, the Oscar-nominated star of the movie "Juno" has come out as transgender.
NARRATION: Transgender and non binary visibility has moved from the margins into the mainstream.
ARCHIVAL (GOLDEN GLOBES, 1-10-23):
AWARDS PRESENTER: M.J. please stand up and let’s give her the ovation that she deserves to hear.
NARRATION: But beyond the headlines, what does this mean for the average transgender person?
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 10-14-19):
NEWS REPORT: Eighteen trans women of color killed this year alone.
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER-FOWLER: 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 celebration.
ARCHIVAL (FROM RALLY):
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER-FOWLER: Every breath a trans person takes is an act of revolution!
NARRATION: Transgender people helped kick off the fight for gay equality, but their fight for civil rights has been decades in the making.
ARCHIVAL (FROM RALLY):
PROTESTERS: Trans lives matter! Trans lives matter!
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: We don't want anything other than our humanity.
ARCHIVAL (ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, 4-19-21):
ELLIOT PAGE: Getting out of the shower and the towel’s around your waist and you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and you’re just like, there I am.
NARRATION: With celebrities like Elliot Page describing being born with a body that didn’t match his internal sense of who he is….
ARCHIVAL (ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, 3-16-21):
ENTERTAINMENT REPORT: Elliot Page is living his truth.
NARRATION:...and transgender actresses Laverne Cox, Michaela Jae Rodriguez, and Indya Moore being celebrated by their peers, you might think society has reached a new level of understanding.
But activist Lourdes Ashley Hunter-Fowler says you would be mistaken.
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER-FOWLER: The community that I work for is wondering how they’re going to eat tonight, wondering if they’re going to have health coverage, wondering if they’re even going to make it back to the shelter where they’re staying.
NARRATION: In 2002, Hunter-Fowler 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 and sent to a men’s shelter where she says she was sexually assaulted.
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER-FOWLER: 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-Fowler 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-FOWLER: 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: 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, you know, they 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.
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 been mostly forgotten, until historian Susan Stryker stumbled on an obscure San Francisco gay magazine.
SUSAN STRYKER: I found this beautiful document and I open it up and 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 U.S. history by trans and queer people. The cops thought they were dealing with people who were like the lowest rung of society.
NARRATION: That kind of attitude is something that trans people are still fighting against today.
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN (PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH, BARNARD COLLEGE): 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: Transgender people are disproportionately the targets of violent hate crimes. Between 2017 and 2021, the number of trans people murdered in the U.S. nearly doubled. Transgender people are also at greater risk for suicide.
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: Over the past decade, there have been hard-fought victories to protect the nation’s estimated 1.6 million transgender people, including a landmark 2020 decision from the Supreme Court.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS, 2020):
NEWS REPORT: A major decision on civil rights. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, that bans discrimination based on race, religion and sex, also bans job decisions because of sexual orientation and gender identity.
NARRATION: It was the kind of protection that trans people had spent decades fighting for, but it was soon followed by a cultural backlash…
ARCHIVAL (CPAC, 3-4-23):
MICHAEL KNOWLES: Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.
NARRATION:... and a rollback of some rights that had seemed like a given.
ARCHIVAL (CBC, 3-6-23):
NEWS ANCHOR: The transgender community in the United States is reeling as Republican lawmakers and prominent conservative figures try to curtail their rights. A record number of bills relating to health care, access to bathrooms, even drag performances.
NARRATION: Hundreds of bills restricting access to gender-affirming health care, sports teams and bathrooms were introduced in nearly every state in 2023. Not all of them will become law, though dozens have passed.
LOURDES ASHLEY HUNTER-FOWLER: When there are laws that make it legal to discriminate against trans people it has a visceral effect on our socioeconomic growth and development. 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 that our work is done when everyone can live the life they love with honor and dignity.