Trans struggles 2018
New York, NY – I was recently watching the documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, about the second wave of feminism in the U.S. In it, one woman said one of the main lesson that she's learned is that no victory is permanent, and that really struck me. No victory is permanent. And while I was watching this documentary, news hit my social media that Chelsea Manning had announced that she was going to take her own life. And I thought again how no victory is permanent.
Chelsea Manning is a hero of mine. Not because she’s Trans but because she sacrificed her freedom and exposed the uglier sides of the war on terror. She was deeply in the closet but very aware of her transness and despite this she exposed the crimes of the U.S. war machine knowing she could be arrested and imprisoned for the rest of her life in a men’s prison.
And when we talk about Chelsea Manning and her struggles I have to reflect on the wider dynamics of mental health issues in the LGBT communities and in the Trans community in gender non-conforming communities in particular.
In my own life, I've known four women who killed themselves three of them were Trans. Two years ago, when a prominent Trans activist, friend and former coworker took her own life I felt myself going into a deep depression. I was drinking to numb myself. I was eating to forget.
Nearing 50 years old I realized I had no higher education. I'm a climbing guide and part-time day laborer on a construction site. Being a climbing guide is cool but I'm hardly an exceptional one. I started climbing when I was 38 years old. Far past any kind of peak that your average climbers going to have. And the lack of testosterone in my body means I often find myself taking a long time to recover from injuries. I often times have a lower level of energy than I think I should at my age.
I now work two, sometimes three jobs, often six or seven days a week. I work three jobs to keep myself busy, keep myself distracted but also because I almost lost my apartment due to failure to pay taxes. The state threatened to seize my apartment and start foreclosure procedures unless I signed a contract that requires me to work day after day in heat and cold, through injury and exhaustion to pay my bills. I am not alone.
The threat of foreclosure. Suicides in my community. My taste for self-destructive behaviors nearly dragged me down to a place with no return. I thought, no one’s really going to miss me. I’ve tried my best; I’ve been out for nearly 30 years and I am bone tired. Maybe I can be done and just rest now. And I feel such shame that I struggle to hold my shit together. That I can’t take care of my basic needs. That because of past abuse, transphobia, violence trauma and PTSD I am still a fucking hot mess.
I came out in 1989. My coming out was layered. I came out as dyke. I came out as a woman of Trans experience and I came out as leftist. These identities were and are intertwined within me. The AIDS crisis. Attacks on abortion clinics. Homophobia and transphobia in my home and community. The racist murder of Black men like Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst Brooklyn. These weren’t abstract struggles that I latched onto as I adopted the identity of a Trans social justice warrior. I felt this was a vision of a new me as I expressed my corner gender identity.
It was hard. It was so scary and I felt so alone. I had lost my community. The blue collar south Brooklyn Irish Italian stoops and street corners family-owned bars and broken down parks I grew up in were gone for me. I was effectively homeless at times – without job skills, without an education.
I remember being at Brooklyn College's library in early 1990s trying to learn about the French Revolution, feminism and Trans stuff for the first time ever, and honestly, this was also the first time I was trying to read – like really read (which says some stuff about my class education background).
And that’s when I learned about transphobia in feminism and it was this new pain and sadness. Another weight dragging me down. Then coming out and meeting a young stone butch who'd already been to some regional East Coast lesbian folk events that barred Trans women. Then trying to find out if it was okay for me to go to Lesbian Avengers meetings or WHAM (Women's Health Action Mobilization) meetings or bookstores and parties and social events. In sum I didn’t know if I was allowed to go anywhere in a community I desperately wanted to be a part of.
So when we talk about TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] today we need understand how transphobia was and is woven into our legacies. We need to understand the role of transphobia in Second Wave feminism, in much of the new left, in much of the lesbian and gay community.
But it was also such an important time in our community’s struggles. In particular AIDS. And in 1991 there was an AIDS forum held in New York where there were doctors, intellectuals, political operatives, and members of the gay community who would come together to discuss the state of the AIDS crisis. We were ten years into the crisis and 150,000 gay men – well side note here, they weren't all gay men, many of them, tens of thousands of them were Trans women – died. This is undocumented, this is not in the history books, but this is a fact 150,000 had died, and hundreds of thousands more were affected.
And the president of the U.S. refused to utter the word AIDS in public. We were year 12 into the third presidential term of right-wing Christian fascist Republicans running the government. And we were deep in the AIDS crisis.
At this meeting people spoke with absolute seriousness about fundraising strategies, medical developments and voting the Republicans out of office. For sure. But despite the urgency that everyone in the room felt it wasn't until Larry Kramer, the founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), spoke that I think it was clarified what was truly happening in America. Larry Kramer was the last speaker. After they announced his name he took a long pause, perhaps thinking of the 18 of his closest friends who had already died of AIDS.
And then he said, “Plague. We are in the middle of a fucking plague, 40 million infected people is a fucking plague, and nobody acts as if it is. Nobody in this hospital, nobody in this city, nobody in this world. 40 million people is a fucking plague. Nobody knows what to do next. Nobody knows what to do next.”
It's without a doubt that if it wasn't for the sacrifices of a generation of gay men who died of the AIDS crisis that we wouldn't be all sitting in this room today. It is without a doubt that if it wasn’t for the Trans women, cis women and men and Trans men who shut down Saint Patrick’s cathedral, broke into the FDA building and stole vital incriminating files, got arrested, protested, and staged die-ins that I would be here today.
All of the political activism that emerged in the 1990s and in the 2000s are rooted in the second wave of our modern Civil Rights Movement and that movement is fundamentally linked to our sexual liberation or need for healthcare and our willingness to put our bodies on the line and do whatever it takes direct up and to fight AIDS.
Today, in the first six months of 2018, more than ten Trans women have been murdered. Each year we mourn our dead in November on the Trans Day Of Remembrance. And it feels insufficient. Nobody knows what to do except mourn the dead.
It feels like we are still under siege and we are one Craig’s List date away from being dead. We are one Tinder date away from being dead. One paycheck away from being homeless. We are one more heartbreak away from breaking. Each year we lose so many to suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, depression and feeling lost and without love. I know these feelingss they often nip at me at night after I turn off the lights before I fall asleep.
After Chelsea Manning announced on Twitter that she was thinking of taking her own life, the Maryland police went to her home to do an alleged ‘wellness check.’ Four cops broke into her apartment, with their guns unholstered, in Bethesda, Maryland. Four cops. Guns drawn. Three of them were female officers. It’s on video. You can watch it. It is without a doubt that they were looking to kill her. Her freedom is a spit in the eye to imperialism and you can draw your own conclusions about the motivations of four Maryland police officers who are called to do a wellness check. What their values and morality are. Likely, it’s the same values as ICE separating families and disappearing immigrants. It’s the same ICE that killed Roxana Hernández, a Honduran Trans woman who died after five days in U.S. custody in facilities notorious for their freezing temperatures. Like the morality of the Supreme Court who side with the bigoted baker in Colorado. Let’s be clear – even Caitlyn Jenner now understands the stakes. But what do we do next?
And there is a through line of transphobia in our communities that needs to be understood. It leaves Trans women particularly, Trans women of color vulnerable to violence, unemployment, depression and drug addiction. And suicide. The LGBTQ communities are stratified by race and class. It’s not simply that cops and corporations march at Pride. It’s that across the U.S., in small towns and cities, our Trans communities are being left to fend for ourselves without any support save charity. Without any struggle except lighting a candle at a Trans Day of Remembreace event in November and without any love but a “you look fabulous” when we pass each other on the street. We need more. We need material support and survival institutions. We desperately need access to mental health care that is gender affirming. We need jobs and job training. And we need fighting organizations.
Our responses are going to be varied. There needs to be some trial and error. We need to stand together and we need to ready ourselves for what may be coming but we cannot throw out empathy and love for the entire LGBTQ community. We’ve been through so much. We have to take care of each other. Some of us are going to go all in on the midterm elections. Some may want to consider building the next ACT UP. I'm long past the point of suggesting that I know the answers to any of this but I really want to argue the fact that we need a multi-tactical approach to dealing with the crisis that we are facing today. And having a multi-tactical approach means not having all our eggs in one basket.
I don’t want to lose any more of my community. Thank you.
This article is a modified version of a speech given at the “State of Trans 2018” Kingston LGBTQ Center in Kingston, NY in early June.