Content warning: this post contains mentions of suicide, assault.
“Hey hey! Ho ho! Homophobia’s got to go!”.
She stood in front of the crowd roaring into a megaphone in a pair of black boots, her messy bleached hair swept to the side. It was years ago I first saw this local trans activist speak at a marriage equality rally. I was struck by her passion for revolution and her fight, especially for someone so young. She was the co-founder of the equal love campaign in my city. But she would never see its ultimate success.
*A* was known in the community for her fierce activism. She was also homeless. Sometimes I would see her hanging around the train station. She was refused crisis accommodation by local service providers because she was a transgender woman. Yet despite the hardships she faced, she was active in campaigns not only for marriage equality, but also refugee rights.
Then one day I heard that she had died. Suicide. She was twenty years old. There are no words for the loss.
During the marriage equality referendum in Australia in 2017, much of the alarmist rhetoric spread by conservatives (I’m looking at you Tony Abbott) was based on fears about gender, rather than sexuality. Slurs about ‘boys in dresses’ and ‘gender fluidity being taught in classrooms’ were circulated as if these things were some kind of threat to the wider population. The debate ultimately used trans people as a scape goat for social anxieties about gender, making a community of already vulnerable people highly visible.
Statistics show that in Queensland, for instance:
- Nearly half of transgender people have been assaulted
- One in three trans women have been assaulted with a weapon
The vulnerability experienced by the transgender community is not inherent in being trans, just as it isn’t inherent in being L, G or B. Rather, it comes from the hostility and stigma aimed at these people by their families and communities.
To identify as a trans woman is, in a sense, to reject masculinity. To reject the social, economic and political privilege afforded to men. This is considered by some, in particular men, to be an affront to masculinity. The resulting violence inflicted on trans people is unconscionable and indefensible.
The Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marcia P Johnston tells the story of the (unexplained/ barely investigated) death of one of the original Stonewall activists. The film also tells the story of Marcia’s close friend Silvia Rivera, a trans activist who fought for the rights of her community; employment, housing, education and to live free from violence. She was a firebrand activist who centered the voices of the most vulnerable including homeless youth and prison inmates. It’s devastating to think that today, nearly 40 years later, many trans people still struggle to achieve those same basic human rights.
Sylvia Rivera clashed with feminists who didn’t view trans women as women. She was against marriage equality, which she viewed as assimilationist and unnecessary to the liberation of LGBT people. As the movement gained traction, the wider LGBT community distanced themselves from the more radical and visible trans folk, in a bid to seem more palatable to the mainstream. This broke Sylvia’s heart. After the death of her friend Marcia she descended into depression and suicide attempts, e she lived on the streets for many years. Sylvie Rivera did eventually rebuild her life, and it is said she was still negotiating rights for the trans community lying in her deathbed.
Although this is not the story of every trans person, it is still the story of far too many. How many activists will live and die, fighting for the rights of trans people to live free from violence and to reach their full potential as human beings?
Increased visibility means increased risk of violence. This has been the case for the LGBT community during, and in the aftermath of the marriage equality debacle.
Let’s remember Sylvia Rivera and young people like *A*, for their fierce dedication to justice and equality. We must make sure they do not pay the price for our rights. Leave no one behind.