what we remember is what shapes our future: trans women of colour fought for queer equality

As Pride month this year falls on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we must honour the trans people of colour that fought for the rights we enjoy today.

by Mahoro Seward
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20 June 2019, 7:00am

“Who threw the first brick at Stonewall?” is a question that anyone with even a faint interest in queer history will have some form of an answer to. As Shane O’Neill explains in an article for The New York Times, the question has become an act of “tongue-in-cheek diva worship”; or, when responded to with names like “Madonna!” or “Scarlett Johansson!”, as a much needed “satirical takedown of straight celebrities who overplay their hand trying to be queer allies.”

On the rare occasions that the queers do attempt to offer a serious answer to the riddle, you’re more likely to hear the names of pioneering trans activists like Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera honoured as the ones that cast the first stone -- sorry, brick -- on the night of 28 June 1969. Admittedly, there’s little hard evidence to support these claims -- Marsha herself stated that she didn’t actually turn up at the Stonewall Inn until after the riots had already begun, while Sylvia was always quick to correct anyone who credited her with the act, stating that she in fact threw the second molotov cocktail.

Indeed, the validity of any account stating exactly who threw the first brick is dubious, but the factual correctness of the stories we choose to retell isn’t necessarily what’s important. When we place Marsha and Sylvia in Stonewall’s starring roles, we recognise and celebrate that brown and black trans women, a demographic sat at the heart of a cruel Venn diagram of marginalisation and oppression, drove the movement for queer liberation forward, both on that night and beyond.

It’s why, 50 years on, it’s so troubling that the Stonewall narrative has so narrowly focused on the testimonies of cisgendered, white gay men. These testimonies might be critical to our community identity -- and, of course, there’s the fact that the majority of participants in the riots were indeed white gay men -- but these narratives are often written without the inclusion of those of brown and black trans folk, creating an environment in which the erasure of their struggles is given tacit approval.

"When we place Marsha and Sylvia in Stonewall’s starring roles, we recognise and celebrate that brown and black trans women, a demographic sat at the heart of a cruel Venn diagram of marginalisation and oppression, both on that night and beyond."

Take Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film Stonewall, which sees the fictional Danny Winters, a blue-jeans-white-shirt Midwestern twink as forgettable as his name, throw the fated brick. “It’s just a film,” many might say, “a Broadway-ready fiction of events made palatable for a mass audience.” But that’s just the point. When we perpetuate a narrative of queer liberation that relegates those who had the most to fight for into supporting roles, we are implicitly saying that the brown and black trans folk that fought then, and those who continue to fight today, aren’t worthy of celebration, acceptance and love. And it’s this cultural climate of erasure that allows people like Emmerich to publicly justify their actions with statements like: “Stonewall was a white event, let’s be honest.”

Of course, the progress made by the global queer community towards equality can’t be undervalued. Still, it’s worth noting that the spaces in which this equality is most enjoyed are typically spaces in which social privilege prevails. By casting the Stonewall narrative exclusively within the parameters of that privilege, not only do we wipe out the trans bodies of colour that stood on the frontline from that night and its legacy, but we also give a tacit thumbs up to the structural and physical violence trans bodies experienced then and ever since. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use events like Pride as opportunities to celebrate the progress that has allowed us to celebrate ourselves and our communities so openly. Those rights are hard-won. But they count for little if we can’t vocally recognise the battle for the equal right to existence that trans people of colour face. And they count for even less if we can’t commit to fighting until that battle is won.

If you believe Pride should solely be about celebrating, that’s fine! Brown and black trans communities have contributed so much worthy of celebrating to our everyday cultural fabric. Sure, there’s Pose, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Tangerine… the list goes on, but beyond these important (though not entirely unproblematic -- I’m looking at you, Ru), high-profile representations, the influence of these communities permeates as deeply as the music we listen to, and the language we speak. And yet, I am willing to wager my (admittedly empty) savings account that neither Tati, James Charles, nor Jeffree Star would be able to offer much of an insight into where the phrase ‘spilling the tea’ comes from.

Beyond showing support for a popular TV show, what’s needed is a solemn recognition of the involuntary sacrifices made by black and brown trans folk in the struggle for the relative equality so many of us are able to enjoy, and the involuntary sacrifices they continue to make today under the epidemic of violence and murder they currently experience. But what’s also needed is a proud acknowledgement of the full contribution of trans communities of colour to culture as we know it, and of the fact that their liberation is an essential component of the social environment we should be striving for.

On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, at Pride and in our everyday lives, let’s be sure that the history we celebrate is one that paves the way for a future we want to see. History may indeed be written by the victors, but it’s now time to ensure that the triumphs of our brown and black trans siblings are written in its books too.