What Trans History Can Teach Student Activists

I’m wrapping up my first semester at Ohio State University where I am getting my PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  The occasion has me thinking about what it means to be a transgender person and an activist working and studying on a college campus.

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Image description: Marsha P. Johnson hands out flyers at STAR protest in front of NYU.  She is wearing a fur coat and standing next to another protestor who holds a sign reading “Come Out of Your Ivory Towers and into the Street.”

We actually know a lot about Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson’s relationships with college students. Rivera and Johnson’s worked closely with students at NYU to organize gay dances because they needed to raise money to provide housing and legal support for poor transgender women of color.  When the administration tried shut down these dances, Rivera and Johnson participated in a student sit-in, along with other homeless queer and trans people.  Initially, Rivera, Johnson and the rest of the street queens hung out together, separate from the university students, but slowly the two groups got to know one another. The relationships needed for a powerful movement began to form.

Soon, the university called the police. The NYU students caved quickly, but the street queens stood strong.  The cops had to carry Rivera out while she screamed “gay power.”

After these sit-ins, Rivera and Johnson started STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Through STAR, trans women of color took care of each other and demanded an end to capitalism, racism, and police harassment. Rivera and Johnson wrote, “The pigs are not helping the people who are being robbed on the streets and being murdered.  How can they when they’re too busy trying to bust a homosexual over the head.  Or they’re too busy trying to catch someone hustling so they can arrest them… So again we ask you, do you want pig power or gay power? …You people run if you want to, but we’re tired of running.  We intend to fight for our rights until we get them.”

NYU continued to be a target of protests lead by STAR and other LGBT youth liberation organizations.  In particular, they decried abuses at NYU’s Bellevue Hospital, an institution where both Rivera and Johnson had been locked up in the psychiatric ward.  STAR demanded that Bellevue Hospital stop shock therapy torture and other interventions aimed at “curing” LGBT people of their gender expression and sexuality.  They also demanded that Bellevue Hospital come under “community control” so that medical resources, including abortion services and therapy and counseling, be made freely available to the LGBT community and other people who needed them.  They saw Bellevue Hospital and NYU resources as rightfully belonging to the entire community.

Today, there’s a lot of talk about honoring the legacy of Stonewall on college campuses.  If students, staff, and faculty are serious about doing so, we should place our school’s resources in the hands of Black and Latinx transgender women.   We should do so without an agenda and stand with them when they are attacked.  That is the legacy of Stonewall.

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