Black Trans Lives Matter: Shared history of fighting for equality

Following the end of Pride month, which took place against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, and the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots (28 June), Susie O’Connor looks back at the trans people of colour activists influential in the early LGBTQ+ rights movement.

Black Lives Matter protest in London
Black Lives Matter protest in London

Black Lives Matter protest in London

Susie O'Connor

"You never completely have your rights, one person, until you all have your rights." – Martha P Johnson

Over recent weeks we have seen repeated images of violence against black Americans. People around the world are shocked, grieving and angry at the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor (to name just a few). As Pride and the Black Lives Matter movement coincide in 2020, it's worth remembering that the LGBTQ+ rights movement owes its very being to an uprising in which people of colour played a leading role. So in marking Pride Month (1-30 June), let’s remember our shared history of confronting violence and discrimination.

Susie O'Connor
Susie O'Connor

We’ve all heard of Stonewall. The violence that took place on New York’s Christopher Street 1969 is considered by many to mark the start of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. While there is debate about who exactly threw the shot glass/brick/first punch that sparked the uprising, there is no doubt that Marsha P Johnson, a black, queer, community activist, trans pioneer and drag artist played a leading role and was among those on the frontline of the pushback against the police. Years later, she told historian Eric Marcus: “We were just saying ‘no more police brutality’ and ‘we had enough of police harassment in the [Greenwich] Village.”

After Stonewall, Marsha and her good friend Sylvia Rivera, a queer Latina trans woman, emerged as leaders in the blossoming LGBTQ+ liberation movement. They continued to work as activists, helping establish Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group that supported and empowered gay, trans, and gender-fluid youth. They organised community action including one of America’s first safe spaces for LGBT and homeless youth. With her dazzling smile, fabulous outfits and trademark flower headpieces, Marsha would continue to work as an advocate for sex workers, prisoners and people affected by HIV/AIDS until her death in murky circumstances in 1992. 

Sylvia too devoted her life to working for the victims of transphobia, racism and misogyny. She is particularly remembered for her speech at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day. Her words in the face of hostility from elements of her own LGBT community showed her characteristic defiance.

“I will no longer put up with this shit,” she said. “I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment. For gay liberation.” 

To mark her death in 2002, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was founded to work for all people to be free to self-determine gender identity and expression free from harassment, discrimination or violence.

Sadly, this work still needs to go on. Already in 2020 at least 12 trans or gender non-conforming people have been violently killed in the US. While the details of the cases differ, it is clear that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of colour – particularly Black transgender women – and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and unchecked access to guns conspire to deprive them of employment, housing, healthcare and their lives.

Recent trans victims of colour to be violently killed in the US include trans women of colour, Nina Pop, stabbed to death in Missouri, and Monika Diamond, shot dead in North Carolina, bringing to at least twelve the number of violent deaths this year of trans or gender non-conforming people in the US. Large Black Trans Lives Matter marches took place in New York, Chicago, San Antonio and Boston to call for an end to the slaughter.

Here in the UK, queer people of colour are at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement.  Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah, aka Lady Phyll (due to her refusal of an MBE to protest anti-LGBTQ+ laws put in place under the British Empire) co-founded UK Black Pride in 2005. It is Europe’s largest celebration for LGBTQ+ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent, representing and advocating to ensure their experiences are acknowledged, amplified and understood. Lady Phyll is also executive director of Kaleidoscope Trust, which supports LGBT activists around the world, and has an extensive history of campaigning for workplace equality through the TUC’s race relations committee. Lady Phyll recently said: "We can’t go another five years, another 10 years, another 20 years, with our lives not mattering”.

How to be an ally

If you’re not a person of colour and you’re wondering: "How can I be an ally?" The first step is to educate yourself. Here's a few suggestions: