50 Years Since Stonewall, Transgender People Are Still Fighting for Their Lives
The 50 years since Stonewall—where trans people were on the frontline—has seen progress and backlash, with the Trump administration determined to pursue policies of discrimination.
Every big city, from San Francisco to Sydney, sees rainbow flags fly in June. This year, the colorful pride banners will stand in stark contrast to the sweeping media monsoon of black and white images commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York City.
Of the few color photographs and film that survived that historic week in June 1969 in Greenwich Village, you won’t find any powder blue, rose pink and stark white transgender flags. They weren’t even invented until 30 years later by trans woman Monica Helms, who is among the honorees at this year’s World Pride celebration. “Transgender” was a brand new term in 1969, and in the 50 years since, it’s become a household word, albeit one that still stirs controversy.
Modern society is embroiled in a debate over transgender inclusion in the U.S. military, in international sports and in public schools, which often devolves when conservative pundits and other opponents criticize gender identity as the newest fad, or a trend. But it’s been said nonbinary and gender nonconforming people have existed for millennia. What’s clear is that the rise of trans awareness is closely linked to the six days of riots that started in the early hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969.
Origins of ‘Trans’ and ‘Cis’
To the patrons of the original mob-owned Stonewall Inn, the people who now identify as trans were typically said to be in “drag” or labeled with the now disavowed word, “transvestite.” German physician Magnus Hirschfeld coined that term in 1910, along with “transsexual,” to describe a woman who had undergone genital surgery as part of a medical transition he pioneered. His operations on Lili Elbe were featured in the film, The Danish Girl.
In 1965, activist Virginia Prince supposedly first popularized the word “transgender.” Biologist Dana Leland Defosse is credited with being the first to use the term “cisgender” in 1994. Both "trans" and "cis" share Latin roots: "trans" means "across, beyond, or on the other side of" and "cis" means "on this side of." So, despite what some “cis” people believe, it is not a slur.
"It’s not meant to be dismissive, but rather descriptive," K.J. Rawson, associate professor of English and women's and gender studies at College of the Holy Cross, told journalist Sunnivie Brydum in 2015. “Cisgender” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary that same year.
Who Threw the First Brick?
There’s no authoritative record of who did what at The Stonewall Inn, although popular myth has long suggested Marsha P. Johnson and/or Sylvia Rivera were present and responsible for starting the uprising that followed the infamous police raid by a handful of New York City police officers. Natasha Schlaffer of Penn State wrote that Johnson was there celebrating her birthday, and Rivera was outside when she threw a bottle at police.
Rivera herself told Eric Marcus in his podcast that she was inside the inn when police conducted the raid, then later joined in with demonstrators outside. In June 2001, a year before her death, Rivera told that same story to an audience at NYC’s Lesbian and Gay Community Center, and added: “I have been given the credit for throwing the first Molotov cocktail by many historians but I always like to correct it; I threw the second one, I did not throw the first one!”
However, trans activist Miss Major Griffin-Gacy says she was at the Stonewall that first night and saw neither Johnson nor Rivera there. Historian Martin Duberman told a documentary producer in 2013 it was an anonymous “somebody [who] started to fight back;” many reports suggest butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie may have been that somebody, punching a cop who mistook her for a gay man and told her to “move along, faggot.” That, say reports, ignited the crowd to action.
Who’s right? Does it matter? As Chrysanthemum Tran wrote last year, “Stonewall and the movement it sparked was, at heart, a collective uprising — one that cannot be attributed to a single person or small group of people. To do so erases the efforts of many other people who fought for the cause of queer liberation.”
After Stonewall: The Emergence of Trans Activism
In 1973, the mostly white, middle-class crowd booed Rivera at the fourth annual Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally. “Y’all better quiet down!” she said in response.
Rivera had taken to the stage to rally support for transgender rights, protection for homeless youth, and bemoan the overwhelming financial burdens facing those wishing to undergo a surgical transition. And the longer she spoke, the few still booing turned to cheering.
Four years later, Renee Richards won the right to compete in the U.S. Open as a woman. The 1977 landmark decision by the State Supreme Court of New York established a legal benchmark that today is still being challenged by opponents of trans inclusion. Since then, however, Richards has come out in support of her friend, tennis legend Martina Navratilova, calling it “nuts” for trans women athletes to compete as women, unless they have gender confirmation surgery.
Before the internet, the only mass media format with information about trans issues was daytime television. Phil Donohue was the leader in bringing the topic into America’s living rooms, from hosting in a skirt and heels (three times) to introducing actual transgender teenagers as guests.
In 1993, Minnesota passed the first law in the U.S. outlawing discrimination against transgender people. Minneapolis was the first city. When Houston did the same thing in 2015, conservatives pulled out all the stops to reverse it, and then took it on the road to North Carolina for HB2 and other destinations.
To this day, challenges to trans existence are popping up in legislatures across the country, and the Trump administration has engaged all efforts to reverse Title IX guidance that was put in place during the Obama administration.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never heard a transgender rights case, but that will soon change. This fall, lawyers for the ACLU will argue to the Supreme Court that Aimee Stephens was discriminated against when she was fired by the Michigan funeral home where she worked after she came out as trans.
Gavin Grimm almost had his day at the high court in 2017, when he sued his Virginia high school to be allowed to use the boys’ rest room and locker room facilities. The justices sent his case back to the federal court, which will finally hear it in July.
On May 28, the Supreme Court declined to review a federal appeals court decision that upheld a Pennsylvania school district’s policy on transgender bathrooms and locker rooms. A boy sued Boyertown School District, claiming allowing trans boys to share those spaces violated his right to privacy. In rejecting his petition, the justices thwarted efforts by the Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom — which is labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — to reverse trans-affirming school policies.
And there is still the case of trans military service, opened to all in 2016 and now banned by President Trump. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to rule on lawsuits seeking to prevent the ban from going into effect, sent the case back to California, and delayed any final decision for a year or more.
Fame and Misfortune
Fast-forward 20 years to 2009, when Chaz Bono came out as a trans man. The adult child of Cher and Sonny Bono took part in a documentary detailing his transition in 2011, blazing a trail that would be followed by Caitlyn Jenner in 2015.
In between Jorgensen and Jenner, British actress and model Caroline Cossey was outed as trans by a British tabloid after she starred as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only in 1981. Author and scholar Jennifer Finney Boylan would come out in 2000, and five years later face a question only Oprah could ask: “So, you have a vagina?” Thomas Beatie made headlines and raised eyebrows in 2007 by becoming the “world’s first pregnant man” — then did it again, giving birth to a second child.
Among the other famous names who came out as trans are the late actress Alexis Arquette, America’s Next Top Model Isis King, Carmen Carrera of RuPaul’s Drag Race, directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski, Miss Canada 2012 Jenna Talackova, Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace and adult film actor, producer and public speaker Buck Angel.
Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox graced the cover of Time in June 2014, when the magazine declared America had reached the “Transgender Tipping Point.” She remains the only trans actor ever nominated for an Emmy Award.
That same year, Janet Mock published her bestselling memoir and androgynous model Andreja Pejić came out as a transgender woman.
Since Stonewall, Hollywood has become obsessed with telling gender-bending stories, although rarely to affirm authentic lives. The Crying Game, To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar, Mrs. Doubtfire, Ladybugs, Just One of the Guys, Tootsie, White Chicks, Switch, Nobody’s Perfect and even Mulan are just a few.
There have been positive exceptions, like The World According to Garp. The Bold and The Beautiful cast an actual trans actor, Scott Turner Schofield, in a recurring role. Survivor expertly handled the outing of contestant Zeke Smith during a tribal council, and Modern Family cast an actual trans child actor to play a trans child.
Amazon’s Transparent featured several supporting trans actors, but the lead role went to cisgender actor Jeffrey Tambor, who won Emmys for his performance but in 2018 was fired for inappropriate behavior.
Healthcare Setbacks and Success
In 1979, anti-trans crusader Dr. Paul McHugh, then the chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, ordered an end to what was once called “sex change operations” and closed its Gender Identity Clinic.
He was acting on a study that claimed transgender patients’ lives were no better off post-op. The study was heavily criticized for being “seriously flawed in its methods and statistics and draws unwarranted conclusions.”
The very next year, partly in response to that setback, the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association—now known as the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, or WPATH—created the first “Standards of Care,” currently in its seventh edition. 1980 was also the year the American Psychological Association added “gender identity disorder” to its third Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM-3.
The APA updated that diagnosis to remove the word “disorder” in 2013, renaming it “gender dysphoria.”
In 2015, an administrative judge in the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services ruled that Medicare must cover gender confirmation surgeries. Unfortunately, the current administration has proposed changing guidance to the medical community, so that healthcare providers could refuse to treat trans and other patients based on their personal religious beliefs.
Crime and Punishment
In 1993, Brandon Teena was raped and murdered, after acquaintances in his Nebraska hometown learned he was a trans man. His life and murder would become the subject of the 1999 Oscar-winning film starring Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry. His killers remain imprisoned, one for life, the other on death row.
In May 1995, the murder of Deborah Forte in Haverhill, Mass. left her nephew in shock. “To know that someone murdered her because she was trans. It was a nightmare,” said Ethan St. Pierre. He himself was just beginning his own transition, and started to lobby lawmakers for protections for the community. Forte’s killer pleaded to 2nd degree murder and received a life sentence with the possibility of parole.
No one was ever charged with the November 1998 murder of Rita Hester at her home in Boston. Advocate, author and journalist Gwendolyn Ann Smith decided something had to be done to call attention to crimes against trans people. She created and still curates an annual list that catalogues and commemorates the deaths of transgender individuals. For 20 years, the list has been read worldwide on November 20th, on what is called the International Transgender Day of Remembrance.
The 2018 list included hundreds of names, with at least 26 victims (the majority of them black) here in the U.S. So far in 2019, at least nine transgender women—all of whom were black—have been killed in the U.S., according to HRC. Monica Roberts' TransGriot blog is a vital resource, in its reporting on the murders of trans women.
Gwen Araujo of Newark, Calif. was 17 when four men murdered her in 2002. Her case is just one example of why advocates nationwide are pushing to enact gay/trans panic defense laws, to prevent defendants from claiming violence against trans and gay individuals can ever be justified.
The Stonewall Inn is on the list of National Landmarks—for now—and unlike 50 years ago, it is privately owned and operated. Instead of police raids and riots, the location is now a place to sip martinis and snap selfies.
Despite six days of rioting, not one person was killed there in 1969. And yet a lot of transgender blood, as well as tears, have been spilled in the 50 years that have elapsed since the Stonewall Riots. Five decades of fighting to be counted as equals.