We Owe It To Our Trans*cestors: The Spirit of Stonewall is Revolutionary
“I was a radical, a revolutionist. I am still a revolutionist. I was proud to make the road and help change laws and what-not. I was very proud of doing that and proud of what I’m still doing, no matter what it takes.” - Silvia Rivera
Nghia waving the trans flag at the top of Dolores Park for SF Pride 2020
These past two months have been heavy on the heart and soul for many people, especially Black and Brown folks in the United States of America; we have been protesting and struggling to topple a brutal system. It was only two months ago, after being on lockdown since March 10th because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, that George Floyd - yet another unarmed Black man - was publicly executed by police officers Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, live on someone’s phone camera for anyone in the world to see. That same week, a Black transgender man named Tony McDade was attacked by transphobes and then shot and killed in his own apartment by a police officer. The public execution of George Floyd ignited the people of Minneapolis to rise up against the police state and take justice for an unarmed Black man who lost his life over an allegedly “fake” 20 dollar bill.
For weeks, cities across the United States have taken to the streets to resist police violence and brutality; other cities around the world have also risen up to show their solidarity with their American siblings. One city close to my heart, Portland, Oregon has been protesting for 60 consecutive days and nights. In response to this solidarity, the federal administration has sent agents to the scene, agents most likely privately contracted by Erik Prince, a figure known for his dealings with the military industrial complex through his mercenary and intelligence groups assisting in US occupations all over the world. We are seeing the connections between our oppressors, connections that can only be dismantled by our own collective solidarity. And so, yet again, the People received the Call for Divine Justice - we hit the streets and looked to do whatever we could within our hands and capacity to destroy this old world and build a new one in its place.
We are at the beginning stages of a pivotal moment in history, we are building a world in which the binary is broken into a million little pieces. The world that we are building makes room for organizing, as Audre Lorde said, through difference. It’s a world in which difference is not policed by normative power structures but by an ethic of care for our world and for each other. With the current state of the world, this transformation is ever more urgent. To say 2020 has been one hell of a roller coaster is an understatement; each month of 2020 has felt like a decade with a constant flood of large-scale events: war, famine, pandemic, civil unrest, genocide, just to name a few. There is no going back to “normal” and we have to acknowledge that.
This is why it is important for us, the transgender community, to continue to follow and uplift the work of our revolutionary ancestors, to take the words of Silvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy into all of the spaces we organize, haunt, and occupy. With everything that has happened in the past decade, we owe it to ourselves to topple this system and create something new and more equitable for us all.
To do that, we cannot use the Master’s oppressive tools, to repeat the cycle of co-optation from yesteryear. We have to recognize that there is no reforming and working to bring back the way things were. The way things were have been deadly to our community, particularly at their most vulnerable intersections. The status quo has killed Black and Brown trans folks, it has put many ecological communities on the brink of extinction, and has damaged the world we live in for generations to come. We must look within ourselves and harvest the Revolutionary Spirit that this capitalist, neoliberal consumer society tried to erase and use it to build another world.
Jennicet and Nghia at Dolores Park preparing to March at the SF Pride 2020
You may have heard the phrase, “Stonewall was a Riot” tossed around every summer as a reminder to newer generations that our Queer history is constantly under attack by a gentrification of the mind. This gentrification, this erasure of our historical struggle, is an attempt to eliminate the connection between our past Revolutionary Spirit and the struggle we continue to face today. I’ve experienced this erasure myself. As a queer youth born in the 1980s I constantly struggled against this organized forgetting of our modern Queer history. I grew up in the midst of the Clinton years and the AIDS pandemic of the late 80s and early 90s; I was a visibly queer kid in the suburban city east of Downtown Los Angeles and I was constantly policed by my own community of very devout, but hypocritical, neighbors who hated my queerness so much that they showed it through verbal and physical assaults. Through all of this trauma, I didn’t have access to my own queer history and ancestors because there weren’t any queer folks around. At 16 years old, I finally broke free of my self-policed mentality, it was this step out of the closet that made me acknowledge that cis-hetereonormative people hated queer people - but in particular they abhorred queerness that was loud and proud of itself and its history of struggle.
Because of this realization I began to look for elders in West Hollywood - or any LGBT spaces in LA County - and much to my confusion, I only found gay and lesbian history in these places. I didn’t know that transgender history existed, though I saw trans elders on occasion. It wasn’t until organizations such as APAIT (Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team) and Gender Justice LA pulled me into their history program that I began to learn about Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. I learned about what happened the night they fought back against the police and organized around their political power.
Since the day I came out of the closet (which was basically acknowledging my own queerness and transness because everyone else knew it), I have been on a journey to understand how queer people have simultaneously existed within and been hidden by this society. I learned that our history of resistance and struggle is ongoing, because this system that we currently live in is adamant in our erasure and extermination. This is a world built for others, for rich men, for white men, for straight and cis men.
To unearth the history of queer people in this nation, of queer people in this world, has been a long journey for me. It’s a project I’m sure that it will continue long past my time on this earth. This is why I choose to be a part of an organization like Gender Health Center, an organization that helps uplift the history of Black, Brown, Trans and Queer liberation struggles.
My promise to my community is that I will labor and toil to continue unearthing our historical queer and trans paths while building the foundations for newer generations to come. I don’t ever want a queer or trans child to be isolated in a space without knowing that there are so many great, beautiful, legendary, hilarious, full of life humans like them out in the world. I want that child to know that there will always be a space for them in this world.
This is why I fight, this is why Marsha, Silvia, Miss Major, and so many others have invoked a revolutionary spirit in me; I carry their words within me, to pass on to those who follow me in the struggle. I urge y’all to join me and carry on the work of our elders, to build a better world for the youth who follow us.
By Nghia Nguyen
Editors: BB, Ilma’Shallah Aleem Syed