On Stonewall anniversary, transgender activists remind LGBT movement of its roots


Like many such celebrations, the Twin Cities Pride celebration takes place in June, in part to commemorate New York City’s Stonewall Inn uprising, which began in June 1969, and is widely recognized as a galvanizing event in the history of sexual rights organizing.

But as mainstream acceptance grows for gays and lesbians – particularly those who conform to relatively traditional gender roles – what many forget, says Tara Yule, owner of Pi Bar and Restaurant, is that Stonewall and similar struggles were started largely by poor, urban transgender people of color. In fact, she adds, much of the police harassment at the Stonewall Inn that ultimately motivated bar-goers to fight back was justified by an ordinance regulating gender-appropriate clothing.

First popularized in the United States in the 1970s, transgender is an umbrella term used by a wide variety of people who, for various reasons, feel the gender assigned to them at birth is no longer adequate to describe who they are. Some may identify as “female-to-male” or “male-to-female,” transitioning from one gender to “the other,” but many others do not. For many people, gender isn’t an either-or proposition.

“I like the word genderqueer to describe my gender identity for the same reasons I use queer to describe my sexuality – it has a radical progressive edge, and it doesn’t indicate a binary,” says activist Max Gries, who co-chairs the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition (MTHC) and serves on the University of Minnesota Transgender Commission.

As a genderqueer person, Gries says using public restrooms can be tricky, and even dangerous. In transgender communities, the term “tranny bladder” is used to refer to having to “hold it” for long periods of time when unisex or family restrooms are unavailable. At best, this is uncomfortable; at worst, it can lead to health problems.

The Transgender Commission is working to develop more gender-inclusive accommodations at the University among other projects, while resources like MTHC’s “Safe Restrooms Project” and the web site safe2pee.org share knowledge of existing safe space.

In today’s political context, transgender and genderqueer activists and allies are contesting exclusion within lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. While Minnesota became the first state to pass a transgender-inclusive LGBT civil rights bill in 1993, even efforts to outlaw employment discrimination against LGBT people remain stalled at the federal level.

In the name of making incremental gains, some gay rights advocates, including the major lobbying group the Human Rights Campaign, supported the outright removal of transgender people from a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the most recent congressional session. This controversial move provoked widespread anger in transgender and allied communities, and drew flak from other LGBT organizations.

Coupled with the mainstreaming of same-sex marriage, transgender activism makes this a pivotal moment in queer politics, Yule says.

“I really believe the mainstream gay and lesbian movement is probably going to split itself from the transgender movement. Either that, or the mainstream gay and lesbian movement is going to realign itself and be more accepting.”

During last year’s Twin Cities Pride celebration, U of M undergrad and Transgender Commission co-coordinator Remy Corso and others formed a group called the Twin Cities Trans March Collective. The collective organized a march to promote transgender visibility and to critique the increasing corporatization of the festival, and the exclusion of transgender people from the mainstream LGBT movement.

In spite of reported police harassment, the march drew over 200 people, and ended with a protest across the street from the Gay 90s, a gay bar criticized by activists for its transgender-exclusive bathroom practices. Corso says the march and the annual Trans Community Health and Wellness Fair, which MTHC began putting on last year, mark the largest known recent convergences of trans-identified and allied people in the Twin Cities.

Activist, scholar, and drag performer Esmé Rodríguez (Photo by Trish O’Donnell Photography 2008)

This year’s march, which Corso describes as “fighting Pride and part of Pride at the same time,” will begin with a gathering Saturday, June 28, in Stevens Square Park (1801 Stevens Ave. S, Minneapolis) at noon. The march will begin at 1 p.m., route TBA. Pi Bar and Restaurant (2532 25th Ave S., Minneapolis) will host an all ages afterparty beginning at 4 p.m.

Among those headlining the after party is activist, scholar, and drag performer Esmé Rodríguez. Rodríguez says the protest and the celebration are important politically and personally, and that drag can function not only as performance art, but as an educational experience.

“I think that the idea of pairing the actual ‘march’ with musical and drag performance at the Pi after party reveals even more innovative methods of expressing gender’s multiple facets. For me, being a drag queen is both an art and an identity in which I, along with colleagues and audiences, push past the fixed positions of binary gender roles and behavior, in an effort to reconfigure antiquated notions of identity politics.”

David Seitz is a student at Macalester College, and a freelance writer.