Friday, January 31, 2014

Trans Lives Matter, Trans Power Now: From Amanda Milan to Islan Nettles

A cold day for a rally, trans, AIDS, and queer activists descended on One Police Plaza to declare that trans lives matter.  The days of trans people being thrown out of SRO hotel windows, beaten on 148th street, or discarded in Times Square – have to stop.  Not one more declared the crowd.  Not one more.

“We will not be silent, we will not stand by while trans youth are murdered without recourse,” says Lourdes Ashley Hunter, an organizer and founder of Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC) of Greater New York.  “The NYPD and the District Attorney’s  office must be held accountable for their biased and botched  investigation.”

Earlier in the week, a post by Terry Roethlein on the ACT UP New York facebook announced:

Actions speak louder than words and I have been in motion NON-STOP seeking Justice for Islan Nettles for 5 months!
Today the Community will ROAR for Justice!!! How SWEET the sound!!
Luz's Daughter Cares message at tomorrows protest is:
One Police Plaza at 4:00pm SHARP

HOW MANY MORE ??? NOT ONE MORE !!! asked Terry Roethlein

Jim Eigo posted:
Today I will be rallying with ACT UP/NY & a coalition of community groups to say: THE LIVES OF TRANSGENDER WOMEN MATTER! I hope you can attend.

Terry Roethlein wrote up an announcement for the event:

Transgender woman Islan Nettles was savagely beaten on August 17th, 2013 in Harlem and died from her injuries five days later. The case has gained national notice but justice is, yet again, elusive, for another trans* woman of color.

Let's change that.

Protest to demand that Police Chief William Bratton and the NYPD explain failures to fully question witnesses, gather evidence, check the victim's condition, and retain surveillance footage for FIVE DAYS!!!

Protest to demand the NYPD explain why the mother of the assailant seen attacking Nettles was not charged with obstruction of justice, even after she coerced a falsified confession from another inebriated individual!!!

Protest to demand that D.A. Cyrus Vance update the community fully on its 2-month homicide investigation!!!

Protest to demand that Bratton and the NYPD audit all precincts for their capacity to conduct unbiased investigations of all transphobic crimes!!!

This protest was organized by a coalition of social justice groups, including:

The Transgender/Cisgender Coalition
Luz's Daughter Cares
TWOCC: Trans Women of Color Collective of Greater NY
STARR: Strategic Trans Allliance for Radical Reform
LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent 


Thursday, January 30th 2014, 4 p.m.
One Police Plaza, Manhattan 

 I rode my bike across the Brooklyn Bridge, over the cold East River to One Police Plaza.  Listening to the crowd when I arrived, I recalled walking through there for Occupy events and even getting out of jail after the Matthew Shepard political funeral, some fifteen years prior. 

The screams from ACT UP echoed through the air and the plaza filled with trans activists, supporters with lipstick, many carrying signs.

Andy Velez lead the crowd in chants. 

Speaker after speakers took their turn, as police watched silently.

“Having survived a violent assault, I know what a struggle it can be to get justice in NY.  Not one of my attackers was charged – and I was almost treated by the police as though I deserved to be assaulted,” explained Madison St Claire, of TWOCC.  “Now the same thing is happening in the Island Nettled case – and that sends the wrong message: that trans women of color are disposable- that our lives don’t matter,”  says Madison.  “Today, we send our own message NYPD  & DA’s office: TRANS LIVES MATTER!”

My friends Venus and Michael and Jim were there.

Carl Siciliano, of the AliForney center, stood up, recalling four Ali Forney center participants who have lost their lives to anti trans violence in the last fifteen years, including Forney.

Ali Forney

Comparing Islan’s experience on 148th street, where she was killed right outside a police precinct office with that of the kids of the former Mayor, he wondered, if it was Bloomberg's kids the police would be doing something about it.

He recalled Sylvia screams of "trans power" in Washington Square in 1973 when she had to fight for the microphone to speak.  The crowd echoed her words.  Trans power. Listening, I recalled
recalled Rivera’s rally for

Amanda Milan, a trans woman who suffered a similar fate as Islan some fourteen years ago.  (see Amanda Milan and story below).

Rivera and Marsha P Johnson on the streets fighting for power for the people. 

My friend Venus, an Occupier who was punched in the face by a member of the NYPDduring Occupy, walked over to say hello.

Top, Venus today and lower pictures of the scene of the police violence two years ago.
And Carl-and-Wayne-from VOCAL showing solidarity. 

Trans lives matter screamed the crowd. Not one more death.

Melissa Schlarz, the next speaker, had been at the Milan rally fifteen years earlier.  The story today felt the same and Milan’s story all those years ago.

I wrote this about Milan back in the summer of 2000.

Amanda Milan and the Rebirth of the Street Trans Action Revolutionaries
                                                                                    by Benjamin Shepard in
From ACT UP to the WTO, 2002.

            We met in the park across from Stonewall Inn (in July of 2000). A group of club kids with Afros, guys with loop earrings, high heels, and May West sunglasses lead the crowd as we stepped off:

“One: we are the people!!!!!!!!
Two: a little bit louder!!!!!!!!!
Three: we want justice for Amanda!!!!!!!!!” 

we chanted over and over again.  The infectious chant carried us most of the way from the Sheridan Square downtown to 100 Center Street, where Amanda Milan’s trial was being held the following day.  Milan, a Transgender woman, had been murdered in Times Square the previous June 20, 2000, days before Manhattan Pride March. Shortly after her death Stonewall legend Sylvia Rivera’s had successfully reformed her Street Trans Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to make sure Milan was not forgotten.   In the year since her death, Milan’s memory has come to symbolize the unfinished business of a GLBT movement, which has all too often left transgender people at the back of the bus. Once at Center Street, we began reading names of transgender folks who, like Amanda, had been lost, some to bigots' violence, some whereabouts unknown, others to drug over doses, and others casualties of a subterranean black market economy where so many transgenderred people find themselves, at the margins of our cities and history. 
“It was believed for centuries that it was necessary to hide sexual matters because they were shameful,” Michel Foucault (1980, x-xi) pontificated on the question of gender insubordination and its implications for a repressive culture. “We now know that it is sex itself which hides the most secret parts of the individual: the structure of his fantasies, the roots of his ego, the forms of his relationship to reality.  At the bottom of sex there is truth.”  Certainly, sex structured the form of Amanda’s relationship to reality. Rumors abounded about Milan’s death.  In the weeks after, the papers ambiguously dropped hints about a “transpanic….”
Melissa Schlarz, a long time trans advocate, had seen it before: “My time hanging around the Times Square transsexual scene goes back to the mid-1970’s.  Amanda Milan was just the latest.  People from all over the world, transgenders, come to Times Square.  Everyone knows that’s where something is happening.  In the past it was always the West Village or Times Square.  What exactly was she doing?  The trial is coming, we’ll have to wait and see.” 
According to the Audre Lorde Project, 25-year old Amanda Milan was brutally murdered in front of Show World, a former porn house, where many trannies worked in the Times Square neighborhood of Manhattan.  Milan was an African American woman of Transgender experience.  According to accounts, two men began to verbally assault Amanda Milan in front of the Port Authority terminal, with one man exclaiming, "I know you're really a man"....  While Amanda tried to get into a cab, eyewitnesses say that one man handed the other a knife that was used to slash her throat.  She bled to death on the way to St. Vincent's Hospital.  Some reports indicated that several onlookers laughed and applauded as the assault took place.
Transsexuals have been dying in New York for years.  What makes the Milan case significant is that, until Amanda Milan no one responded.  Transgender folks, loosely defined as moving from one gender to another, have always been misunderstood and quite often marginalized.  “They have always been people of the shadows, people of the night,” Schlarz explained, “I knew a lot of friends when I was younger, they never went out during the daytime.  It was a life filled around the night.  Transsexual people are still illegal in New York State.  There is no protection.  You can be thrown out of your home, thrown out of your job, you can be denied healthcare.  So we’re fighting for basic civil rights now.  I’ve known lots of people who died of drug overdoses, people who died of violence, people who drank themselves to death, and some of them I remember very vividly.  So I would like this to be about her and about us.  I did not know her but I’ve known hundreds of girls like her.” 
When Rivera heard about Milan, she told herself this time it was going to be different.  This was not going to be an unresolved murder.  So she made sure, “the girls came out.”  In the days before the demo, Bob Kohler, Sylvia Rivera’s long time friend, put out the call for the pre-trial demo: “I know you all realize how important this action is and if you multiply that by 100 you come close to what it means to the Trannie community.  For what it's worth, it is also extremely important to me -- I have been involved in Trannie issues for a very long time and, of course, Sylvia has been a part of my life for over 30 years…  It is an extremely important event for a community whose time, as Sylvia says, "has come." In my mind, it is equally as important to the LGBTQ community as a whole.”  Bob continued… “Sylvia has been there for us at every turn and she is counting on us to help support her now.”  Bob was referring to Sylvia’s lifelong willingness to put herself on the line for the cause of gay liberation.  As Sylvia will tell you, in the year after Stonewall, drag queens petitioned and were arrested fighting for the gay rights bill.  “Drag queens could be out there,” Sylvia, who was one of the arrestees, explained.   
Back then, Rivera was a young street kid, who’d risen to fame through a willingness to engage in direct action.  When she was arrested during the Matthew Shepard political funeral, an unresolved 25-year-old charge from that era popped up.  It was one of countless charges faced by an activist who’d first been arrested as a teenager back in 1963.  She explained, “Yea, it was a 25 year old warrant.  It was for breaking the window at Silver Dollar Restaurant in the Village, from a fight with the owners.  Most of my arrests have been in a lot of political things.  And part of my arrest record was loitering with the intent of prostitution.  And out of all them arrests all the times that I have been in and out of jail, I have only served time once.  I did ninety days for possession of heroine.  That’s the only time and I promised that I would never visit Rikers Island again and I haven’t.” 
            Rivera co-founded the original Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1971 with the late Marsha P. Johnston as a caucus from the Gay Liberation Front.  The feeling was that the nascent Gay Liberation Movement needed to bring a little bit more focus to the transgender community.  In addition, there were a lot of transgender youth who needed both services and a public voice.  When STAR was formed, it was nation’s first trans political organization. The Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries would serve as a radical street action group to promote the rights of Transgender people. They did this by forming a space for transgender people to live and by maintaining a visible trans presence in the streets. 
            I asked Rivera why Street was in the title.  “Because we were street kids.  And we needed to emphasize on that.”   Sex work remained as a subtext for much of our conversation, which I asked Sylvia about, ”Well, it happens historically because the mainstream gay community who have obtained their rights have left us off of all of their bills.  People do not have to hire the transgender women or men because there are no laws protecting us.  And this is part of one of my arguments with the community right now.  And that’s one of the reasons why at the beginning of this year I decided to resurrect STAR.  If we continue to be invisible people are not going to listen to us.  And if we ourselves don’t stand up for ourselves, nobody else will do that for us.  And we have allowed them to speak for us.  There was nobody out there that was willing to step on their toes.  And this is why STAR has had to come back to existence and we have to push people like the Human Rights Campaign, the Empire State Agenda, the Community Center.  Every big corporate group that is gay and lesbian has to be put in their place.” 
“I’m just tired of seeing our children, our future out there prostituting their lives away, taking drugs, being turned away from proper housing or medical care.  I will turn 50 July second.  I have been out there on the streets for 40 years and nothing has changed for my community.  It makes me very angry to know that there are women out there that have college degrees that are standing on drugs, selling their bodies on the street corners.  It does not make any sense.  And the same thing with the youth.  Everybody praises the Hetric Martin Institute.  Hetric Martin is the worst institution there could be for a transgender child.  The staff there are not trans friendly and the gay and lesbian children are less than the staff as far as friendly.   And they are more abusive than the heterosexuals.  And so these children go to the street.  We have no other choice.  It’s the only way to survive.  The law says it’s a crime.  It’s a victimless crime.”

Beyond Matthew Shepard

Shortly after Milan’s death, STAR organized a call for an end to anti-Trans violence, and also to recognize the intersections of how transphobia, racism, sexism, classism and homophobia.  The message was the lives of Trans People of Color are not expendable.  On July 24, 2000, the memorial service for Amanda united the trans community as never before. There were powerful testimonials from her friends and family, and a particular call for trans self-reliance from Octavia St Laurent. Then there was a march to the murder site.  Activist after activist spoke, the refrain the same: “We were on the streets in Matthew Shepard's memory -- Now is the time to be on the streets for Amanda!”
Yet, the mainstream gay communities have not been in the streets for transgender people.  In the years after STAR’s demise as the movement assimilated, the guys in the Brooks Brother’s suits distanced themselves from, in Larry Kramer’s words, “those guys, girls whatever you call them…”  (see Crimp, 1988:251, Shepard, 2001).  And the Transgender legacy of Stonewall was left behind.  Yet, there is progress on certain fronts.  The Sex and Gender Liberation Institute of the 1999 National Lesbian and Gay Task Force Meetings in Oakland was a highlight of the weekend.  Yet, the problems on the streets persist. 

Under Attack in the West Village

            Much of the current anti-trans violence begins with a tolerance for anti trans rhetoric, even in gay communities.  Melissa Sklarz suggests: “The initial problem started in the far West Village, which strangely enough is still going on today where the community, the people that own homes there, feel that they are being victimized by the transgender prostitutes.”  The result has become a class war between home owners at the center of New York’s affluent gay West Village and transgender sex workers, many homeless, who have traditionally worked the meatpacking district on the periphery the city.  Yet with the move toward privatization, once accessible public areas, such as Times Square, have become hot commodities for real estate.  “The doors have already been closed, sex clubs shut down, youth centers closed. The places for trans youth to go, places where this stuff used to go on, such as the Chelsea Piers, were fenced off,” one advocate argued at one of the increasingly vocal West Village community forums on prostitution.  “Most of these hookers are not white.  They are black and Hispanic,” one observer screamed.  The subtext at many of these meetings a cultural sexism and racism, with a transphobia at its center.  “These are not our regular Greenwich Village queens that we’re enjoyed and appreciated,” a member of a local street association, noted.  “These are low-class, vulgar transvestites that come from other areas of the city,” (Horowitz, 1998). 
I attended one of these forums, where I mentioned that New York state was approaching its five year time limit on Welfare Reform and these were just workers, making a living like anyone else.  I was booed.  “Tell ‘em to go work at McDonalds!!!!!!!!!” one man screamed.  When I replied that the job market for applicants without general equivalency degrees has absorbed more workers than it can absorb (see Wilson, 1996) and that there are ten applicants for every one job opening for workers without GED’s (see Carlson and Theodore, 1995), the screaming just got louder. 
            And the attacks continued.  While the mainstream gays on the “left” demonized transgender sex workers, the city’s real estate driven Quality of Life Campaign successfully pushed for the closure of several clubs, including Eldeweiss, the Greenwich Pub and Butterfield, where trans folk worked and hung out, shut down because of obscure city ordinances.  As Stonewall teaches us, attacks on queer spaces are also attacks on queer identity. 
            The attacks on transgender identity function on many levels. While the APA did away with diagnosing homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder in the early 1970’s, the term, “gender identity disorder,” used to refer to trans folks, remains a psychiatric classification within the current APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, volume 4 (see APA,2000).  The over inclusive category pathologizes gender nonconformity in its broadest terms, classifying anything from “cross dressing” to "involvement in a transvestic subculture" among symptomatic criteria for mental illness.  Psychiatric diagnosis on the basis of social, cultural, or political affiliation evokes the darkest memories of medical abuse in American history (Wilson, 2001).  Recall that women suffragettes who demanded the right to vote in the early 1900s were diagnosed and institutionalized with a label of "hysteria" (Mayor 1974). Bolsheviks, immigrants and labor organizers of the same period were labeled as socially deviant and mentally defective (Dowbiggin 1997). In truth, transgender support organizations, such as STAR, are the primary source of support, education and civil rights advocacy for gender variant people, families, friends, and allies (Wilson, 2001, Wilson and Hammond, 1996).

Building a Community

            For a number of years in the 1970’s and 80’s, Sylvia, who suffered from chemical dependence, was homeless herself.  (She’s been sober for over two years now). Nonetheless, she continued organizing, organizing a community of trans squatters who lived on the piers on the West Side of Manhattan.  Like many of the street kids, they have since been pushed out of that space.  But the process was just a part of Sylvia’s lifetime of building spaces, such as the original STAR House, where transgender people can be part of a community. 
As activists will contend, the idea of a unified community is still very new. Until ten years ago, there were transvestites and cross dressers and transsexuals and pre op and post op and there was no single unifying identity.  The concept of a social and political identity for transgender people is still fresh.  Yet activists have worked to turn it from an idea into something that is real.  Once you can define it, you can start defending it. 
The new mobilization among trans folks is already bearing results.  Spring 2001 when a transgender dancer was dismissed from a local dance club, STAR organized a midnight picket line outside the club.   Building on a nascent queer/labor alliance
(see Krupat and McCreery, 2001) members of STAR, the Housing Works Transgender Working Group, and the New York Direct Action Network Labor Group packed a rambunctious line, successfully turning almost all patrons away while offering suggestions for some better spots to go to.  The club closed within a few weeks. 
            Sklarz ponders, “Would the police have worked on a murder like this in the past, we don’t know.  I knew transsexuals, who were sex workers, who would get in fights with straight men who would go to prison.  I knew girls who would go to men’s prison even though they had been living as women for years.  I think its only with this heightened political environment that police, specifically, and our culture, in general, are beginning to look at all these people differently and the right of these people, however odious sex work may be, it’s something.  You pointed out when you sat down, what do you do with people that have been thrown out of their schools, they are incapable of working, yet you’ve got to survive?”

A Call for Social Justice

Martin Luther King (1986) once said that "Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted." Perhaps. However, labeling any person's gender expression as mental illness is oppressive, with a widening segment of gender nonconforming youth and adults subject to diagnosis of psychosexual disorder, stigma, loss of civil liberty, and political violence (Wilson, 2001, Wilson and Hammond, 1996). 
“For many, Amanda Milan has become, not a martyr, but a rallying cry.  The activism around her death showed the world transgender people belong in the queer community and that what happens to one transgender girl at four in the morning outside the Port Authority is about everyone,” Sklarz concluded.  The message from activists is there is no difference between Matthew Shepard and Amanda Milan.  The response to her death tells the non-queer community that enough, today the violence stops. “It is not OK anymore.  It is not OK for people to die because they are sex workers or die because they have AIDS or die because of drugs and alcohol.” 
STAR was born from Gay Liberation Front and its vision of global solidarity.  Throughout the years, Sylvia Rivera has maintained that spirit. While she was considers the Matthew Shepard political funeral, where she spent the night in jail, one of the best demonstrations she ever attended; she considers sleeping in the street to protest cutbacks on homeless services, as she did last January, just as important.  “We’re not free till everyone is free…” Rivera maintains.  “Part of our mission statement is to be out there for all oppressed people.” 
The challenge of sex and gender liberation requires building spaces for countless genders and identities on a foundation of social justice.  To the extent that we challenge today’s culture of sexual privilege, we are all offered the possibility of social transformation.  These are things we can all benefit from.  Gender fluidity is a truly revolutionary idea.  Its between the ears,” Schlarz repeated.   “Free your ass and your mind will follow,” Brother George preached.  When that is free, STAR’s work will be done.      

Finishing the rally, activists trickled into a coffee shop across the street.  We all ate and talked about the police and the tenor of the rally.  Venus talked about the ways he has explored community building efforts since Occupy, as well as the movements growing since then.  I was glad ACT UP was there.  These are some of the best days in the history of ACT UP. 

Venus and I said goodbye and I rode back over the bridge to beloved Brooklyn.