No Pride without Black Trans Women

Vidhi Maheshwari

The life of Marsha ‘Pay it No Mind’ Johnson, a pioneer and activist of the gay liberation movement

Marsha P. Johnson was an American activist, a self-identified drag queen, a performer, and a survivor. She was a prominent figure in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. However, for much of her life, Marsha was ostracized from society. Almost thirty years after her death, she is finally getting the much-deserved attention that she was denied when she was alive. The tales of her activism are circulating on social media like never before, bringing attention to her legacy during this Pride month. 

“a Stonewall instigator, Andy Warhol model, drag queen, sex worker, a starving actress, and a Saint”

In the feature-length documentary ‘Pay it No Mind,’ director Michael Kasino (2012) attempts to showcase the life of Marsha, a Stonewall instigator, Andy Warhol model, drag queen, sex worker, a starving actress, and a Saint. When she died at age forty-six, in the summer of 1992, Marsha was mourned by her friends. However, her death did not attract much attention in the mainstream press. Using her final interview from 1992, Kasino highlights the fading story of Marsha – the legendary gay and trans rights activist.  She recounts her life at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots in the 1960s, the creation of S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with Sylvia Rivera in the 1970s, and a New York City activist through the 1980s and the early 1990s. 

While now being a highly celebrated revolutionary and activist, Marsha’s childhood was shadowed by plight and suffering. At the age of five, Marsha stopped wearing dresses because the boys next door, as she put it: “tried to have sex with me”. She was raped by a thirteen-year-old when she was twelve. This was just the beginning of the challenges that Marsha would face in the future. She was known for being herself and unafraid of the judgement, harassment, and ridicule she would face when dressing up as a woman. The hardships of a transgender individual were not new to Marsha. 

“Marsha was black, queer, gender non-conforming, and poor. Being a racial and gender minority, and the experiences of victimization, discrimination, and stigmatization that she endured possibly enacted as stressors which deteriorated her mental well-being”

For much of her life, Marsha was homeless, living on the streets of New York without any financial or living arrangements. She battled severe mental illness, was in and out of psychiatric institutions, and suffered from HIV towards the end of her life. She was also arrested frequently for long periods, which she termed as “a normal process”. Research shows how expecting rejection is not only a common and salient stressor faced by transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, but it can also compound the negative impact on their mental health. Marsha was black, queer, gender non-conforming, and poor. Being a racial and gender minority, and having had the experiences of victimization, discrimination, and stigmatization that she endured possibly enacted as stressors caused her mental well-being to deteriorate. 

Despite the hard circumstances, Marsha was known for her open and optimistic personality. She could find joy in suffering and channeled it into political action with fierceness and grace. She dressed in flashy, homemade outfits, and decorated her hair with flowers, fruits, and even Christmas lights. In her words: “I may be crazy but that don’t make me wrong”. Her longtime friend Randy Wicker explained: “Friends and many people who knew Marsha called her ‘Saint Marsha’ because she was so generous.” Even after her death, the idealization of Marsha as a ‘good queen’ allowed the police to give trans people the street to mourn Marsha by blocking 7th Avenue. 

“During a time of zero tolerance for trans and black people, Marsha along with her friend Sylvia Rivera led the protests and were at the forefront of the liberation movement”

As soon as she graduated from high school, Marsha came to New York with just a bag of clothes and $15. Moving to New York and being a drag queen is what saved Marsha. Even though Greenwich Village was known to be one of the most tolerant places for the LGBTQ community, police frequently harassed those who didn’t adhere to societal gender norms. According to Tomas Lanigan-Schmidt, a human rights activist: “gay people were scheduled for non-existence, in other words, we were supposed to have no reality called gay, homosexual, except to be in a mental health institution getting shock treatments or getting fired from a job.” This was also a time when gay pride parades excluded transgender people as they feared damaging their reputation because of their presence. During a time of zero tolerance for trans and black people, Marsha along with her friend Sylvia Rivera led the protests and were at the forefront of the liberation movement.

“Being a black trans activist, added to the challenges Marsha faced due to the social and political climate she was situated within”

In Queer Necropolitics, the authors highlight the discourse between whiteness and blackness in the context of LGBTQ identity and rights. They explain Saidiya Hartman’s argument on how the transatlantic slave trade created a notion for blackness and made black people permanently available for the “enjoyment” of white people. This narrative of black people guilty in the eyes of the law and incapable of being violated has taken many forms and persists, even today,  as seen in the murder of George Floyd. In the context of LGBTQ rights, projects like ‘It Gets Better’ by Dan Savage and Terry Miller illustrate how gayness was linked with whiteness, as the campaign aimed to make white sufferings legible and worthy of protection. This essentially created a generalised narrative of escaping homophobia that was out of reach for LGBTQ people of colour. There are several ways in which anti-blackness operates in this discourse.  Being a black trans activist, added to the challenges Marsha faced due to the social and political climate she was situated within. Thus, vocal, persistent, and domineering, Marsha P. Johnson can be attributed to not only as the face of trans rights but also that of black trans rights. 

Previously thought to be one of the first people to resist the police during the Stonewall riots, Marsha told historian Eric Marcus that she only got to Stonewall after the riots had already started. The colour of her skin, her gender, or her identity as an activist and a leader could have led people to attribute her to be the pioneer of the riots – the first one to throw a shot glass heard around the world or the one to throw the first brick. Regardless, the riots of the Stonewall bar on Christopher Street were the turning point in queer activism. It led to the creation of many anti-racist and queer of colour organizations that brought attention to the heightened police brutality against LGBT people within and beyond the gay community. That same year, Marsha and Rivera founded S.T.AR., which advocated for sexual liberation and pushed to align gay rights with other social movements. 

While primarily documenting the life and challenges of Marsha P. Johnson, ‘Pay it No Mind’ also does a good job of articulating and highlighting the systemic oppression faced by individuals at the intersectionality of the black and the trans communities.  In today’s global and political context, through the documentary, members of the trans community can hear the story of Marsha P. Johnson, a revolutionary figure. The documentary acts as a source of inspiration and empowerment for the trans community. A way to connect with their history with pride, fight fearlessly for their rights, and carry on the legacy of Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. 

“It empowers a deeper understanding of the systemic oppression and brutality that the trans community faces even today”

For everyone else, the documentary is an eye-opener to visualize and empathize with the sufferings of the LGBTQ community. It empowers a deeper understanding of the systemic oppression and brutality that the trans community faces even today. It creates a sense of urgency and teaches compassion towards the cause of trans rights inspiring viewers to take action and march collectively with trans activists. The message is clear – trans rights are human rights. 

Marsha ‘Pay it No Mind’ Johnson was a pioneer and activist of the gay liberation movement. Marsha did not succumb to societal prejudice and political victimization and always fought for what she believed. She symbolizes trans resilience and sends out the message to trans communities to continue fighting till they have their rights not just in America, but across the world. In her words, “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us”. Marsha P. Johnson was truly a hero and today her legacy lives on in the fight for trans rights. 

Watch the 2012 documentary here

Marsha P. Johnson Institute – https://marshap.org/

Vidhi obtained her undergraduate degree in Psychology and International Studies from Bryn Mawr College, Philadelphia. She is currently pursuing her MA in Mental Health Counseling from Teachers College, Columbia University in New York.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

Trans Rights are Human Rights

Kirti Bhargava

The Golden Hour for a Meaningful Discourse on Transgender Rights in India

The year 1852 in India is painfully remembered for the brutal murder of Bhoorah, a trans woman, in northern India’s Mainpuri district, near present-day Agra. Speculations were rife that her former lover had killed her in a fit of rage. What was striking however was that the British judges didn’t think the case was worthy of a full-fledged investigation. This incident wasn’t merely a standalone wanton case of social exclusion and assault. Rather, it prompted the British Indian government to castigate the community as a whole by categorising them as a ‘criminal tribe’ under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. 

The victim’s death in the case was treated as far-reaching evidence for the immorality of the eunuchs and thereon, the British launched an assailing campaign aimed at erasing their public presence moving towards gradual cultural elimination. They were penalised with hefty fines or thrown into prisons for wearing female clothing and ornaments, often looked down upon as sexual deviants and unnatural prostitutes. 

More than a century later, as we acclaim June as Pride Month, this article aims to initiate a meaningful discourse around the recently legislated Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, and what it has to offer today.

The genesis for transgender rights in India was first laid formally by a landmark judgement of the Supreme Court in 2014. In the NALSA V/s Union of India case, the Supreme Court ascertained the community’s rights for self-perceived gender identity and acknowledged the need for a ‘Third Gender category’ in official records. Subsequently, a private members’ bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2014 by Member of Parliament Tiruchi Siva. This bill looked at a range of entitlements for the community,  in areas of health, education, skill development, and employment opportunities as well as protection from abuse and torture. It also proposed a 2% reservation for trans persons in educational institutions and government jobs. This draft bill was received somewhat well by the community but with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha, the bill lapsed.

Once again, in 2016, a modified version of the same was tabled in Lok Sabha by the Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment. This has today become the embodiment of what we know as the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2019.

At the very onset, this marks the Indian Government’s first such effort to institutionally recognise Transgender people in India. As per the 2011 Census, their official population stands at around 5,00,000 individuals. The act defines a transgender person as “one whose gender does not match the gender assigned at birth. It includes trans men, trans women, persons with intersex variations, genderqueers, and persons with socio-cultural identities, such as kinnar, jogata, aravani and hijra.”

“By clubbing intersex and trans under a common umbrella, the very definition fails to cast a cynosure upon gender fluidity”

This descriptive aspect has been widely criticised by activists and members of the community as vague. By clubbing intersex and trans under a common umbrella, the very definition fails to cast a cynosure upon gender fluidity. Members of the community reject the nomenclature of ‘Transgender’ for the bill and instead suggest a more comprehensive title ‘Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics (Protection of Rights) Bill,’ elucidating a clear distinction between the terms Intersex and Transgender in an acerbic manner.

Secondly, it prohibits discrimination against transgender people in spheres of education, employment, healthcare, accords them the right to movement, to reside in their households or own property, and so on. The act also nudges the government to undertake welfare measures for the community for their rescue and rehabilitation, vocational training, and create self-employment opportunities. Additionally, it stipulates that the state should arrange for separate HIV surveillance centres and sex reassignment surgeries.

“A lack of enforceability in the anti-discrimination clause renders it rudderless, relying excessively on the moral compass of the wrongdoer”

While it seeks to be progressive in letter, it is arguably truncated in spirit. A lack of enforceability in the anti-discrimination clause renders it rudderless, relying excessively on the moral compass of the wrongdoer. A recently collated study by the NHRC suggests that 99% of transgender people have suffered social rejection on more than one occasion, even by their own families. 96% have been denied jobs and thus are forced to take to vulnerable livelihood choices such as sex work or begging. Around 60% have never attended school, and those who did faced major discrimination. 

Extrapolating these figures to their lived experiences necessitates the need for better enforceability of laws. Other welfare measures settle perhaps as a post-dated cheque at the disposal of the state. With a meagre budgetary allocation of Rs. 1,00,00,000, it remains to be seen how the implementation of the other welfare measures unfolds. 

“The very need for certifying one’s identity places an implied external authority and onus of proof on the individual, defeating the premise of self-determination”

The act also enlists provisions for obtaining a certificate of Trans identity from the District Magistrate (DM). A revised certificate must also be obtained in case of a sex reassignment surgery. The very need for certifying one’s identity places an implied external authority and onus of proof on the individual, defeating the premise of self-determination. In doing so, it also leaves scope for bureaucratic misuse and harassment, as there exists no window for appeal against an arbitrary order of the DM. What is also noteworthy is that it fails to concede to the problematic reality of forcible sex reassignment surgeries, specifically on minors. The recent Madras High Court judgement banning such medical procedures on intersex infants (aimed at empowering the individual’s consent) must be paid heed to here.

Furthermore, there is also a clause for setting up a National Council for Transgender Persons (NCT) comprising a representation of five members from the community. The council offers some ray of hope, however, the transgender representatives remain in minority and it will augur well for their voices to be sufficiently amplified through this forum. It remains to be seen how far this end will be achieved.  

“This conundrum of Trans abuse cases gets further complicated in a system where the community already faces systematic exclusion, discrimination, and sidelining within the legal and judicial recourse”

Finally, another positive step is identifying offences against the community and affixing penalties for the same, ranging from six months to two years imprisonment, along with a fine. Four such categories of offences have been identified: Denial of use of public places, forced or bonded labor, forced eviction from household as well as physical, emotional, sexual or economic abuse. However, not only are the safeguards offered inadequate, but the community has also expressed grief over the lighter sentences being facile, that may fail to create much on ground deterrence. This conundrum of Trans abuse cases gets further complicated in a system where the community already faces systematic exclusion, discrimination, and sidelining within the legal and judicial recourse. 

To sum up, essentially the concerns with the act need to be looked through a prism holding multiple perspectives. The first of these is the legal-constitutional validity of the act. The features appear violative of Article 14 (right to equality), 15 (prohibition of discrimination on grounds of sex), 16 (equality of opportunity in matters of public employment) and 21 (right to a dignified life and right to livelihood encapsulated in the right to life and personal liberty) of the constitution. 

For instance, while the Act penalises organised begging (badhai tradition at weddings and childbirth is a long-standing cultural practice amongst the Hijras), it does not provide for any alternative and meaningful avenues for greater inclusivity in public employment opportunities. The demand for affirmative action, which the 2014 Bill catered to, has been left unacknowledged in the 2019 act. The Supreme Court, recently taking cognisance of these loopholes to the law, has issued a notice to the Centre against a plea challenging the constitutionality of the Transgender Persons Act.

“At the very onset, the definitional component fails to appreciate the distinctions of gender, sex, and sexual orientation”

A second viewpoint offers a theoretical and feminist critique wherein the hierarchy of genders finds itself penetrating pieces of legislation. At the very onset, the definitional component fails to appreciate the distinctions of gender, sex, and sexual orientation. The mandatory provision of placing trans individuals in rehabilitation centres, as they are left dejected by their families, needs a rethink. It renders them devoid of any agency whatsoever, treating them as ‘subjects of care,’ at the hands of the state. Confining them to such centres also paves the road towards ghettoisation of the community. Under the garb of such differential treatment (in contrast to the treatment of cis men and women), it fails the NALSA judgement’s assertion for self-determination and accords transgenders a lesser status as citizens in society.

The third and final standpoint places a moral-ethical burden on us, as members of a just and humane society. In measuring the transgender identity on a scale as opposed to the binary male and female identity and placing the former at the mercy of the state machinery is violative of the individual’s dignity. The compulsion and hassles of obtaining paperwork for ascertaining a very personal component of our lives are pedantic, dehumanising, and largely dystopic.

For these very reasons, the passage of the act has been vociferously opposed by the community. The 12th annual Pride Parade 2019 in Delhi witnessed widespread protest and agitation against what was collectively deemed to be a ‘Regressive and half-hearted piece of legislation.’ The international NGO, Human Rights Watch, condemns it as failing the community on grounds of fundamental rights for self-identity and urges the Indian government to amend it in line with international standards. The World Medical Association’s as well as the United Nation’s standards for transgender rights mandate the separation of medical and legal processes for reassignment of gender identities.

“But as citizens, we must also realise that a meaningful discourse on LGBTQ rights in India goes beyond this benchmark limit and needs to be more far-reaching for fruitful gains”

While the legislation remains within the radar of SC hearings, for now, it may be pointed out that the court proceedings will gain limelight simply for determining whether the legislation passes the minimum legal-judicial cut off for being held valid. It will only deal with the first category of our concerns. But as citizens, we must also realise that a meaningful discourse on LGBTQ rights in India goes beyond this benchmark limit and needs to be more far-reaching for fruitful gains. 

We seek to stand miles away today from a state-sponsored attack on the community in British India and aim to step towards a more liberal and inclusive ethos. The focus should be on facilitating more dignified and equitable opportunities to ensure a more central role for the community. Better education and employment opportunities, gender sensitisation of law implementation bodies, extending legal, medical, psycho-social aid when needed, and involving trans voices in policy framing can help build more nuanced visibility for the community within the public spheres. Suffice it to say, the golden hour has ripened after a long wait for a state-led intention for the upliftment of the transgender community. It should be progressively assiduous for it to tailor-fit to their needs better.

Kirti is a graduate in Sociology from Lady Shri Ram College. A passionate learner, dancer and writer (in that order), she aspires to make an impact by widely articulating her views on socially relevant issues. She also occasionally takes breaks from her routine to mentally rejuvenate by trekking the Himalayas. 

Design by Hemashri Dhavala