"I'm looking out into this audience," Tony White, the emcee of the day's proceedings, called out to the crowd gathered in Washington Square Park. "And y'all are fucking beautiful!"
The audience was a group of nearly 2,000 trans and gender nonconforming people of colour and allies, who had come to New York City's Greenwich Village to take part in Trans Day of Action. The annual rally and march is organized by TransJustice, a political action subgroup of the Audre Lorde Project, a community organizing center for LGBTQ and gender nonconforming people of colour.
For the past 13 years, Trans Day of Action has created a space during New York's hectic Pride season that puts trans and gender nonconforming people of colour first. It offers a radical alternative to Pride itself, one made especially poignant as Pride celebrations nationwide face backlash for their corporate sponsorship and underwhelming political bite.
In turn, Trans Day of Action is a march that reminds us that Stonewall and Compton Cafeteria were about more than just queer love and marriage equality. For some who made the trip to Washington Square Park, June 23 marked the first time that they'd ever stood up for themselves and their communities in such a public way. For others, showing up for the needs of trans and gender nonconforming people of colour felt all too familiar.
"When I came out, we didn't have a Trans Day of Action. We didn't have these agencies. We weren't even called 'transgender.' Now, it feels like we're being targeted," said Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker, a social services provider and co-founder of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group. "Transgender people, especially black trans women and trans women of colour, are so marginalized in society. This new administration is going to take what little we have. It's really a sad time for us, but I've been fighting all along. Now, I guess, we have to keep fighting."
TransJustice organized the very first NYC Trans Day of Action for Social and Economic Justice in 2005. Community organizer and anti-gentrification activist Imani Henry, one of the founding members of TransJustice, said that Trans Day of Action came about partially in response to silence on trans issues from advocacy groups outside of Transgender Day of Remembrance, meant to honor those lost to anti-trans violence.
"By 2005, the nonprofit industrial complex and LGBT, Inc., were coming out for Trans Day of Remembrance, but why did we only get a commemorative day when we die? Why not celebrate the lives of trans people when we're living?" he said.
Henry described how powerful it felt to see over a thousand people march without permits up Sixth Avenue to 14th Street all the way to Union Square, chanting "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Transphobia's got to go!" The moment, he said, will always stick with him.
"No one wants to talk about LGBTQ people who are working class—but we're majority working-class!" he said. "We are fighting all the time for affordable housing. We just want it to be affordable. We just want it to be permanent. We just want school to be affordable and accessible. Can we just have that?"
This year's march—which snaked its way from Washington Square Park to the Stonewall Inn and back to the park once more—was held two days before the city's larger Pride March. The organizers of the latter event met fierce criticism this year for inviting uniformed police officers to a march that includes queer and trans people of color, who are disproportionately affected by police violence and mass incarceration. 12 protesters affiliated with activist group No Justice No Pride, who were demonstrating against Pride's police presence and corporate backing, were arrested Sunday for disrupting the march.
At Trans Day of Action, there is no such debate—nor were there any arrests, despite the presence of about nine NYPD officers and at least one police van stationed near the northwest entrance to the park. There, police brutality was understood to be a clear-cut LGBTQ issue. Ending police violence was one of the organizers' 11 Points of Unity, a list of rallying issues that also called attention to employment discrimination, housing access, mass incarceration and more.
Reflecting their firm opposition to police brutality, organizers looked beyond mainstream event security models to keep attendees safe; representatives from the Audre Lorde Project said they held community safety training a week before the march. A desire to end police violence also underscored many protester chants. As demonstrators made their way down Christopher Street, they paused outside the Stonewall Inn to shout: "Queers don't deny it! Stonewall was a riot!" Looping back up Sixth Avenue, they joined together in saying: "We don't need no cops rolling down our blocks! We'll make the violence stop. So, drop it like it's hot!"
"I'm certainly not familiar with any other annual event that's a part of Pride that's this strongly rooted in challenging white supremacy and police violence," said Michelle O'Brien, a graduate student who works with the New York City Trans Oral History Project. "I deeply appreciate how Trans Day of Action brings together a very diverse spread of different trans communities in New York, connecting people across social difference. I appreciate that Trans Day of Action has a strong political commitment to challenging these violences. I appreciate how that message is rooted in its leadership by trans people of color."
That leadership is responsible for organizing a truly unique event: a by-us, for-us Pride march and rally that both empowers trans and gender nonconforming people of colour to speak out and provides them with a space where they can build relationships and thrive together. But organizers insist that what TransJustice has created and sustained for the past 13 years is something any trans or gender nonconforming person of colour can tap into, even if they couldn't physically make it to the event.
"Make art and seek out justice and joy in the small things, like finding a friend in your hometown," said Jamal Lewis, the Audre Lorde Project's communications coordinator. "Celebrate the wondrous magic of trans and queer identity. There are very huge acts of resistance and small, daily acts like building intimacy and trust among friends and loved ones."
"We're all there. We just need to find each other," added TransJustice Campaign Organizer Nico Fonseca. "Social media is extremely powerful and has offered space for people to build with each other across great distances and physical barriers. That's something that trans and gender nonconforming people, specifically those folks who have consistent access to things like social media, can use to build relationships with folks. Gender has been historically weaponized to harm black and brown and indigenous folks, but we can continue to build with each other—build relationships and build resistance."
Follow Harron Walker on Twitter.