Paris Lees: 'Trans people need Stonewall, and they need us too'

2014-08-05
parisleesIt's gone 1am and Friday night is officially Saturday morning. Not that you’re watching the time – you’re too busy eyeing up that hottie at the end of the bar. You’re with your pal and the drinks are flowing. You feel good. They play your favourite song, but you don’t get to hit the dance floor. The police are here. You’ve been in raids before, but your friend hasn’t. He’s freaking out. People are trying to escape through the toilets, but the windows are blocked. The bar is surrounded. The police round up everyone wearing women’s clothes and take them to the bathroom. At this point, female police officers usually begin an ‘inspection’ and anyone found to be “men dressed as women” get arrested. Tonight, though, the “men dressed as women” refuse this humiliation. You’re asked to leave the Stonewall Inn but, rather than thinking yourself lucky that you’ve escaped arrest, you join the crowd outside. The police are throwing bar staff into police vans. Some cops begin frisking lesbians inappropriately. Things are getting tense. Behind you, someone shouts “Gay power”. As Maria Ritter, who was known as Steve to her family, will later recall, "My biggest fear was that I would get arrested. My second biggest fear was that my picture would be in a newspaper or on a television report in my mother's dress!" An officer pushes a transgender person, who responds by hitting him on the head with her purse. The crowd boos. Soon after, you notice another scuffle. A butch lesbian is trying to resist arrest – an officer strikes her over the head with a baton. She turns to the crowd - to you - and asks, “Why don’t you do something?” The police bundle her into a van – and all hell breaks loose. That was 45 years ago. The queer community were sick of being picked on. And the people who got picked on the most – then, as now, the gender non-conforming folk – well, they were sickest of all. As eyewitnesses later recalled, "Fights erupted with the transvestites, who wouldn't go into the patrol wagon" and "All I could see about who was fighting was that it was transvestites and they were fighting furiously." Within a few years there were gay rights groups and marches in every major Western city in the world. Ticked-off trannies. Disgruntled dykes. Frustrated fags. That’s what we were called back then – and that’s what galvanised the gay rights movement and started a journey that’s taken us to where we are now. Some of the older members of the gay community saw the Stonewall Riots as a bad thing. During the 1960s, the push for equality had largely focused on presenting gay people as normal and unthreatening. Just like lovely heterosexuals! Randy Wicker, who had marched in the first gay picket lines before the White House in 1965, said the "screaming queens forming chorus lines and kicking went against everything that I wanted people to think about homosexuals... that we were a bunch of drag queens in the Village acting disorderly and tacky and cheap”. Presumably he was referring to transgender women like Silvia Rivera and Marsha P Jonson. They are, to queer equality, what Rosa Parks was to black civil rights and Emmeline Pankhurst to women’s liberation. As a trans person I owe these women a great deal and, if you are gay, you do too. It’s a scandal that they have never been truly celebrated by the gay community. In fact, in the early 1970s some lesbian feminists actively excluded trans people from the push for queer equality – because no one believed that it would be possible for trans people to win social acceptance and basic human rights. At a rally in 1973, feminist activist Jean O’Leary accused trans people of mocking women, prompting Sylvia Rivera and Lee Brewster to jump on the stage and shout, "You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!" O’Leary eventually changed her stance, admitting “It was horrible”, but the damage had already been done. Today, with increasing acceptance of gay people and increasing awareness of what it means to be trans, we’re moving back towards a more inclusive rainbow politics. While some people are quick – and right – to point out that being trans is not the same as being gay, it’s an increasingly pointless distinction. Who cares if it’s not the same thing? As Stonewall's co-founder Lisa Power reminded me last year, do you think our common enemies care how we divide ourselves? If you’re walking down an alleyway late at night, good luck telling the bad guys that you’re gay and not one of those awful trans people. Or vice versa. Last year I introduced myself to the Director General of the BBC and explained the work I do to improve the way trans people are portrayed in the media. “Ah,” he said, “we’ve been working with Stonewall recently on the LGBT side of things.” He meant well. I’m glad the BBC is working with Stonewall, but Stonewall is not a proper LGBT organisation. Despite taking it’s name from the Stonewall riots, led by trans and gay people, Stonewall is, largely, a gay charity. The gay charity. This year, as Attitude celebrates its 20th birthday, Stonewall celebrates its 25th. And what a year! We’re only six months in, but England and Wales has already introduced marriage for same sex couples, Laverne Cox, a trans actor playing a trans role, has won legions of fans and been nominated for an Emmy, and sports stars are finally catching up with the world of pop music and coming out left, right and centre. Everywhere you look there are signs that gay, bi and trans people are rising up and realising their full potential. Now it’s time for Stonewall to realise its full potential as an organisation. Stonewall Housing, a separate charity but one which takes its name from the same riots, already supports trans youth. If you are young and on the streets, it doesn’t matter if you are gay or trans or totally undecided – Stonewall is there to help keep you safe. Stonewall Scotland also do great work helping trans people. There’s absolutely no reason why Stonewall in England and Wales couldn’t catch up with the rest of Stonewall and do a good job of helping trans people too. Many of Stonewall’s battles have, thankfully, been won – so now is the perfect time for them to get behind the trans movement at an exciting moment in history. I’m truly encouraged by the recent announcement that Ruth Hunt has officially been made chief executive of Stonewall. A new broom sweeps clean and Ruth has already shown great enthusiasm in engaging with the trans community. I’m sure she’d be delighted to do everything in her power to help the trans cause – now it’s up to us to tell her what form we want that help to take. I believe Stonewall should just close the gaps and become a fully LGBT organisation, but, if this is what we want, we must say so. ruthhuntAs Ruth (pictured) told The Guardian last week, "We are at quite an important tipping point in terms of trans equality, and we are looking at how we can best support and maximise that tipping point… Any change needs to be led by the trans community… we are very open to taking whatever direction will be in the best interest of [that] community." Ruth wants to help. We should be biting her hand off for it. The trust required for that doesn’t always come easy though. As veteran trans activist Roz Kaveney, whom I admire greatly, remarks on the battle for trans healthcare: “I don't see anyone who doesn't feel the need for it in their bones having the necessary commitment to fight in the face of what might be a very vicious press campaign.” She’s right, of course. But why not let our trans warriors enjoy the benefit of the battleship Stonewall as their base? If there is going to be a vicious press campaign, I can think of no other queer organisation better able to counter it. I’ve looked at Stonewall’s campaigns with envy for years. “Some people are gay. Get over it.” It’s so simple and so powerful. Show me the trans organisation that is getting messages like this to youth houses, colleges and the sides of buses? There aren’t any. The annoying thing is that so many of Stonewall’s campaigns could so easily be modified to make them trans inclusive – so what are we waiting for? Some people are trans. Get over it. Imagine being 15 and feeling like you’re in the wrong body and seeing that on the side of a bus. Were you angry when Stonewall produced its brilliant anti-homophobia film Fit? I was. It was made to educate school kids that ‘gay’ shouldn’t be used as an insult, yet it introduced the term ‘tranny’ without any discussion around how that term might make some people feel. I remember, at the time, some people saying that Stonewall should just leave trans stuff alone. And I couldn’t have disagreed more. The problem wasn’t that Stonewall did trans. The problem was that they didn’t do it well. The film’s director, Rikki Beadle Blair, is a super talented and tireless community activist. Imagine if he’d worked closely with a range of trans people to make Fit a fantastic educational tool not just on gay issues but trans issues too! Four years since Fit was released, trans children don’t have anything remotely like it. “Maybe, in five years or so, we could get ourselves into a position where we can produce a film of that quality,” suggested one of my activist pals during a recent discussion about what’s to be done. We don’t have five years. How many gender non-conforming kids will have to go through hell during that time? Adult gay people are enjoying unprecedented legal rights and social acceptance, but it is a state of emergency for gender-non-conforming kids. We don’t have time to waste. I don’t care about who does it. I just want results. Not so long ago, GLAAD was a frequent source of criticism among the trans community. Fast-forward to 2014 and it is an organisation transformed – because it has been taken over by trans people. Glaad’s reaction to Ru Paul’s Drag Race was a major factor in the ‘female or shemale’ segment getting pulled earlier this year. Whatever you think of that particular controversy, you must agree that trans people can achieve much more with the help of a well-funded, well-respected and well-connected organisation devoted to furthering equality. In Britain, that organsation is Stonewall. I want that clout for trans people. We are small. The reality is there are less of us and we are never going to get what we want by getting angry or threatening boycotts. Not on our own. I’m sick of trans people having second best. I’m sick of trans people being ignored, excluded, and left to organise conferences in someone’s garden shed. I’m sick of not having anything proper. We deserve glossy campaigns. We deserve quality teaching materials. We deserve nice desks and working computers and, yes, champagne galas. Those galas attract much criticism for Stonewall – but, more importantly, they also attract influential people, media attention and generous donors. Trans people need galas like that. Trans people’s struggles and gay people’s struggles are not one and the same in every instance, but there’s enough overlap for working together to make sense. Terrence Higgins Trust offers advice to trans people, lesbian and gay switchboards take calls from lonely trans people, Outhouse East, of which I am patron, provides a safe space for gay and trans people in Essex. Is this a bad thing? Stonewall in England and Wales is one of the few organisations left in Britain that is only LGB. At a time when the trans movement is blossoming, and the gay movement has achieved many of its aims, that makes no sense. When we look at the future of queer campaigning, when we look at schools and sports and the terrible dangers our brothers and sisters face around the world, there is much to be done for both gay and trans people. Around the world and in this country too, gay and trans people suffer in the same prisons – whether that’s an actual prison in Uganda, a sewer in Jamaica, or a classroom in Yorkshire. We also need to get over the fact that many gay men are effeminate and many gay women are butch. The lines are more blurred than we are comfortable accepting. And many people – including me, once – identify as gay or lesbian before understanding they are trans and transition. Does that mean we should suddenly stop accepting them as part of the community? The trans community has its own respectability issues, pushing forward straight and gender-conforming trans women as ambassadors for a diverse demographic. A lot of trans people are queer and a lot who aren't live or have lived in the queer community, but there's been a whole tendency to deny that on both sides of the fence. The sniping at those trans people who come out through, and maintain links to, the drag community is part of that. Not everyone in the trans community will agree with me. My biggest fear is that, in the rush to “speak for ourselves”, we might miss a wonderful opportunity to join and change an organisation that has the power to really help us. Let's speak for ourselves from the platform of Stonewall. We don’t need a ‘Trans Stonewall’. Let Stonewall open its arms to trans people, to find the talent in our community and pay them proper salaries, to work on this issues that matter to us. We don’t need another table. We need extra seats. Of course Stonewall and trans people should be working together. I suspect many people reading this will be surprised that we don’t already. Trans people didn’t divide themselves off at Stonewall, they fought for all of us. Now it’s time to stop fighting each other – and fight together, again, under the Stonewall banner. Follow Paris Lees on Twitter @ParisLees. More from Paris Lees on attitude.co.uk: > ‘Attitude’s Editor at Large Paris Lees thanks Laverne Cox > Why do we humiliate and murder boys who won’t be boys?