Joel Rivera stands on the steps beside the historic Stonewall Inn. Her co-organizer, Qween Jean, hands her the megaphone. The motioned baton-pass has their beautiful stone-studded dresses setting off the press. They flash their cameras, sparking each jewel into different directions. At least 250 protesters are accompanying and protecting their lives. They are all fixed on Joel’s words as she declares “I’m still going to be a black trans woman no matter who wins. And my life will still not matter.”
She says it honestly in a heartbroken reality, days after the 2020 election. Transgender and nonbinary people of color are at risk of violence in the United States. There is an epidemic of trans women falling victim to offensive and life threatening behavior in this country. In 21st century America, black trans women have become the most marginalized. The increasing amounts of violence against transgender people get alarmingly higher as the years progress. At least 35 trans people were killed so far in 2020, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Most of these needless murders were women of color living in black communities.
The Stonewall Protests bring together different identities and inclusive-ideas to raise awareness about the problems people of color face in queer communities. Protesters don’t look alike or breathe the same experience, but they are all expressing their shared love and walk towards one message: black trans lives matter. This is the protest’s call to action.
To assert themselves outside of the Christopher Street subway station, the two organizers have a support group of other queer people of color standing their ground. A “family” of approximately nine people stand on the front lines with them. They bring the representation and the credibility necessary to divert any adversity. Black, white, heterosexual or queer-identifying allies look to Qween and Joel’s unabashed leadership. The chosen family present let them lead the way.
Malcolm X once noted, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.” At the time of his leadership, that must have been very true. Misogyny and segregation intentionally deprived people of color equity. But as America continues its march into the biggest civil rights movement in the nation’s history, we have to consider and reflect on how times have changed.
“Slavery, Martin Luther King Jr., and now, freedom? Something’s not adding up” says Joel. The “freedom” people of color were given did not come easy. And now, the terms of which the rights were granted have expired. New civil rights issues have been cemented in our history’s time period because the ones in the past did not hold up. They don’t protect LGBTQ+ people of color.
These activists who start their march in Greenwich Village are fighting for one cause: To protect black trans lives. Many of them pitch their motivations as separate from the Black Lives Matter movement because this focuses on people of color that BLM seems to be neglecting, according to activists like Tahtianna Fermin. A family member to Joel and Qween, she explains the situation clearly.
“We’re on the outskirts of the activism and we’re in the back screaming ‘well my black life matters too!’” Tahtianna informs. “Every Thursday, we meet here because it’s trans liberation. No life matters until trans lives matter.” She says these words with an impassioned weight heavy with all the trans lives discriminated against in the past year. Ashley Moore’s death in April 2020 inspired Tahtianna to take action. Ashley was a trans woman who died in front of the YMCA she was staying at while homeless. Her mother found out about her murder through social media.
Tahtianna works hard to prevent situations like Ashley. She spreads the word about her non-profit organization, Bridges for Life. It provides the funding and stability trans and nonbinary youth of color might need. Resources are at the Stonewall Protests that a struggling queer person may stumble upon. Thanks to people like Tahtianna, trans youth are being protected in more ways than before. There is active prevention happening within the protest’s main circle.
Black trans people have always existed. They were marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X during the civil rights movements of the mid 20th century. They were brought here on slave ships without their consent. And now, they are the backbone of the biggest civil rights movement in American history. “We’ve been here forever”, says Tahtianna.
Lucy Hicks Anderson was a black trans woman in 1886. She was outed and arrested alongside her husband. The scope of these experiences vary, and it’s just the society at the time that prevents the stories from reaching able ears.
These weekly marches try to rectify the racist and transphobic behavior of the past. The Stonewall Protests vary in themes, length, and routes. But at the end of each protest, it’s clear that the familial bond formed will last week to week.
There’s a cost to fighting for recognition and reparation. On any given Thursday, the unpredictability of a typical turnout can vary from whatever is happening in politics that week. There is usually a large crowd of people sharing the same ideas. But there is also a police presence to compensate. The days after the 2020 election, the rift between these trans activists and the NYPD was mountainous.
Joel leads the crowd as dozens of police officers line the march’s perimeter with bikes. There’s an effort to tame the crowd of queer people wearing gorgeous gowns. They constantly sparkle from the blue and red lights surrounding them. Several chants warm the chilly, fall air. “Black trans lives matter!” and “mama mama can’t you see?” vibrate the street, muting the chains on the officers’ bikes.
The police were blocking paths, causing frustration amongst Joel Rivera’s leadership. She screamed for an answer as to why the disruption was taking place, and immediately she was thrown to the ground. Much of the protest kept going because the chants were loud enough to deafen any commotion. The people she was walking with tried to block Joel from an arrest. They were yelling and trying to reason with the officers, but Joel was arrested. She was released from custody later that evening.
At the Stonewall Protests, there is an expectation to lift up the black voices there. White allies are essential to the cause, but it’s vital that they show up silently to defend people like Joel, Qween, and Tahtianna. White allies’ main purpose is to hold up an invisible shield to protect the people of color there. By doing so, they are amplifying the voices that weed through the racism and transphobia that is ignoring the marginalized group speaking. Joel thanks the white allies for supporting her, but makes the position both parties are in very clear.
Joel and Qween end their march somewhere in the Financial District. The crowd disperses after Joel ends the night with her saying “We came here dressed, looking our very best, because what we are doing here today is monumental.” Next week, perhaps the same crowd will show up. Or maybe a new cast of activists might make an appearance, adding to the family.