Five trans women making Pride history
A rally for transgender rights outside Stonewall. | Kathy Willens/AP

June marks the month-long celebration of Pride, a global acknowledgment of the social progress made by LGBTQ communities. The founding history of what we now know as Pride is largely rooted in the work of black and brown trans women. The festivities serve as a commemoration of the Stonewall riots that sparked the gay rights movement 50 years ago.

Trans women of color, like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, are often credited as the “foremothers” of the gay rights movement, having both been “out” when it was dangerous and illegal to exist as queer. The community organizing work they did laid the groundwork for LGBTQ people from all walks of life and sought to uplift the most vulnerable queer populations. This Pride month, People’s World talked to five trans women activists who carry on the legacy of Johnson and Rivera and serve as role models and leaders in their communities.

Alexis Martinez, 69, Chicago

Being transgender challenges all the norms. It shakes up the world.”

Alexis Martinez was raised in a predominantly Black housing project on Chicago’s South Side. Throughout her youth, she witnessed how Black and brown people were impacted by the socioeconomic disparities of the city’s segregated neighborhoods and redline districts. These experiences inspired Martinez to get involved in building better communities, not just for herself, but for those around her.

Martinez grew up in a conservative Mexican-Apache household, where she recalls being only five years old when she first came out to her family. The announcement was not well received. “All of a sudden my hair was in a crew cut, and I wasn’t allowed to do anything they considered girlish, like cooking.” The swift response from her family taught Martinez a valuable lesson about the dangers of existing openly in a transphobic society.

As a teenager, Martinez would often hang around the Chinatown area, which was a short commute from her South Side neighborhood. She eventually joined a Chinese street gang and became a recognized leader. “I tried to come out again when I was 14 to my friends and it was devastating – they began rejecting me,” says Martinez. Out of fear of being excommunicated, or possibly worse, Martinez began to live a double life. “I had to put on a macho presence then get on my bike and ride up to the north side.”

Like many closeted queers of the time, Martinez flocked to Clark Street (what is now referred to as Lakeview’s “Boystown” neighborhood). It was one of the few places far enough away from her community to remain unspotted. For many LGBTQ people at the time, the threat of homophobia led them to find refuge in queer bars and clubs. “There was a strip of bars we’d all go to every week,” says Martinez, “but it was really challenging.”

In 1968, Martinez was called to serve in the Vietnam War. Refusing to serve, she fled to San Francisco to escape the draft. During the time Martinez lived in San Fransico, Harvey Milk was beginning his run for political office. Milk has been hailed as an icon in the gay community ever since becoming the first open LGBTQ official ever elected in the United States. However, Martinez has a different recollection of the beloved politician. “The things I remember most about being transgender at the time is being rejected by our own community.”

When Martinez and other trans peers attempted to aid the Milk campaign, they were turned away and told that they (read: trans women) were not the face of the LGBTQ movement that organizers wanted to be represented on the campaign. “They completely rejected us,” recalls Martinez, “so when people hold him (Milk) up as a great hero, that’s a lot of crap to me. It broke my heart.”

Feeling abandoned by her own community, Martinez began to look at other means of community organizing. “I couldn’t find any movement to join inside the LGBTQ community, so I became deeply involved in labor organizing.” At the time, Martinez ran a chain of adult book stores and says the gay employees were being treated terribly so they organized a successful strike in 1978 for better working conditions. “Today we call it intersectional organizing,” she says. “But back then it was all about building solidarity movements. I had a desire to lift people up.”

Then suddenly, and out of nowhere, an alarming number of Martinez’s colleagues started dying off. “We had no idea what it was, people were dropping like flies,” says Martinez, recalling the start of the AIDS epidemic that devastated the gay community. Within 18 months, over half of Martinez’s union members had died.

Despite the fact that the AIDS virus quickly became one of the deadliest health epidemics of its time, political figureheads remained apathetic. During a 1982 press conference former President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary, Larry Speakes, casually joked about the HIV/AIDS epidemic — which they called the “gay plague” — and laughed about one of the reporters potentially having it. “It was profoundly sad the way Reagan, and other religious leaders reacted to it,” says Martinez.

Having survived transphobia, the Vietnam war, the HIV epidemic, and countless other barriers, Martinez is the embodiment of what it means to carry on the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera – although Martinez modestly claims that she isn’t in their league. “Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were some real badasses,” the veteran activist states. “People don’t understand how dangerous and violent it was for trans people at the time.”

Although Martinez acknowledges that there has been a lot of progress in the LGBTQIA+ movement, she emphasizes that there is still a lot of work left to be done. “I love that there was some progress,” she says. “I also think that the larger queer community needs to cough up the type of money we did to get marriage equality on the table in order to get homeless trans people off the street.”

She is now working as a Court Support Specialist with the Transformative Justice Law Project. “More than ever, I feel myself coming into my identity, which seems kind of late at 69.” Martinez expressed a desire to go back to law school and continue pursuing community-based legal support work.  “When I help people with name changes, they walk out beaming and smiling,” she says “to me that’s tangible evidence that I’m doing something productive to the community.”

With over four decades of organizing under her belt, Martinez is ready to embark on the next 40 years of her life. “I feel blessed for having been through all of this,” she says noting that that the societal constraints of homophobia have previously prevented her from doing a lot of things she aspired to do. “You’ve only seen a little bit of Alexis.”

Channyn Lynne Parker, 41, Chicago

“I’m not just here to survive, I’m here to thrive”

Widely acknowledged as a leader in social justice and advocate for LGBTQ rights, Channyn Lynne Parker has over two decades of community organizing experience under her belt. Parker is Manager of External Relations for Howard Brown Health’s The Broadway Youth Center. She was also the first openly transgender woman to work in the Cook County Department of Corrections. The powerhouse activist has been featured at the Chicago’s Women’s March two years in a row and was asked to speak at The White House on national HIV awareness in 2015.

Long before she delved into activism, Parker’s family laid the foundation for her community-building values. “I grew up in a house where you picked up a dirty dish whether or not to you dirtied it,” she recalls. Parker says that her upbringing shaped her sense of civic duty, “if it is within your reach to assist it is your responsibility to help.”

Despite never having to “formally” come out, Parker says there was always an unspoken knowledge about her identity. She describes herself as having always been “femme-presenting,” and states that there was a quiet tolerance of her presence in the suburb she grew up in. “I wasn’t accepted, just tolerated.”

Parker’s very first social service job at the University of Chicago was working with HIV positive adolescents. It was this job that sparked her love advocacy, “It’s wasn’t about doing something that made me glow and or made me feel good, it was about being responsible.”

Parker’s involvement with the Chicago House & Social Services solidified her reputation as an outstanding employee. She was able to use that experience as a platform to expand her advocacy work with trans-identified populations. Since then Parker has focused on aiding Black and brown individuals who experience homelessness, “I realized I had a heart for work that centers the marginalized and oppressed,” says Parker, “I want to serve by helping those who have a need, whomever that may be.”

The month of Pride is filled with contention for Parker, who says so much of the original intent is now lost. “Pride is the hot ticket right now,” she says. “Corporations are jumping on it because it’s profitable.” Like so many trans women who have spoken out about the exploitation of LGBTQ movements, Parker feels that the role of trans women in Pride is frequently forgotten. “It’s more than just rainbow and marketing and politics.”

It is no coincidence that Parker’s own work models after that of trans femme pioneers, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Much like the godmothers of the LGBTQ rights movement, she chooses to root her efforts in sustaining the legacy of Pride in traditions that directly challenge the power structures that work against vulnerable populations.

Johnson and Rivera remain at the heart of all Pride celebrations, their sacrifices helped mobilize an entire generation of queer activists. At the root of their work, they intended to lift up trans women of color who suffered homelessness and incarceration. “Pride is so much more is Rainbow capitalism” Parker insists, “We’re still fighting for our lives, trans women are still dying.”

Despite the battles left to be fought, Parker insists that she is grateful for the privileges she’s been awarded in this lifetime. Parker is the great-grandchild of a former slave, a fact that she says she carries with her in the back of her mind always. “Our foreparents are probably very happy to see us living a life that was easier than they were,” she says reflecting on her own opportunities. Although Parker does take time to celebrate Pride with loved ones, she states that she never loses sight of the continued battle LGBTQ people face in this country. “There are still many many bricks left to be thrown.”

Jennicet Gutiérrez, Los Angeles

“Mi existir es resitir” – My existence is resistance

Los Angeles-based trans-Latina Activist, Jennicet Gutiérrez has been raising awareness around the circumstances of undocumented detainees for decades. Most commonly recognized for her 2015 disruption of former President Obama at a Pride Month conference, the leading transgender rights and immigrant rights activist spoke to People’s World about her journey.

Hailing originally from a nearby town of Jalisco, Mexico the veteran organizer moved to the United States when she was just 15 years old. She was not out to her family at the time and said that it took many years for her to face her own reality. “I’ve known since I was a little child that I was a transgender woman,” says Gutiérrez, “I’ve always felt and connected deeply with my mother and sisters, and my feminine side.’

Growing up in a Mexican household, however, made it challenging for Gutiérrez to navigate her true identity and the acceptance of her family. Gutiérrez lived a “double life” for several years, and it was forced to come out after she was caught one night.

“I was driving my brother’s car on my way back from the club one night and the tire was messing up.” Not wanting to risk being seen in a dress and wig, she took off her clothes put them in a bag and hid them in the trunk. When she got back home she informed her brother about the flat tire, having forgotten about the hidden bag she left in the car. “Less than a minute after I got in bed he came back in with the bag and started asking questions.”

Gutiérrez recalls the conversation as being extremely difficult and emotional. “It was a forced conversation I wasn’t ready to have.” Although the confrontation was unexpected, and she was scared of how her family would react, Gutiérrez says she eventually had to own up to the fact that the clothes were hers. “I was not able to face the world as Jennicet because my immigration status complicated things for me more.”

Since that fateful moment, Gutiérrez has come a long way in her personal journey as a trans woman. Her activism work is largely based around the advocacy of undocumented trans detainees. This line of organizing work was particularly dangerous for someone like Gutiérrez, who only recently attained citizenship status. “I didn’t know how if coming out would impact my very few opportunities for employment.”

It wasn’t until 2014 that Gutiérrez began to attend demonstrations with the Trans Latinas Coalition. Less than a year later Gutiérrez would face the President of the United States himself in a Pride month briefing where she demanded that he release all L.G.B.T.Q. immigrants from detention and halt all deportations.

“That moment was such a big breakthrough for me personally,” says Gutiérrez reflecting back on the action that put her in the spotlight. “There was a lot of fear in my mind – what’s gonna happen? Am I gonna get put in a detention center, am I going to get deported?”

The undocumented Trans-Latina says that on the day of the White House action she thought of the trans women before her who had put their bodies on the line. Gutiérrez’s actions are reminiscent of Sylvia Rivera’s own 1973 Pride disruption, in which she was heckled by a crowd of her peers.

Gutiérrez says learning about the pioneers of the trans movement was an instrumental part of preparing for her own journey into activism. “I didn’t learn about Sylvia Rivera in high school,” says Gutiérrez, “when I saw how she was treated it made my blood boil.”

Similarly, there were traces of Gutiérrez’s activist roots throughout her life. “I grew up in Mexico where the teacher would physically punish us if we didn’t memorize our time tables correctly.” After a fellow classmate once got disciplined in class, Gutiérrez says she intervened. “I had to speak up – I knew that was not okay.”

Gutiérrez reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and how much blood was shed by those before her. “I’m glad that Marsha and Sylvia are getting recognized,” she says, “but we have to honor, not just them, but the people they were fighting for.”

The community organizer says that it is our duty to acknowledge and uplift the most vulnerable of LGBTQIA people, “Trans sex workers, undocumented trans women, and  Black trans women continue to be murdered at alarming rates. “We have seen so many similar cases happening at the border,” Gutiérrez says in regard to her work around the Justice Para Roxsana campaign. “It frustrates me because it is a sad reminder that we continue to be ignored.”

Still, despite all this, Gutiérrez remains hopeful about the future. Every time she reflects on her journey she says she feels heavy with emotions. Like many queer activists, she wants to reframe the way people think about Pride and focus on true liberation for all people. “Hopefully, the work we’re doing can inspire and mobilize the generation after us,” she says, “just like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera did for us.”

LaSaia Wade, 32, Chicago

“How can you even think to hire black women if you don’t see them in leadership?”

If there is one person you’ll need to meet in your lifetime, it’s LaSaia Wade. Not just because her name is uttered in every single social justice space across Chicago, but because she demands your attention when she walks into the room. Wade is always dressed to impress. Even at six feet tall she rocks heels to every function – announcing her presence unapologetically.

Originally from Chicago, Wade moved to Tennessee during her college years. In her early twenties, when she first started coming out as trans, she remained ‘stealth’ (a term used by trans individuals who “pass” in the public eye as cisgender) for several years. After graduating from Middle Tennesse State University in 2010, she began a job at BellSouth as the Director of Transactions, where she was later outed, then fired.

It was this experience with transphobic employment practices that made LaSaia step into the spotlight of activism.  “I started delving into my community more,” says Wade of her early organizing years, “I decided I wanted to confront discrimination and joined a chapter with Black Lives Matter.” During her brief time in Tennessee, she Wade co-founded the Tennessee Trans Journey Project, community-led funding initiative founded in 2012 to support grassroots, trans justice groups run by and for trans people.

Since then Wade has returned back home to Chicago, expanding her activism to the Midwest. In 2016 Wade and a small group of other Black trans individuals launched the Black TGNC (trans, gender non-conforming) Collective. In 2016 the Chicago based activist group staged a direct action at the intersections of Belmont and Halsted in Chicago’s famously recognized queer neighborhood. The event was to honor TT Saffore, a Black Trans woman killed on Chicago’s West Side.

In the following year, Wade went on to co-found The Trans Liberation collective, which staged one of the largest trans-led protests in Chicago to date. She also launched Brave Space Alliance (BSA), a Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ nonprofit designed to create and provide affirming and culturally competent services for the entire LGBTQ community of Chicago.

Wade currently serves as the executive director of Brave Space Alliance where her entire staff is trans, and predominantly Black hires. “I have to have trustworthy people surrounding me,” she says, “it is important for Black trans people to surround ourselves with people we trust because of the way others dehumanize us.”

In almost half a decade since the organization launched Wade says that she continues to face criticism from people about her leadership capabilities. “A lot of people don’t trust Black trans women in leadership. I think a lot of it has to do with the stigmas against Black bodies how society continues to view Black women.”

As one of the only Black trans-led organizations in the Midwest, Brave Space Alliance remains a necessity for many Black and brown trans, nonbinary folks in Chicago. Wade has extended help to every trans person in the city, from offering temporary housing to covering funeral expenses for the family of slain trans women. Her leadership goes far above and beyond the standard activist resume; Wade has truly invested in her community.

As the face of so many intersectional movements, Wade spends a lot of her time discussing ways to better educate Black communities on transphobia. “There is a hole that needed to be filled between Black cis people and Black trans people,” she says. Wade points out that a lot of the violence inflicted on Black trans women is perpetrated within their own communities – a difficult discussion she hopes to tackle. “We have to learn how to educate our communities so we can work better together.”

The powerhouse activist is not all work though, she enjoys beekeeping and partaking in the ballroom scene – where she is currently the standing Midwest Motha from the House of Ferré. She views the pleasures of her life as a necessary balance; she never answers work calls on Sunday and has made it a point to make time for friends and family.

In the long term, Wade aspires to bring Pride back to its original roots. “Fuck Pride month,” she laughs, “My goal is to have a Marsha P. Johnson parade.“ The veteran organizer emphasizes the fact that trans people, and particularly Black trans women continue to die at alarming rates – an issue that continues to go ignored in the LGBTQ community. “If you’re not putting your body on the line then you’re not making sure that oppressed LGBTQ people are liberated.”

Wade hopes that her work will continue to honor the legacy of the trans women who made it possible for her to be where she is at. “I am Marsha P. Johnson,” she says, “we wouldn’t have what we have if she didn’t put her body on the line for liberation.”

Reyna Ortiz, 39, Cicero, IL

“I don’t have anything to celebrate during Pride, I live my life with pride every day.”

Reyna Ortiz grew up in Cicero, Illinois, just west of Chicago’s South Side Little Village neighborhood. At 39 years old, she is a published author, a former prom queen, a social worker, and a community organizer. Despite her impressive list of accolades Ortiz attributes much of her success to the love and encouragement of her family. “I was always very supported in my family, they laid the foundation for me to be confident in myself.”

Coming out was a transformative step in Ortiz’s life. She says she was forced to have serious conversations at a very young age because there was not a lot of openly transgender people in the early ’90s. An imperative part of confronting her identity as a trans woman was addressing the battles she would face. “My mother told me early on, ‘You’re gonna have a really complicated time, you’re going to go up against a lot of different types of systems.’”

Ortiz has always been hyper-aware of the dangers in existing as a transgender woman in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood. “The word trans would’ve gotten you killed when you were walking through the hood,” she says. Growing up, it was difficult for Ortiz to reconcile with the homophobia and misogyny that still remains present in many facets of Mexican culture.

It is not uncommon in Latino family units to encounter forms of machismo. Machismo is the concept associated with “a strong sense of masculine pride and exaggerated masculinity” prevalent in many Latin American cultures. It is frequently associated with the archaic notion that it is a man’s responsibility to provide for, protect – leaving no room for anything outside of the gender binary. In many situations, machismo perpetuates homophobia – viewing queerness as directly contradictory.

Although Ortiz says she has seen some shift over the last several decades, she has not lost sight of how deeply embedded toxic masculinity remains in cultural attitudes towards queer Latinos. “I work on the west side as a social service worker and I still get the most aggression from my own communities.”

As part of her mission to educate and bring more awareness to her community, Ortiz says it is critical to acknowledge the continued epidemic of violence against trans individuals. “The murder of trans people continues,” she says. “Donald Trump is still undermining our communities and passing policies that hurt our people.” This, Ortiz says, makes it difficult to truly celebrate Pride month.

The annual Pride festivities have been widely criticized for having sold out to mainstream corporations. “Pride has become commercial and lost its purpose,” says Ortiz. “It was meant to be a revolution, not just a celebration!” The trans-Latina organizer also views the continued mistreatment and violence that trans women of color face as a disservice to the sacrifices made by the pioneers of the LGBTQIA+ movement. “When Sylvia Rivera got on stage she got kicked off, she knew Black and Latina queens were going to be left behind.”

Pride, in its modern form, would not be possible without trans women like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. “They have been particularly impactful,” says Ortiz, referring to the Stonewall riots that served as the catalyst to the month-long celebration that exists today. “Trans women kicked it the fuck off,” she asserts. “It is really important to understand the battles they fought for us laid the foundation.”

Although much has changed since the days of the Stonewall riots, Ortiz says she hopes to see a continuous effort to uplift trans voices in the movement. “I see people everywhere talking about trans communities, it’s only just begun.” Behind the scenes, Ortiz intends to carry on the work of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera by mobilizing the generation after her. “The youth need to be taught our history,” she says. “People need to know we’re still here and we’re not taking any more.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Michelle Zacarias
Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias is a staff writer at People's World. A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Zacarias has invested her time in raising awareness on issues of social justice and equality. She has written and conducted research in several parts of the world; most recently Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she presented on disability awareness at the U.S. Consulate. Michelle self identifies as multi-marginalized: as a Latina, a woman of color and a person with disabilities. She considers her experiences a privilege, one that she hopes to use as a platform for spreading socio-political consciousness. In her spare time Michelle enjoys drinking pricey wines and watching old school zombie flicks.  

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