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Black Trans Women Led the LGBTQ+ Movement

(Photo above by Teddy Osterblom via Unsplash)

It’s Pride Month. Pride now has become associated with fun parades and celebrations. And usually it is a time to revel in the spirit. But this year, it’s also a time where racism and police brutality have come to the forefront of social discussion. The Black Lives Matter movement has reached a zenith this June, with demonstrations in all 50 states and across the world.

The protests and the coronavirus pandemic have put many Pride events on halt. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Now that Black voices are being amplified, we can center Pride on an oft-overlooked but important group within the LGBTQ+ community: Black trans women.

Why talk about Black trans women?

Trans women’s stories have been ignored even within the LGBTQ+ community since the community itself began. A recent example is J.K. Rowling, who claims to be an ally to trans people, even though she said she’d “march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans.” The problem with that statement is the “if.” Trans women are being discriminated against, targeted, and murdered just for being trans. And the problem is doubly worse for Black trans women.

1 in 19,000 Americans are murdered. 1 in 2,600 Black trans women are murdered. But the actual murder rate might be much higher, as this number is based off incidents that were reported and those deemed as murder. Therefore, the figure does not include cases dismissed by police as suicide or other causes. 72 percent of trans people killed in the U.S. from 2010 to 2016 were Black trans women and femmes. HIV and AIDS also disproportionately affect Black trans women. A 2019 CDC analysis estimated that 14 percent of trans women were HIV positive. Of trans women with HIV, 44 percent were Black. The next highest racial group was Hispanic/Latinx at 26 percent.

Beyond being the most at-risk demographic within the LGBTQ+ community, Black trans women were integral to the beginnings of the gay rights movement.

The Stonewall Riots and Black Lives Matter

Many consider the Stonewall Riots to be the beginning of the LGBTQ+ movement. While the movement did exist before then, they were a pivotal moment in queer history. After the Stonewall Riots in June 1969, annual Pride celebrations began the following year in 1970. Since then, June has been declared Pride Month where we celebrate the riots and support the LGBTQ+ community.

The Stonewall Riots are especially relevant now because they were exactly what their name entails — riots. The Stonewall Inn was a popular gay bar during the 1960s. But it was also home to frequent police raids. On June 28, 1969 there was one such raid. Patrons were fed up with the police harassment and frequent arrests under dubious circumstances, and these frustrations and anger finally reached a boiling point. That night began a days-long standoff between LGBTQ+ New Yorkers and police. These riots were successful. They inspired the yearly Pride events and pushed the movement to the mainstream.

The heart of the Stonewall Riots was fighting against police brutality. Black trans woman Marsha P. Johnson, a leader of the riots, said of that time, “We were just saying, ‘no more police brutality’ and ‘we had enough of police harassment in the Village and other places.’”

Similarly, the Black Lives Matter protests are in opposition to police brutality against Black people. And in some cases, the protests have turned into riots. (Whether the protestors were violent to begin with or police incited violence is up for some debate and may vary between places, but many recount law enforcement as being the instigators.) But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that protests and riots can be successful and effect change, as the Stonewall Riots did.

The current riots have drawn criticism from some prominent LGBTQ+ internet figures. What the “I support the protests, I just wish they remained peaceful” sentiments lack is historical context. All queer people have benefited from Stonewall and the progress that has been made since. To criticize the Black Lives Matter movement for using the same tactics is hypocritical. In an article by GLAAD Campus Ambassador Antonio Calbo-Jackson, he summarizes this idea saying, “Rioting brought our community together to fight for our liberation as a united front, and now the BlackLivesMatter movement is doing the same. They need your support as allies and accomplices, not as critics or absentees.”

Pride has always been about police brutality, as Black Lives Matter is now. Further, the Stonewall Riots and the early LGBTQ+ movement were led by Black trans women. Marsha P. Johnson, who was a prominent figure at Stonewall and led riots against police brutality, was only one of many.

Leaders of Stonewall and LGBTQ+ activists 

Marsha P. Johnson is perhaps the best known leading figure of the Stonewall Riots. She, along with fellow trans woman of color Sylvia Rivera, is credited with leading the riots. She was present on the first night of the uprising and is thought to be one of the first people to act against the police. Along with Rivera, she later founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, which acted as a shelter for trans youth.

Johnson, unfortunately, died at only 46 in 1992. Her death was ruled a suicide by police, though her friends believe her death happened under uncertain circumstances, and they didn’t believe she was suicidal. The biography of Johnson on the GLSEN website even lists her death as a murder. As mentioned earlier, this may be an example of a case that contributes to obfuscating the true homicide rate of Black trans women, as her death was considered a suicide.

While Johnson and Rivera are the most well-known leaders of the Stonewall Riots, they are far from the only prominent people involved. Another important and groundbreaking Black trans woman present at Stonewall is Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. Griffin-Gracy has over 40 years of LGBTQ+ activism, partially inspired by the time she spent in prison after the riots.

Griffin-Gracy helped establish the Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project as its first Staff Organizer in 2005 and later its longtime Executive Director. TGIJP describes itself as an organization that helps “to challenge and end the human rights abuses committed against TGI people in California prisons, jails, detention centers and beyond.” She later founded the House of GG in 2018, which creates educational and social justice programs for trans and gender-nonconforming people.

Dee Dee Chamblee began her activism later than Johnson and Griffin-Gracy, but has been the vanguard of trans and HIV advocacy in her Atlanta community and has contributed decades of social justice work. She founded LaGender, Inc. in 2001 to provide information and aid regarding  HIV, homelessness, mental health, and incarceration for the trans community. In 2011, on the 30th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic, she was named a “Champion of Change” by the Obama administration for her years of HIV/AIDS activism.

In 2013, Chamblee founded the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative, which helps Black trans youth with education and leadership programs, creates funds to help with personal emergencies, and helps to decriminalize sex work.

Final Thoughts

Black trans women were pioneers of the LGBTQ+ movement, acting as leaders in the Stonewall Riots and beyond. But, they are also more likely to be killed and to test positive for HIV than any other American demographic. And now, in the midst of rebellion against police brutality, it is more important than ever to remember that.

Now is the time to continue learning about the beginnings of Pride and the Black trans women who shaped the movement. If you want to learn more about Marsha P. Johnson, you can watch the Netflix documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” here. If you want to learn more about Griffin-Gracy’s life and advocacy work, you can watch the 2015 documentary feature about her, “MAJOR!” on Amazon Prime Video. If you want to learn about Stonewall and its legacy, watch the documentary “Stonewall Forever” and interact with the living monument.

Stonewall and Pride and the Black Lives Matter movement overlap in many ways, and we must acknowledge the groundbreaking women who got us here. This was the goal of Griffin-Gracy’s years of activism. As she said, she “would want people to understand who we are as human beings. I want us to look at the similarities more than the differences.

  • What will you do next to learn about the pioneers of Pride?

    • Watch the documentaries listed in the article
    • Read books about LGBTQ+ history
    • Follow Black creators on social media


Written by Abby Sacks

Student at the University of Virginia studying Psychology and Media Studies. When not writing or hanging out with my cat, can be found watching too much bad TV and being too old for TikTok but enjoying it anyway.

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