Sylvia Rivera & Marsha P. Johnson

I love these two icons. They deserve so much credit for social justice and for the trans community in particular. They fought for everyone: prisoners, addicts, homeless, youth, people with AIDS, LGBTQ people of color, sex workers and anyone who was oppressed or marginalized. The work they did was stunning. And it was done while they lived very oppressed lives. They were often homeless. Sylvia struggled with addiction and they both met tragic and premature deaths.

In addition to all of these struggles, their legacy is in trouble. Any person who researches them knows they are brilliant Stonewall activists, creators of S.T.A.R. and legendary! However, the media has been a mess when dealing with these sisters. They have white-washed them and cis-washed them.

White-washing is when Black and Brown people are marginalized or erased to make way for white supremacy. Cis-washing is when cis people make themselves the center of the world and try to erase the work of transgender people.

Through films like Stonewall as well as books and articles, white cisgender people have attempted to erase their legacy and minimize their accomplishments. Many of these detractors have been wealthy, white gay cis men. The reason for their work is because they want to give themselves all the credit. They want to distort the record to make it seem like they did all the activist work during the 1960s and 1970s. This work is reprehensible. It makes me so angry.

Two trans women made a short film about Marsha. A middle-class, white cisgender man comes along and makes a documentary about Marsha that appears on Netflix. They had the money and power to get this feature-length documentary made. Then it takes away from the film made by two trans women, at least one of them a trans woman of color. Luckily these women are persevering and they are going forward with their film and its distribution. I can’t wait to see it and to use it for my classes. The only other film I use is from the 1990s and it is called A Question of Equality: Uprising ’69. It is one of the few that is inclusive of transgender people of color and that does not try to white-wash or cis-wash the events of Stonewall.

What this all shows is the importance of history, of the archive and of documentation. Those in power have no problem distorting history to meet their own agenda. This is a power grab because the framing of history is vitally important. I am not a historian but I am interested in queer history and would like to see more work on trans people, QTPOC and other marginalized groups like poor, disabled and aged queer people. There are so many stories that have not been told. Part of this is because of history itself. It highlights dead, white, euro-american males and pushes everyone else to the margins or eliminates them all together. When I ask students how much they learned about women, POC, LGBTQ folks and PWD in K-12 there are usually very few hands that go up, if any! This is so disheartening to see, but entirely unsurprising, too. This is why writing and grass-roots educational efforts are so important. We have to correct the record. Sylvia and Marsha deserve nothing less.