Community, Features

Forgotten stories: The critical role of Black trans women in the civil rights movement

Hundreds of years of systemic injustice, from slavery to Jim Crow laws, inspired the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy at a parade
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, an advocate for transgender civil rights. While Griffin-Gracy and other activists played a major role in the civil rights movement, they are not widely recognized for their contributions. COURTESY OF QUINN DOMBROWSKI VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

As the United States continues that long fight for racial equality with the Black Lives Matter movement, a reflection on the past reveals the influential activists who led those fights. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and many others did undoubtedly have a role in the civil rights movement, but the often-forgotten role of Black trans women was just as crucial — if not more so.

Adeline Gutierrez Nuñez, the assistant to the director at BU’s Center for Antiracist Research, wrote in an email that learning about Black trans women and their activism is essential and, unfortunately, not often done.

“Women like Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy experienced homelessness and incarceration, and these adversities fueled their activism,” she wrote. “Learning about the history and the importance of Black trans women’s leadership in our movement is crucial, and to state it simply, overdue.”

Martha P. Johnson — P for “Pay It No Mind” — became a mother figure for LGBTQ+ homeless youth and was integral to the ’69 Stonewall Riots. Johnson is considered by some to be the catalyst of the U.S. gay liberation movement.

Griffin-Gracy, also a part of Stonewall, fiercely advocated for transgender civil rights, specifically for trans women of color.

Black trans women have not only been excluded from education and platforms, but from movements themselves.

The Combahee River Collective grew in Boston in the ’70s out of a need to advocate for Black members of the LGBTQ+ community and address their needs. The group members were considered outcasts, left behind from other movements that didn’t prioritize their needs. So, they gathered together to be heard.

Though times have changed, this pattern of exclusion has persisted in some capacities.

Athena Vaughn, the president of Trans Resistance MA, said the organization was first created in June as a response to the deaths of George Floyd and Black trans women around the world.

Specifically, the organization formed to offer trans individuals of color a platform separate from the Boston Pride board and its “trans-exclusionary” practices, according to Trans Resistance MA’s website. Vaughn added Pride also did not recognize Black Lives Matter in their newsletter, which was another cause for concern.

“We realized that everything going on in the community was not for us, by us,” Vaughn said. “The power that was given to Pride was given to Pride by trans women of color … and Trans Resistance was created to counteract all of the hatred.”

The organization stems from Massachusetts’ Transgender Emergency Fund, which is the only group in Massachusetts supporting unhoused and low-income transgender individuals.

Vaughn said the mission of Trans Resistance MA is to support trans individuals of color and offer them safe spaces while responding to and resisting transphobic actions.

The formation of the organization coincides with high rates of violence — more transgender and gender non-conforming individuals were murdered in 2020 than any other year since the Human Rights Campaign began tracking the data in 2013.

Vaughn said Black trans women are “ostracized” because of ignorance and a lack of understanding, and people must consciously work to educate themselves on what it means to be a true ally.

“Trans individuals, especially Black trans women, are vital to a piece of civil rights,” she said. “We represent and look like what’s going on in the world and who the world is.”

Black trans women, and Black individuals in general, are crucial to the civil rights movement, Vaughn said, because when King talked about equality, he meant we are all created equal, no matter who you are.

“You cannot say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ you cannot say ‘All Lives Matter,’ you cannot say whatever it is that people are saying when it comes to being equal, and not include trans people of color,” she said. “You cannot fight for one and not fight for all.”






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