One of the politics Captive Genders offers is that of gender self-determination. Here ‘self-determination’ exists within the context of other markers of identity and power. What a theory of gender self-determination does, we hope, is opens space for a wider verity of gender identities while resisting a totalizing claim to realness at the expense of others’ identities. Two contributors, Reina Gossett, who lives in Brooklyn and works at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a radical queer activist, writer and performer, offer a few thoughts on the politics of gender in relation to past and present social movements.
Eric Stanley: Tommi in your piece “Brushes with Lily Law,” you write about gender identities that live through and beyond what is currently understood as a “transgender” identity. Specifically you refer to “genderfuck” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Can you say a bit more about the possibilities and limitations of this category?
Tommi Avicolli Mecca: I think for me, gender was always a blurry thing, never well-defined, I played dress up and with dolls as a kid and was ostracized as a sissy. I came out and started doing drag, both as a political statement (radical drag, gender fuck, glitter drag, etc.) and as a personal exploration of this social construct called gender. I was never sure if I was a drag queen, a transsexual, a glitter/glam queen, an androgyne or something else. That was before the word “transgender.” Now, I think it’s all up for grabs. People should just simply do what they want. Gender is a continuum like sexual orientation. How many wonderful variations on it can we find?
Eric Stanley: Tommi you talk about an earlier historical moment, and Reina, in the conversation you are a part of “Abolitionist Imaginings,” (which is facilitated by Che Gossett and also features Bo Brown and Dylan Rodríguez) yours is more contemporary, while pointing toward the past. I am wondering, Tommi and Reina if you could talk about some about the radical trans/queer organizing of today or of past historical moments you find inspiration in?
Tommi Avicolli Mecca: For me, it’s exciting to see the acceptance of gender outlaw-ness that I find among younger queers and transgender folks. When I speak on college campuses, there’s just this awareness of the total arbitrariness of the binary gender system. It makes me feel proud of the work we did 40 years ago. Groups such as Street Action Transvestite Revolutionaries in New York and Radicalqueens in Philadelphia really did start a revolution in thinking about gender and gender identity. We demanded a place in gay liberation as non-gender conforming people. Like us, transgender folks today have simply said, “we’re here, we’re trans, we’re not going away!” And Human Rights Campaign and other movement groups have had to deal with it. Like the mainstream movement had to deal with GLF in the early 70s and ACT UP in the late 80s. I love it. As for the historical moments, I remember that moment in the 73 pride march in New York when Sylvia Rivera seized the mic onstage to urge organizers to divert the march from its course and go past the building where some transgender women were being held (they had been arrested on the streets that weekend). Some of us from Radicalqueens Philly stood near the side of the stage in solidarity with her. It was an amazing moment listening to Sylvia, and though she didn’t succeed in changing the route of the march, she inspired me to go back to Philly and become even more militant about gender issues than I had been.
Reina Gossett: As a queer & trans person of color and a person working within gender liberation & self-determination movements I so often hear about death. More specifically I so often interact with the overkilling of queer and trans people, often low income, living with HIV/AIDS, undocumented, disabled and people of color. So much death, so much killing, has made me wonder how to be accountable to dead as well as the living. I remember reading the essay “Dark Resurrections; Origin and Possibility” last year by Alexis Pauline Gumbs where she writes about our lives as continuous, from the bones covering the Atlantic ocean floor from the slave trade, to the Combahee River Collective to today: “the living and the dead and the yet unborn are all fully involved in our struggle, all present, all demanding our accountability.”
So often in our movement we rush to urgently respond to huge violences affecting our lives rather than create spaces that support us to feel, honor and recognize the power of grief. In his essay “Mourning & Militancy” The AIDS activist Douglass Crimp, having worked to center mourning as a powerfully psychic and necessary force for queer people to experience, reflected on grief as misunderstood by many activist communities: “Public mourning rituals may of course have their own political force, but they nevertheless often seem, from an activist perspective, indulgent, sentimental, defeatist.” So its within this context that I am really inspired by historical moments where people came together to hold ancestral & personal grief as a powerfully political act; make plain the connections between grief & state violence, diminishing circles of care, resource and isolation; resist silence & shame by honoring people who passed all the while deepening our own relationships and invested in our own living.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Stonewall the New York Public Library put up a series of photographs of Sylvia Rivera and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries organizing in the 1970s as well as more recently. A friend of mine, AJ Lewis, a doctoral student at University of Minnesota went to NYPL to check them out and do archival research there and came across a flier from the Gay Liberation Front of the 1970s for an action in the ‘70s in Los Angeles, which I find to be incredibly powerful. The flier read:
“Sunday March 7 For three police murders:
Black Street Transvestite
Killed by Los Angeles Police
March 8, 1970
Killed by Los Angeles Police
March 7, 1970
Killed by Los Angeles Police
Tin can demonstration –“bring a small, empty tin-can and a pencil to beat it with. It will make an ominous and interesting sound”
During the demonstration we will attempt to raise (by Magyck) the Rampart Police Station several feet above the ground and hopefully cause it to disappear for two hours. If the GLF is successful in this effort we will alleviate a major source of homosexual oppression for at least those two hours. A large turnout might do the same thing for a longer period of time. Support this action with your presence.
A Peaceful, Non-Violent Demonstration”
Howard Efland’s died in 1969 due to massive internal injuries, which the coroner ruled an excusable LAPD homicide because Howard Efland supposedly resisted arrest to vice officers but according to witnesses Howard (or J McCann) was held on to the ground and beaten. According to an article by Angela Douglas in Come Out! Magazine shortly after their deaths, Laverne (Larry) Turner and Ginny Gallegos were also both killed for resisting arrest and in Laverne’s case for being dressed in “feminine attire.”
I am so inspired by how Laverne, Howard and Ginny are honored as ancestors and are present in the action through a levitated & disappeared police station, ominous and interesting sounds and large turnouts of mourners. I love the levity that accompanied this action, according to witnesses the station rose six feet after demonstrators chanted “Raise! Raise!” I love how haunting this demonstration is, responding to the killings and ongoing threats of homophobic and transphobic violence from the state by organizing an action filled with accountability to the living, dead and unknown forces that are all fully involved in our struggle for liberation. So outside the normalized organizing tactics preferred by the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, forty years later this action feels incredibly accountable to the unborn, the dead and the living present at the Rampart Police Station in 1970.
This moment leaves me in awe, accounted for and curious. I wonder what a resurgence of actions connected & accountable to grief, the dead, the unborn, unknown and alive would do to our collective resiliency. I imagine a shift in connection and accountability would create more space in our movements to hold more people, more levity, more magic, less isolation and less shame.