“T4T as Praxis: Trans Mutual Aid during Plague”

Trans people have been struck by plague before. Trans people know very well what it feels like to watch friends pass away unexpectedly, to lose housing and one’s entire means of income and savings, and to continue to struggle under such coercive systems of white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, and genocide. Trans people–disproportionately Black and brown trans folx–have experienced generations of hyper-surveillance from police and law enforcement, economic disenfranchisement and ostracization, and physical and sexual brutality and violence. By the time of the post-WWII economy of the 1950s, a new cultural–and contradictory–rhetoric surrounding homosexuality, cross-dressing, and what Susan Stryker labels “transgender phenomena” was developing ([2008]2017:79). While white “ex-GI” champion veteran, Christine Jorgensen, gained world-wide recognition when she received gender reaffirming surgery and was then placed on the front cover of New York Daily News in 1952 (67), Lucy Hicks Anderson received the title as the “first transgendered black [sic] to be legally tried and convicted in court for impersonating a woman” under the act of perjury just the decade prior (Snorton 2017:147). When Ava Betty Brown, a Black and prideful-bisexual trans woman, announced to Jet magazine in 1953 that she, too, was traveling to Denmark to receive gender reaffirming surgery like Jorgensen had accomploshed, the federal government halted her travel plans for her surgery, tried her in court for female impersonation, and found Brown guilty and fined her one hundred dollars which, today, would equate close to a thousand dollars (164). Anti-cross-dressing (and, more so, anti-trans) laws have been upheld throughout the country since the mid-19th century. In fact, over 40 urban cities across the country have upheld laws persecuting trans women for illegally “impersonating a female” since the 1840s–San Francisco upheld this law until 1974 and New York City just up until the last ten years (Stryker [2008]2017:47; Sears 2014). From the deeply ingrained sentiments of anti-Blackness, homophobia, and trans-misogyny of the post-WWII era to the infamous trans rebellions against police brutality and anti-cross-dressing laws executed by heroines like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera which took place at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco and the Stonewall Inn in New York the following decade, trans people historically have been strategically protecting one another against state violence and criminalization. Toward the end of the 20th century, trans communities were disproportionately directly impacted by the rise of both the War On Drugs as well as HIV/AIDS. When information regarding the AIDS epidemic first became public knowledge, trans people and people who use drugs and engaged in sex work were forced to learn to survive on their own and keep each other alive despite striving against a political empire that wanted to see them perish. For trans communities and other members impacted by these disastrous plagues, this thus meant creating mutual aid networks among one another, imagining systems of reducing harm and rioting for justice when coming to face a crisis that did not involve police, law enforcement, and more broadly the state. For trans communities, this meant reimagining new and collective responses to drugs, sex, violence, crisis, and harm in critical and different perspectives that fell outside of a system that never fought to keep us alive.

As I begin to write this paper back in November, the number of coronavirus cases is roughly 84.5 million with the death toll exceeding 1.8 million worldwide. Despite those numbers and the real pain and loss that millions of people are facing currently, many others continue to refuse to acknowledge the way in which plague–not solely in reference to COVID but also concurrent epidemics of mass incarceration and white supremacy; homelessness and climate change; and transmisogyny and cisheteropatriarchy–instills tremendous harm on the bodies of those already systematically marginalized. Likewise, there is an even larger lack of acknowledgment around the contrasting government responses and societal stigmatization between the pandemics of COVID and AIDS within the last fifty years. In less than a year since, the federal government has collaborated with a broad range of scientists, international pharmaceutical companies, and other empiring nations in preparing the release of a vaccine for coronavirus. On the contrary, over forty years since the initial cases of HIV reached headlines with a death toll that now surpasses that of COVID by nearly thirty times, there is still no vaccine to this day. AIDS has killed over 35 million people worldwide since the 1980s–an average of 9.1 millions deaths annually (Anarchist Communist Group 2020:1). Unlike its following plague sibling, AIDS was politically and strategically introduced, and culturally understood, to be a “gay plague;” it had initially, quite literally, been labeled as GRID (gay-related immune syndrom) and seen to be a direct result of the actions of gay men, trans women, and people who use drugs and engage in sex work (1). In a post-WWII economy where Black people and other communities of color had fought far too hard for Civil Rights, and trans and queer communities much too loud for their liberation, the AIDS epidemic was used covertly as a political tool to eliminate the States’ outlasting deviants and dissenters without any accountability or empathy on their part.

None of this is to say that COVID has not likewise severely devastated the lives of queer and trans people of color or similarly been used as a tool to further create the fascist, white supremacist patriarchal utopia our elected officials fight for. Since March of 2020, coronavirus has pursued in unhinging the broken bolts of U.S. democracy and granting the federal government a new timeline to make such a dream a nightmarish reality. Even prior to COVID, nearly 1 in 3 trans people have been living in poverty and economic isolation, this number becoming almost 1 in 2 for trans people of color (James et al. 2016:5). Since the initial news of the first COVID cases, trans people have been severely impacted by an increased amount of barriers to healthcare, employment, housing, and legal rights; heightened levels of experienced hypervigilance and violence; and diminished access to overall community and, consequently, immense increases in levels of social and emotional isolation (Woulfe and Wald 2020). The year of 2020 has become the year with the most deaths and loss of our trans community members, not simply from coronavirus but from the interwoven histories and results of white supremacy, trans-misogyny, police violence, and genocide (HRC 2020).

In the waking days of coronavirus, white supremacy, and global warming, it may often feel isolating to envision a future without such sickness and plague. In circumstances where individuals are mandated to stay in one place and such feelings of isolation continue to bolster around us, the question for myself as a trans person in this moment is how to critique and challenge these violent systems of oppression while simultaneously surviving under such systems that directly target trans, queer, Black, brown, Indigenous, disabled, and economically poor bodies. The goal must, thus, be to utilize these times of isolation to nonetheless intentionally be creating community and collective care among other trans folx who similarly are trying to survive in this very moment. The act of utilizing theory and merging it within quotidian action and critical reflection is that of praxis; Paulo Freire in the second-half of the twentieth century defined praxis as the “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it – a task for humanity”(Freire 1972:33). Praxis is the act of interlinking one’s hands-on work toward liberation with theories and epistemologies that inform each other and hold one another accountable through such processes. bell hooks illustratively labels this practice as something both “revolutionary” and “rarely safe or pleasurable,” yet required as part of the resistance and collective liberations against such forms of oppression (hooks 1994:43). “I think that so many progressive political movements fail to have lasting impact in the United States precisely,” hooks notes, “because there is not enough understanding of ‘praxis’”(48). For the purpose of this paper, I seek to utilize an ideological framework of praxis pertaining to that of trans-for-trans relationship efforts (hereinafter ‘t4t’) which not only shape our romantic and sexual relationships from a place in which trans people recognize the capacity to love without coercion from cisheteronormative pressures but likewise our emergent practices of uplifting our trans community members within a murderous economy that disproportionately attacks Black and brown trans women and Two-Spirit folx. The title of this paper, “T4T as Praxis,” is undoubtedly a nod of appreciation and returning to Raneta Lawson’s piece from twenty-five years ago–“Critical Race Theory as Praxis” which similarly defines this liberative process of praxis as that which “transforms theory into practice” (368). Just as how Lawson additionally notes that “[CRT] as praxis offers tremendous promise for such expansion and for the future of [CRT],” I believe utilizing t4t as praxis may in fact provide us trans folx, similarly, with a new framework for the ways in which we shape our lives and relationships, especially in a time of plague, dissent, violence, and isolation (1995:368). I believe t4t ideologies can transform the way we persevere with resiliency through this burning country, a country that has colonized the minds of the peoples and has told them that there is no space for trans people or trans bodies in it. I believe t4t ideologies can transform the world in which we participate with by critically engaging with and supporting one another intentionally out of both resiliency and the desire to live as well as community accountability and collective liberation.

Just as how trans identities and bodies are nothing new, neither are t4t frameworks, all inclusive of those from intimate partnerships and polycules to mutual aid efforts and intervention with community members who use various substances and have varying disabilities and needs, all under a violent and murderous state. The term “mutual aid” came about during the same era of the 1970s from the work of some white anarchists like Ursula Le Guin through her science fiction novel, The Dispossessed (1974), in addition to the many other ongoing efforts by radicals fighting for the livelihood of, for example, people living with HIV/AIDS, people who use drugs and engage in sex work, and people who are incarcerated and locked away in places of violence and brutality. While cisgender heterosexual people are systematically already granted spaces focused on mutual aid frameworks, including spaces such as Friendly Societies, fraternities and sororities, and major benefits and philanthropic efforts, queer and especially trans folx remain disenfranchised and ostracized from such organizations and, thus, create mutual aid efforts that address such systemic issues at the deeply rooted engraining of such hateful ideologies within our culture. Scholar and activist Dean Spade recently articulates the three key elements to any thriving mutual aid project: the capacity to meet one another’s survival needs and recognize inequities to accessing such resources necessary for survival; the ability to mobilize people and expand solidarity; and the collective participation of those systemically impacted in problem solving such survival tactics and programming (2020). In Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s critical intersectional work on disability justice and mutual aid, they similarly highlight that this process of collective care and access has been around for decades and specifically practiced by Black and brown disabled queer and trans folx in effort of survivng the upcoming obstacles and days (2020). Mutual aid exists in dialogue with other prominent frameworks for transformative justice, community accountability, and harm reduction and is a call to uplift community members who are currently struggling as a result of deeper, systemic stigma and prejudice in play pushing many of us into the outskirts–outside of society and outside of our own communities. Mutual aid actively urges us to show up and care simultaneously to our own bodies as well as those surrounding us. To utilize and create mutual aid efforts from specifically a t4t framework means to do this work, to show up for one another critically and equitably, to recognize more explicitly the ways in which concurrent systems of anti-Blackness and white supremacy, transmisogyny and cisheteropatriarchy, and economic and physical ostracization affects those most impacted, and how to keep one another alive during such times of dark and ominous plague.

Just like trans people, T4T mutual aid efforts have always existed in the cracks of even such a system that seeks to bury us alive. One of the earliest exemplaries of resilient t4t mutual aid is none other than the daughter of Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and the prior riot at Stonewall–STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) House. STAR House was a Black and brown trans-run house at 213 East 2nd Street in the East Village of New York that was for, as Miss Rivera explained, “the street gay people, the street homeless people and anybody that needed help at that time” (2013:13). Although certainly never using the terminology of t4t praxis or mutual aid, Rivera and Johnson recognized the deeply-rooted inequities that trans women and especially Black and brown trans women, unhoused trans women, trans sex workers, and disabled trans women faced. STAR had created the capacity to not only advocate for the dismantling of such oppressive systems amongst their collective but also on a larger front. STAR eventually expanded their solidarity efforts by opening additional trans shelter chapters in other urban areas like Chicago, the Bay Area, and even England in just the span of a few years (13). STAR also participated in a variety of liberatory efforts with intersecting non-trans solidarity groups throughout the 1970s and 80s like the Young Lords and Black Panther Party for the interdependence and collective access of all marginalized people, in which case Huey Newton eventually claimed “that we [STAR] were revolutionary people” (13). STAR, at its root, was able to meet the real survival needs of its trans community by bringing together marginalized trans folx and collectively accessing the resources needed to survive: gender reaffirming hormones and care, safer sex supplies, housing and food, and a space to organize and heal with other trans people engaged in their own collective liberation.

Today, the legacy of Sylvia and Marsha’s fight for liberation remains ubiquitous throughout the ongoing mutual aid efforts of the twenty-first century. A prime example of this legacy in action in this day and age would be G.L.I.T.S. (Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society) who similarly addresses and advocates for the immediate needs of trans sex workers living in New York City as well as on a larger, more global level. In 2016, Alia Adams–a Black trans woman from Uganda who had fled to Kenya for refugee during Uganda’s anti-gay law enactment–reached out to Ceyenne Doroshow from G.L.I.T.S. out of fear for her life. The following year, G.L.I.T.S. was able to support Alia in receiving asylum into the U.S. and providing her access to housing in Albany, New York in addition to critical education, medical care, and employment. Similar to STAR, G.L.I.T.S. embodies a t4t framework of mutual aid throughout their work, from their regular dinner meetings for the trans sex worker community at their GMHC house in New York City; accessing gender affirming medical care and health services for homeless, Black and brown trans women; and by offering safe, long-term housing in addition to legal and health services and ongoing support for in/inter/dependent living. G.L.I.T.S. built the capacity to support our most marginalized trans siblings from a lense that not only recognizes the marginalization of trans women but intersectingly the urgency to show up for Black and brown trans women and trans sex workers living under and outside of the violent state that disproportionately enacts legally-sound violence.

Trans Lifeline, a peer run network of solidarity and survival for trans folx, serves as another present example of t4t mutual aid as praxis. Throughout Trans Lifeline’s in-depth training curriculum for over 600-trained volunteers, they recognize that one of the most monumental challenges for trans people–a disproportionate amount which brings trans people to the point of suicidal idealization and no longer seeing a future to survive in–is the vast array of systematic barriers set in place to push us out from spaces of resources and accessibility. Trans Lifeline prides itself on their t4t framework, providing peer support “run by and for trans people,” having answered over 100,000 phone calls as well as distributing roughly $740,000 through microgrants and emergency funding requests specifically to trans people across the globe. From a quantitative reference point, trans people in the U.S. are more than four times as likely to live in extreme poverty, with an annual income of under $10,000), this amount even more so increasing for Black and brown trans folx (Grant et al. 2011:22). Roughly 1 in 9 trans people engage in sex work while another 1 in 9 are unemployed and forced to survive in this facist economy (22). At the same time, compared to the 1.6% of the entire U.S. population, a staggering 41% of trans folx report having attempted suicide, this number increasing to 54% for trans folx of color (2). And these numbers are prior to COVID.

There is a dire urgency to keep one another alive. We are living in dark times under a fascist state that is encapsulated by an emerging coronavirus as well as ongoing attacks against people of color, people living with HIV, people who use drugs and engage in sex work, disabled people, and people placed within the carceral state. Currently, I am writing this essay from my studio apartment in the Tenderloin (Trans Cultural District) of San Francisco, just a couple of blocks away from TGIJP, St. James Infirmary, Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, and the celebrated site of the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria that took place three years prior to Stonewall. I am writing this while isolated in my studio, isolated by my trauma, isolated from the physical connections and contact we need to thrive and know that there is more to this life than just ourselves. I am craving these interactions because it is literally how we have and continue to survive through tough times. When I walk outside my apartment and close the door, I see and feel the effects of these ongoing attacks on our bodies. When I step outside, a rock instantly plummets and shatters just a few inches away from my head. A woman is screaming from across the street at some man for stealing her money. Someone is nodding out on the sidewalk in their wheelchair. An older guy asks me if I want to buy adderall or xanax and a younger one asks to buy me out. A community member calls me telling me they are facing eviction because they put up a ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ sign in their apartment and need urgent support. A trans sex worker I am close to suddenly overdoses in their room and no one is there to save them. My roommate just jumped off a bridge and passed away. My best friend has moved 400 miles out of the city because she was priced out. Other friends and loved ones have been negatively affected by covid, placed in places of detention and incarceration, and lost housing, life savings, and employment because our system hates trans people. Our government and such intersecting systems have likewise closed their doors on us; people are still experiencing drastic rates of homelessness and the impact now is only more dangerous as the risks of coronavirus, HIV, other illnesses, police brutality, and prejudice continues to steal the lives of our loved ones. How are we going to survive this? I ask myself. How are we supposed to get through this when everything feels impossible and alone and traumatic?

Not in isolation, but together.

References

Anarchist Communist Group. 2020. “Coronavirus, HIV/AIDS and World Hunger.” Anarchist Library.

Freire, Paulo. 1972. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society (G.L.I.T.S.). 2020. “Mission Statement.” Retrieved from https://www.glitsinc.org/about

Grant, Jaime M, Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. 2011. Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Human Rights Campaign. 2020. “Fatal Violence Against the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Community in 2020.” Washington, DC: HRC.

James, Sandy E., Jody L. Herman, Susan Rankin, Mara Keisling, Lisa Mottet, and Ma’ayan Anaf. 2016. The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah L. 2020. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Lawson, Raneta J. 1995. “Critical Race Theory as Praxis: A View From Outside the Outside.” Howard Law Journal 38:353-370.

Rivera, Sylvia. 2013. “‘I’m Glad I Was In The Stonewall Riot’: An Interview with Sylvia Rivera.” Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries: Survival, Revolt, and Queer Antagonist Struggle. Untorelli Press.

Sears, Clare. 2014. Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Snorton, C. Riley. 2017. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Spade, Dean. 2020. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Stryker, Susan. [2008] 2017. Transgender History. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

Trans Lifeline. 2020. “About.” Retrieved from https://translifeline.org/about/

Woulfe, Julie, and Melina Wald. 2020. “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Transgender and Non-Binary Community.” New York: Columbia University Department of Psychiatry.

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