On Trans Day of Remembrance, the Personal Gets Political: An Interview With Reina Gossett

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy during the Pride 2014 parade in San Francisco, California.Miss Major Griffin-Gracy during the Pride 2014 parade in San Francisco, California. (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski / Wikipedia)

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In 1998, Gwendolyn Ann Smith’s friend Rita Hester was killed in a transphobic attack. Starting the next year, Smith and her extended transgender (trans) and queer family held a candlelight vigil in San Francisco to grieve Hester and other trans and gender nonconforming people lost to transphobic violence. Today, communities in hundreds of cities on six continents celebrate Trans Day of Remembrance every November 20.

Trans people are now more visible than ever. However, token mentions during presidential speeches and trans-starring reality TV shows haven’t translated into better conditions for most. On the contrary, violence against trans people, especially trans women of color, is climbing, with each year being worse than the last.

One major reason for this, according to trans icons, such as Reina Gossett and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, is the narrow-mindedness of mostly white, gay- and lesbian-led mainstream rights campaigns that focus on singular issues like legalizing gay marriage. The loudest voices in the movement — groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force — have used their bank vaults to fund “trickle-down” campaigns that at their root assume that if wealthy, white gay men get their rights, eventually trans women of color will too. This assumption has shown itself to be faker than a reality show. Twenty years after more radical groups like ACT UP fizzled, mainstream groups have done almost nothing to advance trans liberation.

In the current moment, it’s clearer than ever why we need leaders like Gossett and Major: Black, trans activists who have been in the struggle a long time and who, through their work constantly bring into focus how different forms of oppression are deeply connected, exposing the flawed logic of campaigns that don’t center the people who are most marginalized.

Miss Major is director emeritus of the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project and a former sex worker who was politicized at Attica Prison in the wake of the riots there. She also fought against cop cruelty at the historic Stonewall rebellion in 1969. Major just celebrated her 75th birthday in October and is the subject of the award-winning documentary MAJOR!, released last year.

Gossett is an artist and activist-in-residence at Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women. She formerly worked as membership director at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, where she led successful campaigns to end health care and welfare discrimination against low-income trans and gender nonconforming New Yorkers.

The two have known each other since 2007, but this Trans Day of Remembrance, they’ve got a gift for all the trans people who are feeling deflated by the state of the world right now: Today, on November 20, 2016, they are releasing online a new short animated film titled The Personal Things based on Gossett’s interview with Major and produced by Gossett and her collaborators Hope Dector and Micah Bazant:

The Personal Things from BCRW Videos on Vimeo.

Truthout asked Gossett to share her thoughts on Trans Day of Remembrance, the importance of media that is made by and for trans people, and resources for keeping up the struggle for justice, even in times when our hope is emptied out.

Toshio Meronek: People have been trying to push Trans Day of Remembrance into more than a time to grieve and remember — into a Trans Day of Resistance, or a Trans Day of Action. The point is remembering to support trans people who are still alive. Did that come up when you were making this film?

Reina Gossett: Yes, absolutely. I think that art changes people’s worlds. It has certainly changed my world and it’s certainly part of a larger social movement practice that I have. And the social movement practice that I have is usually connected, especially right now, with things that happened not in this current moment, so maybe 10 years ago, 40 years ago, hundreds of years ago, is sort of what I’m drawn to. People who aren’t living, but whose lives and life force have just created incredible imprints on the world and the landscapes that we move through. So I feel that the piece with Major is so important because I feel what is rare is honoring someone who is actually alive.

I’m concerned with the ways that someone becoming an icon works to divorce them from the support that they need to survive. It’s not just that there should be movies and books and memoirs of Major, but also there needs to be current ongoing support, like the Giving Circle [to support Miss Major as an elder] that we organized. It’s not enough to invoke someone’s name, it’s about creating larger structures of support for all of us, especially for the people that we are really grateful for, and are reasons why we’re still alive.

We were recently at an art and social justice conference in Scotland. There was a moment in the lobby of the hotel in Glasgow when you were singled out and tracked by the hotel staff for being Black and trans. This is something that happens all the time.

What it was about that situation is that it happened like an hour after another policing situation in the bathroom at a club [night hosted by the conference]. The security guard came up to me with another person and was like, “You’re in the wrong bathroom.” My response was, “Do you see the signs outside about how the bathrooms are multigender?” They’re like, “Oh, I forgot, it’s ‘Transgender Night,'” in a super-demeaning way, surveilling us, and policing where we were. Those things are deeply interlinked, anti-Black racism and transphobia, hatred of trans people.

So when I got back to where I was staying and had to deal with the racist staff — who I am sure have their own struggles around wages and conditions there, which is just such a classic way of pitting people against each other — I was just, like, “I’m going to get pizza,” because I really didn’t want to play their game. Those small microaggressions — that aren’t actually small at all — build up and really determine who’s able to live, who’s not able to live, who gets detained, who gets deported, who gets access to health care, who does not.

It reminded me of this campaign [that ran from] 2005-2009 that I was a part of, where transgender and gender nonconforming people of color who were low-income and relying on welfare, we organized around the denial of access in welfare benefits at the local human resources administration office. Many of us had experienced going in, and the person at the desk would say, “Come back when you look like a man,” or “Come back when you look like a woman,” in order to get the small amount of benefits that are never enough in the first place. That’s a survival issue. If you can’t get the benefits that you need to survive, that’s directly leading to why so many trans and gender nonconforming people are facing the highest rates of violence ever.

How transgender people in pop culture are being talked about, it’s about “equality.” And transphobia is seen as the act of one individual, so it never really gets deep enough through a pop culture lens to figure out what are the things that are actually making us so vulnerable. And one of them is the criminalization of poverty, and criminalization of sex work, and all of the issues that affect people who are poor; people who are of color; people who are disabled.

If we’re just thinking about transphobia as a thing that happens to individual people, and if we’re just thinking about trans people as largely white people, upwardly mobile people with a lot of access to resources, we’re going to constantly come up against this problem of [organizations like the Human Rights Campaign] saying, “Oh, but we’re implementing [human resources] policies,” which is important, but is actually not getting to the core issues that are contributing to so much of the violence that we face.

You and Major often talk about how organizations like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) have left out trans people. A famous example was when the HRC pushed for antidiscrimination legislation for gays and lesbians that excluded trans people.

In this moment when Donald Trump can be cast as a defender of gay rights and gay marriage, I think it is critical to name how white supremacy acts on an ideological level to underpin institutions like the HRC, or prisons, and name how the HRC has so consistently acted in ways that have harmed communities of color, particularly low-income, disabled, queer and trans communities of color, while at the same time having enormous access to wealth.

The HRC has really dominated what the so-called gay agenda has been. For so long all of our energies in queer/trans movements are supposed to have been going into securing really narrow demands like job protection bills and gay marriage, at the expense of the communities whose life and labor have been the very constitutional ground for the so-called gay movement. It shows the really clear split between the movement for rights and representation versus movements with much more radical demands that address the root causes of the conditions so many of us face.

In Free CeCe! [a documentary about activist CeCe McDonald, a survivor of anti-trans violence], there’s the moment in the film where you speak about how you used to carry scissors in your purse.

CeCe’s case resonated so deeply for me and I am so glad that CeCe is out of prison and people are meeting her and learning from her brilliance. The number of times I had to deal with violence on the street — while being with my partner Liz, or being alone, people attacking me — is just really intense to think back on. And that’s why I carried scissors with me; I needed something to defend myself. CeCe’s case clearly shows though that our survival is criminalized. When self-defense is criminalized, survival is criminalized. Whether it’s self-defense, like Cece’s case showed us, or welfare, our survival is, on a structural level, under attack.

And it feels so terrifying because it feels like there’s really no way out of that particular trap. But then I think about how so many of us have been making a way out of no way for so long.

What are things you do to practice self-care?

One of the things that I’m trying to do while we’re exposed to this incredible violence is look at the things that are in proximity to me that I can just appreciate … using magic and astrology as a way of breaking isolation down between me and other disabled people, sex, acupuncture, large meals, spaces out of the lights, and study groups.

Because I have a social movement practice, it’s … important for me to focus on what’s good in order for me figure out how to build more of it. And that’s why I thought what [Major] was saying in The Personal Things is so important, right? Thinking about things we do that feel good to us so we have more of them. Small practices of refusal that feel really pleasurable to us — whether it’s having sex … how we’re developing our own aesthetic and our own images; how we’re lending each other our couches; how we’re caring for each other.

I feel like that term, “life-affirming,” applies to the film — Major’s words, the animation, and all of it put together.

The film was a really amazing collaboration with Pamela Chavez doing the animation based on Micah Bazant’s incredible illustrations. Micah skillfully represented the feeling of Major’s words and the beauty of her survival and resistance.

I really love Geo Wythe’s score for the short. It adds a whole new dimension to the piece and I feel lucky to have access to Barnard’s Center for Research on Women and work with people like Hope Dector who know that teaching tools can take so many different forms and that we deserve beautiful ones in this moment of heightened violence.

The audio that’s in the film came from the Transgender Law Center convening in Chicago [in 2015], where people came from across the country to talk about issues of disability justice, trans liberation, the criminalization of HIV, [and] issues of poverty.

The film is also a celebration of survival in the face of overwhelming structural violence — about finding those moments of joy while at the same time fighting.

To me, those moments of how we come together, of glitter, of joy, are deeply a part of resistance. Sex, how we fashion ourselves, are deeply meaningful. In New York City, the anti-crossdressing laws were part of a moral code that the NYPD sought to enforce, so if you weren’t wearing three articles of clothing of whatever gender you were assigned at birth, you would be arrested, you’d be policed. [In 2015, the state of New York formally prohibited discrimination based on gender identity, but abuse by law enforcement continues.] The laws were targeting people who were in public, people who were taking up space. To me, violating those laws in a way that’s pleasurable and meaningful is a form of resistance.

Anti-crossdressing laws are alive and well in prisons and jails and detention centers across the US. It’s something that is really punitized and criminalized.

The mainstream representations we have of trans people are made to be consumed by mainstream audiences. You’re doing something different by creating art by and for trans people.

I’m trying. I feel like a bunch of us are trying. Trans people telling our own stories for other trans people is not “a thing.”

Especially trans people of color — we are never imagined to be an audience for art and image-based work … the stories that I’m interested in telling are collaborative ones about our lives, and are meaningful to other people living it.

In this time of austerity, even as rich people in the US are accumulating more wealth than ever, there’s concern that art-funding organizations will face further cuts. Are you worried about that? Or is it just something that people making art in the margins have always faced?

I would love a lot of money for my art. I’d love to be a filmmaker who’s funded and who’s able to just have a filmmaking practice … [but] incredibly boring [projects] are the ones that are receiving the most resources right now. Having more access to more money, people stop thinking about the whitewashing of their art, or the whitewashing of trans art in general that happens through a close relationship with Hollywood or the art world.

I remember being invited to this Trans Art panel at a well-known art event, which is a huge place of transaction. Art is specifically a commodity there, and that panel was specifically for the people at the event to feel really good about themselves and trade in an aesthetic of understanding what transness is, and how it relates to the art world. I was like, “Are people getting paid, and is housing provided, and are they going to fly us down there?” And the answer to all of these questions was “No.” When a place that’s an art fair that’s so well-funded has kind of a superficial interest in transness, who is that benefiting?

They’re thinking that transness is an advertisement of how progressive they are, and transness becomes this advertisement for the benevolence of the state. Like transness through Obama, or transness that advertises the progressiveness of Hollywood through “Transparent.” And that does not give me life.

But the art that continues to exist even though it was never supposed to; the little videos friends make with their phones; the truly transformative art coming out of prisons; the music of Geo Wythe and Julianna Huxtable and Julienne Brown — I am so touched by those deeply meaningful artistic practices that help us build the world we need.

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For more Trans Day of Resilience inspiration, see the Trans Day of Resilience art project, which also launched this week and was curated by The Personal Things artist Micah Bazant.

You can help support trans activism and arts: fund Gossett’s film Happy Birthday Marsha; keep Miss Major’s Giving Circle going; and donate to the Trans Justice Funding Project.