When we reflect on Women’s History Month, we often think of pioneers like Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller, or Susan B. Anthony. In more modern times, we might think of trailblazers like Kamala Harris, Oprah Winfrey, or Michelle Obama.
There are other pioneering women, though, who are often not just overlooked but rendered invisible by our society. As such, they rarely garner a mention in a celebration of Women’s History Month. This invisible group is trans* women, especially trans* women of color.
Our celebrations of Women’s History Month rarely include uplifting women like Christine Jorgensen and Renee Richards. Jorgensen fought for the United States during World War II. When she returned home from the war, she transitioned, making her a celebrity; she was also an actress and a singer. Richards was a professional tennis player who, in 1976, fought to compete as a woman at the U.S. Open.
Trans* women like Sylvia Rivera and Marcia P. Johnson were on the frontlines of the gay rights movement. Both women were said to have initiated the riots of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City that was constantly raided by police officers. On June 28, 1969, when the police raided the bar, the patrons fought back. Witnesses claim Rivera threw the first bottle at a police officer, and Johnson instigated the fight, as well. The multi-day riots led to the modern gay rights movement and the celebration of gay pride in June. Johnson and Rivera formed an organization to support homeless youth called STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. It should also be noted that ten years prior to the Stonewall riots, trans* women were also part of a riot at Cooper Do-nuts in Los Angeles and again at the Compton Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco in 1966.
It would seem that, given their role in such important parts of history, these women would be celebrated during Women’s History Month, but they aren’t. In fact, many people outside of the LGBTQ+ community won’t even recognize these names.
The reason these women are invisible to so many people is because of their invalidation within society. Trans* bodies are often not seen as “real” bodies because they do not follow the social construct assigned for sex and gender. Janet Mock, a writer, and trans* activist, says of her own experience as a trans* woman in Redefining Realness: “I lived in a world that told me in big and small ways every day that who I knew myself to be was invalid” (253).
This dismissal of trans* women is exemplified in the media. Instead of casting trans* women to portray the lives of trans* women, they oftentimes cast a cisgender actor. An example of this is the 2015 movie The Danish Girl. The film is about the real-life story of the Danish artist Lili Elbe, who was a trans* woman. Instead of casting a trans* woman, a cisgender male was cast in the role of Elbe. When we can’t even see trans* women in movies and television shows, it continues the invalidation of those who are trans*.
Mock believes, “The media’s insatiable appetite for transsexual women’s bodies contributes to the systematic othering of trans women as modern-day freak shows, portrayals that validate and feed society’s dismissal and dehumanization of trans women” (255). This dismissal of trans* women is dangerous. For 2020, the Human Rights Campaign reported that as of November 20 - Transgender Day of Remembrance - at least 37 trans* and gender non-conforming people had been victims of violence, which resulted in death. That number may not be entirely accurate, as some violence committed against trans* people goes unreported or the victim may not have been reported as trans*. Of those 37 deaths, 30 were trans* women, and 22 were trans* women of color.
It is a dangerous world for trans* women, but it is far more dangerous for trans* women of color. Dismissing these women, invalidating these women, dehumanizing these women only leads to continued discrimination and violence against them.
And yes, some progress has been made. Laverne Cox, a trans* woman of color, is known for her role on Orange is the New Black. Janet Mock is bringing to light trans* lives in the television show Pose, which also casts trans* women to play trans* women.
This progress is good, but representation in media is only a small component of society. To put it in perspective for the community college environment, in 2019, I conducted interviews with trans* and gender non-conforming students who attended community college. One student I interviewed who identified as a trans* woman said “…people tend to see me as less than human…”
We need to do a better job at making sure we see trans* women. It is far too dangerous to not see these women and appreciate their contributions to our society and our classrooms. Intentionally celebrating trans* women during Women’s History Month is one way to let all trans* women know that they are seen as human.
Lori Clark, EdD, is a professor of English at Elgin Community College. She teaches LGBTQ Literature among other courses, and is the former faculty advisor for Students Who Are Not Silent (SWANS), an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization at ECC. Her research centers on the trans* and gender non-conforming students, especially at community colleges.
The term cisgender refers to a person who is not transgender, meaning that the sex they were assigned at birth is the sex they identify with. Transgender refers to someone who does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. When it comes to trans*, Nicolazzo (2016) writes, “This term refers to those who transgress the socially constructed discourse of how we identify, express, and embody our genders…the asterisk is used to signal the expansiveness and constantly expanding communities of trans* people” (p. 169). I use trans* because it is more inclusive of this beautiful community of people.