Trans Politics, Social Change, and Justice

On May 6 and 7, 2005, Trans Politics, Social Change, and Justice brought over four
hundred trans people and allies into a single building. A feeling of electricity was
everywhere. Not because this was the first trans conference – it was not. Nor was it
the largest. What participants felt came from the fact that the real lives of trans people
were being addressed by trans people. For a time, the ground had shifted; the
complex webs of institutions and politics that surround the lives of people everywhere
were being addressed primarily from the perspective of transgender peoples and their
Across two days and 48 panels, workshops and plenary sessions, participants at
Trans Politics explored not just the national, but also the international situations of
trans people. Speaking to a packed room in Policing and the Transgender Community:
A Global Perspective, Paty Betancourt from Mexico, Maria Belen Correa from
Argentina, and Marina Talero Monroy from Colombia discussed the violence faced by
trans people. It is a repressive violence at once deliberately targeting gender
“deviance,” but also part of broader machineries of social control. Similar patterns can
be seen in the US.
What alternatives exist? Current human rights mechanisms may offer one avenue
of change. However, their reach remains limited, and the ways in which they conceive
of gender can, at times, work against trans people, as UN rapporteur and Argentine
activist Mauro Cabral and others noted the following day. Social and cultural changes
within a nation, Cabral suggested in the final plenary session, rests heavily on changes
within the nation itself. It might well be that, as panelists on Trans Activisms Across
Borders suggested, a powerful avenue of social and cultural change rests with the
connections created by activists with ties across nations and regions. The agency and
actions of trans people and their allies might well be the fulcrum for change.
Across the US, activist energies have been poured into transforming
all areas of life. Some arrived at Trans Politics with projects focusing on
schools, workplaces, homeless shelters, and prisons. Others spoke of
their experiences shaping public policy and legislation, changing health
care provision, conducting research, and running for office. Represented
alongside organizations seeking civil rights for trans people were
advocates for youth, for training activists, for engaging in outreach
across lines of race, class and country, and for creating radical economic
transformations. National organizations— the ACLU, NGLTF, HRC, and
NCLR, to name a few— stood next to regional organizations, such as
the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, the Center for Gay and Lesbian
Civil Rights in Philadelphia, the Massachusetts Transgender Political
Coalition, and Equality California. Long-established organizations such
as the Audre Lorde Project were present alongside newer organizations
such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the Transgender Law Center, and the National
Center for Transgender Equality. A complete list of groups and activisms represented
by the conference would take up bulk of this newsletter. Put simply, by sheer breadth
and numbers, Trans Politics participants shattered the myth that the trans movement
reflects the narrow interests of a minority-within-a-minority.
What was absent was uniformity, not just of identities, but of political strategies.
Many spoke of the lifeblood of transgender activism as laying in a radical expansion of
the scope of our political work; our goal could well be a mass movement with our
eyes on economic justice. For many others, it is vital that we defend rights that many
have taken for granted in the past, such as privacy, against increased state
encroachment and surveillance. At the same time, we need to continue expanding
the purview of traditional civil rights law. The tools at hand range from organizing sex
workers, to organizing youth, to changing institutions, whether they be homeless
shelters, universities, or multinational corporations, and to lobbying Congress. In the
present climate of conservative resentment and backlash, none of these directions and and activities seemed mutually exclusive to conference
participants; indeed, perhaps the most vivid theme
across the two days was the urgency and importance of
all the strategies on the table.
The trans movement is a child of the traditional civil
rights movement. No longer in its infancy, it is growing
rapidly, following in many of the same footsteps and
facing many of the same stresses. Rooms and halls were
packed full to every corner, and one common activist
context was visible: against a reality of razor-thin budgets
for most organizations and a reliance almost entirely on
volunteer labor, the movement survives and grows. It
does so out of a deep sense of justice and raw willpower.
In turn, the excitement of the conference lay, not only in
the chance to create networks and to share resources,
but in the recognition that we will survive and that we
have a future.

Richard M. Juang is Co-Chair on the Advisory Board of the National
Center for Transgender Equality.

This conference was made possible through the generous support of
the Gill Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Winslow
Street Fund. To view and download the full program from Trans
Politics, Social Change and Justice, visit
clags/program.htm, or to request a printed copy of the conference
program, call or email the CLAGS office.