Poor and homeless LGBTQ youth, particularly trans women of color, who are pushed into the informal economy for survival are most frequently targeted by “broken windows” policing and are disproportionately brutalized by police, penalized and incarcerated as a result. Once swept into the system, already marked by multiple racialized, gendered, and classed narratives of social deviance and abnormality, they face high levels of racist, homophobic, and transphobic discrimination and bias at the hands of police, lawyers, probation officers, and judges.
Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the story of Layleen Polanco. Layleen was a 27 year-old Afro-Latinx trans women who died at Rikers Island. After she had an epileptic seizure, staff mocked and derided her and refused to provide medical care that could have saved her life. Layleen was initially arrested for a misdemeanor assault charge, after which she was held on prior drug and sex work charges. Unable to afford her $500 bail, Layleen was detained in solitary confinement where she was kept for 17 hours a day.
Layleen’s story illustrates the barbarity of the criminal legal system and the ways racism, transmisogyny, and the criminalization of poverty can intersect with lethal consequences for trans women of color.
On top of this, social service organizations like the Ali Forney Center the Marsha P. Johnston Institute are on the frontlines of providing crucial and life-saving services to vulnerable and at risk LGBTQ youth and trans and queer people of color. But these are severely underfunded and lacking adequate resources to tackle the array of social problems at hand. As a result, these programs are often forced to rely on donations and support from within the community in order to survive. They face a bipartisan austerity regime that will make life even harder for those who need the most care.
In this context, it is no exaggeration to say that the Trump administration and the religious right have blood on their hands. These are not simply abstract policy debates but real attacks against LGBTQ people that jeopardize our victories. They attempt to re-legitimize a climate of homophobia and transphobia and will have damaging material impacts, especially on the lives of the most vulnerable queer and trans people.
The Trump regime is waging an offensive that calls for an all-out response. Instead, we have been left with a response from established LGBTQ organizations and a Democratic Party that has been passive at best and outright complicit at worst.
Mainstream LGBT groups have continued to place all of their faith, and millions of dollars, in the Democratic Party, pursuing a strategy of lobbying and campaigning for “pro-equality” candidates with little to show for it. This can be seen most recently in the Democratic Party establishment’s successful attempt to crush the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders, a longtime proponent of LGBTQ equality. They opted instead for the most underwhelming presidential candidate in modern American history: Joe Biden.
Although Democrats like to posture as “allies” of LGBTQ communities today, it was only a decade ago that the vast majority of Democratic politicians fully opposed gay marriage and refused to even utter the word “transgender.” Even now, the shift in rhetoric from mainstream Democrats has been the result of mass pressure and struggle from below.
Even worse, Democratic politicians, including self-identified “progressives” like New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, continually support austerity measures alongside increased spending on policing and incarceration, which disproportionally harm the most vulnerable.
The Birth of an Uprising and the Fight for Black Trans Lives
As it has done many times before, the Black liberation struggle is once again ripping open the Pandora’s box of American capitalism and exposing the brutal and twisted priorities of the modern world’s “greatest democracy,” so-called. George Floyd’s cry of “I can’t breath!” was caught on camera as a white police office jammed his knee into Floyd’s neck, ultimately suffocating him.This has laid bare the hideous underbelly of America’s repressive apparatus, revealing the full extent of its racist raison d’être.
What the police murder of George Floyd has unleashed cannot be reduced to senseless violence and looting, as many in the corporate media and political establishment have tried to do. What began in Minneapolis has now spread to cities across the country and can only be described as a rebellion, spearheaded by Black workers and youth and on a scale and magnitude far wider and deeper than anything we saw in Ferguson or Baltimore.
This is a collective uprising, a national working-class rebellion, catalyzed by yet another police murder, but in response to something much deeper: a cataclysmic failure of the system to offer even the most basic standard of living or sense of dignity to the vast majority of working-class and poor people. This is a reality most acutely and disproportionately experienced by Black and Brown residents.
The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the economic devastation in Black neighborhoods. Decades of government neglect and financial disinvestment, extreme poverty, depression levels of unemployment, and hypersegregation are all enforced by a militarized police state. This is the rotten soil that has birthed an unfolding rebellion, inspiring an entire country, and indeed, people around the globe..
The Black Lives Matter rebellion has given rise to a historic breakthrough and development in the struggle for trans and queer liberation. On Sunday, June 14th, in Brooklyn, tens of thousands of people took over the streets to demand in unequivocal terms that Black Trans Lives Matter. Amidst a veritable sea of people with homemade signs, demonstrators highlighted the resiliency and power of Black trans activism and called attention to the range of issues effecting trans people of color. These range from housing discrimination and homelessness to disproportionate rates of violence, police brutality, and incarceration; and from barriers to accessing healthcare to the sidelining of trans people from the mainstream gay movement. The march was undoubtedly the largest single demonstration for trans rights, and Black trans lives in particular, in U.S. history.
It is clear that a profound shift is taking place: a rising generation of multi-racial, working class trans and queer radicals are emerging, inspired by the militancy of Black Lives Matter and the resistance to Trump. They are fed up with and disconnected from the corporatization and white-washing of mainstream gay rights organizations, led by trans and queer people of color. They are demanding a new kind of queer movement.
This is (and must be) a movement foregrounding the connections between race, class, gender, and sexuality and rooted in an uncompromising solidarity – a spirit of solidarity that goes beyond empty words and hallow gestures. This is a solidarity grounded in actually standing and fighting alongside the most oppressed; rooted in centering the voices and experiences of those who have been historically marginalized, by a movement leadership that has been too enmeshed in the economic and political establishment to remain connected to the lived experiences of ordinary LGBTQ people.