In late 2016 I won a GAP grant from Artist Trust to complete the portrait series "Trans American History"-- which will include ten acrylic on canvas portraits each honoring a notable figure of American trans history -- activists who have tirelessly worked for the social justice and basic civil rights of trans persons or those who's tragic death spurred and has come to symbolize important trans activist movements. A short written description will be provided and displayed for each figure in the series.
As the images and texts are completed, they will be featured on this page. Work on the series should be completed during the Summer of 2017. Public exhibitions will follow. Information will be made available as details are determined.
(Note: This project was formerly titled "Transgender American History". The title has changed to reflect the more current term "Trans"-- which is inclusive of the gender non-conforming, non-binary, and transgender individuals represented in this portrait series.)
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson (August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992) was an American activist and advocate for young homeless trans women and queer street kids in New York City. Johnson was often homeless and had to do whatever it took to persevere. This gave Johnson empathy and a generosity for others in similar situations.
Several accounts place Johnson as one of the first to fight back during the riots at The Stonewall Inn in 1969, the event that launched the widespread LGBT activism movement in America. Johnson co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with Sylvia Rivera-- a visible organization in New York gay liberation demonstrations and radical political actions of the 1970s. Later, STAR House was established in the Lower East Side to shelter gender non-conforming homeless youth. Johnson and Rivera were “mothers” of the House, pooling their limited resources to feed, clothe, and cover basic needs for their young residents. They often reverted to hustling to keep “their kids” from having to do that themselves. In the late 1980s, Johnson was an organizer with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), advocating for medical research and treatment of AIDS though a series of high profile demonstrations.
Johnson's gender presentation was usually feminine often including exaggerated wigs, flower crowns, and other costume drag accessories. However, Johnson was more gender fluid-- sometimes identifying as a “gay transvestite” while other times considering surgical transition.
In July, 1992, Johnson's body was found in the Hudson River. The death was ruled a suicide, though close friends said Johnson was not suicidal and one witness pressed that Johnson was seen being hassled by a man close to the site where later found. The case was reopened in 2002 and cause of death was changed to “undetermined”.
Sylvia Rivera (July 2, 1951 – February 9, 2002) was an American activist of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan dissent-- a lifelong champion for LGBTQ rights in New York City. Rivera focused her attention especially on the poor, young, and underprivileged-- those abandoned as the focus of LGBTQ rights initiatives became increasingly assimilationist over her lifetime.
Rivera was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance in the 1970s and 1980s. Rivera also co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with Marsha P. Johnson, increasing visibility of gender non-conforming persons in demonstrations and political actions of the 1970s. Later, she and Johnson were the “mothers” of STAR House which took in gender non-conforming homeless youth-- generously combining what little resources they had to provide basic needs to young residents they considered “their children”. This was a cause hallowed to Rivera, as she herself began living on the streets at 11 and was often homeless throughout her life.
In the late1990s Rivera gave speeches about the Stonewall revolt and called for unity among all gender non-conforming individuals, noting that these fringe members of the movement – the “drag queens” and “butch dykes”-- should fight for their legacy as the people who paved the way for the new era of LGBTQ rights – that without their contribution this new era would not have even been possible. She also publicly challenged the Human Rights Campaign and New York's Empire State Pride Agenda for excluding transgender and gender non-conforming people. Indeed, throughout her lifetime of involvement in various organizations, Rivera witnessed the majority abandon goals aiding gender non-conforming individuals as too extreme to assuage the heterosexual mainstream. Despite feeling largely deserted by the LGBTQ community throughout her life, Rivera continually fought for what she believed in and for the fellow outcasts of the community.
Rivera's gender presentation was feminine, however her gender identity was more complex and fluid. She strongly considered surgical transition, but alternately referred to herself as a harmonious mix of many identities-- a “gay man”, a “gay girl”, a “drag queen”, with none of these labels excluding any other. At the end of her life she preferred no labels at all-- wanting her only label to be “Sylvia Rivera”.
In February 2002, Rivera died from complications of liver cancer. Posthumously, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City originated in her honor, dedicated to guaranteeing the right of individuals to self-determine gender “without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence”.
Riki Wilchins (born 1952) is an American activist, writer, and transgender leader whose work was vital in including the struggle for transgender rights in the larger LGBTQ movement. Throughout her life, Wilchins has written and spoken out about the adverse effects inflexible gender norms have on society as a whole. In 2001, Wilchins' efforts as an activist earned her a place among Time Magazine's "100 Civic Innovators for the 21st Century.”
Since the mid-1990s Wilchins has founded several activist groups and organizations which focused on issues of gender non-conformity and inclusion. She co-founded “The Transexual Menace” (coined with one “s”, but alternately spelled with one “s” or two), a direct action group that increased awareness to issues of transgender rights with demonstrations, protests, and leafleting. During these events, members would wear black t-shirts branded with a horror-imagery “Transexual Menace” logo-- itself a highly visible statement derisive of transphobia. The group quickly grew to boast membership in over 40 cities.
Wilchins founded The Gender Public Advocacy Coalition in 1995-- the first national transgender advocacy group-- in retaliation to the on-going exclusion of transgender and gender non-conforming issues from the agendas of national gay and lesbian organizations. Active for nearly 15 years, GenderPAC focused on issues of adversity and workplace inequality particular to gender variant persons. They lobbied members of Congress establishing the concept that employees should be protected from discrimination resulting from their “gender identity or expression.” GenderPAC was also a member of the coalition that introduced the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (eventually passed in 2009). In fact, the main source of argument for transgender hate crime protections were found in GenderPAC's own research projects-- their reports detailed extensive violence against gender non-conforming individuals – the overwhelming majority of which were transgender women of color. Over time, GenderPAC became inclusive of issues faced by gender variant individuals as a whole, regardless of their personal identity. The organization discontinued in 2009 believing other activist organizations to be covering the same ground.
Wilchins is a transgender lesbian woman. Self-described as never having “passed” for what mainstream society sees as female, she adapted a political identity of being “visibly transgender”. In her earlier days in Cleveland, Wilchins' response to frequently being stared at, laughed at, and taunted, was to wear a “Transexual Menace” t-shirt every day for years. She said her motto at the time, “don't read me – read my shirt.”
Wilchins is now the Executive Director of TrueChild, an organization which produces "gender transformative" materials which consider the harmful effect of gender norms and inequities-- especially to at-risk youth and other marginalized groups. TrueChild conducts research and provides trainings to government organizations, foundations, corporation
Leslie Feinberg (September 1, 1949 – November 15, 2014) was an American author, speaker, transgender activist, political organizer, and advocate for workers, minorities, and the poor. Feinberg identified as “an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female revolutionary communist.” Her books, particularly “Stone Butch Blues," detailed and personified the adversity gender non-conforming people endured, brought these issues to the mainstream, and created much of the vernacular in which issues of gender variance could be discussed academically and otherwise.
“Stone Butch Blues” is a gripping semi-autobiographical novel and Feinberg's best known work. Published in 1993 and set in 1950s Buffalo, New York, the groundbreaking book expounds the struggle of a young working-class androgynous protagonist whose gender identity falls outside the gender binary. It won the 1994 American Library Association Gay & Lesbian Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award, and has since been translated into several languages. Other non-fiction works delving into the topic of gender included “Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Ru Paul” (1996) and “Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue” (1998).
Feinberg was a member of the Workers World Party for several decades before becoming a managing editor of their newspaper in 1995 -- which featured her column highlighting LGBT history, "Lavender & Red.” Also a sought-after public speaker, Feinberg addressed numerous crowds at Pride rallies, protest marches, colleges and universities. In June 1994, she addressed an estimated audience of one million by opening a New York City rally celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
Feinberg's gender expression was masculine and she sometimes “passed as a man” for matters of personal security, but her gender identity was not binary. She preferred the pronouns “she” or “her,” or the gender-neutral pronouns “ze” and “hir.” However, context mattered most with pronoun usage: “I care which pronoun is used, but people have been respectful to me with the wrong pronoun and disrespectful with the right one. It matters whether someone is using the pronoun as a bigot, or if they are trying to demonstrate respect.” Feinberg's use of the word “transgender” was defined broadly as “people who cross the cultural boundaries of gender." At the end of her life, she stated she had “never been in search of a common umbrella identity, or even an umbrella term, that brings together people of oppressed sexes, gender expressions, and sexualities.” Overall, she believed in “self-determination for oppressed individuals, communities, groups, and nations.”
In November 2014, Feinberg died from complications of multiple tick-borne infections. A 20th anniversary edition of her novel “Stone Butch Blues” is available for free download at her official website: lesliefeinberg.net
Kate Bornstein (born March 15, 1948) is an American author, gender theorist, public speaker, performance artist, playwright, and “artist in service to activism.” Some views found in Bornstein's work are more mainstream today than could have been imagined a when proposed just few decades ago-- such as the idea that gender identity is independent from sexual orientation and that gender is a spectrum. Other ideas remain less widely understood, such as the idea that gender expression and gender identity are separate things and that one's gender expression and/or gender identity may change over time or at different times in one's life.
Bornstein's hugely influential written work includes 1995's indispensable “Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us”-- which skillfully intermingles autobiography, gender theory, and dramatic writing. The 2012 memoir “A Queer and Pleasant Danger” details Bornstein's twelve years spent in the Church of Scientology before being ex-communicated and finding their authentic self in the exile that followed. Bornstein also authored work of a more interactive and self-help nature. 1998's “My Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity” is considered a classic of transgender theory and an invaluable general introduction to greater contemporary gender theory. 2006's “Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws” lists alternatives that range from the silly to the slightly scandalous. It helps readers look beyond their hurt and shame to care for themselves-- to “do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living” with one exception-- “Just don't be mean”. ”Hello Cruel World” has a much further reach beyond the LGBTQ communities-- it is a top 100 best selling book on Amazon overall for those seeking help with suicide ideation.
Bornstein's gender expression is feminine, but they identify as gender-nonconforming and prefer the pronouns they/them or she/her. They medically transitioned from male to female in 1986 and recall a deep depression six months afterwards when their female identity still seemed unresolved-- they were simply performing “girl” and “woman” which was performing another kind of falsehood. Despite this, Bornstein has emphasized that they have never regretted sexual reassignment surgery and that they enjoyed several female identities throughout their life (self described as:“dyke, femme, trans woman, manic pixie dreamgirl tranny”) before embracing their genuine non-binary gender identity. Bornstein's willingness to detail their personal experiences has increased understanding in areas of gender-nonconforming individuals.
Bornstein is currently working on a highly anticipated new book “Trans, Just For the Fun Of It!-- Compassionate Gender Strategies for Divisive Times” which explores the in-fighting and splintering of queer and trans communities and aims to give good-natured advice to younger LGBTQ readers.