Trans Women are Women: Avoiding the Mistakes of Our Predecessors

Photo Credit: James Daniel, ACLU

As we observe March as Women’s History Month, we are reminded of the importance of women in leadership, women’s rights, and the necessary work needed to keep moving the needle in the right direction toward women’s liberation and equality.

Women have held our families, communities, and our movements together. This month allows us to reflect on the abundance of accomplishments by women and moments in history where women have defied all odds and forced change for the benefit of future generations. While it is important to honor the contribution of women such as Alice Paul and Margaret Sanger, we must exert extra effort to honor Black, brown, and trans women whose contributions have historically been excluded from mainstream conversations and celebrations.

Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin was not just an indigenous person, she was a woman who fought for voting rights. Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells are not only Black history icons; they are iconic women who helped advance civil liberties for all Americans. Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy were not just LGBQ&T activists; they were women activists who refused to be silent and who deserve to be celebrated just as much as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other white suffragist leaders.

The women’s movement failed to acknowledge the intersectionalities of so many women and to include many changemakers who were deemed unworthy in the eyes of white supremacy. As a new day emerges, it is imperative to avoid repeating past mistakes. Black and brown women were erased from mainstream recounts of the suffrage movement, and some women today attempt to do the same to trans women. But the way forward must include the experiences of ALL women — cisgender, transgender, and especially women of color.

There is a need within our work to be intentional about inclusion, to look at womanhood through an intersectional lens, and to recognize that trans women — especially Black and brown — have contributed to liberating marginalized people. Right here in Pennsylvania, trans women like Charlene Arcila and Jaci Adams fought for gender equity. And they did it all while being oppressed, excluded, unprotected, and left feeling unsupported as they laid their lives on the line for social change. Their stories and legacies should not be erased.

In honor of all of our ancestors who paved the way and our elders who kept us strong, I implore my peers to open their hearts and minds and stand on the right side of history. The past has shown us how damaging divisiveness can be. Audre Lorde said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” The experiences of trans women are a part of the quilt of freedom that women have been stitching for centuries. If we leave out those experiences, we are doing ourselves a disservice.

The challenges trans women experienced and the resilience they demonstrated deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated. Our work should be fueled by the desire to rise as a unified community full of uniqueness rather than a community of factions created from biases and painful discrimination that scars us all.

We are a community that is overflowing with a spectrum of identities. Working in silos has afforded us some achievements, but there is still more work to do as we fight for true gender equality. Imagine what we could do if we did that work together — if Black, brown, white, cisgender, and transgender women fought side by side, the systems of patriarchy and white supremacy could never tell us “no.” I believe only this will grant us the rights and respect we all deserve.

Happy Women’s History Month to all my cisgender and transgender women and to those on the fem spectrum. Thank you for all you have contributed to advance women’s rights.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.

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