How the Trans Community Reclaimed Its Rightful Place at Pride

The first San Francisco Trans March in 2004. (Cecilia Chung)

Editor's Note: This article is part of KQED Arts' story series Pride as Protest, which chronicles the past and present of LGBTQ+ activism in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Learn more about the series here.

Mia Satya’s first Trans March was revolutionary.

In 2010, Satya was new to the Bay Area, having come to San Francisco to escape the transphobia she experienced in Texas, where she was born. She was attending the Trans March as part of the group Trans Ladies Initiating Sisterhood, and she was about to dance in front of thousands of people for the first time ever.

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Satya had never before had a chance like this. Dancing as her true self was an important way of defying the transphobia she'd encountered in her home state, and she was doing it in front 5,000 cheering people who were celebrating her transgender identity. "It was a life-changing opportunity," she says. 

Now an employment services coordinator with the San Francisco LGBT Center, Satya advocates for transgender people in multiple ways, including helping facilitate the Trans March every year. She also staffs the LGBT Center's booth in the march's resource fair, where she meets new members of the community, engages with clients the center may have lost touch with, builds connections with businesses that want to hire more trans people and spreads the word about its trans employment program.

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Satya says that "all hands are on deck" for the Trans March, which takes place on June 28 this year. For the SF LGBT Center, which also supports the central Pride March and the Dyke March, being at the Trans March is a way of making a clear statement of its commitment to the transgender community. Despite great advances since the first Trans March in 2004, many trans people still feel excluded from Pride and from LGBTQ+ communities in San Francisco. The "LBG" movement has not always been inclusive to the "T," so the LGBT Center is one of many organizations that prioritizes sending a message of openness and collaboration.

The fight for trans inclusion at Pride

Nowadays the Trans March is an essential part of Pride, lasting an entire day and featuring a youth and elder brunch, resource fair, transformation booth, speakers and performances. But it wasn't always like this.

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Though trans women of color like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson played an essential role in the Stonewall uprising of 1969—a riot against police brutality in New York City that sparked the modern-day gay rights movement—by the early 1970s, when Pride first came together, there was no particular space for people who wanted to celebrate transgender identity. In fact, the gay, lesbian and bisexual community often discriminated against trans people. This is reflective of the era, as transgender people were grossly misunderstood, and there were scant services available for people living as their true gender. Additionally, the gay movement had become much more mainstream—and became dominated by the white, male masculine aesthetic that characterizes it to this day.

The first Trans March in 2004 reclaimed the trans community's rightful place in San Francisco's Pride celebration.
The first Trans March in 2004 reclaimed the trans community's rightful place in San Francisco's Pride celebration. (Cecilia Chung)

Furthermore, the gay rights movement found success with a conformist message geared towards assimilation into straight norms. Some gay and lesbian organizers feared that the inclusion of trans people would undermine the movement's gains. These divisions were highlighted in 1973, when homosexuality was officially removed as a mental illness from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It would take another 40 years for gender identity disorder, the diagnosis that was generally given to trans people, to become similarly destigmatized in 2013.

These factors set the stage for what happened in 1973, when Pride became openly hostile toward trans people. In Transgender History, transgender historian Susan Stryker recounts that in that year, San Francisco Pride consisted of two main events: one was a trans-friendly event, organized by gay activist and Pentecostal preacher Reverend Raymond Broshears; the other event "expressly forbid transgender people from participating."

According to Styker, the transphobic event was the more successful one, setting the tone for decades to come: "Broshears never organized another Gay Pride event, while the anti-drag event became the forerunner of the current San Francisco LGBTQ+ Pride celebration." (In the '70s, people often didn't distinguish between drag queens and transgender women. Many lesbian activists at the time believed that drag was "misogynist," hence the Stryker's use of "anti-drag.")

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Transgender activist Cecilia Chung says that by 2004 things were quite different, and the San Francisco Pride organization was very willing to support a march devoted to trans empowerment. That year, an anonymous email circulated, calling on anyone who was gender nonconforming to march in conjunction with SF Pride weekend. A number of local activists came together around the call-to-action and decided to take on the responsibility of turning the gathering into a well-organized march.

Chung, who was on the board of directors of SF Pride at the time, took on fundraising for the original Trans March. She says it raised between $3,000 and $5,000, which went into sound systems, a performance space and safety minders. Pride and the Dyke March pitched in with logistical support and Porta Potties. The sex shop Good Vibrations, which has long been a trans-friendly employer, donated water and other beverages. Altogether, somewhere around 3,000 people marched in 2004, starting at Dolores Park and making their way to Civic Center.

Chung says that the first Trans March was undertaken for a number of reasons, a major one being to demand justice for Gwen Araujo. Araujo was a trans woman who was brutally beaten to death in 2002 by four men who discovered she was transgender after flirting with her, and, in the case of two, having sexual relations. The trial began shortly before the first Trans March in April 2004, with Gloria Allred representing Araujo's family. A mistrial had just been declared. It was a bitter setback for trans rights. (Eventually, two of the men were convicted of second-degree murder; the other two pleaded guilty and no contest to manslaughter.) 

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Allred and the family of Gwen Araujo attended the march, and they were not the only high-profile visitors. Senator Kamala Harris, who at the time was San Francisco District Attorney, was there, along with a number of other prominent local politicians. The politicized tone of fighting back against injustice, inequity and the brutal murders of trans people became a central part of the Trans March that continues to this day. 

There has been a lot to fight about. The 2008 march raged against Democrats in Congress, who, led by then-congressman Barney Frank, chose to dump trans people from an LGB-friendly version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act with the support of the Human Rights Campaign.

The SF LGBT center promotes its trans employment resource program at the 2017 Trans March.
The SF LGBT center promotes its trans employment resource program at the 2017 Trans March. (SF LGBT Center)

The 2016 Trans March gave a key piece of transgender history a permanent space in San Francisco when it concluded with the renaming of a Tenderloin street in remembrance of the historic riot at Compton's Cafeteria, which took place in 1966, three years before Stonewall. This incident, in which gay and transgender patrons came together to demand equal treatment and defy police harassment, was a turning point for LGBTQ+ rights. In late 2018, part of the Tenderloin became designated as the world's first Transgender Cultural District. This was a much-needed victory at a time when the Trump administration introduced plans to severely undermine trans rights.

Chung recalls that the original Trans March was an important means of bringing together activists in the Bay Area, creating an atmosphere ripe for cross-pollination. The Castro Country Club, a space that supports LGBTQ+ people in substance-abuse recovery, was instrumental in producing fundraisers for the first march, establishing links between different segments of the LGBTQ+ community. Furthermore, organizations like Transgender San Francisco and FTM International—the first organization specifically founded to advance the interests of transmasculine people—began to meet up and work toward collaboration. "A lot of things started around that time," Chung says, including quarterly transgender events at the SF LGBT Center, and community town halls with some 500 people in attendance.

The march also brought about a heightened profile for transgender advocacy. Chung recalls that in advance of the second march in 2005, she was interviewed by a television reporter from England. People were coming from far away to participate in the 2005 march, and the San Francisco organizers began cooperating with a similar event in New York City, arranging bicoastal transgender events on the same day.

The Trans March today

Chung says that while Pride has come to be more of a celebration than a political act, today's Trans March very much reflects its radical roots. "The march is always meant to be a political statement," she says. This is a necessity, as trans people are still so far from having full equality under the law, as well as simply having the resources necessary to live and celebrate their identity. Reflecting the radical spirit that has led the transgender movement to find creative ways to support itself and demand its rights, the organization of the march is highly democratized, with regularly rotating leadership and an emphasis on volunteerism over institutionalization to ensure the flow of new ideas.

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Recent developments in the Trans March reflect that spirit. Satya says that the Youth and Elder Brunch, which began in 2012, "opens up an important opportunity for dialog between generations." In a community that still remains fractured along lines of class and age, the brunch provides a vital means of building trans community and inclusivity, staying true to the march's earliest foundations.

While the Trans March is an annual reminder of the many gains that trans people have made since 2004, Satya says that it's also a way of illuminating the things that are still to be done. With the Trump administration allowing doctors to deny of medical services to transgender patients, banning transgender servicemembers from the military and threatening to define trans people out of existence, there is a lot of action needed before trans people have their full rights as American citizens.

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"We'll keep marching until we don't have to any more," Satya says. "I hope that one day we'll pass an equality act and won't have discrimination anywhere, but until then we need to keep marching and fighting."

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