The Future, Like the Past, is Transfeminist: Looking Back to Stonewall and Ahead with Non Una di Meno
Lo stretto legame storico-politico tra il movimento transfemminista di Non Una di Meno e Stonewall 1969 e la questione della lingua in una riflessione di Brian De Grazia, attivista e dottorando alla New York University.
This year we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the uprisings outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969. And so to start we should turn to the March issue of OUT Magazine to look both back and forward. As the OUT.com editors explain “For the first time in our 27 years of publishing, our entire magazine only features and is photographed by, styled by, and written by women and non-binary femmes. Joining us as guest editor for this edition is the activist, author, and director Janet Mock.”
The cover article, and accompanying photographs by Mickalene Thomas, features the “mothers and daughters” of the movement.
The mothers being
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, an activist for over fifty years who was present at Stonewall
lesbian feminist Barbara Smith, activist and one of the co-authors of the “Combahee River Collective Statement”
And the daughters,
Alicia Garza, the queer woman who coined the term “Black Lives Matter,”
Charlene Carruthers, activist and author of Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements
and the activist and filmmaker Tourmaline
We would also to do well to remember Marsha P. Johnson, the legendary activist who was also present the night of the Stonewall Riots, who died in 1992. Tourmaline herself has done a lot of work to remember Marsha, in a film she has made called Happy Birthday, Marsha. Tourmaline’s interest in and talent with storytelling has led her to put the stories of trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming figures, especially those of color — like Marsha, and her friend and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera — back into the history of the LGBT movement. As she says herself in the interview with OUT, “For a lot of trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people of color, we didn’t [initially] know about the prior generation of activists because their stories had been erased.” In moving forward, we must be sure to make space for such narratives and allow for the history of the movement to be told, focusing especially on stories that have been elided or prevented from being told and shared.
While the LGBT community continues to face discrimination, both popular and legal, around the world, it is no secret that trans and non-binary folks — particularly those of color — deal with a disproportionate amount of prejudice and very often violence. In the United States, one need only call to mind the epidemic of murders of trans women of color, of the current administration’s attempt to ban transgender members of the military from service, and of a series of ludicrous but no less damaging and dangerous so-called “bathroom laws” in states around the country. Fifty years into the movement, then, those who were so instrumental in its beginnings still have the farthest to go in having their basic civil rights and human dignity recognized.
To return to the beginnings of the LGBTQ rights movement in 1969 is to re-center the lives and experiences of trans and non-binary individuals, but also to remember the movement’s intersection with the fight against a host of other forms of oppression. The activism of Miss Major, Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera shows that the fight for so-called “gay rights” has always — or should always — also necessarily involve not only the fight for LGB and trans rights but also the fight against structural racism, police violence, and the criminalization of sex work, drug use, and homelessness. All of these issues, after all, helped to spark the agitation on Christopher Street that became what is now an iconic moment back in June 1969. The activism of these figures shows that while the term “intersectionality” may be new to many, it is not something fleeting or newfangled, as it is often dismissed as. Coined by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, it instead describes the ways in which the oppression of those who identify with more than one marginalized group intersects and compounds based on these varying facets of their identities. In short, a continuing movement for LGBT rights must not only center trans persons and experiences, but also engage actively in the fights against racism and police violence, and seek to help the homeless, the HIV-positive, and sex workers, as these are all members of our community.
I am an American scholar and activist who works on Italian history and culture. I am also a translator, and I recently — with an Italian colleague — translated Zoe Leonard’s famous I Want a Dyke for President, which dates to 1992. Returning to the piece recently for edits, we discussed the strictures and difficulties of translating — particularly in a piece like this one — from a tongue like English into the gendered binary of Italian. Thus not only questions like “how do we translate ‘dyke’?” but also “since we have to, how should we gender the president, the cross-dresser, and the lover about which Leonard writes?” Gender is an experience in and of the body but also in and of language, perhaps especially so in a language like Italian.
These are two of the questions central to the Italian feminist and trans-feminist movement Non Una di Meno. Begun as a feminist movement, Non Una di Meno uses the terms “feminism” and “transfeminism” nearly interchangeably to unite against what it calls male or masculine violence. Indeed, their published “Plan for Action,” which is also available on their website, begins with a meditation on language.
Language is not only a social institution or a means of communication, but also an element central to the construction of identities, both individual and collective. Italian is a sexed, or gendered, language, which beginning with its grammar reproduces and institutes a rigid binarism of gender (between nouns, pronouns, and adjectives that change depending on if they are masculine or feminine) and a specific hierarchy, in which the masculine predominates, presented as universal or neutral. In this Plan, we have chosen to unveil the non-neutrality of the masculine, using not only the feminine but also the at sign to signify the irreducibility and the range of our differences. Conscious of the fact that languages transform and evolve, we seek to make our language inclusive so that it can take on new words with which we might tell our stories and change our imaginations.
Thus for Non Una di Meno the question of language is just as important as the question of action; indeed, their address of the strictures and possibilities of language is perhaps their first action. Their current fight is against a government that has also carried out its agenda in both actions and words. The Italian Minister for Families and Disabilities Lorenzo Fontana, of the Lega, made this pronouncement about the government’s immigration policies and the criticism they have come under from members of the Church. Fontana argues that the Bible’s “Love thy neighbor” must be read in a literal sense, and that Italy should not seek to care for migrants and should instead focus on what he calls “our poor.” This is the same minister who, in an interview with Corriere della Sera last year, feigned naiveté about LGBTQ families existing in Italy before stating matter-of-factly that “per the law they do not exist.”
The intersection of the precarious state of migrants and LGBTQ persons — particularly trans persons — was once made tragically clear with the death of Camila Díaz Córdova, who, it was reported at the end of February, had died earlier that month. She had come to the United States seeking asylum from the continued persecution and violent threats she faced in her native El Salvador. Her application denied late last year, Díaz Córdova was deported; reported missing in late January, she was hospitalized on January 31 and died a few days later.
Such cases, the many like them that are reported, and the countless others that never will be, demonstrate the paramount necessity for the LGBTQ movement to protect those most vulnerable within the community, particularly as nations like the United States and Italy grow increasingly hostile to immigrants and to people of color already living within their borders. Indeed, the very question of who is a “citizen,” so pernicious in the current migration crisis is a fight the LGBTQ community has long fought. Returning to the “Plan” of Non una di meno:
Racism, both institutional and social, the limits imposed upon human mobility and the specific conditions of violence lived by migrant women — as migrants and as women or LGBTQIA+ subjects — are central and transversal questions to the entirety of the feminist movement Non Una di Meno. We began with our own lives, conscious of the differences in position that present in each of us based on where we come from, as well as our class, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, and ability. We want to fight every form of sexism in its intersection with other systems of oppression, namely racism and capitalism, upon which the very hierarchies that seek to separate us into “migrants” and “citizens” are structured.
A plan for, and a call to, action, toward which we might all aspire.
Brian De Grazia, activist and scholar.