When defining the reproductive justice movement, many advocates trace its roots to the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision and the growth of reproductive health organizations that began to emerge. Taking up issues such as access to safe abortions, ending sterilization, and the right to motherhood, the boom in institutional activism across races, helped to usher in an ongoing national conversation about the structural restraints enforced on women’s bodies.
For reproductive justice advocates of color, the strategic act of centering Roe v. Wade can be useful in that it provides a documented history of resistance against a medical industry driven by pharmaceutical genocide. However, because this framework privileges a concept of “woman” concerned primarily with abortion access, it advances a dangerous narrative that erases the multiple ways that generations of trans women of color have also organized around similar issues of reproductive oppression. Specifically, the right of an individual to exercise control and fight for the safety of their bodies despite their gender and sexuality.
Becoming mindful of the historical activism of trans women of color prior to Roe v. Wade, offers the potential for making a significant impact when organizing for reproductive rights. Their experience of injustice might extend far beyond safe access to abortions, still, it is deeply connected to the multiple oppressions non trans women of color experience. By recognizing this, we can begin to move reproductive justice conversations forward in a way that provides opportunity for inclusion rather than the continued fragmentation of womanhood currently plaguing the movement. The legacy of trans women of color activists, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, provide excellent points of reference for this suggestion.
To combat the public mistreatment and overall violence against trans women, the year 1970 witnessed Johnson and Rivera launch a collective shelter for women of the community–most of whom were youth and sex workers–called Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR) House. Drawing from their own experiences of the violent risks associated with sex for survival, the main goal of STAR House was to offer housing and community support to ensure that other trans women didn’t have to “hustle” in order to live a complete life. Although it was a short lived program, STAR House holds a significant place in reproductive justice history as being the first grassroots initiative to promote the sexual health and safety of queer and trans youth of color.
More than this, Johnson and Rivera’s work reveals a primary way in which the reproductive oppressions of trans women of color directly link to the realities of non trans women of color. Specifically, it shows that no matter how one physically occupies the identity of a woman, the threat of economic hardship as a product of structural racism and misogyny, inevitability regulates their sexuality and how they engage their bodies in sex.
It also points to the historical similarities of community mobilizing that exists amongst all women of color–a topic that deserves more critical analysis but continues to remain woefully under discussed. Just as Black lesbians, Chican@s, and Indigenous women created activist spaces concerned with the specific health needs of the women in their community prior to Roe, the founding of STAR House as a space for trans women created by trans women, treads the same social justice path.
Provided that reproductive justice is indeed about all women having the right to make healthy and informed decisions about their bodies, advocates who continue to ignore the historical contributions of trans women of color, are complicit in reproducing the very oppressions the movement seeks to destroy. It is urgent that we foster a reproductive justice framework that includes recognizing the shared relationships of resistance between all gender identities–as it is our most powerful avenue in creating significant social change.
This post is part of Still Wading: Forty years of resistance, resilience and reclamation in communities of color, a blog series by Strong Families commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade.