When Existence is Resistance

Trans Activism in New York, 1969 to 2019

Friday, December 20, 2019 by Sarah Seidman

In 2019, the Museum commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising through exhibitions, public programs, and participation in the Stonewall-50 consortium. As the year comes to an end and the exhibition PRIDE: Photographs of Stonewall and Beyond by Fred W. McDarrah closes on December 31st, the section of our ongoing exhibition Activist New York on trans activism, “When Existence is Resistance: Trans Activism in New York, 1969 to 2019,” will remain on view in the near year. Installed in the spring of 2019, this section of the exhibition uses photographs, print publications, art, and ephemera to examine trans New Yorkers who mobilized at the Stonewall Inn during the police raid in June 1969, formed pioneering trans organizations, and pushed gender boundaries in decades to come.


Installation shot of the Trans Activism case study in the exhibition "Activist New York."
Victoria Martens

The exhibition materials focus on the New York-based group STAR, or Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. In 1970 Sylvia L. Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who both participated in the Stonewall uprising the year before, founded STAR to empower marginalized youth and people of color before the term “transgender” was widely used. They marched, corralled resources, and operated the first group shelter in the nation dedicated to serving trans youth, STAR House. They also dealt with stigma and opposition from gay liberation and women’s liberation groups, and crafted a wide-ranging platform against discrimination and violence. Although the group folded in 1973, their pioneering work has impacted trans organizing to this day. 


Black and white photograph featuring a parade during Christopher Street Liberation Day. Three figures, in front hold a banner for STAR, or Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
Christopher Street Liberation Day, 1973, Sylvia and Bebe Power Salute. Richard C. Wandel, 1973. Courtesy Richard C. Wandel Photographs. LGBT Community Center Archive.

The exhibition section also includes more recent materials, including artists, intellectuals, and activists from the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. In 2002 trans protections were added to New York City’s human rights law for the first time, and in 2019 the New York legislature passed the statewide Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA). Trans activists have been at the forefront of these legislative initiatives, as well as continuing grassroots mobilizations for trans representation, safety, and equality.

Three enameled pronoun pins. Black background with gold text.
Pronoun Pins, 2018. Courtesy Gamut Pins.
A group of people stand behind a banner on the 12th Annual Trans Day, 2016.
12th Annual Trans Day, Washington Square Park, New York June 24, 2016. Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images


Visit “When Existence is Resistance” in Activist New York in 2020 and beyond.

By Sarah Seidman, the Puffin Foundation Curator of Social Activism at the Museum of the City of New York.

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