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Engendering Change keynote focuses on intersectional activism
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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"You've all heard the story. One day a group of drag queens in New York got sick and tired of being sick and tired—sick of police harassment, tired of legalized homophobia. And that's how we got the Stonewall riots. But … Sylvia Rivera, the co-founder [with Black transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson] of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries ( STAR ) [in 1971]… [said,] 'All of us were working for so many movements at the time … the women's movement, the peace movement, the civil-rights movement. We were all radicals. I believe that's what brought it around.'"

This quote—from Roderick "Rod" Ferguson, a University of Illinois at Chicago's ( UIC ) African-American, gender and women's studies professor— was one of the many points made about the intersectional beginnings of queer liberation during his April 23 keynote address, "Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries and the Intersectional History of Gay Liberation," at the sixth-annual, daylong Engendering Change conference at UIC.

Engendering Change provides graduate students at UIC, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago the opportunity to present their work, network and get feedback from faculty and other graduate students. The conference rotates between the three universities.

Ferguson spoke about the need to view the Stonewall Riots through Rivera's eyes, as an event centered around transgender women who were "tempered in a variety of progressive struggles … and what happened that night was not simply about confining queer and trans liberation to the narrow parameters of single-issue politics but connecting that struggle to the network of insurrections, … [including] the feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist and anti-war movements."

In speaking about STAR, later renamed Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, Ferguson said its origins can be traced to an earlier three-day sit-in that Rivera and Johnson participated in with the Gay Liberation Front at New York University's ( NYU ) Weinstein Hall after the university barred the student-group Gay Activist Alliance and the non-student organization The Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee from holding any more gay social functions in the hall.

"STAR arose out of a dialogue between social struggles, one involving the communities within an academic institution and the communities outside who adopted a vision for that institution despite the fact that they were external to it … De-normalizing NYU for the good of queer and trans students was at its heart an effort to reconfigure institutional space," said Ferguson.

STAR, Ferguson noted, was founded to help transgender women who relied on sex work for survival as well as a way to combat poverty, homelessness and police violence. He explained that Rivera and Johnson snuck people into their rooms so they would have a place to sleep.

"As STAR's emphasis on anti-poverty and anti-police violence shows, politicizing transgender modes of social difference meant putting those differences in conversation with other struggles," said Ferguson. "…Intersectionality is not simply denoted through the commingling of race, gender, sexual and class differences … it illuminates social struggles that are implicitly and consciously overlapping, to demonstrate that single-issue models and frameworks that separate one social difference from another are analytical fictions at best."

A Q&A session followed Ferguson's remarks.

Next year's conference will take place at Northwestern University.

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