Fifteen years ago, an anonymous email circulated widely throughout San Francisco’s activist and LGBTQ communities launched the largest annual transgender pride event in the United States. The email focused on the importance of visibility, acceptance and building community. In the years since, tens of thousands of trans, intersex and gender non-conforming people and their allies have showed up for Trans March in Dolores Park, which is held every year on the Friday leading up to Pride Weekend.

This year’s march will be held Friday, June 28.

For many, the event remains perhaps the most politically salient event of Pride Weekend. “The gay parade is like a party; our march is a political statement,” said Victoria Castro, a case manager at local nonprofit El/La, which works with transgender Latinas.

Older members of the San Francisco transgender community say the march has always been important, describing the first one as a turning point toward greater awareness of the existence of the transgender community, and the struggles they faced.

“We were the last ones in the door,” recalled Ms. Bob Davis, 72, founder of the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archives, and a former music teacher at City College. In the late 1990s, she said, organizations like the GLBT historical society were still debating whether to include “T” in the name.

“This was the first time we had our own thing,” Davis said.

The Trans March was also the first time the community had participated in something so public, and on such a large scale. Davis remembers the first gathering in Dolores Park in 2004 — an estimated 2,000 trans people and their allies — as being the largest crowd of trans people she had ever seen. “It was, frankly, thrilling,” she said.

“Being transgender in the 1990s was something that was pretty underground,” Davis added. “It was a private affair. There were bars of course, but that’s not the same as walking down the street and saying, ‘This is who I am.’’’

A large crowd gathered at Dolores Park before the 2018 Trans March. Photo by Vianey Alderete.

It’s 2019, and the San Francisco Police Department now celebrates Pride by riding around in rainbow-emblazoned cruisers. It’s easy to forget that Pride’s history is one of protest against police brutality; that from the beginning, LGBTQ people, with transgender women of color leading the charge, fought back against police raids, demanding public visibility, safety and equality. But the LGBTQ community — and transgender women of color in particular — still experience alarming rates of violence and a systemic rollback on their rights and protections at the federal and state levels.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2018 was the deadliest year on record for the transgender population. And in May, the Trump administration proposed to remove an Obama-era anti-discrimination measure that protected transgender health-care customers by defining discrimination “on the basis of sex” to include gender identity. That means that health care works could refuse to perform gender-affirming surgery, and insurers wouldn’t have to cover all the services transgender customers need. And in April, President Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military went into effect.

In short, the Trans March is as relevant now as it was when it first started.

“It’s a rally, but it’s also a way to bring the community together to fight what continue to be brutal attacks on trans folks,” said Clair Farley, a senior advisor to the mayor focused on transgender initiatives. Reflecting on the history of the march, she noted that the widely publicized murder of Gwen Araujo, a teenage girl who was killed in Newark, California, in 2002 because she was trans, was also a reason why the community felt that a strong public march was necessary as a way to protest.

“There was a feeling in that community of being under attack,” Farley said.

The feeling hasn’t gone away. Five trans women in the U.S. have been killed in June of this year alone.

Trans March, 2016. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

The theme of this year’s march is sanctuary and the right to a home. “This year, we rally and campaign and demand that resources are allocated for trans and gender non-conforming folks’ right to housing,” organizers wrote on the event’s Facebook page. The city, it seems, is on board. Last month, Mayor London Breed  proposed $2 million be added to the budget that would cover housing subsidies and homeless services specifically for transgender and non-conforming people, noting that up to 49 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming San Franciscans have experienced homelessness. 

Farley says that the march is still, in so many ways, the same revolutionary event it was 17 years ago. So is being transgender.

“Just being trans, existing in the world as trans — and significantly, being a trans women of color, is an act of activism in itself,” she said.

The 16th Annual Trans March will be held at Dolores Park this Friday, June 28, beginning at 11 a.m. You can sign up to volunteer here.

Visit the event Facebook page for more info.