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Marsha P. Johnson Institute honors, uplifts Black trans lives

Elle Moxley on ‘making the full humanity of our existence visible’

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Elle Moxley with actress Dominique Jackson at the MPJ Institute’s recent event with H&M. (Photo courtesy MPJ Institute)

Marsha P. Johnson — a towering figure in the Stonewall Rebellion — would have celebrated her 77th birthday this week. Johnson was an outspoken advocate for gay and trans rights, and the “P” in her name stood for “Pay it no mind” — her response when asked about her gender. 

In honor of the late activist’s birthday, the Blade sat down with Elle Moxley, founder of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, to discuss how Johnson’s legacy lives on.

BLADE: When and why did you found the Marsha P. Johnson Institute?

ELLE MOXLEY: The Marsha P. Johnson Institute launched in 2019, and my founding of the organization was in response to the consistent murders that were being reported of Black trans women across the country. I have spent many years working as an organizer and activist, and I saw that there was a gap in social justice spaces — in terms of the solutions that were being generated in response to those murders, but also to the systemic and structural violence that existed around Black trans people and Black people period.

The organization was named in honor of Marsha P. Johnson to affirm the movement that Marsha spearheaded and to create a space where the movement of today had a place to live, without disregarding the history of so many that came before.

BLADE: Can you tell me about the spirit of Marsha P. Johnson that you see in the Institute?

MOXLEY: The fight for equity is something that we see as an evolvement of Marsha’s belief in equality, and we recognize that Marsha was very visible in a movement that did not always reflect faces that looked like hers, in terms of what we understood about LGBTQ rights or LGBTQ people. Knowing that Black trans people exist outside of our deaths and outside of our murders is really where we see the evolvement of our work at the Institute, but that evolvement would not even be possible if Marsha had not made herself visible on the front lines of her activism. It is in that regard where we see ourselves very much mirroring a model that she created for the movement, and we have certainly held up the torch and are carrying it forward.

BLADE: The Institute’s Starship Artists Fellowships are set to begin soon — what are your hopes for the new program?

MOXLEY: With all of our new programming, it really is our hope that we are changing the culture of global societies — that we are not only making Black trans people visible, but we’re making the full humanity of our existence visible. The artists’ fellowship was created to pay homage to the visionaries that exist in the Black trans community. There’s a Black trans renaissance that certainly is underway, and we want to continue to support that function of movement. A lot of people assume that movement is literally about protesting — and that certainly is a big part of it — but there are other ways that you can resist but also practice your joy. We really want it to mirror that Black trans people are joyful — we have joy, and murder is not the only thing we expect to happen to us. Our artists’ fellowship creates space for artists to imagine a bigger picture, a bigger world, for Black trans futures.

I am an artist myself, so that was also a big part of it. Activism is something that Black trans people often have to choose to survive, and we are mad and angry about our circumstances, but we actually are people who have other dreams and desires outside of just fighting for our lives. Marsha P. Johnson again served as an amazing model for movement — her participation in street art and in theater troupes is a reflection of the joy that so many people find outside of their activism.

BLADE: In honor of Black Philanthropy Month and Black August, are there any understudied or underreported causes and freedom fighters that people should be more aware of?

MOXLEY: Just several weeks ago, we lost one of the most important freedom fighters and political prisoners of our time — Albert Woodfox, who was held in solitary confinement for 44 years, the longest solitary confinement in U.S. history. I would say that Black August is always an opportunity for people to understand the structural inadequacies that exist not only in prisons, but in the world. It’s real people who are being housed in prisons, and I say real people because the atrocities of life are often happening to the people who are in cages. I think Black Philanthropy Month creates a space for more investments to happen to organizations who are leading the fight against the apartheid and the segregation that certainly exist in America.

To celebrate the freedom fighters of our time, we are uplifting Black trans freedom fighters who have given their lives to movement, who have given their lives for others. And that’s happening in and outside of prisons — those who are on the inside of prisons are always still advocating for the people in the communities that they believe in, and we are so grateful and thankful to those folks.

BLADE: It seems like most of the recent news about reproductive rights and trans rights has been dismal. Are there any bright spots on your radar, in terms of legislative progress on these issues?

MOXLEY: Anytime a human right is interrupted or taken away, it is such a negative for so many people who are looking for legislation that gives them hope. I will say that I’ve just been hopeful about the future of democracy and of our humanity. I think there are so many activists who have been activated to lead to more generative resolutions around legislation, especially when we think about piecemeal legislation actually being the thing that’s being abolished. That’s the beautiful juxtaposition of what happens when we lose a law — the thing about laws is that they can go away, and they can always return.

If we lean into the positive, we have an opportunity to create more than we originally started with. And that’s the thing that gives me so much hope — we can create more foundational legislation that accounts for the human rights of all people and not just a specific kind. With reproductive justice being at the center of so many of our political conversations, what we are seeing is an expansion of what reproductive justice means and who reproductive justice applies to. And that is what gives me great hope, that we will now be able to account for more than just the abortions of trans men, that we’ll be able to think about the reproductive rights of Black trans women and nonbinary people in ways that we’ve never been able to consider before. 

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National

Trans experiences with the internet range from ‘harrowing’ to ‘powerful’

New survey provides insights into the stakes of web use for LGBTQ adults

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(Image courtesy of LGBT Tech)

Alex, 29, would not have met their friends without the internet. While living in a small city surrounded by farmland, finding community was not always easy.

Alex tried out one of those apps for adults seeking to make friends. It turned out to be a remarkable success. “I’ve made my friend group as a direct result of using the internet,” they said, explaining that even though all the friends are trans, due to their diverse interests, “we would have been hard-pressed to have ever really run into each other by happenstance.”

Making friends online is also safer for Alex. Before they pursued HRT and surgery and looked more “visibly queer,” they were in scary situations. “I’ve had pickup trucks chase me while driving, people call out slurs while driving by me, and I’ve been shot at,” they said. 

Having the internet available for appointments, work, and social activities is fundamental to their life.

But the web was not always such a friendly place for Alex. “There’s so much hate and falsehoods out there about trans people,” they said. “It’s why it takes so long for some of us to learn about who we are.”

This dissonance is widespread within the LGBTQ community. A recent report—”ctrl+alt+lgbt: Digital Access, Usage, and Experiences of the LGBTQ+ Community”—by LGBT Tech and Data for Progress provides insight into that phenomenon. 

Shae Gardner, director of policy at LGBT Tech, explained that most of the research about the LGBTQ community’s internet use historically has focused on youth. The project aimed to fill the gap. From surveys with 1,300 people across the country, the report found that while the internet is a foundational space for LGBTQ community building and self-expression, it also comes with a high risk for bullying and harassment.  

These findings intensify when looking specifically at the data for underrepresented groups within the LGBTQ population like the transgender community, who are by far the group that faces the most harassment online, per the Anti-Defamation League. Gardner explained that the survey was over-sampled for transgender individuals intentionally. “We really wanted to understand that specific experience,” Gardner said.

The Blade interviewed five trans people about their experiences to gain insight into how different community members felt while navigating the web and specifically identified sources who do not have public platforms and therefore do not face heightened public scrutiny. Due to concern for backlash, all sources for this story spoke on condition of anonymity with gender-ambiguous names and they/them pronouns.

Four out of five of the people interviewed emphasized that the internet is a vital resource for accessing healthcare. 

Riley, 24, explained, “I have such immense dread about transitioning because I don’t want to have to interact with doctors around my identity. I feel like I don’t have access to providers who are able to understand me.”

The internet, for many, provides a safe location to access health information and care without the judgment of doctors. Kai, 23, and Cameron, 27, both shared that the internet was an important place for them to learn specifics around trans healthcare and seek out trans-friendly providers. Alex agreed and added that they have made it so all of their doctors’ appointments through tele-health.

These experiences are consistent with the larger trans community. LGBT Tech’s survey found that 70% of transgender adults use the internet to find LGBTQ-friendly healthcare. By comparison, only 41% of cisgender LGBTQ adults use the internet to find the same friendly care.

All the sources interviewed said they sought LGBTQ community online with varying degrees of success. 

Jordan, 24, said that not only is social media a good way to stay connected with people they know, but it also helps them find a broader community. “It’s nice to follow other trans and queer people whose experiences can inspire me or make me feel seen.”

Cameron emphasized that the internet provides connections to activities and communities around town. “Social media has facilitated my in-person queer and trans community,” they explained. “I learn a lot about what queer events are happening around town via social media. I have a wonderful community playing queer sports that I wouldn’t have found without the internet.”

Kai shared that it hasn’t been a successful pursuit for them: “I wish it did more than it does.” 

Per Trans Tech’s survey, transgender adults “often” use social media to connect with existing LGBTQ friends and family 41% of the time (as opposed to “sometimes” “rarely” or “never”). This is 21% more than the LGBTQ community at large. The survey also reveals that transgender adults are 20% more likely to “often” use social media to connect with new LGBTQ community than the LGBTQ community at large.

Everyone but Cameron has experienced some form of direct bullying or harassment for being transgender, either online or in person. The survey found that 83% of transgender adults have faced bullying online. By comparison, 59% of the cisgender LGBTQ community faced bullying online. 

“Technology is only as good as its application. And this is the other side of the dual-edged sword,” said Gardner. 

Gardner explained that the online and in-person harassment was mirrored. “The experiences of anti-LGBTQ bullying were very high, both for LGBTQ+ individuals and especially for trans individuals, but those numbers were nearly equitable to the experiences that that they have in the real world with anti-LGBTQ+ bullying,” she said. The survey found that 82% of transgender adults faced bullying in person.

The survey found despite the comparable levels of harassment and high levels of misinformation (93% of transgender adults saw anti-LGBTQ misinformation online), respondents overwhelmingly felt safe online—67% of trans adults and 76% of cisgender LGBTQ adults. 

When she compared this phenomenon to her life, Gardner wasn’t surprised. “The harassment that I have faced online has certainly felt less immediately threatening than what I’ve faced in person. The mental toll it takes is significant, but I would argue individuals probably have an easier time getting away from it.”

That doesn’t stop Gardner from noting, “We need to be fighting [harassment] in both places.” 

She explained that, “when we are staring down the barrel of record-setting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation yet again, it is so integral to keep fighting for digital spaces to be as safe as possible.”

Regardless of its safety, it is a space that is a constant for many. “I use the internet constantly,” said Alex. “I use the internet a lot at work since I have a desk job,” said Jordan.

When reflecting on the internet, Riley summed up the tensions they experience. “It can be harrowing often but simultaneously it’s where I feel a sense of community and access.”

(This story is part of the Digital Equity Local Voices Fellowship lab through News is Out. The lab initiative is made possible with support from Comcast NBCUniversal.)

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Pennsylvania

Pa. House passes bill to repeal state’s same-sex marriage ban

Measure now goes to Republican-controlled state Senate

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Pennsylvania Capitol Building (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania House of Representatives on July 2 passed a bill that would repeal the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

The marriage bill passed by a 133-68 vote margin, with all but one Democrat voting for it. Thirty-two Republicans backed the measure.

The bill’s next hurdle is to pass in the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate.

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia), a gay man who is running for state auditor, noted to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the bill would eliminate a clause in Pennsylvania’s marriage law that defines marriage as “between one man and one woman.” The measure would also change the legal definition of marriage in the state to “a civil contract between two individuals.”

Kenyatta did not return the Washington Blade’s requests for comment.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges extended marriage rights to same-sex couples across the country. 

Justice Clarence Thomas in the 2022 decision that struck down Roe v. Wade said the Supreme Court should reconsider the Obergefell decision and the Lawrence v. Texas ruling that said laws that criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations are unconstitutional. President Joe Biden at the end of that year signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which requires the federal government and all U.S. states and territories to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages.

Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this year signed a bill that codified marriage rights for same-sex couples in state law. Pennsylvania lawmakers say the marriage codification bill is necessary in case the Supreme Court overturns marriage rights for same-sex couples in their state and across the country.

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Pennsylvania

Western Pa. transgender girl killed, dismembered

Pauly Likens, 14, brutally murdered last month

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(Photo courtesy of the LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley)

Editor’s note: The Philadelphia Gay News originally published this story.

BY TIM CWIEK | Prosecutors are pledging justice for Pauly Likens, a 14-year-old transgender girl from Sharon, Pa., who was brutally killed last month. Her remains were scattered in and around a park lake in western Pennsylvania.

“The bottom line is that we have a 14-year-old, brutally murdered and dismembered,” said Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker in an email. “Pauly Likens deserves justice, her family deserves justice, and we seek to deliver that justice.”

On June 23, DaShawn Watkins allegedly met Likens in the vicinity of Budd Street Public Park and Canoe Launch in Sharon, Pa., and killed her. Watkins subsequently dismembered Likens’s corpse with a saw and scattered her remains in and around Shenango River Lake in Clark Borough.

On July 2, Watkins was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. He’s being held without bail in the Mercer County jail.

The coroner’s office said the cause of death was sharp force trauma to the head and ruled the manner of death as homicide.

Cell phone records, social media and surveillance video link Watkins to the crime. Additionally, traces of Likens’s blood were found in and around Watkins’s apartment in Sharon, Pa., authorities say.

A candlelight vigil is being held Saturday, July 13, in remembrance of Likens. It’s being hosted by LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley. The vigil begins at 7 p.m. at 87 Stambaugh Ave. in Sharon, Pa.

Pamela Ladner, president of the Alliance, mourned Likens’s death. 

“Pauly’s aunt described her as a sweet soul, inside and out,” Ladner said in an email. “She was a selfless child who loved nature and wanted to be a park ranger like her aunt.”

Acker, the prosecutor, said Likens’s death is one of the worst crimes he’s seen in 46 years as an attorney. But he cautioned against calling it a hate crime. “PSP [Pennsylvania State Police] does not believe it in fact is one [hate crime] because the defendant admitted to being a homosexual and the victim was reportedly a trans girl,” Acker asserted.

Acker praised the criminal justice agencies who worked on the case, including the Pennsylvania State Police, the Hermitage Police Department, the Sharon Police Department, park rangers from the Shenango Reservoir, Mercer County Coroner John Libonati, and cadaver dog search units.

“The amount of hours dedicated to the identification of the victim and the filing of charges against the defendant is a huge number,” Acker added. “We take the murder of any individual very seriously, expressly when they are young and brutally killed and dismembered.”

Acker also noted that all criminal defendants are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

This is a developing story.

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