50 Years After Stonewall, Young Trans Women are Leading the Fight for LGBTQ Equality

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.

When Lillian Lennon’s friend couldn’t take time off work to travel to Anchorage Pride, she decided to bring the festival to her hometown: Talkeetna, Alaska. (Population: 876.)

That 2017 celebration, featuring a Main Street parade and performance by local drag queen Daphne DoAll LaChore, became Talkeetna Pride. In the years since, Lennon, now 20, has grown the organization to do community-building and advocacy work.

Talkeetna Pride has organized a queer art gallery and a Trans Day of Remembrance Vigil. In March, they hosted the Trans Alaska Summit to combat isolation. Last year, they partnered with the ACLU’s Fair Anchorage campaign to mobilize against a ballot initiative that would require residents to use public bathrooms based on their sex assigned at birth—and helped usher in a victory for trans folks at the ballot box by “canvassing people and educating them on the spot about the trans community.”

Lennon’s mission to provide support for her local queer and trans community was as personal for her, as a trans woman, as it was political. “Talkeetna has little resources to speak of for the queer community,” Lennon told Ms. “With this organization, we support people who live in small, more rural or conservative communities.”

This support is important for trans people, who suffer higher depression and anxiety rates, and especially for trans teens—who face down higher suicide rates than their peers.

“The most important work in our movement today,” Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager at the National Center for Transgender Equality, told Ms., “is being done by each transgender person who helps to educate their families, friends, workplaces, schools and faith communities about the realities of being transgender.”

Raquel Willis, now 28, is also doing that critical work. Willis also began organizing as a teenager, when she enrolled at the University of Georgia and worked to change “archaic” policies that were “not conducive of a safe learning experience for queer and trans students.” That experience helped Willis—a black, queer trans woman—realize that she “wanted to do work that lessened the feelings of isolation for queer and trans people in the South.” Today, she serves as Out magazine’s Executive Editor.

Fifty years after the Stonewall Riots began the modern LGBTQ+ movement, young people like Lennon and Willis are forming a new front line in the fight for trans equality—and giving young trans people hope for the future.

Willis has witnessed the power, for example, of her visibility. Younger trans people often tell her that “witnessing my authenticity in the world” has helped them. “I feel the most like I have begun to leave my mark,” she said, “when I’m meeting younger people who are queer and trans and of color.”

The pioneering legacy of Stonewall’s leaders, however, still shapes the modern landscape—and the individual work of activists like Lennon and Willis, too. “It certainly is hard now, but those people back during Stonewall, they were leading the charge,” Lennon said. “I think that we’re leading the charge in a different way.”

Willis, who featured Stonewall leader Miss Major and other Black queer and trans women on the first cover of Out she oversaw, also sees her work as “cultural organizing” that centers community and visibility—matching the legal strides trans people have made towards equal protection.

“We’ve come a long way for the trans community, but we still have a long way to go,” Lennon told Ms., “and I hope to be a part of that fight.”

The Future is Ms. is committed to amplifying the voices of young women everywhere. Share one of your own stories about your path to empowerment at SayItForward.org.


Elizabeth Meisenzahl is an Index on Censorship Youth Advisor and student journalist based in Rochester, New York.