Thank You for Everything,
Photo by Craig Stokle
A legendary figure in the fight for the rights of the LGBTQ community and the anti-violence movement, Victoria Cruz is a survivor of the Stonewall protest and the first transgender woman of color to receive the National Crime Victim Service Award for her advocacy.
Victoria Cruz ’82 remembers that the evening of Friday, June 27, 1969, was oppressively hot and humid in the way New York summers can be. She had come to the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar located in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan, looking for her boyfriend, Frankie. He had not come home that evening and she made a point of going to Stonewall, where he was a bouncer.
“I said, ‘Let me see what’s going on,’” says Cruz, who suspected him of philandering. When she arrived, Frankie saw her and told her to go home. She refused. She remained on a stoop near the inn, and saw Sylvia Rivera—co-founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), who would become a key figure in what was about to go down—across the street in Sheridan Square Park. Cruz remembers feeling there was something ominous in the air that night, and the arrival a few hours later of police vans confirmed her intuition.
“All hell broke loose.”
The New York City bars and clubs that serviced LGBTQ clientele had been suffering regular state-sanctioned harassment, raids, and violence, in addition to the violence individual members of the community faced in their private lives from an anti-queer citizenry-at-large that sometimes even included family members. Cruz notes that lesbians and transgender women of color, particularly those who could not readily pass as cisgender (non-transgender) women, were often the main targets.
The atmosphere in the Village was uncharacteristically gloomy. Then, when the police showed up and started attacking us—attacking, particularly, lesbian and transgender women of color—we said: ‘No, honey. Not today!’”
“The cops would punch you right in the breast! They’d slap you up and down! They’d threaten you! One of the lines they used to use on us was ‘Hey, do you want to see my nightstick?’ and if we were sassy and responded, ‘Hey, do you want to see mine?’ you would get your gay knots,” Cruz recalls, explaining how the abuse came in myriad forms. “When lesbians were caught by the police, the cops used to pull on their bra straps and snap them against their backs. They called this ‘Robin Hooks’ because of the metal hooks on the bras that would leave marks on their backs after what the cops did. This is one of the reasons, I think, during the feminist movement, women started burning their bras. And if the clubs were raided and you were transgender, you had to carry with you at least three articles of clothing that pertained to the gender you were assigned at birth.”
Otherwise, Cruz says, the cops would arrest them, strip them down, and force them into prison cells with other inmates who objected to queer identities.
On this night, the victims of such tactics had had enough, and instead of allowing those forces to trample over them, they decided to fight back. Cruz says that she believes several factors fueled the resistance at that particular moment.
“Judy Garland [an icon to members of the LGBTQ community] had just been laid to rest. The hot and sticky weather had made us even more irritable. The atmosphere in the Village was uncharacteristically gloomy. Then, when the police showed up and started attacking us—attacking, particularly, lesbian and transgender women of color—we said: ‘No, honey. Not today!’”
What ensued, Cruz says, was an almost surreal scene out of the Keystone Cops. “We got boisterous. Shoes started flying. Bottles started flying. People started throwing bricks and rocks. Some folks began setting cars and garbage cans on fire. The cops started chasing a group around the corner, chasing them in a circle, so that at one point, it looked like the group was actually chasing the cops!”
As more police officers showed up, things escalated; Frankie insisted that Cruz leave, and she finally relented. The next evening, she accompanied Frankie back to the Stonewall Inn. It was in a shambles. Cruz and her beau helped clean up the place. From the debris, she salvaged a plaque that announced the prices of alcoholic beverages, and she became a foster mother to the watchdog—Rusty, a shorthaired pointer—that guarded the inn’s property. Cruz knew at that moment that she was a participant in and witness to something that was greater than her or any one person.
“You had the civil rights movement for black people, the feminist movement, and I knew that this was our time,” says Cruz, who, the following year, participated in the very first LGBTQ pride march in U.S. history, which took place in New York City.
Growing Up Transgender in Red Hook
Cruz’s identity was never really up for debate; from a young age, she was very clear about who she was. But the world’s view was a different matter entirely. It was the world, after all, that assigned her male at birth, without her control or input, based purely on biological understandings that failed, according to Cruz, to speak to the nuances of human existence and experience.
Born in Guánica, Puerto Rico, Cruz came to the mainland United States—Red Hook, Brooklyn—when she was six years old, just after her father, a World War II veteran, served in the Korean War. The third of 11 children (six, including Cruz, survive today), she spent much of her youth caring for her younger siblings. She attended Metropolitan Vocational High School and received a license in cosmetology and hairdressing.
“I always wanted to be a hairdresser, from when I was young,” Cruz says. “I used to do my sisters’ hair. My mother was an asthmatic. She was often sick, so I would wind up taking care of my younger siblings.” She worked professionally as a hairdresser for a period of time.
When Cruz was growing up, the word transgender had not yet come into existence, and transgender people in the United States were simply thought to be very feminine gay men or very masculine lesbian women, cross-dressers and drag kings/queens, and eventually, transvestites. There were few, if any, serious conversations about gender identity.
“At a very early age, while I was living in Red Hook, I saw the World Trade Center going up,” Cruz reflects. She says that seeing those majestic towers being built triggered something in her and made her, every night before she went to bed, engage in a bit of magical thinking.
“I used to do those ‘Star light, star bright, wish I may, wish I might, make this wish come true tonight’ sort of things, and I would always wish to wake up as a girl.”
But Cruz was never “in the closet.” She says that her family had always known that she was “different”— perhaps in ways they could not articulate or understand, but they knew. She says that, surprisingly, most of her family accepted her, including her father.
“I think I was blessed, because my family didn’t disown me. And I had six brothers, so no one in the neighborhood really messed with me. I always stood my ground, even when I had to fight my brothers. Sometimes they would call me a ‘faggot.’ They stopped calling me that once I began to win my fights with them,” she laughs, adding that her family, who had affectionately nicknamed her Negro (Spanish for “black”) because she had the darkest skin among them, began to call her Negra, the feminine form of the word, as a sign of acknowledgment and respect for who she really was.
Still, Cruz’s mother had some difficulty accepting her and her identity, which caused an estrangement.
Courtesy of Victoria Cruz
“Once, I ran away from home, at age 17, and I didn’t come back for about two years. My mother got sick with asthma and she asked to see me, and I went back. She hugged and kissed me, and we cried together, and I moved back to Red Hook,” Cruz says. She recalls renting an apartment at 109 Union Street for $40 a month that had a beautiful view of Governor’s Island from one side and of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline from the other. “My mother was a seamstress and she made all of my dresses and taught me how to sew.”
As she started to discover who she was, pushing back against what society told her she had to be, Cruz sought the means to express what she was feeling inside and began her physical transformation.
“I went to Dr. Leo Wollman, rest in peace, on West 28th Street and Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. He was a pioneer in hormonal therapy and transitional medical issues, and I began to take the pills he prescribed me. But then I found out that you could get hormone shots on the black market for much cheaper.”
Once she had stepped fully into her identity, she became part of a vibrant and celebratory queer community in New York City, partying hard and fast. In the back of her mind, though, she knew that she had to provide a more stable life for herself.
“I thought, ‘This body is not going to last forever,’ so I said, ‘Let me continue my education.’”
Cruz enrolled at Brooklyn College in 1978 and majored in theater. She made friends with the small queer community on campus at the time. It was not officially organized, but members found one another through a combination of luck and intuition.
A Hard Road to Activism
Upon graduating in 1982, Cruz could not find any work directly related to her field, so she began a career on the nightclub stage, performing drag shows in some of the local gay venues. She also became a sex worker, which could be particularly dangerous for transgender women of color. Cruz carried a hammer or spike heels as a defense.
“The other workers would throw rocks and bottles at me when they saw me coming because they saw me as competition. So I had to change my venue and change the time I would work. I would go to this bar called the Grapevine on West 47th Street, the diamond district, during the day. And my clients would pay me in jewelry. And I think that was a blessing, because jewelry was hard to get rid of, and that prevented me from spending my earnings on frivolous things.”
Courtesy of Victoria Cruz
Cruz dated a Navy veteran who abused crack cocaine and eventually persuaded her to partake—a habit that depleted her savings. But she would not stay in that state for long. Concerned about her health and appearance, Cruz sought professional help for herself and her partner. She brought him to the VA hospital, then a local rehabilitation center where he remained for three months. Cruz discovered that he told his therapists that Cruz was the cause of his drug addiction, stating that her transgender identity caused him a great deal of pain and shame.
“That was a betrayal,” Cruz says. “I was the one who found him a place where he could get clean. And he was doing drugs before he met me.” Cruz never saw the man again.
In an attempt to gather herself and regroup, Cruz took four months to get clean and applied for public assistance. The simple act of applying for something like help from the government can often prove difficult for transgender people.
“When I went for the physical examination you were required to undergo when applying for assistance, the nurse told me to go into the exam room and put my legs up into the stirrups. Oh, the comedy! When the doctor came in, he said, ‘You’re in the wrong room!’”
In 1996, she was enrolled in Welfare Education Program (WEP), which, at the time, required that adults receiving assistance work a specific number of hours per week wherever the agency sent them. Initially, the program assigned Cruz to work in a public park, but she expressed concerns about her safety as a transgender woman. She was then given a job at Cobble Hill Health Center, a nursing home where she enjoyed working with elderly and disabled clients, and believed she would be safer.
That was not to be so. Cruz was peppered with gender slurs, and physically and sexually assaulted twice by cisgender female co-workers, one of whom she knew from her old neighborhood, and who Cruz believes was the instigator of the abuse.
“The first time, I didn’t say anything,” Cruz remembers. “But the second time was much more of a violent assault, and I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. This isn’t going to happen.’”
Cruz began to experience signs of trauma after the experience. “I was in shock for about a month. I couldn’t feel the ground beneath me as solid. It felt more like foam rubber. I would get up in the morning and walk around aimlessly, mindlessly, but somehow find myself back in front of the nursing home. When I came to, I’d say, ‘What am I doing here?’”
Cruz’s friend Rosalyn Blumenstein from the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of New York referred her to the New York City Anti-Violence Project. She explained what had happened to her to Christine Quinn, the first openly gay speaker of the New York City Council, who was the director of the project at that time. Quinn suggested the grassroots approach of picketing the nursing home. Eventually, charges were brought against Cruz’s attackers, and two of the four assailants were found guilty of harassment.
In 1997, based on Cruz’s friendly and professional interactions with the staff, Cruz was hired by Quinn to work at the Anti-Violence Project, starting as an administrative assistant. After a few years, noting her tremendous empathy with clients, the organization promoted her to a social worker counselor position, working specifically with victims of domestic violence. She became coordinator of the program, and then senior counselor advocate, the highest position she could attain without a master’s degree in social work. Cruz led training modules for counselors who aid people entering public shelters (the Anti-Violence Project was one of the first organizations to develop shelters specifically for the LGBTQ community).
Keeping the Spotlight on Educating the Public
She did not at first grasp how much of an impact her advocacy for victims was having on the larger society, not even after helping hundreds of people leave and survive dangerous situations. It was not until 2012 that she began to see her influence. She was notified during the Obama administration that she would be the first transgender woman of color to receive the Justice Department’s National Crime Victim Service Award, which was presented to her at the White House by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Cruz, who now walks with a cane due to rheumatoid arthritis, recently retired from her career as an advocate after 18 years of service. Still, work is far from over. She was featured prominently in the critically acclaimed 2017 Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, which examines the lives of the transgender women at the forefront of the gay rights movement who were often erased from mainstream narratives. She will also star in an upcoming documentary celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall protests in 2019. She recently returned to the Brooklyn College campus for the discussion “Trans Activism Before, During and After Stonewall,” part of a joint collaboration by the Ethyle R. Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, LGBTQ Resource Center, The Women’s Center, and Women’s and Gender Studies to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.
Courtesy of Victoria Cruz
Cruz is overwhelmed by her newfound stardom and the adoration she is receiving from the younger generations who are just discovering her accomplishments. In social media spaces, they have dubbed her “Queen.” When asked what she thinks of this, she jokes, “But I am, darling!” In all seriousness, though, she wishes to use the attention wisely, redirecting the focus to the plight of the queer community and educating the public with the hopes that it will become a more compassionate space.
“There is so much hatred directed toward queer people, particularly transgender women of color. For what? Why? I think it may be about people’s own insecurities about their own identities and sexualities. And further, people don’t know their history,” she emphasizes, noting that transgender women and men even face discrimination and violence from cisgender members of the queer community. “The transgender experience isn’t new. It’s as old as the human experience, and anyone who does their research would know this. I think society needs to be educated, and maybe after being educated, empathy will follow.”
Video by Salim Hasbini