Qween Jean Brings “Artivism” to Stonewall Protests

Organizer Qween Jean speaking at the Black Trans History March.
Daniel Lehrhaupt

After a Black trans woman in Missouri and a Black trans man in Florida were killed just weeks apart in 2020, activists returned to the historic Stonewall Inn — and that sparked the beginning of a new recurring demonstration.

Qween Jean and Joel Rivera joined together and co-founded the Black trans liberation protests that have regularly taken place on Thursdays, as well as some other days, ever since last year. Most protests revolve around the Stonewall Inn, but they’ve also demonstrated at Washington Square Park and marched through the streets of the city to underscore the importance of trans rights and condemn the ongoing killings of transgender people.

Jean, a transgender woman, said in an interview with Gay City News that the marches are about dismantling injustice and calling attention to the joys of queer and trans identity.

“Leadership looks like you and myself,” Jean said. “When there is a disparity, we should be able to come together to galvanize, in order to not only create solutions, but to enact practices that can potentially, and eventually change the outcome for a lot of people and increase their safety and their well being.”

As just one half of the organizing group, Jean touts Rivera as her “chosen family” who has guided her beyond the field of activism. She strives to lead her protests with “radical love” — a protesting style she attributes to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Marsha P. Johnson, and James Baldwin.

Qween Jean at the Black Trans History March honoring legendary leaders for liberation.Daniel Lehrhaupt

“We have the right to hold and share space,” Jean said. “I do believe in my power, I believe in my voice, and I do believe that we will win, that we will create a better New York City. We will create a place where we can all proudly call our home.”

Jean is a native of Florida and began her career at the Florida School of the Arts. In 2016, she earned her Master’s degree in Design from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and she is a well-decorated costume designer with credits in off-broadway plays.

Jean’s art-based background has allowed her to incorporate those themes into the protests to create what she describes as “artivism,” making the events not only a tool of liberation but also a reflection of her artistic side. The protests, she says, are akin to a major stage production and reflect the glamour she brings to her work.

“What became clear to me is that the two cannot exist on their own,” she said. “They actually have to work in tandem.”

Qween Jean delivers a speech near a Trans Flag at Washington Square Park last year.Donna Aceto

“This is a time when artists go to work,” Jean said as she paraphrased the late poet and writer, Toni Morrison, in a 2015 essay in the Nation, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear.” “This is the time when we write. This is the time where we are not led by fear… This is the time that we come together so civilization can heal.”

The trend of killings targeting transgender people across the nation has continued into this year. Two Black Transgender women, one in Miami, Florida, and another in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have been killed within the last couple of weeks — and those deaths have given Jean even more reason to drive home the importance of caring for people of historically marginalized genders.

“As we are advocating for Black Lives Matter, we’re declaring to the world that trans people are people. And that trans people deserve better,” Jean said. “This is something that we’re really striving diligently and passionately to really dismantle the transphobia, the racism, a lot of the oppressive systems that continue to allow for these heinous actions to happen.”

Joel Rivera delivers remarks in front of the crowd at a Martin Luther King Day rally.Donna Aceto

Yet, even as Jean vows to create spaces for trans folks to grieve, celebrate, and denounce disparities, sometimes violence appears inescapable. During the group’s protest that started at the Barclay’s Center on Martin Luther King’s birthday, she recalled a frenzy of police flocking to the demonstration.

“That entire march was attacked and beaten by the NYPD,” she said. “Literally, where trans women were being attacked by the police, their wigs getting ripped off, being dragged on the concrete. There is a parallel to the 1969 liberation fight.”

It has always been painful for Qween Jean to watch history replay itself, especially as she continues to stand up as an activist. She also acknowledges a “thick, scary silence” regarding the ongoing trauma facing the community in homelessness and food insecurity.

However, even at a time when the community has been targeted by violence, she is still hopeful. On February 11, Jean twirled in front of Stonewall in a lengthy red dress with a sea of activists behind her capturing Black trans history and ushering in a new beginning.

“As we weave in visibility into the fabric of what our future is, we’ve also got to weave in acceptance and weave in trans love,” she said. “All of that has to be woven together into the fabric of our future.”

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