Disclaimer: The author of this piece is not a Black trans woman. This piece is intended to address other readers who do not identify as Black trans women and call upon their urgent allyship and action.
Happy Women’s History Month! I’m sure you’ve seen cute graphics of women floating around your Instagram explore page. Or maybe your Twitter timeline is flooded with celebrities acknowledging the important women in their lives. This month intends to celebrate the accomplishments and strides towards equality women have made throughout the world, as well as celebrate the impact women have in all aspects of life. While it’s quite admirable to look at the much-needed improvements we have made in relation to gender equality, it has become increasingly apparent that this month fails to shine light on the women who are continuously left out of the conversation: Black transgender women.
The intersectionality of being Black, transgender and a woman disproportionately make these women targets of hate crimes and state-sanctioned violence. During the summer of 2020, six Black transgender women –– Brayla Stone, Merci Mack, Shakiie Peters, Draya McCarty, Tatiana Hall and Bree Black –– were killed within nine days. The National Council for Transgender Equality U.S. Transgender Survey revealed that 47% of the survey’s Black respondents “reported being denied equal treatment, verbally harassed, and/or physically attacked in the past year because of being transgender.” While 22% of transgender people reported experiencing biased harassment from police officers, 38% of Black trans people reported this kind of harassment. Given that transgender women of color are disproportionately victims of hate crimes, it can be assumed that Black trans women are experiencing violence all the more frequently due to the intersection of transphobia and ongoing anti-Black oppression. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Black feminist who coined the term “intersectionality,” says the term aims to acknowledge and account for the fact that “many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are overlapping, creating multiple levels of injustice.” Intersectionality fundamentally helps to acknowledge the role oppression plays in the formation of discriminatory policies and its subsequent effect on Black trans women’s identities.
The violence that Black trans women experience not only exists interpersonally, but also systemically, as Black transgender people disproportionately experience high rates of unemployment and poverty. The unemployment rate for Black trans people in the United States is 26%, which is four times greater than that of the general population. Black trans people also experience homelessness at a rate five times greater than the national average. While these statistics are generalized to Black trans people as a whole, it is an inescapable fact that low-income Black trans women are victimized by violence at even higher rates, both interpersonally and through state-sanctioned means. More specifically, women as a whole earning between $15,000 and $24,000 reported a third more occurrences of domestic violence than women who earn more than $75,000. Because Black trans women face difficulties regarding employment and poverty, they are likely to fit within this income bracket that correlates to higher rates of domestic violence. 80% of trans women also reported experiencing discrimination while working, which creates an unsafe and unstable environment. For many Black trans women, economic insecurity corresponds with higher rates of intimate partner violence –– these women are less likely to report cases of violence due to their distrust in the criminal justice system, as the existing legal system inherently upholds ideals of white supremacy. For one example amongst many, Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people while also making up 47% of wrongful convictions. The legal system uplifts the white majority through policy and law while systematically ensuring that marginalized groups, including Black trans women, continue to experience violence and poverty.
In order to economically empower Black trans women, new policies must be put in place across the board. Universal basic income has the potential to keep Black trans women above the poverty line, which would allow them to leave the “economic threshold” that is associated with the highest rates of violence. Affirmative action in relation to employment for Black trans women could also improve their job outlook, consequently minimizing unemployment rates and promoting safer work environments. Allowing Black trans women to have representation in creating policies that will benefit their community, such as those outlined by Trans Agenda of Liberation, is another effective starting point for promoting upward mobility.
Despite the fact that violence against Black transgender women is unfortunately common, there is hardly any policy in action preventing their loss of life. Violence towards trans people increased drastically during the Trump presidency. His administration also enacted isolating policies, such as eliminating protections from health care discrimination for transgender patients and rescinding gender-identity based protections for transgender students –– including Title IX policy reversals, which no longer safeguarded rights of transgender students in public schools to use facilities in accordance with their gender identity. Additionally, the Trump administration appointed several anti-LGBTQ+ political judges and policy makers. Discriminatory practices are also maintained at the state level –– South Carolina recently removed gender and sexual orientation from their hate crime bill, leaving Black trans women and other members of the LGBTQ+ community unprotected in South Carolina. The large negative reaction to this, however, caused lawmakers to add it back in five days after it was removed. Though sexual orientation protection was added back to the hate crime bill, the initial decision to exclude the LGBTQ+ community shows that this community isn’t on the forefront of policymakers’ minds when deciding who to advocate for. And in Michigan, a bill has been introduced in the state legislature limiting public high school students to compete on sports teams based only on their “biological sex.” This bill very obviously targets transgender students, particularly transgender women, denying the legitimacy of their identity, and in doing so, uses sports as a means to misgender young trans women. This bill perpetuates transphobic falsities that cisgender women are “losing opportunities” to transgender women and subsequently, that trans women are not women. Federal and state governments perpetuating violence against an already marginalized community leave Black trans women without the protection they need.
Because institutions rely on the oppression of Black trans women to uphold white supremacy, it is clear that intersectional Black feminism is required in all spaces and interactions, not only to promote inclusivity, but also to save lives. As stated by Black feminist Hortence Spillers, Black feminism is “progressive in outlook and dedicated to the view that sustainable life systems must be available to everyone.” Black feminism recognizes that Black and marginalized women, including Black trans women, have been intentionally excluded from previous, elitist feminist movements and seeks to advocate on their behalf. In her book “Feminism is for Everybody,” bell hooks touches on the differences between white feminism and the liberation Black women needed during the women’s suffrage movement. She describes how white women clung to sisterhood in an attempt to create unity and viewed Black women as traitors to the movement if they spoke on racism. hooks concludes that “there (can be) no real sisterhood between white women and women of color if white women (are) not able to divest (from) white supremacy, if feminist (movements are) not fundamentally anti-racist.” Through her analysis of 20th century white feminism, it is evident that white feminism failed to fully advocate for Black women based on the difference of race. Black feminism, on the other hand, acknowledges that while there are overarching women’s issues, there are also other aspects of identity beyond being a woman, such as being Black, that create a more nuanced facet of discrimination. Black feminism accounts for all types of discrimation and injustices that come along with intersectional identity and subsequently pursues equity in a holistic manner.
Subsequently, Black trans feminism accounts for the fact that Black trans women are the ones at the epicenter of racist, sexist and transphobic discrimination and oppression, but are also the ones being pushed out of the movements that involve them. Black trans feminism provides a deeper understanding of the nuanced discrimination that Black trans women endure and considers the fact that they specifically have historically endured disproportionate criminalization, policing and anti-Black and anti-trans violence.
The first and second waves of feminism bolstered the rights of cis white women, but these strategies in the face of multitudinous disparities in every realm of life will evidently not give Black trans women the same rights. Cis white women were able to fight for their own rights while operating within the institutions that systemically oppress Black trans women. The goals of traditional feminism were never to dismantle and rebuild institutions so that they don’t marginalize Black women. In fact, during the women’s suffrage movement, the Southern chapters of the National American Woman Suffrage Association advocated for the inclusion of white women only and discouraged Black feminists from associating themselves with NAWSA. Once white women were granted the right to vote in 1920, they viewed this as a success for the movement, ignoring the fact that a subset of women, women of color, were excluded from this right. White women created an exclusionary version of feminism where only they would receive certain privileges.
We as a society can’t celebrate how far women as a whole have come while simultaneously ignoring the injustices that Black trans women continue to endure. Black trans feminism aims for inclusion and justice. While speaking on behalf of her community for International Women’s Day, Ashlee Marie Preston explained that “Black trans women are contributing to a culture that emancipates all women from structures and social systems that place constraints on our freedom to exercise full agency — and impede our capacity to thrive.” It is evident that this type of feminism is genuinely for all women.
If we want to amplify these voices, we must first acknowledge the fact that Black trans women have multiple aspects of their identity that society and the government continue to oppress. It is our job to maintain a safe environment where Black transgender women are centered in all movements — not just the ones they helped create. As allies, we cannot stand by idle when we see others perpetuating racist, transphobic or sexist comments in our own community. We must not allow others to continue spreading ideals that directly lead to Black trans womens’ discrimination. We are responsible for making an active effort to support Black trans women and amplify their platforms, art and knowledge. We must include Black trans women authors, such as Janet Mock and Toni Newman, in our readings so we can engage in their perspectives, art and storytelling. While it is our obligation as allies to continue to learn the perspectives of Black trans women, we must remember that it is not their obligation to educate us. We must always keep Black trans women at the forefront of our conversations and engage in our own efforts.
Additionally, it is of utmost importance that we actively support Black trans women through tangible action. This can be done by providing mutual aid directly to Black trans women through organizations like For The Gworls, which raises money for Black trans people’s rent and gender-affirming surgeries. We can support Black trans women by donating to the Transgender Law Center, National Center for Transgender Equality and Homeless Black Trans women funds, if able to do so. We must also support the Black trans women within our own communities by volunteering at local homeless shelters that house trans people –– for those in the general Ann Arbor area, the Ozone House in Ypsilanti is a youth homeless shelter that houses trans and other LGBTQ+ youth. It is important that we also make an active effort to listen to Black trans activists, such as Ashlee Marie Preston, Elle Hearns, Tona Brown, Laverne Cox and Angelica Ross, through both social media and supporting their work. While public figures have slightly increased visibility, we must not forget to listen to the Black trans women within our own communities. Justice can only begin to be served through action, and as allies, we must make an active effort to do our part.
MiC Columnist Meghan Dodaballapur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.