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Hearing Our Kin: Trayvon Martin and Our Black and Brown Transgender Siblings

by Chris Paige


  

The George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial has stirred a wide variety of emotions. Does it have anything to do with transgender concerns?

We all move through the world with racial identities that shape our interactions -- and this historic moment is another opportunity for us to listen closely to one another about how those experiences shape us.

In the Transfaith family, we've certainly heard from our Black and Brown siblings that the Zimmerman verdict has brought home a deep sense of vulnerability about the very particular ways that Black and Brown transgender men are at risk -- because of the way that, like Trayvon Martin, Black men are so often viewed as threatening. 

Reflecting in the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal, Louis Mitchell shared,

Like many of you, my heart is very heavy and my feelings are a roiling knot - sadness, frustration, dismay, rage and despair.... i am the fear-evoking presence that stokes the "birth of a nation" fears of many.... How can I explain to [my daughter] that she was born into a system that hates her daddy and seeks to erase him by assimilation, to vilify him, to erode his self/self-worth in so many ways, seen and unseen, at every turn? ...i feel that i'm a gift to my family and my kindred, but i also feel like a blight, a barnacle [in the world] to be removed whenever possible.

This is an on-going conversation, brought into public focus by recent events. In Becoming a Black Man (2008), Daisy Hernandez wrote,

Trans people of color are finding that they have an extremely different relationship to gender transition than white people. London Dexter Ward, an LAPD cop who transitioned in 2004, sums it up this way: a white person who transitions to a male body “just became a man.” By contrast, he says, “I became a Black man. I became the enemy. “

Enzi Tanner is even more specific, saying, "The moment I knew that I 'passed' or that I was perceived as a Black man was the moment the cops harrassed me in front of my house."

It often takes time for Black trans men to grapple with their newfound "suspect" status. In On Being a Good Black Man (2013), Kortney Ryan Ziegler writes about his struggles at being repeatedly told, in one way or another, "You're not supposed to be here!" despite his being a scholar and film maker and business owner who contributes to the community. Ziegler reflects,

I’ve been a black man for less than five years and can only imagine what its like for men my age who have lived their whole lives as victims of peer led policing. I wonder if any of them have successfully found a way to prove their “goodness” without defaulting to language that reinforces the idea that some of us are worthy of the surveillance we experience.

Ziegler's ground-breaking and highly-recommend documentary, Still Black: A Portrait of Black Trans Men (2008) touches on many related themes of transgender identity development relating to what it means to be a Black man.  

Laverne Cox opens Black, LGBT, American: Laverne Cox - Threat or Threatened (2013) referencing Ethan (from the film, Still Black) who "had to get used to being perceived as a threat in the public space." Cox helps us to see that the experience of Black transgender women is different, but not that different. Cox outlines her experience at the intersection of gender non-conformity and anti-Black racism,

When I was perceived as a black man I became a threat to public safety. When I was dressed as myself, it was my safety that was threatened. It was usually other black people who policed my gender, called me out, or made fun of me on subways, street corners, and in delicatessens. I believe it is because I am also black that I became their target. These same folks would often ignore white trans and gender nonconforming folks in the same spaces, even those who passed even less than I did at the time. Systemic racism not only encourages the state and non-black individuals to police and monitor black bodies, white supremacy encourages other black folks to do so as well.

Cox goes on to point out that policies like "Stop-and-Frisk" and "condoms-as-evidence" are part of systems that also treat transgender women of color as threats.

In fact, we know from more than a decade of Transgender Day of Remembrance lists just how frequently Black and Brown transgender women are perceived as not only a threat, but as disposable contaminants. The frequency of these deaths, the brutality of the murders, and the failure of both the media and law enforcement to take them seriously all betray the intersection of racial and gender bias.

But to talk about the statistics or even the stories can inadvertently obscure the emotional toll these patterns takes on the living. We must remember our dead, but so much more the living -- the living, breathing, struggling, amazing, beloved members of our family.

--

For those of us who are white, it is essential that we take these opportunities, as hard as they may be, to listen deeply and carefully to these stories of risk and vulnerability, so we might become better friends, colleagues, and allies to the transgender people of color in (or near) our lives.

These reflections also reveal a few of the reasons why it is so important to have spaces and organizations that focus specifically on the experiences of people of color. This moment of national conversation is a time when we have an opportunity to show our support -- especially for those organizations that are filling gaps for our Black transgender siblings.

The Brown Boi Project is one organization working at this intersection. In the article "where the bois are" (2011) in Curve magazine, Lanaiya Aleshia Hoofatt reports,

Many Brown Boi alumni describe feeling vulnerable, alone or exposed while out in their community, and unable to explore those feelings until they attended the retreat. “I found a community of people that I spent my whole life searching for—talented, supportive and beautiful people who are working toward the same end goal I am,” says Micah Domingo, who was in the August 2010 Cohort.

Black Trans Men, Inc founder, Carter Brown, talks extensively in "Black, trans, man" (2011) in the Dallas Voice about the variety of professional, health, and cultural challenges faced by Black trans men.

...Brown noticed early on in his own transition process that black transmen, in many instances, had to face those challenges alone. That’s why he decided to launch an organization focusing primarily on helping others like himself. That’s when Black Transmen was born.

BTMi is looking forward to it's third national "Become The Change You Want To See In The World" conference in April 30-May 4, 2014. 

The Transgender People of Color Coalition (founded by Kylar Broadus) is another national organization serving Black transgender men and transgender people of color more generally that we should be both celebrating and supporting. Transfaith is honored to work with both BTMi and TPOCC. There are many more local and regional groups, working to nurture community, dignity and basic human rights.

One reason that the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin verdict is a transgender concern is because it is a concern for Black transgender men -- and a concern for Black and Brown people of all genders who are important parts of our transgender family. In these times when at least some of our family members are struggling with renewed and intensified feelings of violation and concerns for our safety, we need to find new ways to be sensitive, bold, and loving to those family members. 

  • Let us listen deeply so that we might become more and more sensitive to the ways that racism and racial profiling impacts Black trans men specifically, as well as transgender people of color more generally.
  • Let us do the hard work of preparing ourselves and supporting one another to be able to interrupt racism just as boldly as we interrupt transphobia -- even and especially in transgender and LGBT spaces.
  • Let us each pause long enough in the midst of all the Martin/Zimmerman commentary and analysis that is yet to come, to say clearly to our siblings, "We see you. We hear you. We love you. We need you to survive."

May Trayvon Martin and all of our fallen brothers rest in peace. And may our family grow in strength and endurance, love and community, especially in these days of grief and struggle.

Ashe. Amen. Blessed Be.

See also: Black* Transwoman to Black Cis/Transman: An Open Letter/Poem for Trayvon and the Rest of Us by Kokumo and A Love Letter to Studs and Bois by Helen McDonald

Photo caption: Monica Roberts, Louis Mitchell, Kylar Broadus, Kortney Ryan Ziegler (left to right) at BTMi Second Annual Retreat (2013).

  

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