Here's why Black trans women are essential to both LGBTQ equality and Black Lives Matter movements

This year, Pride month is taking place in the midst of a growing Black Lives Matter revolution — so there's no better time to amplify the importance of trans Black lives, as was done last weekend in a massive show of support in Brooklyn and as will happen with a similar demonstration in London on Saturday. To keep it going, Yahoo Life spoke with some of the activists who have been advocating for Black trans visibility for years.

As stores and brands release rainbow-themed merchandise, Black trans activists are pounding the pavement in support and defense of Black queer folks who are often forgotten in the swirl of LGBTQ Pride. And now the recent string of George Floyd protests has also sparked a conversation about how Black queer folks tend to get marginalized from the movements for Black liberation — even now, when, ironically, the Black Lives Matter movement was founded by three Black women, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, two of whom identify as queer.

In response to the double marginalization of Black queer people, an All Black Lives Matter march took to the streets of Los Angeles on June 14, with protesters walking along Hollywood Boulevard on top of a street mural where the name of the march was painted in the colors of the rainbow and of the transgender pride flag — pale pink, white and light blue.

On that same day, Brooklyn hosted a march for the same cause. At the Black Trans Lives Matter march, thousands gathered to “rally in support of the black transgender community,” wearing all white as a nod to the NAACP's Silent Protest Parade in 1917. At the march, actress and activist Ianne Fields Stewart, one of the organizers for the New York City gathering and the founder of the Okra Project, called on attendees to “make a commitment” to denounce transphobia. As Stewart tells Yahoo Life, “I did not create transphobia. Just as we cannot ask black people to undo racism, we can’t ask trans people to undo transphobia.”

The Okra Project, started in 2018, “hires black trans chefs to cook home-cooked, healthy and culturally specific meals for Black trans people in their homes or in community centers.” The organization has also created mental health recovery funds in the names of both Nina Pop and Tony McDade, two members of the trans community who were killed this year, to provide Black trans people with free mental health services with black therapists.

Although Pride celebrations are intended to highlight the spirit of inclusion, many Black queer folks have experienced racism within the LGBTQ community — feeling that “white queers often benefit from the work of Black queers, only to distance themselves once their particular needs are met,” essayist George Johnson said recently. The exclusion of Black lives from the Pride movement was even depicted in 2015 movie, Stonewall, which completely erased the role of Black trans women in the uprising — even having a white gay man throw the first brick, despite accounts that it was trans people of color, such as Marsha P. Johnson, who really led the pushback against police.

Asanni Armon, founder of For the Gworls, tells Yahoo Life that the today’s Pride movement presents differently than its revolutionary beginnings, saying, “when people think about Pride, they think about advertisements and they think about corporate sponsorships and they think about parties.” But it’s “important to acknowledge,” she says, that the Pride movement “started as a riot by people who were not only being oppressed because they were queer and trans, but because they were also black.”

Elle Hearns, founder and the executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, explains to Yahoo Life that Black people cannot be excluded from a movement they started. “The reality is Pride was started during the civil rights movement. ... There was no way to disassociate the Stonewall rebellion with the rebellion of the acts and sacrifices of Black people. During that time, a lot of the tactics that Stonewall utilized in the fight for gay liberation were the tactics that were utilized from the civil rights movement.” The organization, named after the Stonewall pioneer, works to “protect and defend the human rights of black transgender people here in the United States.”

She further explains that the discrimination against Black trans people may be an emotional projection from the majority. “There’s nothing more beautiful than the freedom of Black trans people. I think we represent something that is missing from everyone else and I think there’s a slight antagonism that we experience, not just because of bigotry, but because people have never known such a freedom. Because of that, it’s quite easier to deny us access to ourselves as opposed to figuring out all of the things that one must unlearn in order to have their own piece of freedom here on earth,” says Hearns.

Much of the conversation connects back to the concept of intersectionality, first introduced by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw in her University of Chicago Legal Forum paper titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.” In it, she breaks down the blindspots through which the law failed to recognize that Black women are often discriminated on the basis of both race and gender (one of many “intersections”), instead of either/or. Crenshaw essentially created language that can be used to describe why Black trans folks continuously get left out of mainstream media coverage and conversations surrounding police brutality, or why the misconduct of officers “always doubles down on Black queer people and Black trans people,” as Armon tells Yahoo.

Over the years, numerous trans women have been brutalized and murdered, but their names rarely make headlines. Hearns says the little coverage that Black trans women do receive comes about through the efforts of Black trans women themselves. She tells Yahoo Life that Trans Women of Color Collective was one of the pioneers of the movement back in 2013. “It became very clear that there was a consistent trend happening around murder and the misgendering of our experiences as we were being murdered,” says Hearns, thereby prompting an effort to correct the narratives.

Armon says, “If they are getting any type of representation in the media, if it even happens at all, it’s usually about [their] deaths,” referencing the recent media coverage of both Riah Milton in Ohio and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells in Pennsylvania — Black trans women who were killed earlier this month.

Many activists say the media fails to showcase the positivity within the trans community. Hearns calls the pattern of reporting “dangerous,” and Armon tells Yahoo Life, “It doesn't really talk about the joy that black trans women and trans men have and the love that we share for each other, or the ways that we show up and build community around each other, because we are the only ones who really care for each other.”

“We’re also people who are excited to be alive, who are excited to love and who are excited to contribute to the world and to society. So, you know, it’s so important to highlight black trans lives because it is a reflection of who we all are,” says Hearns.

Activists say one of the ways to uplift the Black trans community is through donating. Stewarts tells Yahoo Life that “Black trans people have been the foundation of so much cultural shift and change” that contributing to their organizations financially is “merely paying back what is owed.” She also says it’s important to combat the way that “society determines that only certain people are worthy.” Stewart says, “Black trans people are people and deserve to have the same rights and access to healthy foods as everyone else.”

Adds Armon, “It’s always important to think about those who are dealing with all forms of oppression and marginalization in June and Pride and beyond that. The fight for Black lives happens every month of every year.”

Video produced by Savannah DesOrmeaux

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