What We Owe Them: It’s Time to Begin Advocating for and Protecting Black Trans Folks

Photo of Mia Green (left) and Dominique ‘Rem’mie’ Fells (right).

It’s the movement that has created a disappointing, but not surprising, polarization across the nation. It’s the chant that you hear in the streets and see in the tweets. It’s “Black Lives Matter.” And in 2020, it should be stated as fact, but we see various criticisms that transpire over the movement and statement that creates more questions and concerns for folks. But all criticisms that question the validity of the phrase aren’t always wrong—sometimes they are necessary to strengthen the cause. Sometimes those criticisms can bring more value and truth into the spaces where these discussions are held. That’s what I’m aiming to do with this article.

So at my simplest of language, I want to ask you, do Black Lives Matter? My hope is that you will say yes. With said yes, I now want you to think about which Black lives matter to you and how do those lives take precedence in the work, you do in your community?

In my experience working in various spaces around Philadelphia, a lot of prioritized work is male-centered. In a research article by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), data revealed that police violence is a leading cause of Black men’s death. They reported that almost 1 in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by the police. As a Black person, this is not shocking information. If anything, it just serves as a reminder of what little we mean to this country. We know these things already because it is what takes priority in media and reporting. We see cishet Black men as police violence victims as the poster-child of this movement; therefore, this is the work that will take precedence in many lives. So in that respect, we know that cishet Black men matter because we see the work is centered around them. We see government officials inviting Black male celebrities into their offices to create initiatives for young Black boys. We see the names of the Black male martyrs who have been taken from us. We know the impact that the crime bill has had on Black men. We know they mattered because people continue to show up to the marches and protests that center them. But my question in response to that is simple–who else matters?

Do Black lives matter when they are not male-centered? Do they matter when the victim of a murder is a sex worker? Do these lives matter when they do not fall into your narrow boundaries of the gender binary? Do these Black lives matter when they don’t match our lived experience? Whether you answer yes or no to this question, the answer is that they SHOULD.

This year, at least 34 transgender and/or gender non-conforming (GNC) people’s lives have been claimed by transphobia. Two of those lives belonged to Philadelphia, and the murders were only three months apart. We lost two Black trans women to Black men’s hands in three months, but there was no public outcry from the masses. Dominique’ Rem ‘mie’ Fells’ dismembered body was found in the Schuylkill River bank back in June. Aside from a statement from Philadelphia City’s Office of LGBT Affairs and a few small vigils hosted by grassroots organizations and mutual aid groups on Philly’s ground, there simply wasn’t enough done. 

I can remember seeing the photos of protests in the name of George Floyd being massive. The Parkway was filled with hundreds of people who showed up with “I can’t breathe” posters to remind the world that Floyd’s life mattered compared to the crowds of 50-60 people who showed up to the various vigils held around the city by the affiliates listed above. Those photos clarify that it’s not that the work isn’t happening; it’s just that people aren’t making trans people, Black trans women and femmes specifically, a priority. Black trans and GNC folks are usually at the frontlines of protests and involved heavily in organizing mutual aid efforts around Philly, but it doesn’t seem that folks are willing to give that same love and care in return. This could be confirmed later in October when Mia Green was found murdered in the passenger seat of her killer’s car when he was pulled over to run a traffic light. She became the second known Black trans woman in Philadelphia to be murdered this year. Sadly, the support for Green was even more underwhelming. To my knowledge, there were no public vigils held for her. Philly’s LGBT Affairs released another statement, but it seemed like generic fluff as they promised, yet again, that they are “committed to ensuring that acts of discrimination, bigotry, and hatred are never tolerated.”

There is an apparent disconnect in what people mean when they say “Black Lives Matter.” They say it, but they don’t mean it. There is a separation of issues when people begin confronting racism versus transphobia. Black Trans folks are no longer members of the Black community because of their cishet counterparts. They have chosen a different battle to cishet folks because they choose not to conform to the gender binary system that the many people of the Black community help uphold. But little do these folks know when they decide to isolate these folks based on their identity, they become who they set out to stop–police. 

There’s a big misconception that only men in uniform who carry guns are police, which is a myth. Telling people how to live their lives, or diminishing that of, because they don’t meet your standard of “normal” is policing. Inflicting violence because someone’s presence violates colonialized standards of being is policing. Killing someone because you have an insurgent and what you see as an “unnatural” attraction for their being is policing. Policing, in the most simple terms, is enforcement. As a Black person, you understand that everything that is enforced is not always plausible. Gender policing is no different from that of the people who work for the Philadelphia Police Department, except you’re not getting paid for it. And if I’m being honest, you make the lives of white supremacists much easier when you do it. 

Black people don’t recognize that their Trans and GNC siblings’ dismay is due heavily to Black Trans history’s purposeful erasure by westernized education. Saidiya Hartman says in her Venus in Two Acts essay that “the history of Black counter-historical projects is one of failure, precisely because these accounts have never been able to install themselves as history, but rather are insurgent, disruptive narratives that are marginalized and derailed before they ever get a footing.” Though not used directly concerning the Black Trans narrative, Hartman was making a point about counter-history. Counter-history is a powerful tool, depending on who can use it to its full advantage. As a colonized nation, white people can tell us our history and deny our roots because they establish and maintain their systems and institutions. And we know this. Over the last few years, we have seen coalitions form to push curriculums that teach our Black students in Philadelphia their history–a history that doesn’t begin at slavery and end at Martin Luther King Jr. being shot. Instead, a narrative that explores the various pillars of Blackness that include the times before the Mid-Atlantic slave-trade, times after we elected a Black president, and everything in between it, globally. This thinking led the Caucus of Working Educators, a group of PFT members across Philly, to ignite the “Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action” back in 2018, which birthed a national presence.

Black Trans people have always been a part of our collective narrative. And they have been a crucial part of a resistance in our collective liberation. It is because of westernized counter-history people do not connect our freedom struggles. This is why people do not know that a Black gay man was the advisor to MLK or that the Stonewall Riots were led by Black and Brown trans women to combat police brutality. These facts are omitted from public knowledge because the less we know, the more division we will create. When we understand that Black Trans history is just Black history and holds more weight than we would like to admit, we will begin to see more changes on more fronts. Black Trans people are valid and normal because our Black ancestors were Trans, and they were valid and normal.

It’s time for unlearning to take place so that we can begin to advocate and protect those who have gone unprotected for generations. So how do we do that? There are many different ways to support Black Trans and GNC folks, but it really starts at home, and in the spaces you occupy every day. When someone makes a negative equivalency about Trans folks, you correct them the same way you would correct your white colleague if they made a racial reference that offends you. You make sure people know that it is wrong. If you speak up, Trans folks won’t have to. You will begin creating spaces where people know that intolerance and hate aren’t allowed, and they have no choice but to follow through.

Trans folks are amongst the highest of numbers to be homeless and placed in harsh financial situations. This is mainly due to inaccessibility to jobs and resources that are easily accessible to their cishet counterparts. A lot of trans people live in group housing and depend on each other to survive. We should be offering them support however we can. If you have Trans and GNC friends and associates, provide your space for free while gathering the resources they need to live independently. If you can’t lend space, try helping them with fiscal costs and expenses. Many people see this and begin their “why am I giving them free money” rants, but I challenge you to move past this. First of all, Black people have been just as violent to Trans and GNC folks as white people have been to us. We accept donations all the time in the form of “reparations,” and I see this as no different. If you have the extra coin to spare, give it to whoever needs it. Secondly, financially helping someone doesn’t mean you’re always donating money to them. Finding (and creating) jobs for Trans and GNC folks are practical. It allows them to be self-sustaining and builds skills that cishet folks can easily attain for nothing other than conforming to the gender binary. There are also mutual aid efforts that you can contribute to that prioritize Trans and GNC folks. They include (but aren’t limited to): Philly Phreedom NetworkRed Umbrella Alliance PhillyBread & Roses Community Fund, and Project Safe Philly

In addition to financial support, I think that it’s essential that we physically protect these folks. The FBI reported that hate crimes against Trans and GNC people rose by 41 percent in 2018 from its 2017 number. This is truly an astonishing realization when you learn that hate crimes in total actually lessened in 2018 in comparison to 2017. Begin checking in on your Trans and GNC friends. Offer your support and protection by walking them home, donating weapons, and asking them what you can do that will help them feel safe. It’s also known that vast numbers of Trans and GNC folks are sex workers due to the lack of access to jobs and resources listed above. If you have friends who do sex work, ask how you can help maintain their safety in those potentially harmful and life-threatening spaces. Remember, Black lives don’t become less valuable because they do not display your desired level of respectability. If anything, it adds to the value.

It’s time to begin showing up and showing out for our siblings. They have been our caretakers and nurturers for so long, and they continue to do so with little-to-no TLC returned. We have a history of being silent in their most important times of need while running into the streets to celebrate a segregationist and a “top cop” who has thrown Trans women in men’s prisons (representation, eh). They deserve to have their names yelled for reasons other than being on the receiving end of a murder. They deserve recognition and services aside from a one-hour “grief group” when one of their own is murdered. They deserve to live lives free of shame and harm. They deserve our time, joy, and celebration just as much as any other life we see fit to celebrate. They deserve to be loved.

So again, I end this essay by asking you, “which Black lives matter to you now?” I want to know how you will begin prioritizing the folks who need our support the most in their most trying times? It’s time for their lives to take precedence in your work like you would for any cishet Black man.

We owe it to them.

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