Activists Center the Grief, Joy and Humanity of the Black Trans Community

It remains one of the most striking demonstrations from a year defined by protest: tens of thousands of people dressed in white t-shirts, wearing white face masks and white head wraps, from all backgrounds, all marching the streets in defense of Black trans lives.

The summer march in Brooklyn, N.Y. was one of the largest, most diverse and celebratory rallies of 2020, a year when grief has been rampant in the trans community. Black trans people, in particular, felt the weight of the coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing economic crisis, and continue to experience unique violence at the hands of the criminal justice system. Then there’s this grim statistic: 2020 has been the most violent year for transgender people for five years, with 37 transgender or gender non-conforming people slain over the past 11 months.

As the nation recognizes Transgender Day of Remembrance, Imara Jones, trans journalist and founder of the multimedia platform TransLash media, thought of the June rally as one of the highlights of a difficult but pivotal year. Organized by Black trans women, “it was a highlight for trans people worldwide,” Jones told The Root via email this week.

“The biggest obstacle we face is that as we increase our visibility, we also embolden the ongoing transgender backlash,” she added. “This means that there’s a long way to go to achieve liberation with a lot of battles left ahead.”

Transgender Day of Remembrance, which comes at the end of Transgender Awareness Week, began in 1999 to honor Rita Hester, a trans woman murdered in Massachusetts the year before. Today, as more places around the country recognize the Day of Remembrance than ever before, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the victims of that violent backlash — to remember their lives and their potential — as well as to consider how this pain continues to shape the trans community.

In Minneapolis, a highway bridge will be lit up with blue, pink and white lights — colors representing the trans flag. Vigils will be hosted at colleges like the University of Tennessee. In Philadelphia, organizers are planning marches and roundtable discussions about the importance of end-of-life planning for the trans community. Several places, like Savannah, Ga., will be formally recognizing the somber day for the first time.

This widespread recognition of Trans Remembrance Day is “pivotal,” Jones said, because it directly tackles “the historic wrong of marginalization and invisibility, imposed by the wider society, which has meant so much suffering for our community.”

That suffering has also been concentrated in the Black trans community. As CBS News notes, Black transgender women have constituted 76 percent of all homicide victims since 2017, even though Black people comprise only 16 percent of all trans people. They also appear to be at a higher risk for violence in Puerto Rico and the South: Texas, Florida and Louisiana, in particular, had a high concentration of trans killings.

One video tackles the daily grief that Black trans people face — while also weaving in the resilience and joy that knits the community together during hard times.

Because…I Survived,” directed and choreographed by John Alix, offers a brief, multidimensional look at three trans artists, actor and singer Peppermint, musician Mila Jam and makeup artist Deja “The Lady Deja Davenport” Smith.

“I see how these women have to carry the weight of their fallen sisters around with them daily, knowing that they were senselessly murdered for being brave enough to be who they truly are, yet continue to make positive changes rather than hide,” Alix said in a press release. “As we see trans women only begin to be respected and upheld in mainstream culture, we must remember those who helped pave the way just by being themselves, and paid the ultimate price.”

The video shows all three artists holding the images of slain Black trans women, women like Muhlaysia Booker, Antash’a English, Chynal Lindsey and Riah Milton. Each image, each news clip, a reminder of their own vulnerability.

“The video either directly or indirectly addresses the lives of trans people of color, who are still today affected by an incredible amount of grief. It truly is life imitating art,” said Peppermint.

Making the video — and focusing on the resilience and support that could be found within the community—also offered a respite.

“As heavy as this is on my heart, being able to gather with friends and fellow artists to create this meaningful video feels wonderful,” she added.

Despite the trans community’s deep engagement in liberation struggles, they still remain sidelined in broader justice movements, like the queer rights movement of the early 1970s and the nation’s ongoing movement for racial justice.

“The marginalization of trans people is not an accident. Rather it is a consequence of a choice,” noted Jones. She points to how trans people helped start the fight for gay rights, but were later pushed to the side by white gay men because trans people of color were viewed as less “acceptable” to wider society, and “were therefore an impediment to gay rights.”

This exclusionary idea of acceptability has pushed trans activists to the side in Black communities and mainstream Black civil rights organizations as well, Jones continues.

“This deliberate marginalization across the board is why trans people face incredible odds” and have not benefited equally from these movements, she said.

And it’s not just trans people who suffer as a result of this. A foundational philosophy of intersectional justice is that uplifting and empowering the most vulnerable among us creates a more just, equitable system for all of us. Jones points to healthcare as a prime example.

Trans people are especially susceptible to medical bias, and potential social isolation and lack of resources mean access to adequate care is difficult. A healthcare approach that focuses on trans people would need to address issues of universal access, Jones says, and would have to be more comprehensive and holistic than we’re accustomed to. There would need to be an increased emphasis on social services and safe housing, as well as a more aggressive approach to curtailing implicit bias, which can not only lead to injury and death but discourage people from ever stepping back into a doctor’s office until it’s too late.

“If we built a healthcare system which centered the health outcomes of trans people then it would be a healthcare system which works for everyone,” Jones said.

Perhaps most importantly, Trans Awareness Week and Trans Remembrance Day give the community the opportunity to foreground their stories; to remind people of the human cost of not viewing trans rights as human rights. What America needs to empower and protect trans people is devastatingly simple, Jones pointed out—it’s just “the ability to see us as humans.”

This is why Jones centers storytelling as her way of combating violence.

“Stories are the way in which we travel into the lives of other people,” she said. “They help us to connect our own experience with the experiences of others, and they highlight our universal desire to matter. Once we understand our common humanity it becomes much harder to harm each other.”