Black Trans Activists Demand Reverence And Room To Grieve Amid Another Deadly Year For The Community
“I dream of a Trans Day of Remembrance in which every Black trans person is fed the finest foods and is not asked to perform a thing in service of cisgender people,” J. Mase III, poet and author, told Blavity.
November 20, 2020 at 9:37 pm
Transgender Awareness Week comes to a solemn close with the observation of Transgender Day of Remembrance. The day serves as a memoriam to the many lives lost to transphobic violence, as their tragic deaths leave a salted stream of grief and a thunderstorm of questions.
Those who observe this day honor the memory of the transgender people whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence, according to GLAAD. This year at least 37 transgender people were killed, the majority of whom were Black and brown women, according to Human Rights Campaign, who also stated that the statistic is presumed to be under reported.
In this grief, Americans are left to grapple with the systemic and systematic nature of transphobia, as they contend with the reality that job and housing discrimination, medical abuse and negligence along with persecution force Black trans people to live on the farthest margins of society.
Wahira LaBelle, founder of Black Trans Migrant United and spokesperson for Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project told Blavity that the experience of Black trans migrants must not be drowned out by more homogenous migrant stories.
“Imagine having to flee your own country because of being persecuted for who you are and for who you love,” LaBelle told Blavity. “Imagine reaching the USA and being locked up in a detention center, at constant risk of being assaulted and abused. Imagine having to restart your life in a foreign country, in poverty, and at risk of being sexually exploited. As a Black trans migrant from Somalia, who crossed borders, mountains and deserts to get to where I am today, my story is often not included in broader LGBTQI issues and conversations here in America.”
While Black migrants are often erased from the larger narratives on the humanitarian crises happening at the U.S.- Mexico border, the Trump administration took deliberate and impactful steps to harm people coming to the U.S. from “shit hole countries” this year.
The Trump administration January 2020 travel ban restricted travel from 13 largely Muslim countries, with six of them being on the African continent.
But LaBelle isn’t lying about the flight or fight response that carries migrants like her across sandy borders and mountainous stretches of unknown land. Just this spring, Reuters reported the abuse faced by LGBTQIA+ refugees seeking asylum in a Kenyan camp, intended to protect them.
The walls of U.S. ICE detention camps hold similar stories of persecution for Black migrants. While Haitian immigrants represent 44 percent of families detained during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to Mexicans that make up 17 percent, according to RAICES. What’s worse, Black immigrants are often detained longer, as they face bail amounts 54 percent higher than other immigrants, RAICES reported.
LaBelle, who is the founder of Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project (BLMP), said that her organization will continue to fight for the world of safety and equity that Black trans migrants deserve.
“BLMP envisions a world where no one is forced to give up their homeland, and where all Black LGBTQIA+ people are free and liberated from the intersectional oppressions they experience,” LaBelle asserted. “As a Black trans migrant who speaks five different languages, I often put myself on the frontline to be the voice for my community, especially Black trans migrants, every chance I get. At BLMP, we build power, community, and knowledge by doing national organizing, establishing local networks, working on deportation defense, and staying proactive through research. BLMP is a vital source of support for Black LGBTQIA migrants.”
Like LaBelle, J. Mase III, author, educator, poet and theologian, uses his platform to advocate for the community. Still, he says, his success as an artist and advocate does not necessarily translate to dollars and cents. Mase encourages cisgender folks to observe Trans Day of Remembrance by donating resources to the Black trans people who have been disenfranchised.
“Much has changed in the way of media visibility for Black trans folks since I began my work as a theologian and performance artist,” Mase said. “That visibility has not led to equitable access to housing, accessible healthcare and/or economic sustainability for a majority of Black trans people. Much of the labor that we put out is often commercialized or erased for others to profit off of.”
One in five transgender people in the U.S. have experienced housing discrimination and one in 10 have faced wrongful eviction, according to The National Center for Transgender Equality. As a result of the discriminatory approach to housing and hiring trans people, the outlet reports, one in five transgender people experience homelessness at some point in their lives.
Further, transphobia in hiring continues to plague the community, with one in four trans people experiencing job loss due to gender identity and 75 percent of the community experiencing discrimination in the workplace, according to The National Center for Transgender Equality. This reality leads some trans folks to find work in the sex industry, leaving their livelihood and safety especially vulnerable to anti-sex work legislation.
Mase explained that the support for the community lies in calling the systemic impact of transphobia by name, regardless of increased visibility or proposed support offered to the trans community.
"The work of naming the reality that one in three of us makes less than $10k a year,” the poet said. “The reality that many of us are forced out of 9-5 work and blamed for the ways we survive. That many of us deal with housing instability, this is necessary because we are still living in a time in which we are constantly exposed to political, financial and physical violence. Even when we look cute on social media, that risk is still there.”
Still, Mase argues that true advocacy would reflect a heightened sense of urgency and investment from cisgender folks in their approach to addressing the needs of the trans community.
“To observe Trans Day of Remembrance, cisgender people can take seriously the financial and housing needs of trans people,” he said. “Especially Black trans people. Especially Black, brown and Indigenous trans women and femmes. They can donate directly to individuals and not require us to be credentialed by some government recognized affiliation. They can stop demonizing sex workers. They can stop trans-antagonism whenever they witness it. They can admit to themselves that they benefit from transphobia, and that it is their job to dismantle it.”
The author of "White Folks Be Trippin" and co-editor of "The Black Trans Prayer Book" has theological roots in both Islam and Christianity. He said the church has no business observing Trans Day of Remembrance without first acknowledging the harm it’s done to trans folks.
“It is a big ask for a faith organization, one of the primary spaces where folks learn to hate Black trans people, to then say, ‘let us grieve with you,’” Mase said. “Because that’s what a lot of Trans Day of Remembrance is, it’s carrying a lot of grief.” To say, ‘Hey, I have been sharing a theology that has caused you violence and killed your loved ones, let’s light a candle in honor of it,’ is a terrible place to start. Churches, congregations, the Ummah must show up all year round.”
Instead, Mase imagines a day wherein trans people are finally seen and appreciated for all of their gifts.
“I dream of a Trans Day of Remembrance, in which every Black trans person, especially Black trans women and femmes, have all their bills paid by the church,” the author and artist said. “A day when they have their feet washed. Are fed the finest foods and not asked to perform a thing, not a solitary action in the service of cisgender people. Don’t just use us to teach cisgender people. Line our pockets with offerings. Tithe to the people you have wronged in the name of a white God. Make true amends.”
Toronto dancer, activist and Black 2SPIRIT trans woman Ravyn Wngz echoed Mase’s sentiment, also stating that visibility does not necessarily equate with liberation. In an Instagram Live titled “Trans Awareness Week,” Wngz expressed that in some ways, the moment intended for reflection on loss and celebration of life, has become exhausting.
“Right now, there is a shift people are seeing -- there are more of us that people can see. But there's a long journey to go,” she explained. “This period is supposed to be for trans people to be lifted up, for us to be held, honored, for us to be celebrated, for us to to host the vigils and ceremonies for our family members who have passed away, and we don't really get that around our week. On Memorial Day, there is such celebration for veterans and an acknowledgement of losses, but when it comes to Trans Awareness Week it’s often trans people that are doing all of the organizing, all the labor, all the talks, all the educating. It ends up being a week of more work. It’s actually exhausting to only be thought of once a year, for a week.”
With increased visibility, she explained, comes the misconception that trans people seek to be “understood.” In the video, Wngz responds to an interaction Indya Moore spoke on, in which an online follower asked her questions about her health journey. In reality, the performance artist said, trans people need not explain themselves to those determined to misunderstand them.
“I find that we’re such a commodity. We’re so intriguing, like the thing of the month. There's a way that we relate to each other that is problematic, even when we care,” Wngz explained in the Instagram video. “How do we have more thoughtful, more compassionate, more open conversations without trying to be a scientist? I don’t need you trying to figure me out in order to respect me, find me desirable, hire me.”
This past summer, Wngz spoke at press conference on defunding the Toronto police, asserting that trans people have lived within “white supremacist delusions for far too long.” Shay-Akil McLean, author of "Decolonize All The Things," told Blavity that it’s time for the rest of the world to wake up.
McLean, who works as a scholar and educator, is a Black queer, non-binary trans man. He told Blavity that for him, being Black and transgender is about amplifying the voices of those in his community, and ensuring that their needs are prioritized.
“For me, being transgender is about me enacting my own right to practice agency in the world I live in,” he said. “Modern society has come to refer to us as ‘transgender,’ but while the term is new, the people are not. Humans have always lived outside of the confines of Euro-western colonialism, we still do, and we always will. Transphobes wish to shape the world in such a way that gender is biology and both are binaries. That is not the material world we live in. The gender, sex, and genitalia binaries are not accurate reflections of the material world. Biology does not conform to what white settlers have been telling us.”
McLean, who goes by the "Hood Biologist" online, encouraged cisgender folks to get active in their advocacy and search for understanding of their role in transphobia and transphobic violence.
“Educate yourself, ask yourself uncomfortable questions, challenge your assumptions, and if you need a way to do that or at least a place to start, check out the free learning tools and other political education resources on my website www.decolonizeallthethings.com.”
As the country observes Trans Day of Remembrance, Mase said he intends to keep his inner-most affections for his community tucked away, protected from the cisgendered gaze and its tendency to dissect and analyze what should only be cherished and embraced.
“The messages I have for trans siblings who have passed are mostly things I keep private for my altar, and for the closed doors of my community,” the author told Blavity. “What I will say here, however, is that to my siblings, this world failed you. Every spin this earth takes, every day the sun chooses to rise again, we will work to honor you by protecting more and more of our loved ones and we will demand justice. As we heal ourselves on this plane, we hope to heal each and every single one of you. Amen.”