I was having my morning coffee and decided to plug into the Twitter matrix for my daily dose of media and current events. I was greeted by a picture of a beautiful black trans woman with flowing purple hair and a link to the report of her murder. Friend and writer Sydette Harry said it best, “I’d like to wake up one morning and see a picture of a beautiful black trans woman without a murder headline next to it.”
When tragedy and violence are inextricably linked to your existence and death is as much a part of your daily fare as your morning coffee, how do you cope? When your name could be the next headline, how do you survive?
After Ferguson, we saw a deep desire emerging in this country to understand how violence grips our communities and shapes relationships among race, ethnicity, class, ability, and gender. We also see a battle over who gets to frame the ways we look at violence. Who is a victim and whose behavior is pathological and criminal?
Police often profile black trans women as sex workers, seeing us through a lens of hyper-sexualized criminality. The criminalization of sex work, one of the few informal economies to which trans women have access in the absence of economic protection or labor rights, is a major feminist issue. When trans women are murdered there is often a mention of sex work as if sex workers are disposable and homicide is one of the unavoidable consequences of their behavior. We are always assumed to be somewhere we weren’t supposed to be, doing something we weren’t supposed to do.
The more visibly black, trans, femme, woman, disabled, and poor we are the more we must have “had it coming.”
Alongside the trail of YouTube videos, articles and think pieces on incidents of police violence, we see all the parallel headlines of missing and murdered trans women of color. But somehow it’s a conversation that doesn’t seem to take of quite the same way. There’s a stillness and silence around this issue. People seem reluctant to fully engage this topic. Why is there no collective outrage and immediate call to action from our anti-violence, racial justice and feminist movements?
When we talk about valuing black life, it’s most often as a rallying cry to the defense of black men. We rarely rally around black cisgender women, and certainly not black trans women. We tend to look at black men as the number one target of state violence despite even more staggering rates found among black women. When we talk about violence against women, we rarely include trans women in our definitions and analysis.
And what about black trans women and trans women of color?
We rarely see the times we are profiled as sex workers and put in cuffs or harassed sexually, or how actual sex workers are victimized by criminalization and state-sanctioned violence. We leave one block after pleading for our humanity with the police only to face street harassment by our own community on the next.
My mind goes back to a rally and call to action organized this summer by the Trans Women of Color Collective of Greater New York to end violence against trans women. It was a stark contrast to the throngs across the country, burning for justice and filled with the raging love of black life. The small crowd was filled with those few who love us as trans TV star Laverne Cox snuck her way into the back, causing a small stir. As activist Cherno Biko puts it “How can I march with cis black men against state violence, when the same fear grips me passing police offers as when I pass them?” What about those of us who find ourselves at intersections of violence by the state and violence in our own communities?
What if we were to understand the violence that trans women face as a starting point in the broader discussion of how society defines “legitimate” genders, class, race, and abilities, and how these form the primary sites of violence in many of our lives?
The disappearances of black trans women are, of course, part of a larger narrative of missing and murdered women—small firefly dots that light up a large map of violence stretching across this nation. Our stories intersect with those of native and black cisgender women who face staggering rates of violence themselves. We can see so many parallels in the use of violence to send us messages about our bodies and the space we are allowed to take up. There are the missing and murdered indigenous women disappearing along pipelines where they have claims to land. Black women are incarcerated for standing up to their attackers, shot on doorsteps while asking for directions, and victimized by intimate partners who are threatened by their agency. Black trans women are murdered in ritual cleansings and no one will search for our bodies.
The disappearances of black trans women are, of course, part of a larger narrative of missing and murdered women—small firefly dots that light up a large map of violence stretching across this nation
Then there are those of us who operate within all of those intersections. We become Jezebels, temptresses, sordid perversions, and deviants wrapped up in one body. When we imagine what violence against women looks like, we rarely if ever imagine the bodies that live at these crossroads. The further away our victims go from images of womanhood that inspire our sympathy, the more ready we are to wipe our hands of the burden of collective action. The more we subvert colonial narratives of womanhood by virtue of our existence, the more violence is likely to be used to police our lives and the less support we have.
Violence against women is ultimately about controlling our movements, policing our agency, and reinforcing patriarchal messages of pure womanhood. Who knows this better and more intimately than black trans women? As a society, we use violence to send messages about who is allowed to be a woman and ultimately who is allowed to be human.
As a society, we use violence to send messages about who is allowed to be a woman and ultimately who is allowed to be human.
This seems like a major, if not the most important, feminist concern. So why does our feminist media look so little like us? We can retweet Janet Mock and Laverne Cox once a month, while saying we support trans women, but are we really engaging trans women in our narratives of womanhood? Are we engaging beyond the tragic image of women to whom we extend pity be- cause they are social outcasts? Are we really looking at what drives the culture of violence that shapes our lives, and what that says about larger narratives of violence against women? We can’t afford to overlook the fact that murders of trans women of color are a part of a broader tapestry of violence—a string that, if pulled, could unravel the landscape of our shared oppression.
Murders of trans women of color are a part of a broader tapestry of violence—a string that, if pulled, could unravel the landscape of our shared oppression.
What does a feminist and human rights agenda for trans women look like? Trans women of color need access to direct services in our communities. Efforts to combat violence against women should necessarily take into account trans womanhood and not bar us from women’s spaces. We need to advocate for the rights of sex workers and the decriminalization of sex work. We should have an easier process, on the federal and state levels, for trans women to obtain documents reflecting their correct gender. Our agenda should include access to transition-related health care to navigate society more safely and with a healthier perception of self if one chooses. We need pressure on police departments to prosecute cases seriously. And we need to take the media to task for creating violent narratives around our bodies and lives. This is what it looks like to see us as more than a tragedy. Are we allowing trans women to move from the role of tragic and passive sacrifices to feminist powerhouses? Can we handle trans women outside of the role of pain porn, totems and inspirational mammies?
The answer to these questions will reveal whether we are feminists in name only, or truly committed to the liberation of all women.