Black Trans Lives
- Marquis Bey
Black trans lives have always been an important subject matter, but only recently has the topic gained public attention. In 2014 Time magazine featured black trans woman and actress Laverne Cox in a story entitled “The Transgender Tipping Point,” which helped to bring the lives of black trans people into the spotlight in full force for the first time. But long before Cox, black people of trans experience have been struggling, living, dying, and making cultural history in the liminal spaces of the social scene. They have been at the forefront of activism and have been subjected to a distinctive form of violence that has indelibly shaped the United States. Being both black and trans creates a particular life experience that forces one to navigate space and time with the knowledge of how they are seen, how they see themselves, and what might happen because of the many perceptions surrounding their bodies and lives.
Defining Black and Trans
What does it mean to be black and trans? Before delving into this, readers will notice that throughout this entry trans instead of transgender will primarily be used. The reason for this is that trans—or alternatively trans- or trans*—is gaining prominence as an open-ended marker of non-normative bodily expression that includes, but also exceeds, commonplace understandings of what “counts” as gender. That is, trans opens up the term to categories of embodiment that are still unfolding, inclusive of gender, yet refuses a bodily or identificatory end goal, destination, and accomplishment. This allows for a more ethical and self-determinative approach to bodily transformation, one which allows people to shape and realize their own identities without the presumption of having to fit a preordained one—this is, therefore, the primary thrust of trans liberation.
Nevertheless, use of the word transgender initially arose in the 1960s with transgender activist and publisher Virginia Prince, who used it as a term to describe non-operative trans people (i.e., trans-identified people who have not undergone gender confirmation surgery). This usage was similar to others of the era, such as “transgenderal,” “transgenderist,” and “transgenderism,” which were commonly used in cross-dressing and trans communities to encompass people who occupied and expressed different genders than those given to them, and to mark a distinction between those individuals and transvestites or transsexuals. However, it was not until the 1990s that transgender became a more widespread political rallying cry that absorbed all those whose gender expressions and identities were in some way nonconforming. The 1990s was a rapidly expanding decade for trans communities in terms of terminological clarity. A word was needed to describe those who sought to live as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth, but who did not wish to alter their genitals. Watershed documents facilitating this included trans activist and author Holly Boswell’s 1991 article “The Transgender Alternative,” which argued for transgender being a word that encompasses the vast spectrum of gender variance. In 1992 lesbian and trans activist and author Leslie Feinberg released a pamphlet entitled Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come, which helped to solidify the definition of transgender that is widely accepted today. It is this history that fuels not only transgender, but trans life and activism.
Within the arc of trans history, oftentimes there exists an absence of discussion of how race has impacted understandings of gender. Examining black trans lives, then, explores and expands upon this history. One of the risks of thinking about trans history in a vacuum is that it erases other identities that intersect with gender, namely race, which potentially constructs trans history as one that has only involved privileged white trans people. Nonetheless, it is true that, historically, whiteness has conferred upon the most prominent trans spokespeople an ability to express their gender either with greater social leniency or in isolation, to furtively explore cross-dressing and drag. Racial privilege and extensive individualism effectively disallowed black trans people from enjoying the same level of leniency or isolation, thus forging an even more marginalized and communal texture in their expression and exploration of gender variance. Additionally, bringing blackness specifically to bear on trans-ness forces us to reckon with the other ways people have been trans. If being black disallows, historically, access to financial and medicalized arenas that can afford trans legitimacy through surgery—for example, transgender icon Christine Jorgensen and her expensive trip overseas to receive gender confirmation surgery to become a “blonde bombshell”—then examining black trans lives shows that the “trans” becomes qualitatively different. Black people have long refused medical, as well as legal, definitions of gender before surgical intervention was even viable, thus the history of blackness and its relation to gender reveals that black people have found other ways to express gender variance. Black trans scholar C. Riley Snorton details this extensive history in his book Black On Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, in which he depicts at length the various ways that black people have been trans, forcing readers to fundamentally alter when and how one becomes trans.
Without an explicit examination of black trans lives, a history of trans liberation and social life is incomplete. To examine the archive of gender in any way must always be understood as a racial and racializing practice, thus making race integral to meditations of gender and its non-normativities. Because race is fundamental to conceptualizing gender, and because trans identity brings into relief the mechanisms at play in processes of gender, black trans identity is integral to understanding the scope of race and gender in the United States.
The site of the medical clinic is a staple in trans narratives. While many individuals have found affirmation through the clinic, as it confers upon trans people access to transition and altered legal documents (e.g., birth certificates, licenses, passports, etc.), there is a long, pathologizing history of the clinic’s relationship to people of trans experience. Indeed, the term transsexual emerged precisely within this pathologizing institution, specifically psychiatry and sexology, as one descriptive of individuals who wished to make surgical or hormonal alterations to their bodies. This was understood as a straightforward binary transition from male to female, or vice versa, accompanied by a slew of other tests and evaluations to determine whether one was “really” the “other” gender (as well as if someone would be heterosexual once transitioned). Transsexual as a term of identification is not as prominent because of its association with violent pathologizing medicalization. The psychiatric gold standard for encountering trans identity has been the entry on what is now called “gender dysphoria” (formerly “gender identity disorder,” but renamed after trans activists demanded a less pathologizing term), found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM). As stated in the fifth edition of the DSM, “Gender dysphoria as a general descriptive term refers to an individual’s affective/cognitive discontent with the assigned gender,” and when used as a diagnostic category “refers to the distress that may accompany the incongruence between one’s experienced or expressed gender and one’s assigned gender.” The DSM’s diagnosis is essentially a double-edged sword, as it both pathologizes non-normative gender identity, yet serves as the only channel through which trans individuals can travel in order to gain surgery, hormones, and document changes.
The fact remains that black trans people, which is not to exclude other trans people of intersecting identities, have been at the forefront of delinking early and contemporary trans identity from the clinic and other forms of medical governance, namely transition criteria, treatment, etc. This is largely because the history of black people within the clinic has proven to be one marked by gendered violence. Examples include James Marion Sims and his unethical experiments on enslaved black women to find a solution for vesicovaginal fistula, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the case of Henrietta Lax, and numerous cases of forced sterilization, among many others.
These examples haunt black people’s relationship to the medical establishment, thus plaguing black trans people’s experiences with it in ways that are substantively different than those with white trans people. For black people of trans experience to enter the clinic for possible gender confirmation surgery, their experiences are also tormented by a history of medical malpractice on black bodies, a legacy of inherited trauma. This leads to black trans people expressing and engaging gender in different ways, via underground performances, non-operative transgender life, and other modes of expression.
Another source of skepticism toward the clinic is fueled by a commitment to not allow purported concerns for health and scientific legitimacy to become proxies for proliferating gender normativity through regulating bodies and desires. Black trans lives and the different ways they express gender variance might act as alternative templates for how to understand the health of emerging gender ecologies.
Perhaps one of the biggest landmark moments in black trans activism occurred in 1959. A crowd of drag queens and trans sex workers, primarily black and brown, frequented Cooper’s Doughnuts, a downtown coffee shop on Main Street in Los Angeles between two of the city’s older gay bars. Police regularly patrolled the area, often stopping to harass and demand IDs from trans people whose identification often didn’t match their appearance or genders. They were often arrested on charges of prostitution, vagrancy, loitering, and other “nuisance crimes.” On a fateful May night, when police began arbitrarily rounding up drag queens, they and others fought back, throwing doughnuts and fighting with officers in the street. They effectively refused to be criminalized on the grounds of their race, gender, and survival work, demonstrating an early moment of black trans activism.
Black trans activism has grown rapidly over the past decade. Its foundation comes from a more expansive commitment to liberation that exceeds what trans activist and lawyer Dean Spade calls “liberal trans politics,” a kind of stunted liberatory schematic that seeks legal and social recognition without fundamentally interrogating the violent regimes on which the legal and social are predicated. The examination of black trans activism leads to a broader conception of the social landscape that exceeds mainstream trans campaigns for hate crime laws, antidiscrimination legislation, and military inclusion. Black trans activism by individuals like scholar and activist Kai M. Green and trans femme writer Che Gossett emphasizes radical transformation like prison abolition, wealth redistribution, and a borderless world.
The statistics surrounding black trans lives incite urgency in activism. Black trans women in particular are most likely to live in extreme poverty, to be homeless, to have no higher education, and to have the highest mortality rates among marginalized demographics. Many black trans people, trans women in particular, note spending every moment of their lives in fear, pressured to defend their livelihood and gender. Black trans activism, then, is the fight to eliminate these fears and dire statistics; it is the imagining of a world in which none of those things exist.
Notable black trans activists include Marsha P. Johnson, who spearheaded the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and, along with Sylvia Rivera, later established the Street Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group committed to helping homeless transgender youth in New York City; Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a black trans woman elder who was involved in Stonewall and served as the executive director of the San Francisco-based Trans Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), leading efforts to advocate for incarcerated trans women; and the more mainstream activists such as Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. But one of the most prominent black trans activists in this contemporary moment is CeCe McDonald. In June 2011 McDonald, who at that time was studying fashion at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, was walking to a grocery store with friends when she encountered two white women and a white man who hurled racist and transphobic insults at her. They approached her after throwing a drink at her, and the white man, Dean Schmitz, smashed a bottle on her face, lacerating a saliva gland. To defend herself from further harm that could have been fatal, McDonald grabbed a pair of scissors from her purse and stabbed Schmitz in the chest, piercing his heart. McDonald flagged down police herself, and they arrested her and ultimately charged her with second-degree murder as Schmitz later died. McDonald was given forty-one months in a men’s prison after accepting a plea deal, two and a half years of which she served.
McDonald’s case was immediately linked to the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case, showing deep commonalities that link racist and transphobic acts of violence under pervasive white and cis male supremacy. Making these comparisons is imperative for black trans activists in a moment when more mainstream, white trans politics center almost exclusively on issues like the bathroom debate, which tends to obscure more fundamental conversations about how hegemony disallows radical coalition by providing the promise of state inclusion. In a nation—indeed, a world—that sanctions violence against gender-variant people, uses prisons as sites of gender regulation, proliferates the unhousing of trans people, and disallows medical necessities for those whose genders are non-normative, black trans activism seeks the fundamental reordering of the social landscape. It is the demand that activists make clear during Transgender Day of Remembrance; it is what underlies efforts for a coalitional struggle across social justice campaigns that refuse single-issue activism, in part enabled by the internet, which has allowed black trans activism to flourish.
- Ellison, Treva, et al. “The Issue of Blackness.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 4, no. 2 (2017).
- Gossett, Reina, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton, eds. Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility. Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2017.
- Stanley, Eric A., and Nat Smith, eds. Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2011.
- Stryker, Susan. Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution. 2d ed. Berkeley, Calif.: Seal Press, 2017.
- Stryker, Susan, and Aren Z. Aizura, eds. The Transgender Studies Reader 2. New York: Routledge, 2013.