It’s Transgender Awareness Week And Trans People of Color Are Still Being Erased
LGBT organizations and the white LGBT community only center, honor, and see Black and Brown Trans people when we are dead.
by Kay Martinez
It’s Transgender Awareness Week and I’ve been feeling erased by the Trans community and LGBT organizations as whiteness continues to be centered. This week, individuals and organizations will participate in Trans Awareness Week to help raise the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people, and address the issues the community faces. Yet how do these LGBT organizations internally treat their Trans employees, particularly their few Trans staff of color? Are Trans Black or Brown people in leadership positions? Are we tokenized? I can’t help but side-eye these organizations’ performative allyship this week knowing how many climate reports I’ve read about the racism and transphobia within these organizations and my own personal experiences with them.
I’m currently in Boston where folks expect me to celebrate the recent win on Ballot Question 3 during the midterm elections. Massachusetts voters faced the first-ever statewide popular vote on protections for transgender people from discrimination. The referendum would have repealed our current state law that protects trans people from discrimination in public places, including restaurants, stores, and doctors’ offices. A “yes” vote on Question 3 kept the current law as it is. I’ve found myself asking, how did we get this win? I can’t fully celebrate because the visual marketing campaign led by Freedom for all Massachusetts did not prominently feature any Black or Brown Trans people in their videos and it has left me feeling erased, invisible, and degraded by my hometown.
As election day neared, the face of the campaign I saw everywhere was Ian, a white transgender teen. In the commercials, I saw close-ups of Ian and his family having dinner in their beautiful home, playing on their yard and enjoying their Rockwellian upper middle-class life. I looked at all eight videos on Freedom for all Massachusetts’ website and I failed to see any Trans Black or Brown people prominently featured. In the video entitled, “This November, Massachusetts Will Vote YES for Dignity & Respect,” news footage of one Black Trans Woman, Chastity Bowick, speaking is used for a few seconds which made me feel like they Google searched for some diversity to tack on rather than affording a Trans person of color a featured speaking role like the other white trans folks and allies they included. How ironic that a campaign fighting to protect Trans people from discrimination in Massachusetts excluded Black and Brown Trans people from full participation in the visual campaigning. Seems discriminatory to me. But why? Who were these advertisements for?
Massachusetts is 81% white.These ads were designed for white people to see the plight of Transgender people reflected in the upper-middle class struggles of Ian and his family so they would see themselves—and how could anyone vote to keep another white family down? Is an appeal to whiteness going to lead to Trans liberation for all of us? What Freedom for all Massachusetts’ ad campaigns showed me was that the voters of Massachusetts could never see me or my Trans Black and Brown siblings and deem us as worthy of humanity. Yes, the legal protections for Trans folks in MA are intact, so perhaps we won, but would the results have been the same with a diverse and inclusive ad campaign including people who looked like me? Had I seen myself in these ads, I would have felt like I had a Trans community in Massachusetts that was truly fighting for my freedom. I feel like this organization did what white LGBT people and white cis-led LGBT organizations are currently doing and have always done to Black and Brown people, which is further pushing us and shushing us out of sight and out of mind to the margins because they think they know what’s best for us.
Transgender Awareness Week is followed by Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), an annual observance on Nov. 20 that honors the memory of those whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. At TDOR ceremonies I’ve organized and participated in, Black and Brown death take center stage and are focused on because of the sheer volume of atrocities my communities disproportionately face, particularly Black Trans Women. I’ve also been to ceremonies where my dead siblings’ names were mispronounced by well-intentioned allies amid chants of “Black trans lives matter”. LGBT organizations and the white LGBT community only center, honor, and see Black and Brown Trans people when we are dead.
Ever since the news of this administration’s plans to write Transgender people out of existence, my whole body has been tight. I’ve been breathing shallow breaths and experiencing whiplash every time I looked at my newsfeed. Every bit of legislative progress we’ve made on Trans rights is being knocked back and it takes a piece of my resolve with it. How can we chant, “won’t be erased” in the streets together as a community, when white Trans people and LGBT organizations erase us from within? That’s not freedom for all.
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As Sylvia Rivera famously said in her 1973, “Y’all better quiet down” prophecy, “the people are trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white middle class white club. And that’s what you all belong to!”. Some call it a speech but its gospel to me because here I am in 2018 searching for the words to describe the whitewashing of Trans visibility when they’ve already been said by a Trans movement mother of color. Trans liberation would not be where it is today without our Black and Brown Trans leaders like Sylvia, Marsha P. Johnson, Pauli Murray, and Stormie DeLarverie, and we’d arguably be much further in our quest for liberation if we listened to and centered them. Yet here we have history repeating itself with the erasure and marginalization of Trans people of color and the centering of white folks in what should be our collective struggle.
As Roxane Gay said, “even when great progress is made, some marginalized groups are told to wait, are told, not yet, are told, let’s do this first and then we will get to you. And we are also told we’re asking too much, that we should be grateful for what progress is being made. But I don’t buy into that,” in regards to the erasure of Queer Black women in Black Panther. My superheroes will always be in the margins of the margins. The ones pushed away and who refuse to be quiet despite attempts to silence them. I’ll always have love for all my Trans family and I aspire to build movements which include all of us but especially center the marginalized. Erasure is not a justifiable means to an end. I’ve been in mourning after seeing how my community really sees me which is not at all. We’ll get freedom someday but not like this.
Kay Martinez (they/them/theirs) is an Afro-Latinx prettyboi. They’re a writer, educator, and rabble rouser from Boston. They have a M.A. in Higher Education and a professional background leading Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives.
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