Into Black Trans Liberation
Crowd: Black trans lives matter.
Protest Leader: Black trans power matters.
Crowd: Black trans power matters.
Trymaine Lee: Last month, in the middle of Pride, thousands of people gathered in Brooklyn, New York for a rally for Black trans lives.
Crowd: Black trans lives matter. Black trans lives matter.
Lee: Black trans women in particular have been an important of the gay rights movement since the Stonewall uprising in 1969 in New York City.
Marsha P. Johnson: The way I winded up being at Stonewall that night, I was having a party uptown. And I didn't get downtown till about 2:00. And we were all out there.
Lee: Marsha P. Johnson was one of those women.
Johnson: And Sylvia Rivera and them were over in the park having a cocktail. 'Cause when I got downtown, the place was already on fire and it was a raid already. The riots had already started, and they said the police went in there and set the place on fire.
Lee: This is from a 1989 interview with journalist Eric Marcus.
Johnson: We just were saying, "No more police brutality," and, oh, "We had enough of police harassment in the Village and other places." Oh, there was a lot of little chants we used to do in those days.
Lee: By the time Marsha died in 1992, people rarely talked about her role in the movement. But the fight for protection and inclusion back then is so similar to the fight we are seeing today. Black trans women continue to face disproportionate levels of violence. Within the past week, 22-year-old Mercy Mac was killed in Dallas and Brayla Stone was found dead in Arkansas. Police are treating her death as a homicide. Brayla was just 17.
Raquel Willis: There's this idea that because we are having an openly different gender experience, that we deserve the abuse that we may receive. And that's just not okay.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, a look at how racism and transphobia have pushed Black trans women to the fringe of the gay rights movement and the movement for Black lives, and what's being done to change that. I got a chance to talk with Raquel Willis, a Black transgender activist and the director of communications for the Ms. Foundation, a nonprofit fighting for women's rights. In front of a crowd at that rally for Black trans lives, she had this to say.
Willis: And so let today be the last day which you ever doubt Black trans power. (CHEERING)
Lee: Raquel, thank you so much for joining me.
Willis: Of course. Thank you for having me.
Lee: We're in this moment here where there is so much energy around the Black Lives Matter movement. And we saw just from the turnout for the Rally for Black Trans Lives that there is momentum there also. Is there a confluence there? Like, does one feed the other, especially when it comes to Black trans lives?
Willis: I absolutely do think that there is a confluence and overlap of LGBTQ+ liberation and Black liberation. You really can't have either one without the other. I think about the Stonewall riots, and there were important Black trans folks who were on the front lines during that queer militant uprising back in 1969 against the New York Police Department.
So people like Marsha P. Johnson, Zazu Nova, a Black trans elder who's still with us named Miss Major were present there and were actively invested in the fight that sprang out of that moment. So there's no way to talk about us getting to liberation without talking about Black trans people. And I think what is consistent unfortunately is the sidelining of our voices and the sidelining of our experiences and work.
Lee: I want to ask you though. You say Marsha P. Johnson, and people who don't know, she was so about it, right, and so about the work. (LAUGH) But is her name and folks who came after her and worked alongside her, are those names forgotten, overlooked by accident, by intent?
Willis: I definitely think that names like Marsha P. Johnson were forgotten intentionally. I think we have to have a real conversation on how white supremacy has also plagued the LGBTQ+ movement since its inception. And so in the wake of the Stonewall riots, there was an entire web of nonprofit organizations that sprang out of that, right?
So there was infrastructure being built. And from those earliest days, people had concerns about Black folks, brown folks, people who are incarcerated, and of course trans people because we were seen as not in line with some of the assimilationist goals of many of those early movement figures. Mostly white cisgender gay men, but also cisgender lesbians as well. So it has been intentional, and it is still intentional today.
Lee: How do you move through these movement spaces that, you know, the bounds of white supremacy are still there? How do you actually navigate those spaces?
Willis: The way that I navigate these spaces shifts. I don't relish in these ideas of being the first, or being a token, or being an only. I actually think we're more powerful when we have numbers. And so I don't want to leave places, you know, coming in as the first Black trans woman to do X, Y, and Z and then have not built any pathways for more Black trans people to come into the space, to carry the banner when I leave and inevitably go do other work.
But I'll be honest. I mean, I think things have definitely shifted in the last few years of my career. But there's still a lot of work to be done. There's still a lot of behind-the-scenes educating that has to happen for cis people who don't understand transness or gender nonconformity.
And just as there's that education, there's also the education on whiteness. No matter how marginalized you are, you can still be an oppressor. And that's something other LGBTQ+ folks, particularly white ones, need to understand. And that's also something that Black cisgender and straight people need to understand as well.
Lee: You know, of course we've had this conversation around feminism and other movements before, whether women who are part of the movement are Black first or are they women first, gender first. Do you disentangle your identity like that? Are you Black first? Or is it your gender identity first?
Willis: I don't think so. I think some people try to. But inevitably, you are all of your identities at one time. And so for me it's been very important to always be a Black trans woman when I come into spaces. And I think that we do a disservice by allowing folks who lead Black liberation movements to envision liberation as contingent on one identity or one experience.
That is just another element of patriarchy. And that's part of why I have an issue with the way that we have framed violence as simply something that happens from the state, something that happens from police officers who are white that overwhelmingly happens to cisgender heterosexual men. We lose a lot of nuance there. We have to be having a holistic conversation on violence that not only talks about state violence but it also talks about the violence in our own homes, in our communities.
Because as a Black trans woman, you telling me you want to abolish the police or you telling me you want to abolish prisons, that you want to defund the police doesn't necessarily put me completely at ease because I know that I could still be and am likely to be harmed by men in our communities, particularly Black cishet men. And people don't want to say that because I think there's this idea that the biggest enemy is white supremacy, but that is a fallacy.
Lee: On one hand, I get tired of the trope that the Black community is somehow more homophobic or more transphobic. We know that homophobia and transphobia knows no bounds. But when it comes to Black trans life and death and the violence heaped upon them, it comes likely from inside the community. So is it proximity, or is there actually a different dynamic happening there?
Willis: I think a lot of it is proximity. Overwhelmingly, Black people are around other Black people, right? You know, and so when I think about the murders of Black trans women at the hands of Black cis men, I'm very particular about how and when and where I have those conversations because inevitably what is happening to us will be used in the service of white supremacy against Blackness writ large.
And I think that we have to be able to hold that. So if we're gonna say we're getting rid of prisons, we're defunding the police, which I support, we have to be just as much or maybe more invested in building up the consciousness of our people to be able to actually hold those people who commit harm and abuse accountable in the ways that we need them to be held accountable.
And it's not just Black trans women. I think about how Black cis women like Breonna Taylor so often fall under the radar of a zeitgeist that prioritizes men regardless of your racial or ethnic background. And so cis women are also harmed by the patriarchy, and cis women are also harmed by men in our communities.
Lee: I always wonder, and I had been a police reporter for a long time, so I've covered all kinds of crimes. And sometimes it seems obviously clear that this person was killed because they were trans. Other times, it seems like the vulnerabilities and the layer of vulnerabilities that Black trans people find themselves in are those layers of vulnerability that many Black people face: poverty, abuse and trauma. But do we have a good enough holistic nuance view of that violence?
Willis: I don't think so. We don't really talk about how we have our own conceptions of which victims are worthy of our empathy. I think about just two days after George was murdered, Tony McDade was murdered in Tallahassee, Florida, a Black transgender man. And the circumstances around his case admittedly are very murky.
And yet we have to contend with the fact that even if there was a clear story, which there rarely is for any victim, particularly if you're Black, he would not have gotten any more attention from most people because people have a bias against trans folks. There's this idea that because we are openly gender nonconforming or having an openly different gender experience that we deserve the abuse that we may receive, and that's just not okay.
Lee: How much does class play in all this?
Willis: I think class affects all of it. We have an issue particularly in media where we often get to be either victims, of course, and not alive, or we're a superstar or celebrity. And we need the in-between. You know, we need the community organizers, and activists, and all those types of stories as well, and we don't often get that.
And when that doesn't happen, I mean, you're being dehumanized on two levels. 'Cause it's like you're only cherished if you're dead, or you're only cherished if you can be in the spotlight and in some ways serve this desire of a cis person for you to be a spectacle, right, so they can add another layer of distance to you.
Lee: We'll be right back.
Lee: I think people have a pretty decent grasp of lesbian, gay, bi. When it comes to transgender issues, I don't think people fully understand. And the idea of womanhood, is it worth having to explain to people what it means to live in this identity?
Willis: Well, you know what is interesting is we've gotta get out of this space of thinking that transgender people are having some kind of magically different gender experience. Honey, I promise you, I'm not. Like, we all carry insecurities about our gender, about who we are and who we're supposed to be in the world.
Perhaps you could say that trans people may have a more drastic experience, but it's so connected to the ways that boys and men in general are told that they can't have a certain well of emotion, that they can't be intimate and have other ways of moving through the world that don't involve control and domination.
It's not entirely different from how women and girls of all experiences face not being seen as competent, intelligent, brilliant, and capability of leadership. And it also of course extends to folks who are nonbinary or gender nonconforming who straddle all of these struggles. And so we've got to understand that.
And then the last thing I'll say is, you know, you brought up the contours of womanhood. Particularly as a Black trans woman, I'm dealing with the dual history of trans women not being seen as women enough but also Black women. I mean, I think about the early feminist movement and how people like Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper were sidelined as Black women. They were pushed out of the fight for suffrage in this country. And so Black women in general have had to fight against this restrictive idea of womanhood that has been contingent on a white bourgeois imagination.
Lee: Speaking of white women, that's a perfect segue. Speaking of white women, (LAUGH) and as we know that white women played a role in white supremacy and have always played a reinforcing role in that and also a role in the patriarchy, right? And when you think about people like J.K. Rowling, and I want to read this quote, she said, quote, "If sex isn't real, the lived reality of women globally is erased." When you hear J.K. Rowling saying that, what's your response to that?
Willis: First of all, anytime a celebrity tweets, I'm like, "How you got time for this?" (LAUGH) I almost don't--
Lee: Right. "Don't you got money to make?"
Willis: Right. (LAUGH) I almost don't have time to tweet on some days 'cause I'm so busy. So, like, what are you doin'? But then the fact that she had the energy to use her platform to demonize trans people, demonize a more marginalized group of women is problematic to me, but it's also emblematic of white womanhood.
And so when I think about womanhood, we have to be expansive with all of these gender categories. There are plenty of cis women who don't check off a lot of criterias that are considered womanhood. So you can't really say that womanhood is based in the ability to procreate as a woman.
You can't say that it's about having a particular set of chromosomes. You can't say that it's about having a particular set of body, you know, thinking of the many women I know who have had hysterectomies, right? So, I mean, there are so many ways in which the argument against trans women being women also erases swaths of cisgender women who don't have those particular experiences.
Lee: You know, I don't want to either/or it or make it too reductive or too simple. But in this moment, in the fight for trans equality, is it more important to grow allies in the Black community or allies with other women?
Willis: I think that we need all the allies. I don't think any of us have the luxury of focusing on one group or the other. I would love for there to be a massive mobilization of allies of Black folks.
Lee: Are we seeing that? Are we seeing a little bit of that now?
Willis: No. I mean, I wish I could say yes, but Black cis folks are not doing enough. I think about our media outlets and how often we don't have spaces like this, Trymaine, where a Black trans woman can come on and be in dialogue with a Black cis man about the state of the world.
I mean, how often does that happen? I also think about our institutions. You know, I think about how more work needs to be done at our colleges and universities, in our Greek organizations, in our professional organizations, in the Congressional Black Caucus. On every level, Black cis folks are not doing enough to show up in new and expansive ways around gender and it's a problem. And that is also violence. You know, at every level there's a systemic transphobia that is not being addressed.
Lee: What do you think it would take to get that kind of allegiance, especially among Black folks, right? When we're talking to white people about white supremacy, we could say, "Read how to be an antiracist," right? "Read Stamped from the Beginning," right? We can educate you, learn the history. But when it comes to this kind of allyship, especially when we're talking about Black people, right, what does it take? Is it education? Is it a dropping of ego? What is it, do you think?
Willis: I think it's all of the above. I think the first thing people need to do is really sit down and analyze themselves, answer what their insecurities are around anything, you know, but particularly around gender. 'Cause we're all caught up in it. I feel like what fuels a lot of the violence that may happen from Black men towards Black women comes from an innate feeling of not being man enough for whatever reason. That is a gender issue.
And then our families, right? How are you gonna support transforming our families, having those hard conversations with our elders? I just recently had a really hard conversation with my brother. You know, I thought that we were at a point where we were past a lot of his misgivings or misconceptions about transness. Turns out we're not there.
Lee: And I don't want to necessarily use the word hurt. But when people are close to you and they're side, maybe they're family or people that you really respect and they don't get it, does that sting a little bit?
Willis: It does hurt. You know, when I had this recent conversation with my brother, I left the conversation, you know, I was angry and I was tearful 'cause it does hurt. I think when you're close to people it does hurt in a particular way. And I think for me as an activist, I take it also to be like, "Is what I'm doing even working? If I can't even get the people closest to me to understand what's going on, how am I gonna get the masses to get it?" You know? So it is hurtful, but I don't have the luxury of giving up.
Lee: You know, I guess it was maybe two weeks ago now at the Black Trans Lives Rally in Brooklyn, we were actually driving home to Brooklyn and it was like I'd never seen (LAUGH) almost that many people. And it was an impressive sight. And you said, "Let today be the last day that you ever doubt Black trans power."
And in these moments where we see people rising up, and we see coalition building, and we see people coming together in the name of equality, do you believe in this moment that there is a true chance that we'll step closer to the equality that folks claim (LAUGH) they believe in? For Black trans lives especially, is this a time?
Willis: I don't know. It feels like a different time. It feels like a revolution. But I don't know if we'll even completely know we're in a revolution probably until maybe it's almost over, right? Like, it's hard to know in the moment. But I will say I don't think that this is just a moment for Black trans people. We are a movement.
We have been fighting to be respected, fighting to live for centuries. And it's just a reminder that we've been here and it's a reminder we're gonna be here. And whatever I can do to use the bit of access I might have, or privilege, or platform to push the dignity of Black trans people, I'm gonna do it.
Lee: We got COVID-19, white supremacy, uprisings. The weight is heavy, and there's a lot to be concerned, sad, angry about. But how are you finding joy in this moment? (LAUGH) Or is it too tough?
Willis: No, I think that we have to find pockets of joy. For me, I found joy in having a chance to connect with the people closest to me in new ways, in deeper ways, reminding myself to take a walk not only for exercise but for the fresh air. Cooking for myself, right? I've also been planting and reminding myself through gardening indoors, I guess, that regardless of what happens, growth is still possible.
Lee: Raquel, thank you so much for your time. I will say this was a joy. I found a little bit of joy having this complex, smart conversation with you. So thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Willis: Of course. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Lee: That was Raquel Willis, a Black trans activist and director of communications for the Ms. Foundation. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio.
Special thanks to Eric Marcus, founder and host of the podcast Making Gay History, for the use of his 1989 interview with Marsha P. Johnson. That interview originally appeared on his show, Making Gay History. I'm Trymaine Lee. Hope y'all enjoy the long holiday weekend. We'll be back next week.