Black and Transgender: Still on the Margins

Activist Janet Mock spoke to The Root about the transgender community's ongoing fight for equality.

Janet Mock (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)
Janet Mock (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Following the recent Supreme Court decision declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, President Barack Obama’s embrace of marriage equality and the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” gay Americans are experiencing their very own civil rights era. But the struggle isn’t over, and there are forgotten faces among the jubilant crowds: transgender Americans in particular and especially those of color.

Employment and housing discrimination remains a daily hurdle for transgender people — who are often without the legal protections necessary to defend themselves. One in five transgender Americans have experienced homelessness because of discrimination and rejection by family. What’s worse is that institutions designed to help also discriminate: Twenty-nine percent of homeless transgender people report being turned away from shelters because of their gender status.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force reveals that 78 percent of transgender Americans experience workplace discrimination, and the Republican-dominated Congress has refused to pass a comprehensive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, leaving transgender people vulnerable to prejudice at the local, state and federal levels.

Basic things that most Americans — gay or straight — take for granted are often considerable barriers for transgender people. Renewing one’s driver’s license, applying for a passport, being approved for credit or registering to vote becomes complicated by name and gender changes, especially in places where bureaucrats can exercise individual bias and prejudice.

The gay community mirrors the socioeconomic ills of the wider society, so race and class imbue everything. According to a recent research report (pdf) by the National Black Justice Coalition, racial discrimination exacerbates the already disparate treatment of transgender people.

Black transgender people had an unemployment level of 26 percent — two times the overall rate. And 34 percent of transgender African Americans reported living below the poverty line, with income of less than $10,000 a year. This was more than twice the rate of transgender people of all races (15 percent) and four times that of the general African-American population (9 percent). More than 20 percent of black transgender respondents reported being HIV-positive, compared with 2.64 percent of transgender people overall. And 49 percent had attempted suicide.

An inconvenient truth is that there is prejudice even within the gay community toward transgender people, making them a minority within a minority — often silenced and marginalized.

For greater insight, The Root spoke exclusively with Janet Mock, a writer and former editor for People magazine and a prominent voice for transgender equality. Mock is the founder of #GirlsLikeUs, which serves as an empowerment community encouraging visibility and political action for all transgender women, especially those of color.

The Root: What unique challenges do you see confronting the trans community in the fight for marriage equality? How is it different or more complicated than the challenges facing gay and lesbian couples?