“Can you imagine what it’s like to see people you work with refuse to walk on the same side of the street with you or sit with you at lunch, or to be told that you are unhirable, just because you are a transgender man?” asks Kylar Broadus, an African-American lawyer and board member of the National Black Justice Coalition, a national black LGBT civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.
Broadus, who was born a woman and transitioned into a man 17 years ago, has been passed over for jobs because of his gender identity. “I’m basically unemployable because I can’t hide the transgender part of me. Most likely I am not getting hired once employers see that my Social Security card and school transcripts all have a female name,” he says. “I am a human being who deserves the right to make a living like everyone else.”
Broadus’ experiences are not rare. The harsh reality is that whether they possess a J.D. or a GED, members of the African-American transgender community face severe discrimination, according to the recent study Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (pdf). The survey, the first of its kind, was a collaboration between the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Black Justice Coalition. It collected data from more than 6,500 transgender Americans and found that all transgender people face severe bias ranging from housing and health care to education and employment.
But when researchers took a deeper look at the discrimination that the black respondents faced (pdf) — all 381 of them — the data jumped out at them. “What was really poignant were these stark differences. In every case, black respondents fared worse than the nonblack respondents in the national survey,” says Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “This is because black transgender people face anti-transgender bias coupled with structural and institutionalized racism.”
The Greater Challenge of Being Black and Trans
Monica Roberts, a 49-year-old black transgender activist and founder of the award-winning blog TransGriot, wasn’t shocked by Injustice at Every Turn’s findings — they reflect what advocates have been saying for years. “There is this saying that when white America has a cold, black America has a fever. Well, when black America has a fever, black transgender America has pneumonia.”
The employment-discrimination data alone support Roberts’ train of thought. Overall, black unemployment is at an all-time high at 16.7 percent, but 26 percent of black transgender people are unemployed — that’s three times the rate of the general public and twice that of the rest of the transgender community. And while a crippling economy is a serious factor behind the statistics, it’s important to note that current laws — in 35 states it’s perfectly legal to fire or not hire someone because he or she is transgender — exacerbate these unemployment numbers.
Thirty-two percent of black transgender respondents have lost a job because of bias; 48 percent were not hired because of bias; 34 percent were living in extreme poverty, reporting a household income of less than $10,000 a year; and almost 50 percent admitted to selling drugs or performing sex work in order to earn money to survive.
Unfortunately, these disparities don’t stop at employment. The report also found that 20 percent of black respondents are HIV positive (the general black population’s HIV prevalence rate is 2.4 percent); 21 percent of those who were attending school as transgender people had to leave because the harassment was so severe; 41 percent have been homeless in the past (five times the rate of the general U.S. population); 29 percent of those who had been in jail or prison reported being physically assaulted, and 32 percent reported being sexually assaulted; and 34 percent reported not seeking medical attention when injured or sick for fear of being discriminated against in health care settings.
A State of Despair
One of the most shocking findings was that nearly half of the black respondents reported having attempted suicide at least once in their lives — this rate was higher than that of any other racial group in the survey.
Nipper states that the numbers speak volumes about the emotional and mental distress that members of the black trans community endure throughout their lives. “From cradle to the grave, black transgender people are experiencing high levels of abuse and harassment from all over — their teachers, employers, the prison system, the health care system, you name it,” she says. “And there are barely any safe places for them to go to deal with this stress.”
Despite the devastating statistics, it’s important to recognize that the very existence of such data is a victory of sorts because historically, reaching the transgender community — especially people of color — has been incredibly difficult for researchers. Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention falls short on specific data on transgender people. And despite acknowledging that this community has the highest HIV risk factors of any group, the CDC lumps transgender people into the same category as men who have sex with men. (In August the CDC stated that it is revising this approach.)
“We go underreported because we live in fear,” says Broadus. “I remember first coming out in my community in Missouri, and there were people who came to see me speak who had literally locked themselves in their homes and never really came out because they were terrified of what would happen if they did.”
Nipper adds that her organization understood this fear and created a grassroots approach in collecting the data. “We did a lot of outreach across the country. We worked with groups and allies, and we used online surveys and went to the bars and clubs to really reach the transgender community to participate in this survey.”
Now advocates have the data they need to prove to lawmakers that this population needs better protection under the law. “We plan on taking this data and our recommendations and pushing for, among many things, a federal anti-discrimination employment bill,” Nipper says.
So Why All The Hate?
Despite the increase in positive media coverage around LGBT issues — and shows such as Glee, Modern Family and True Blood that raise the national consciousness around what it means to be gay or lesbian — it’s hard to deny that transgender people, especially African Americans, are somewhat left out of that national conversation. (The most visible nonwhite transgender faces are Isis from America’s Next Top Model and People.com editor Janet Mock.)
Broadus believes that such blatant omission only leads to more ignorance, sensationalism and hatred toward his community. “We find ourselves the butt of joke on The Jerry Springer Show or some sexual fetish in porn,” he says. “We are rarely seen as authentic people.”
Sharon J. Lettman, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, is confident that the report will be a wake-up call for what African Americans need to do as a community. “Our black transgender sisters and brothers are black people, too, and we have to love them better.”
The good news is that there has been a surge in black transgender leadership over the years. Just this May, in conjunction with the National Black Justice Coalition, Broadus started the Trans People of Color Coalition as a means for transgender people to advocate for themselves. “This is an effort to build a movement,” he says. “People are finding their power and realizing that they are worthy.”
And while black transgender activism is important in changing the hearts and minds of straight America, it’s also crucial in further educating the white and black lesbian, gay and bisexual community, especially the white-dominated LGBT movement, which for years has been accused of being racist, trans-phobic and AIDS-phobic.
Roberts believes that issues of respectability politics help explain why gay-friendlier causes such as marriage equality have sucked all the oxygen out of the LGBT movement and left little space for transgender issues and black LGBT folks across the board. “There is this illusion of community, and it’s frustrating as hell,” she says. “Historically, the transgender community has backed their rights, while they were stabbing us in the back when it was time to reciprocate. It was black trans folks who started the Dewey’s lunch-counter sit-in [in Philadelphia in 1965], and it was trans women like Sylvia Rivera who jump-started the Stonewall riots [in New York City in 1969], when the conservative queers were sitting in their closets.”
In the end, Nipper is bothered by the disinterest of some of her colleagues when it comes to transgender equality and this particular report, especially since the ‘T’ of the LGBT community has the potential to catapult the movement much farther than it’s ever been. “The people who are the most vilified, the most harassed and the most abused represent the furthest margins. If we can correct their issues — transgender issues — we can correct the issues that impact everyone in this movement.”
Kellee Terrell is an award-winning Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Terrell is also the news editor for thebody.com, a website about HIV/AIDS. She blogs about health for BET.com. Follow her on Twitter.