Black and Transgender: Still on the Margins

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?


Janet Mock: As long as marriage and families are based upon the lines of gender and sex, it will affect trans people and their families. Legal recognition of all families, regardless of gender and sex, is also heightened by [the] patchwork of laws from state to state, which prohibit or allow trans people to change their gender markers on IDs and records — which have a large effect on the recognition of their relationships, marriages and access to benefits. Marriage equality has been largely about giving couples legal protections, so we must also extend those same legal protections to all LGBT individuals, specifically trans, low-income and people-of-color communities, regardless of marital status.

TR: Are there any specific initiatives you would like to see President Obama address for trans Americans? 


JM: The president signing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would be a nice start, making it a violation of federal law to discriminate in employment against gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. But we need more than laws, and this goes beyond the president.

TR: Do you feel the "T" in "LGBT" is adequately embraced, celebrated and visible?


JM: We need coalitions fighting for social justice to ban together — coalitions that include trans voices — and recognize that LGBT people of color, the poor and youth communities are casualties in the LGBT movement's single-lens focus on marriage. What's sadly happening now is that trans people, specifically those of color, are falling in between the gaps of these coalitions and are ending up even more vulnerable than ever.

TR: What should be done to bring greater awareness to issues affecting trans youths and people of color in particular?


JM: First, we need to expand our idea [of] what inclusivity is and how we must address the daily access issues of those most marginalized.

How can a trans woman of color get a job if it is not safe for her to step outside her home — if she's blessed enough to have a home? If she can't change her gender markers on her ID because she doesn't have access to funds that would allow her to file that paperwork, or her state doesn't allow her to change her documents? If she doesn't have access to affordable health care that would allow her a safe, monitored transition? If she's stopped, questioned and frisked because she's profiled as a sex worker?


There are systemic oppressions that our sisters, brothers and siblings are faced with that broad coalitions fighting for racial, gender, social and economic justice must begin banning together to address from an intersectional lens that truly looks beyond laws and begins addressing the lived experiences of those most marginalized.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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