Growing Up as a Black Trans Man

Sandy E. James
Vincent Villano/National Center for Transgender Equality

In the last few months, we have seen substantial growth in media coverage of trans people, and especially black trans people. From Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox to brilliant writer and advocate Janet Mock, black trans women are breaking out. Black trans men have also gained exposure for their achievements, from filmmaker Kortney Ryan Ziegler to artist and athlete Kye Allums.

But even in this very visible moment for my community, I still feel invisible. Trans people have been thrust into the cultural conversation of the moment, but our actual lives and what we do to survive and thrive have not made the cut. 


For me, talking publicly about being a trans man is scary because I’ve spent a lifetime navigating situations where invisibility has been essential to survive.

Growing up in England as a child of Caribbean immigrants, I learned quickly to minimize my visibility, embracing white English culture and distancing myself from my Caribbean roots to blend in with my peers. I would sit in the cafeteria eating traditional English food and wearing my school uniform, complete with skirt and tie, my cultural and gender identities hidden. Putting on that skirt every day was devastating, but that was what I had to do to get by. 

My family moved to the United States right before I started high school. The move was hard, but life-changing for one main reason: I no longer had to wear a skirt to school. 

A decade out of college, I still hadn’t come out as trans. After moving to Washington, D.C., for law school, the new community and friends far from home gave me the courage to finally come out as a trans man.


I’ve been lucky to have the love and support of my immediate family, but that support hasn’t always equaled understanding. My family knows little of the complex decisions I make daily, like whether to use a public bathroom or to whom I can talk without risking a confrontation. 

In my grandmother’s final years, I had to miss both her 95th birthday party and funeral. I didn’t want to face my extended family and be a distraction or a sideshow. I made the decisions not to go out of love and respect for my family, but ultimately, they were decisions to be made invisible, to avoid rejection, bringing shame to the family and emotional, or even physical, harm. 


Trans people often make decisions to be invisible to survive and stay safe, something absent from numerous representations in the media of trans lives. 

For many, visibility in the media has not equaled acceptance, support, understanding or safety. 


Visibility has not changed the difficulty of finding employment for trans people of color, who are four times more likely to be unemployed than the national average. We still face enormous obstacles to finding housing, walking down the street without risking our safety and living our lives with the dignity all people deserve. 

The absence of knowledge about trans people’s lives has real consequences: every day, policymakers across the country are making decisions about trans people’s lives with little knowledge about us. With only rumors and mass media for reference, legislators are passing bills about who can discriminate against us and when, what health care we deserve and what bathrooms we can use. 


That’s one reason I took a job coordinating the largest-ever survey of trans life in the United States, the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey. I believe this could be one small step toward making our lives more visible and expanding the picture of what trans lives in the U.S. actually look like today. By taking the survey, we are making our stories heard in our own voices. This is an essential part of letting the world know the reality of everyday trans lives and experiences. 

For trans people, simply telling our stories is a political act. It’s saying: We exist, we matter, we are unique and we are important—every one of us. For too long, we haven’t been part of the discussion. Now we have an opportunity to stand up and be heard. 


The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

Sandy E. James is the project manager for the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, the largest study of transgender life in the United States. The survey is available to complete online in English and Spanish until Sept. 21 here.

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