Mesha Campbell. Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow. JoJo Striker. Keke Collier. Chyna Gibson. Ciara McElveen. Jaquarrius Holland. Their names and faces lit up my laptop in a macabre montage. In the first few months of 2017, seven transgender women have been murdered—four within a single week, and most of them black.
It is the continuation of a sickening trend: Twenty-seven transgender people were murdered in 2016, the deadliest year on record for trans people in the United States. At least, the deadliest thus far. Considering that a mere 0.3 percent of Americans identify as transgender, compared with 13.6 percent who identify as black, the proportion is staggering. That those victims have overwhelmingly been trans women of color—predominantly black—indicates a hate crime epidemic targeting the most marginalized among us.
Yet, when it comes to trans women, many of us can’t bring ourselves to #SayHerName.
When we’re asked to acknowledge these victims in the same breath as Renisha McBride, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, Tiarah Poyau or Janese Talton-Jackson, the words catch in our throats. We hesitate or sputter in protest, compelled to make a distinction between these women and ... you know, real women.
Issues of realness and representation remain regular topics here at The Root. Last fall I pointedly asked, “Who Gets to Be Black?” Perhaps this year’s question is “Who Gets to Be a Woman?” It’s an age-old query (shoutout to Sojourner, yet again), but it’s one we should likely ask of a feminist movement that featured trans celebs in a march characterized by pink “pussy” hats atop primarily cisgender white heads.
It certainly proved an incendiary talking—and sticking—point for award-winning writer and Beyoncé-endorsed feminist firebrand Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. When asked her opinion on whether being a transgender woman makes you “any less of a real woman,” she haltingly replied:
My feeling is that trans women are trans women. I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences ... it’s about the way the world treats us. And I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of changed, switched gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman ...
It’s about the way the world treats us.
And how does the world treat trans people? “Transgender” is defined by one dictionary as “denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.” Frankly, neither Adichie nor I can assess how anyone born into a body they don’t identify with interprets the world. This is a privilege we both take for granted.
I use the word “privilege” deliberately, because at the crux of Adichie’s statement is the assumption that male privilege is unilaterally enjoyed by those who are biologically born male—even when they identify as female. That assumption itself is steeped in the privilege of being born cisgender—that is, identifying with the gender she was assigned at birth.
If we’re acknowledging that being born male is inherently a privilege, then we must similarly acknowledge that denying that gender assignment and identity is far less frivolous than “switching genders.” This is not drag or code-switching for convenience; this is a matter of identity at the most visceral level. And if suicide rates of trans youths are any indication, it’s a matter of life and death.
I only know what it means to be a cisgender, heterosexual black woman. I know patriarchy, misogyny, racism, sexual objectification, abuse, beauty standards that sometimes but never wholly include me, and loving and being loved by men. Chances are, many trans women know the same (though trans does not automatically equal gay). But as Brittney Cooper writes:
I also know that in current organizing, the person that has privilege should not dare ever be the person who questions how much privilege they actually have. ... If the Rachel Dolezal moment, laughable and ridiculous as it was, should have taught us anything—it’s that we actually do need to refine our categories and thinking about the ways race and gender identity function.
So, what makes a woman? Are we relying solely on the almighty “power of the pussy”? Is it menstruating? Is it giving birth or breastfeeding—although not all biological females are able or willing to? Is it the insidious experiences of sexism and sexual objectification being protested during that recent March on Washington?
What is it we stand to lose by sharing the designation of “woman”? Is it the identity we’re clinging to, or the intricacies of our oppression? Can we make a distinction between “woman” and “female”—preferably without lazily referring to women as “females”?
To be clear, I’m neither qualified nor seeking to speak for trans people. As activist and writer Raquel Willis clearly notes, trans women are fully capable of speaking for themselves. But for those who call ourselves black feminists/womanists, we have an opportunity to be the change we claim to wish to see in the world. We insist that our womanhood—like our blackness—isn’t monolithic, berating the lack of intersectionality in traditional (read: white) feminism. But still, we struggle to afford the same respect and compassion to our trans sisters (and brothers). Poet, activist and “unapologetically black, queer and cash poor femme” DiDi Delgado acknowledges this paradox:
I considered the ways in which I was complicit in the erasure of trans women, non-able bodied femmes, and undocumented immigrants; the times I was in my feels because a trans woman made a Facebook status dragging the fuck out of my perception of solidarity.
Meanwhile, Adichie has sought to clarify her initial remarks, stating that “there is space in feminism for different experiences.”
There must be. Because for feminism to become as inclusive and intersectional as black women know it should be, we must make space for those different experiences and expressions of womanhood. Especially those that women are clearly dying for.