Elle Hearns was hoping to share in the collective pain other black people were feeling during a Trayvon Martin rally in Columbus, Ohio, in April 2012.
But instead of feeling embraced, she said both men and women around her engaged in very loud, transphobic conversations and encroached on her personal space.
“It made me feel very unsafe because I didn’t know what people were willing to do in that space,” Hearns, a transgender woman, told The Root, specifically pointing out that most of the violent remarks were coming from black men. “There was this macho bravado of cockiness in that space where they were allowed to say and do whatever, when the focus for me was utilizing my voice to stand up for something I believed in, which was honoring Trayvon.”
Nearly three years after Trayvon Martin’s death, there has been no slowdown of black men and women dying as a result of police brutality and other forms of anti-black violence. The responses to these killings have culminated in a wide range of movements around the country, with Black Lives Matter being among the most well-known. But some transgender women, like Hearns, feel that some of those involved in the movement don’t consider anti-black struggles like theirs.
Lourdes Ashley Hunter, who serves as executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective, told The Root that a chasm exists between many cis black people (“cis” meaning those who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth) and transgender black women who have felt that their unique challenges regarding anti-black violence have gone largely ignored.
“I think the black community needs to acknowledge the fact that they are being completely silent about the murders that have been happening in our community,” Hunter said. “Just last year, 12 trans women of color were murdered with no response from the black community. When folks scream, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ they’re not talking about black trans women. Most of the time, they’re not even talking about [cis] black women.”
Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told The Root that the organization has been very clear that its efforts to defend African Americans against anti-black violence uplifts every black person, including transgender women—though she says there is room for improvement.
“I think a better job that the Black Lives Matter movement could do is actually uplifting the narratives of black trans women,” she said. “The way you uplift narratives is by bringing everybody to the leadership table so that black trans women are making decisions on what statements are going out about strategy and tactics, and are being paid for their hard work and labor and that black trans women are in every single piece of the conversation.”
Cullors is aware of the transphobia that can take place at local protests and says that leaders organizing protests across the country must be educated on how to take action against people who are making protest spaces unsafe for transgender women. She recalled a situation from an Occupy LAPD protest where a man was being transphobic and how organizers dealt with him: “We had people go speak to him directly and pull him aside and say that’s unacceptable and we don’t accept that kind of behavior in our space and you can either get down or you can’t get down, you can leave. And he left. That intervention has to happen quickly. You can’t allow that.”
Black Lives Matter and TWOCC have a very close partnership. TWOCC leads BLM in centering conversations to ensure that the voices of black transgender women are included in the movement. But TWOCC is just as devoted to creating its own spaces for transgender black women and helps its members to amplify their own voices.
The collective was founded in December 2013 after the slaying of a transgender woman, Islan Nettles, in New York City. Hunter says a rally in Nettles’ honor was organized by members of the LGBT community who did not consult with transgender people about their needs. After determining that the organization of the rally was problematic, Hunter and other transgender women of color came together to form TWOCC so that they could control the narratives of members in their community. There are branches in New York City, Ohio, Louisiana and Washington, D.C.
In Ohio, there were four slayings of transgender women of color (Tiffany Edwards, Cemia Dove, Betty Skinner and Brittney Nicole Kidd-Stergis) in June 2014 alone, according to The Advocate.
The collective has started fundraisers to support its work and is creating spaces for transgender women of color to heal and uplift one another’s narratives.
Katrina Goodlett, a co-founder of TWOCC, hosts a weekly podcast called The Kitty Bella Show, on which she discusses issues that center on the experience of transgender woman of color. It is one of the ways in which she is using media to lead conversations that she hopes will help cis people understand her experience as a transgender black woman. So far, she is pleased with the response.
“It’s been phenomenal,” Goodlett told The Root. “I’ve had tons of cis people tell me that they love the show and that they’ve learned a lot and they support, so that’s definitely, that feedback is there. I’m very happy, and it lets me know and affirms the work that I am doing. Not that I need that affirmation, because I don’t need cis affirmation to know that my life is valued, but I know that the mentality and the thinking is changing.”
While the exact number is unclear, Hunter says at least 20 transgender black women have died as a result of transphobic violence over the past two years.
According to a 2013 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report (pdf), 72 percent of victims of anti-LGBT homicide were transgender women, and 67 percent of victims were people of color.
There have also been instances of media misgendering victims by referring to them by the names they were assigned at birth. GLAAD has published a media guide for journalists to help newsrooms avoid such issues.
Hearns, a board member of TWOCC, says there are a lot of reasons that transgender black women face violent backlash in the black community.
“Religion plays a big part in how we deal with the LGBTQ community, period,” Hearns said. “But specifically trans women of color, there is a lot of misogyny that is compartmentalized, and a lot of people don’t want to deal with trans, even the word ‘trans,’ because it challenges everything that they’ve been taught by systems of oppression and white supremacy.”
While TWOCC is doing the work, Hearns added that cis black people need to be more understanding of their privilege, and the collective’s membership is certainly not waiting for them to catch up.
But Hunter says it’s not just transgender women who need to be proactive in uplifting transgender women. All black people have to realize that transphobia can’t co-exist with the fight against anti-blackness.
“We need for people to wake up and understand that white supremacy is killing us all,” Hunter said. “Not just trans people, not just black people, but all of us. We need to work together strategically to dismantle the system. So it’s not so much about getting to know the intricate details of trans people. All you need to know is that we’re human, and humanity calls us to come together.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter.