Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Black, trans and afraid: A community fighting for acceptance

Across the country, people are calling for justice for black trans individuals that have been violently killed. (WYDaily/Wikimedia Commons)
Across the country, people are calling for justice for black trans individuals that have been violently killed. (WYDaily/Wikimedia Commons)

The Black Lives Matter movement has sparked outcries for justice in various communities across the nation and now black transgender individuals are also sharing stories of violence and prejudice.

The black trans community was shocked following the death of Tony McDade, a black trans man in Florida on May 27. McDade was killed by an officer with the Tallahassee Police Department who had been responding to a deadly stabbing incident and thought McDade matched the description of the suspect, according to local reports.

Following his death, two other trans women, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Riah Milton, were killed in June within 24-hours of each other in Pennsylvania and Ohio. According to the Human Rights Campaign, these are believed to be the 13th and 14th violent violent deaths of a transgender or gender non-conforming person this year.

As a result many in the LGBTQ black community are looking for justice and safety for trans individuals. 

“I think it’s important because when we look at the Black Lives Matter movement, the voices of black trans people, who are being killed at disproportionate rates, are not being amplified,” said Zakia McKensey, executive director and founder of Nationz Foundation. “Trans people are fed up that we are asked to choose between our identity to stand with Black Lives Matter or being trans.”

Nationz Foundation is an HIV and AIDS prevention organization based in Richmond. 

McKensey, a black trans woman, said she notices black trans individuals are treated with far less respect than their white counterparts, partially because most people associate them with sex work. 

But for many black trans individuals, sex work is the only way to finance a transition.

For Jasmine Johnson, a black trans woman and Community Health Navigator for the LGBTQ Life Center in Norfolk, it’s been 19 years since she first started transitioning but she can remember clearly the “hustle” she needed as a young adult to fund her transition. 

“I think being threatened never ends,” she said. “Living the lifestyle where you have to hustle or sell your body, you’ll encounter [violent] people…but that’s how we’re taught to survive.”

Johnson said she’s been lucky enough not to experience any violence related to her sexual identity, but it’s still something she’s acutely aware of. When she first started transitioning, she said she can remember being ridiculed by people who didn’t understand or judged her because she was black.

“It labels us as being nasty,” Johnson said. “People think we always have diseases, or everyone who is black and trans is HIV-positive. It’s rough.”

As black trans women, Johnson and McKensey both said the stigma and differences between acceptance in black and white cultures is different. Johnson said white trans people typically come from a more privileged and supportive background, so it makes it easier for them to go through the transition process.

Jasmine Johnson, Community Health Navigator for the LGBTQ Life Center, said she's always aware of the potential violence against black trans women. (WYDaily/Courtesy Jasmine Johnson)
Jasmine Johnson, Community Health Navigator for the LGBTQ Life Center, said she’s always aware of the potential violence against black trans women. (WYDaily/Courtesy Jasmine Johnson)

There’s also an underlying factor in black culture that makes trans men feel unwelcome.

“It’s a huge difference, for me as a trans woman, I get more respect from white people,” McKensey said. “But within our own community, you’re heckled and treated horrible because there’s the narrative that a black man should be a certain way.”

McKensey said a lot of that is perpetuated by the church. Religion is an important part of black communities but McKensey feels many churches teach messages that condemn trans individuals as an “abomination.”

“But that’s contradictory to what the Word says,” she said. “God never said he didn’t love black people or trans people, it’s the whole entire world.”

The new push within the Black Lives Matter movement to recognize black trans voices is something both McKensey and Johnson hope will make a change toward acceptance. Both already work daily with trans individuals to help them feel accepted and cared for, but they said any large-scale social changes need to involve legislative movements as well.

For McKensey, passing the Virginia Values Act in April, which extended existing state non-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community, was a huge step in the right direction. 

“I think the culture has changed and that’s just due to the community standing up and rallying for equity and justice,” McKensey said. “But I still feel like there is so much more work to do.”

Wren Briggs is Black trans man and a drag queen. (WYDaily/ Courtesy of Wren Briggs)
Wren Briggs is Black trans man and a drag queen. (WYDaily/ Courtesy of Wren Briggs)

Wren Briggs is a 24-year-old black transgender man ––and a drag queen.

“I watched the show Degrassi but the character Adam was a transgender male and I really connected with him,” he said.

He struggled with transitioning in high school and ended up dropping out. He moved to Virginia but found it was not as progressive.

“I was scared of the reaction I would have in New Jersey, but it was not a confusing topic as it was here,” he said.

His drag queen days started after watching Drag Race. Briggs started going to gay bars and watching makeup videos on YouTube before finally getting the courage to go out in makeup.

Briggs has since performed at various venues as Moxxy Mayhem ––his drag name.

His relationship with his mother has since improved, something Briggs thinks is due in part to having time apart from each other. She tries to listen to him and call him by his preferred name.

“She’s come and visited me a few times,” he said. “She has a lot more understanding than she did before.”

“I know her core values aren’t going to change any time soon but she does what she can to make me feel respected,” he added.

Symon "Mel" Howard and his fiancé, Amore. Howard is a black trans man who is pansexual. (WYDaily/ Courtesy of Symon Howard)
Symon “Mel” Howard and his fiancé, Amore. Howard is a black trans man who is pansexual. (WYDaily/ Courtesy of Symon Howard)

Symon “Mel” Howard is a black transgender man who is pansexual. He and his fiancé, Amore, a black trans woman, both work as loan consultants.

The couple is thinking about having a child but Howard is worried he could be fired for carrying the couple’s child.

Howard started going to the LGBTQ Life Center and spent two years going to support groups before he started taking hormones, changed his name and had surgery.

“I hated myself as a woman,” he said. “Me as a guy, an alternate person, I was confident, I was happy and I actually started to enjoy my life and it was actually okay.”

He said his mother thought she was losing a child.

And one more thing: In the LGBTQ community, people would ask ignorant questions.

“It’s not okay to ask about what’s in a person’s pants,” Howard said. “To ask what their name was assigned at birth, their dead name.”

Howard said if you know someone is transgender, use their correct pronoun and name. Some people don’t approve of trans relationships but he isn’t looking for approval.

“At the end of the day, however you look at it, we’re in a straight relationship,” Howard said of his engagement. “Genitalia is the last thing that should really be a thing in happiness, for me it’s one minor thing.

“For me, it should be love.”

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Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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