Black transgender community carries an extra heavy burden
Protect TransWomen Day of Action, Washington D.C. | Ted Eytan (CC)

Black trans men and women have suffered tremendous harm for existing not only as trans, but also for being Black in an often anti-black society. They often have an estranged relationship to the Black community at large, as church rules and so-called Christian traditions condemn the trans person’s very existence.

Yet in Memphis last month after the commemorations, marches, and conferences on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy 50 years after his assassination, people are acknowledging a long forgotten and endangered part of his work, That work was a struggle to unite and activate his people for battle with oppression. That battle has to include the defense of Black trans men and women, and all who are marginalized, in order to bring about any true change.

Activating the community, organizing, and advocating for human rights for everyone has to be the strategy and goal. This means looking out for the most endangered members of the Black community, which happens to be Black trans men and women. This sentiment was shared at the I Am 2018 Mountaintop Conference in Memphis by speakers including Pastor Michael McBride and AFSCME president Lee Saunders.

Dr. King advocated for equal rights for everyone, and regularly said that all people deserve humane treatment. Today, many still debate whether he meant gay rights or if he would include the trans community in his work. These arguments are all rendered moot by Dr. King’s final speech. There he spoke repeatedly about the significance of the right to be treated humanely, like a person.

“We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”

Here, he was describing the central purpose of the protests Black people had been engaged in for several years at that point. That purpose was to be treated like everyone else. In the very next paragraph of his speech, King spoke directly to the Black community and called for unity in order to achieve their freedom from oppression. He followed this thread throughout the rest of the speech. It is here that all arguments fall, because King called for ALL Black people to get the rights “given to them as God’s children” and he told the Black community to unite until they saw victory.

Pastor McBride talked about activating the community in the panel “Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice” at the I AM 2018 at the beginning of April. He touched on the topic of police brutality and why we must not get stuck on the topic of police shootings. He told the audience that a greater injustice exists, and is happening to Black women and Black transgender people. To begin combatting it, he said, “We have to lift up this conversation around the assault on our women, our loved ones, those in prison or trans loved ones, whose bodies are being subject to the violence of those who are sworn to serve and protect us.”

His words sounded dire, but they are born out by statistics. One survey of the Black transgender community, the 2015 US Transgender Survey, found that unemployment among Black trans people is twice the rate of the rest of the Black community. More Black transgender people live in poverty (38%) than in the Black community (24%). The survey also found that Black trans people have been sexually assaulted (57%) at a greater rate than other people in the Black community (53%). This shows that the Black trans segment of the overall Black community needs the support and strength of every member of the Black community. They are most at risk and have been for quite some time.

They are more at risk, and the numbers prove it. The American Journal of Public Health published a study that found transfeminine Black people were much more at risk of becoming homicide victims than Black women.  A cisgendered Black woman’s life expectancy is 78 years of age, 45% longer than a Black transwoman. People in this population are at risk by simply existing with dark skin and as transwomen. Their lives are devalued perhaps more than any other group in the country.

When Lee Saunders spoke at the I Am 2018 Youth Town Hall, he mentioned LGBTQ people (which includes the trans community). Saunders told the teens that they had a responsibility not only to activate in their communities, but to aid others in their communities who are struggling. He told of all the movements that have been rising over the past decade: Black Lives Matter, The Women’s March, and others. Saunders exclaimed that everyone in these separate movements had to unite, just as Dr. King Jr. said, in order to ensure that all of their causes are successful.

Having unified forces means lifting up our trans brothers and sisters, advocating for them, supporting them, and ensuring that they are treated like people and not monsters. This must be done because we all have a duty to help every struggling man if we want to have the strength to win our own battles. Every person that gets lifted up will join the larger fight for true democracy and, in the end, that’s what’s needed.

It seems that in 2018, Dr. King’s true message of unity and activism was raised from the whitewash and taken back by community leaders, organizers, and ordinary people who are tired of seeing and/or experiencing subhuman treatment. This includes the most battle-worn members of the Black community. It is every Black person’s duty to set aside their personal qualms and see the Black trans person as a brother or sister who is suffering every day. Many are dying without so much as an investigation or final consideration. Lifting up the Black trans community will not only fuel the larger fight for equality, it will ensure that when one group rises, we all do.


Jonita Davis
Jonita Davis

Jonita Davis is a writer, comic nerd, and scholar on the intersection of popular culture and social issues.