How some descendants of slaves are challenging the assumption their African culture was lost during the slave trade.
A day after graduating from high school, Renea Gray left the Inyabito Chapter of the Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico and headed west to Las Vegas, Nevada.
“It was an exhilarating experience,” says the 34-year-old Navajo transgender woman, describing the 400 mile drive through the heart of Navajo country in Arizona and her arrival in the bright, sprawling desert city.
“There were other transgender people around me living a glamorous lifestyle. There was a sense of acceptance and community I had not found before.”
As a child, Renea’s gender identity had never fit into the binaries of male or female, and she often experienced harassment and abuse for acting ‘feminine’.
But it wasn’t until her trip to Vegas that she first met other transgender (trans) and gender non-conforming people – some of the roughly one million individuals in the US whose gender identity and or expression differ from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.
“Las Vegas was the first time I met people who self-identified as trans*,” she explains, referring to the umbrella term which is inclusive of a wide variety of identities within the gender variant spectrum.
“And this is where I started questioning my own identity,” she continues, explaining how she began looking to Navajo tradition, which historically revered a multiplicity of gender identities , as a means of combating the pervasive discrimination experienced by those whose gender identities fall outside of the binary ‘norm’.
“I have experienced harassment, abuse and beatings all because people didn’t like the fact that I was who I was,” Renea explains, linking her own later experiences of homelessness, poverty, violence and incarceration to the layers of discrimination facing trans* people, and particularly trans* women of colour, in this country today.
“I should have been dead many times over. But here I am.”
An epidemic of violence
Many others, however, are not.
In the past three years alone an epidemic of violence has left nearly 30 transgender women slain, disproportionately women of colour, as the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination – racism, classism, sexism and transphobia – contribute to staggering rates of abuse, violence, poverty, and murder, not to mention myriad barriers to healthcare, education, housing, and employment.
“Healthcare, poverty, violence and murder, it touches all of us directly,” says Elle Hearns , a trans woman of colour (TWOC) and strategic partner in the national Black Lives Matter campaign, about the structural issues facing black people and particularly black trans women in the US today.
“Everything that is happening in our country is happening to us,” says Hearns, who is also a coordinator for GetEQUAL , an organisation whose intersectional approach addresses issues like immigration reform, reproductive justice and the criminalisation of LGBTQ people of colour.
This criminalisation, according Kym Dorsey, an intersex TWOC activist from Albany, New York, is in part rooted in a lack of understanding of transgender issues by the public at large.
“If you humanise transgender people then all the rest, housing, healthcare etc., will follow,” she explains.
Susana Cáceres, the executive director at El/LA PARA Translatina , a family style support organisation for transgender Latinas, based in the San Francisco Bay Area agrees.
“As a community we are not understood, people don’t really understand what the issues facing transgender people are, they don’t understand what transition means or that gender is a spectrum. There is a lack of education, a transphobia in our culture based on ignorance, and that puts us in a very vulnerable space.”
“I learned quickly that being queer was not accepted,” she says, recalling the years of bullying, harassment and violence she and others experienced in middle and high school.
Eighty-two percent of native trans students experience harassment in school. “We would have rocks thrown at us, milk thrown at us, bananas, you name it …. We had no protection in high school, teachers didn’t do much.”
Despite this, she graduated valedictorian. “I sunk myself into school to avoid the realities of violence,” she explains. And following her summer in Las Vegas she returned to New Mexico to attend college at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
It was then, at the age of 18, that Renae went to the Indian Health Services to inquire about hormone replacement therapy, the process whereby sex hormones (namely androgens for trans men and estrogens for trans women) are administered in order to synchronise a person’s secondary sexual characteristics with their gender identity.
“I knew that this transition [the complex and individually varied process of altering one’s birth sex, involving personal, legal and medical steps] was the right thing to do, to reconnect my mind with my body,” says Renae, who outlined her experiences in a college paper entitled ‘Living the Margins’.
To her doctor, however, this was an indication of a mental illness. And that is an all too familiar experience for many transgender Americans who face serious barriers to accessing healthcare .
Research by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that 50 percent of persons identified as transgender have used injected hormones that were obtained illegally or used outside of conventional medical settings, reflecting a “failure of most health insurance plans to cover the cost of mental health services, cross-sex hormone therapy, or gender affirmation surgery”.
After two difficult years at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Renea transferred to the University of Nevada (UNLV), returning to the city where she had first experienced a sense of community and understanding not found among her peers in New Mexico.
It was also there, at the age of 23, that she first tried alcohol, and soon after began experimenting with drugs.
“I turned to alcohol which began a downward spiral,” she says, describing the cycle that followed – drug abuse, dropping out of school, homelessness and, eventually, incarceration.
“These cycles are quite clear,” explains Amanda Goad from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), explaining how trans women of colour are disproportionately represented within the criminal justice system.
More than 30 percent of Native American and 50 percent of black trans women have been incarcerated.
Transgender women are “disproportionately forced into survival economies” because of “widespread discrimination and stereotyping” based on both gender and race. And transgender women of colour are “particularly vulnerable to cycles of trauma, violence, arrest and incarceration,” explains Goad in a statement on the ACLU website.
For us, visibility can be a matter of life and death
“Of the various systems that hold us down, prisons are their own planets,” explains Miss Major, a trans activist and participant in the historic Stonewall riots .
“Those that suffer the most are the people that are least likely to get help,” explains the co-founder and member of the TGI Justice Project , a group of transgender people fighting against imprisonment, police violence, racism, poverty, and societal pressures in the Bay Area of California.
After being arrested, Renae was put into jail and then sent to a male prison against her wishes.Once there she was called by her birth name, and subjected to ridicule, harassment, mistreatment, discrimination and forced solitary confinement by correctional officers.
“I didn’t fear the inmates but the people that were supposed to take care of me,” she says now.
Renea, who spoke to Al Jazeera from the University of New Mexico’s LGBTQ outreach programme, where she now works, has since graduated from the UNM with a degree in sociology, using her life experiences to bring attention to the many issues facing this community.
“Others have been killed and took their own lives because no one wants to hear or listen,” says Renea, who is now a Trans Inclusion Specialist at UNM and has recently applied to graduate school. “For us, visibility can be a matter of life and death.”
And yet, amid the larger conversation about the impact of state violence against people of colour, little has been made of the dangers faced by the transgender community, particularly transgender women of colour, who are six times more likely to be targets of police brutality than their white cis-gender (a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender assigned to them at birth) counterparts.
They also represent a startling 80 percent of all homicides in the LGBT community, according to reports by the Anti-Violence Project, a New York City-based organisation whose reports show that LGBTQ people are the most victimised minority in the country, with trans women of colour the worst placed of all.
“The silence on violence is deafening,” says Stacie Vecchietti, a programme director at the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, explaining how the struggles of queer and trans people of colour, those who face the most severe and multi-faceted discrimination, are often the least acknowledged.
“The press would rather focus on stories like Bruce Jenner,” says Lourdes Ashley-Hunter, a TWOC activist and founder of the Trans Women of Color Collective , referring to the media coverage of the transition of former reality star Caitlyn Jenner.
“It is the centering of whiteness that continues to happen and is a distraction from the actual issues. If we focus on Jenner’s transition, we don’t have to focus on the actual violence and discrimination in our communities,” Ashley-Hunter continues.
Society tells us we are an abomination. Young people kill themselves because they think it can't be worse than this
A 2011 report , “surveying 6,500 transgender and gender-nonconforming people” exposed the startling structural inequities, violence and discrimination they face. The survey, the first of its kind, found that transgender and gender non-conforming people are four times more likely to experience poverty, while 41 percent have attempted suicide, 61 to 64 percent were victims of physical or sexual assault, 78 percent reported being harassed, mistreated or discriminated against at work, and 19 percent don’t have healthcare.
In each category, negative outcomes were heightened for transgender and gender non-conforming people of colour, particularly black trans women.
The average life expectancy of a transgender woman of colour is a mere 35 years of age.
“The combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent, structural racism was especially devastating,” the report states.
“Fifty-one percent of trans* people attempt suicide before the age of 21,” explains Ashley-Hunter. “This is inextricably linked to the violence that we face as a community. Not just the physical but the structural violence. Housing, healthcare, employment, education. This is all part of it.”
“Society tells us we are an abomination,” says Miss Major, speaking about the stigma that contributes to the staggering rates of suicide. “Young people kill themselves because they think it can’t be worse than this.”
“It’s an epidemic,” reflects Ms. Jones, a black transgender woman from New York City. “We are dying and nobody, not our supposed brothers and sisters in the gay and lesbian community, not the police, seem to care.”
Many from the transgender community, including Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, a TWOC and policy adviser for the racial and economic justice initiative at Trans Equality , are quick to point out that the violence facing trans women of colour is nothing new.
“What we’re seeing is [that] the public’s attention and media attention [is on] us finally,” explains Freedman-Gurspan. “[But] this has done little to affect the underlying issues governing oppression. We need to find ways to address these underlying structural issues.”
“The folks that are at the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, are people of colour: Latinos, African Americans and Native American people. These people need to be part of larger conversations about racism, sexism, gender discrimination and poverty in this country. Because [we] have seen how the intersections of these experiences are often devastating.”
This focus on the intersections between multiple forms of oppression and discrimination is a driving principle in the larger trans* justice movement, connecting local grassroots campaigns to national movements such as Black Lives Matter, and centering the narratives and leadership of trans* people of colour to address the collective experiences of structural oppression felt by the marginalised and disenfranchised.
“People think that what is happening to trans people [is] specific to trans people, [but it’s] not. We are all impacted by structural oppression,” explains Ashley-Hunter, referring to the fight for social, economic, racial and gender justice embodied in this and other civil rights struggles.
“Black women have always been on the frontlines fighting oppression, but they are also a part of the larger history of erasure in this country,” says Sasha Alexander, a membership director at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), speaking about the centrality of women of colour in the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement and the LGBTQ movement.
“What’s powerful today is how social media and campaigns like #blacklivesmatter and #blacktranslivesmatter have played a huge role in being able to speak about who is really doing the work. In the past, these institutions, including the establishment LGB organisations, have worked to silence our voices and remove our names from history,” Alexander continues.
It is a theme taken up by Ashley-Hunter. “If organisations are not making space or opportunities for those most disproportionately affected by structural oppression then they are really part of the problem.”
Everyone from the LGBT community will stand behind Stonewall. Well Stonewall was black and transgender. Yet here we are today, and our voices, our issues ... are put on the backburner
“The large agencies are not governed by us [transgender people of colour], they don’t want to deal with this, so they focus on the surface things like marriage equality,” explains Kym Dorsey.
“We may want to be married, but first can we get some food? Can we walk outside our house without having our genders policed or having our lives taken away?” asks Ashley-Hunter. “If there are laws that deny our access to healthcare, to housing, to employment, then marriage is not a priority in terms of what is important for a national policy platform.”
While the historic marriage equality decision underscored to some a shift in US public opinion around LGBTQ rights, to others it speaks to the misplaced priorities of a movement whose own beginnings were at Stonewall, a series of riots initiated by queer and trans* women of colour in response to structural violence.
“Everyone from the LGBT community will stand behind Stonewall as being the beginning. Well Stonewall was black and transgender,” says Dorsey, noting the centrality of queer and trans* women of colour in the 1969 riot credited with catalysing the gay rights movement. “Yet here we are today, and our voices, our issues, the same issues [as] then, are put on the backburner.”
“We are 20 years behind the gay and lesbian community in terms of visibility and rights,” says Freedman-Gurspan, describing how the strides taken within the LGBTQ justice movement have not been equally felt by all.
A deadly year
At 4am Kiara Beard received a phone call from her mother informing her that her sister, Lamia, had been killed.
“It was weird because I usually work nights,” says Kiara, describing how she had taken the night off in order to help with her brother’s baby shower the next morning.
“I knew something was wrong when she asked to talk to my husband. He put her on speaker and she told us Lamia had been shot. I started screaming and crying,” says Kiara, whose sister’s death would mark the first of 11 murders of transgender women of colour so far this year, according to Kris Kayahshi, the executive director at the Transgender Law Center.
Lamia was only 30. Her two sisters, Kiara and Precious, say she was humble, quiet and reserved, but also incredibly funny. “If you didn’t know her you would say she was on the quiet side, but to us she was hilarious,” explains Kiara.
Growing up, Lamia had been an exemplary student with a passion for reading encyclopedias. “She was obsessed with different cultures, could tell you about people from everywhere,” says Kiara.
She was also obsessed with perfecting the obo, piccolo and cymbals for school band.
“Who does that?” Kiara asks, laughing about what seemed to the Beard family an eccentric and annoying choice of instruments. “I don’t think many people know how the piccolo and the obo sound. That high pitched sound, it was something.”
Like many transgender women of colour Lamia had experienced discrimination. But her sisters say she never expressed any fear of violence. That was until the few weeks leading up to her death.
“The only time she had mentioned feeling unsafe to me was in the weeks before she died,” says Precious, preferring not to elaborate further.
Lamia’s younger sister had been with her the day before she was killed. “We had gone to get our nails done,” says Precious. “We had gotten back home and I remember she asked what time it was, and when I told her 11:45/12:00 she said I had to get up and get ready. We had put on our make-up together and I left …. That was the last time I saw her.”
Lamia’s body was found on the sidewalk in Norfolk. She had a gunshot wound, and was later pronounced dead at hospital.
“I hate thinking of her there, alone with no one by her side,” Kiara says.
Disrespected in death
In the days that followed, Lamia was misgendered as a man in both local and national media outlets in a pattern that would be repeated in every subsequent murder of a transgender woman.
“I felt they disrespected her,” says Precious. “The newspaper says really bad things about her background and called her a man.”
In July, 25-year-old India Clarke was found beaten to death in the University Area Community Center in Tampa, Florida, the eleventh transgender woman of colour to be killed this year.The preceding media coverage described India as a “man dressed in women’s clothes”.
“Misgendering is an act of violence,” says Ashley Love, a transsexual and intersex advocate and coordinator of Black Trans Womens Lives Matter .
It is in part rooted in ignorance, but also underlines to some a dangerous lack of visibility that extends beyond the general public into the LGBTQ movement itself.
In July, the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage would be recognised at the federal level for the first time in US history.
President Obama made his support for the ruling known in a twitter post: “Today is a big step in our march toward equality. Gay and lesbian couples now have the right to marry, just like anyone else. #lovewins “
“This is our movement,” says Angie Frank, a lesbian woman from New York State.”The realisation of decades of struggle.”
“The freedom to marry is important, we are impacted by it,” says Kris Hayashi, the executive director of the Transgender Law Center, who created the campaign #morethanmarriage in order to highlight what some consider to be the more pressing issues facing the transgender community. “[But] our community is in a struggle for day-to-day survival.”
“They’re spending all this money when there are so many other more important needs for their community as well as ours,” says Miss Major.
The Supreme Court decision came just days before the nationwide Pride parades . But the jubilation on display in cities across the country was not shared by all, as many activists came out to protest against what they view as a departure from what Pride is supposed to represent.
A statement from the organisers of the die-in, reported in the local GLBTQ news site the Windy City Times , said “we hope the protest will bring attention to the parade’s origins as a political action meant to resist state violence. Organisers wish to amplify the voices of those silenced within the LGBTQ community, primarily those populations most impacted by state violence – trans people, women, people with disabilities and mental illness, black and brown folk, indigenous people, immigrants, sex workers and street youth.”
Across the country social media campaigns such as #morethanmarriage, #reclaimpride , #shutdowncastro #stonewallwasariot arose in response to what was seen as the marginalisation of black, queer and trans people of colour within Pride.
Stonewall Inn, a club in Greenwich Manhattan, was one of the few places in the 1960s where same sex people could dance with each other without being arrested or abused. Then, on June 28, 1969, during a routine police raid, patrons – many of whom were queer and trans women of colour – refused to submit to the habitual humiliation experienced at the hands of police and instead fought back.
“Up until then, in every city police ruled the gay bars,” says Miss Major, describing in a Youtube video the patterns of police harassment that led to the riot. “The police would come and hit their night sticks on the door jam. Then you’re supposed to step away from your partner if you’re dancing with them. If you’re at a table with a partner you were supposed to move apart.”
“That night was different,” explains Miss Major. “When they came to get us out of there, nobody moved … something happened and all of a sudden, everybody’s fighting. I got knocked out early, came too while they were dragging me to the police car. We went to court and they let everyone go. So it happened that next night. Three nights this went on and it changed things forever.”
“We were there then, and we are here now,” says Miss Major about the contributions of queer and trans people of colour to the larger LGBT movement.
Today we still don't get the respect from the gay and lesbian community that we deserve. Y'all didn't treat us right then, you don't treat us right now
The rebellion at Stonewall helped propel the issues of this hitherto marginalised movement into the mainstream. But in the years that followed the ‘gay rights’ movement became largely dominated by white gay men, while the voices and issues represented by the Stonewall pioneers and trans* activists, such as Marsha P. Johnson , Miss Major and Sylvia Rivera, along with other queer and trans* people, were largely silenced.
“Today we still don’t get the respect from the gay and lesbian community that we deserve. Y’all didn’t treat us right then, you don’t treat us right now,” says Miss Major.
“Trans women of colour were instrumental in advancing rights for the LGBT community stretching back decades. And today this community’s needs are not being met,” explains Kris Hayashi.
This erasure is a source of great pain, explains Sasha Alexander. “Nobody wants to talk about how the larger movement initiated by queer and trans people of colour have pushed issues like marriage equality forward.These folks worked for LGB rights, then they are forgotten.”
“When they set up a hierarchy, black trans women are at the bottom,” says Miss Major.”We are the people in the dirt holding the rest of this s**t up.”
In January, Penny Proud, a black trans woman was shot and killed in New Orleans, becoming the fifth trans woman murdered in 2015.
In New Orleans, a grassroots organisation known as BreakOUT!, led by black LGBTQ youth and organised to combat the pervasive criminalisation of LGBTQ people of colour and the experience of brutality at the hands of the New Orleans Police responded : “These deaths had little to no mainstream media attention. The silence and lack of action from media on behalf of the Black transgender community sends a strong message that Black Trans Lives, in fact, do not matter.”
But across the country, a vibrant and collaborative grassroots movement led by people of colour is fighting against this reality, seeking to combat violence and discrimination, increase visibility and uplift the narratives of their community.
“We are not defined by victimisation, we are defined by struggle,” says Sasha Alexander. “We have been doing it for decades and we will continue until this is done.”
While national organisations are working to raise awareness and bring these issues into the mainstream, grassroots movements are fighting against imprisonment, police violence, racism, poverty, deportation, and the other forms of structural violence and oppression that effect trans* people of colour.
“We are not a one issue community, we are not the sum of our parts,” explains Ashley-Hunter. “We are elders, youths, immigrants. We have to work from an intersectional lens because no one can be left behind.”
And while the experiences of violence and discrimination are all too real for many trans people, especially trans* women of colour, the common stories of power and resilience coupled with a growing awareness in this country give many optimism.
“I refuse to believe that I am an exception to some sort of rule,” says Kym Dorsey, who hopes her own supportive childhood and the grassroots work she does in her community can provide a different narrative from the violence and victimisation.
“I go around the country and people say to me that I have a unique and blessed story. That’s the part that powers me to say that this [exceptionalism] cannot be the narrative. There is kindness and acceptance embedded in our community. It’s just embedded under all the oppression and disparity.”
“I know that I was once revered,” says Renae Gray, speaking to the history and acceptance of trans* people in her own Navajo tradition.
“We are here now, as we have always been,” says Dorsey, whose own African American and indigenous roots give her an understanding of identity and place stretching back centuries.
“As my grandfather used to say, just because they don’t mention you in the garden [referring to humanity’s origins story in the Judeo-Christian worldview] that doesn’t mean that you weren’t there.”