For as long as there have been Black people, there have been Black LGBTQ/same gender loving (SGL) people. Disappointingly, because we face the additional barriers that come with homophobia, transphobia and fear and hatred of things not “traditional” or “heterosexual,” that truth is often hidden or erased altogether. And as it relates to the transgender community, far too often, we find ourselves speaking of injustices—from discrimination to disproportionate health risks, and too often, violence.
But on March 31, Transgender Day of Visibility, we take the time to recognize and celebrate the contributions trans* individuals are making—and will continue to make—to society. It is not just a day to show support to the trans* community, but a day that aims to bring attention to the accomplishments of trans* people around the globe while fighting cis-sexism and transphobia by spreading knowledge to end the existing ignorance about the trans* community.
As the nation’s leading civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS, the National Black Justice Coalition works daily to claim and create space where we can celebrate the beautiful diversity within the Black community.
For decades, transgender individuals have been on the frontlines of the battle toward equality, especially throughout the Black diaspora. From Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Majors, Valerie Spencer to Elle Hearns, Janet Mock, Andrea Jenkins, Kylar Broadus and Dr. Van Bailey, to future leaders like Sage Grace Dolan Sandrino or Ellie Ford, black trans* individuals continue blazing trails and claiming space that affirms for Black people that they, too, can show up and show out without ever hiding, shrinking or apologizing for who they are or how they show up in the world.
This is a day dedicated to liberation and empowerment… and with liberation and empowerment comes inclusivity.
As we work to collectively strengthen the Black community, it’s time we have the difficult, and at times uncomfortable, conversations around how we can create more inclusive spaces for members of our community who are transgender, gender nonconforming or non-binary. Because none of us are free until all of us are free, and I want us to get free together.
Here are five tips that will get us one step closer to creating more inclusive spaces for the Black transgender community:
- Stop making assumptions about someone’s gender based on their appearance. You cannot tell someone’s gender by looking at them, which means rather than making assumptions, simply ask. We should move past the tired, trite and often untrue assumptions that police the presentation of “self”—it’s not true that “men” or “women” or anyone for that manner presents in a particular way. The only way to know is to politely ask, so you won’t be offensive or incorrect.
- Words matter: Use gender-neutral, affirmative language. Words matter, and it is critically important to develop the language required to engage in thoughtful and supportive conversations about understanding experiences that are different from your own. There is power in precision, and the language we choose to express ourselves must support the creation of spaces where people feel safe, comfortable and supported in working through personal and sometimes challenging or delicate issues—this is essential to building mutually supportive relationships. Similarly, language is a powerful tool in disrupting bias and stigma as well as facilitating healing. In affirming all members of the Black community, especially our family members who identify as transgender, gender nonconforming or non-binary, we are honoring their humanity and granting the dignity of respect we want for ourselves. The first place to check ourselves is to not assume anything and ask questions with a spirit of humility. An easy way to start the conversation is asking a person, no matter their gender identity, what pronouns they use without assuming they identify as “female” or “male”.
- Advocate for gender-neutral bathrooms. This has been an even more recent hot button issue following last month’s exposure of the Department of Education’s decision to no longer investigate or take action on complaints filed by transgender students who are banned from restrooms that match their gender identity. For anyone who has an issue with gender neutral bathrooms, I will tell you as I shared with my mother, your bathroom(s) in your home are gender neutral. The fascination with signage in public restrooms is about policing bodies, forcing individuals who do not fit neatly into socially constructed categories to feel different or othered. Members of the trans* community should be supported in being able to live, be seen and be treated by others in a manner that is consistent with the person’s gender identity, which includes accessing facilities, like bathrooms, without obstacle or oppression. Period. Full stop.
- Don’t tolerate transphobic jokes or comments when you hear them. By not speaking up and out against offensive language, you’re just as bad as the person demonstrating ignorance for the chance at a cheap laugh. Trans* people are not jokes, they are people.
- Overarchingly, “cis” people (refers to people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth) must stop questioning the experience of trans existence and actually start asking “what does support look like to you?” We, as Black people, expend so much energy attempting to get to “Wakanda,” where we do not have to qualify, defend or explain the brilliance of our Blackness to colonizers who just don’t understand—who will never fully comprehend that we should appreciate the importance of making space for that which is not celebrated as “normal”, “typical” or “acceptable.” There is so much beauty in the diversity of Blackness that we owe it to ourselves and to one another as a community to make space for everyone to show up just as they are. By moving beyond attempting to make sense of or otherwise approve of the trans* experience, we can shift toward dismantling the systems that seek to divide and oppress us. By working together in solidarity to ensure the collective health and well-being of every member of our community is how we get free.
The members of the NBJC Black Trans Advisory Council are leading efforts to improve communities and strengthen our country. I invite you to learn more about and connect with the Council members and NBJC to find ways to continue dialogue, engage in direct action and spread knowledge about the trans community by visiting www.NBJC.org.
David J. Johns serves is the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, the nation’s leading civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS. He is known for his passion, public policy acumen and fierce advocacy for youth.