The James Baldwin Message for Trans People

James Baldwin felt he was part of his elders’ hope for the future. How can we make it possible for young trans men and women to feel that for themselves?

BY Justin Torres

November 07 2013 7:00 AM ET

Inheritance and hope (from left) Artist Beauford Delaney in 1953, the year he moved to Paris; author James Baldwin at his house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France in 1979; memorial gathering for slain transgender woman Islan Nettles in Harlem on August 27, 2013.

And then I realized the source of my dread and my trouble. Earlier that day, I had read in the paper that Islan Nettles, age 21, had died of her injuries a week after a transphobic street beating left her in a coma. I had stared and stared at the accompanying photo. The news had me heart- broken, horrified, and pissed, and worse, cynical about what would come next. Why was the world so unloving, so violently, lethally unwelcoming to our transgender youth? I knew that there would be a vigil, and I knew that eloquent, enraged, passion- ate words would be spoken, that trans women and others would stand up and say what needed to be said, but how would they be heard? And by whom?

Nettles was a black trans woman beaten to death in Harlem, and what terrified and enraged me was the thought that her race, her class, her gender identity —hell, the very neighborhood of her murder — meant that her death would not shock enough to draw the world’s attention; not only the attention of mainstream media, but perhaps not even from the gay main- stream community.

We need to be shocked. I did not know Nettles. I know only what I’ve read — that she was creative, a fashion designer — and what I’ve seen — that she was very beautiful and very young. I do not know what kind of personal mentorship she had in her life. I want to believe that at 21, black and trans in 2013, there were places she felt loved and welcome, and I want to believe that she understood herself as the hope of our movement. But I do not know, I do not know. I only know what I felt looking at her photo, and what I feel now: That despite all the strides the queer movement has made, on the whole, we still do not love and cherish transgender people enough, especially young trans women and trans men of color. We do not see them as we should, as the flowering of our movement, as our hope.

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