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Let's Celebrate Black Trans Women's Lives, Not Deaths

Let's Celebrate Black Trans Women's Lives, Not Deaths

CeCe McDonald

Yes, black trans women can often be victims. But let's not forget they're also just getting through life like all of us.

Here's the most game-changing black feminist news you might have missed in weeks: In Minneapolis, transgender and anti-prison activist CeCe McDonald debuts electric turquoise braids swept into an elegant updo. Followers rave, "Oh dear lard yes you are a sea foam goddess!" and "#SAYDAT #DON'T PLAYDAT Follow the movement!"

Other black women's news you may have missed: In Philadephia, police arrest Pedro Redding for the murder of college student and black trans woman Kiesha Jenkins. Jenkins is the 21st trans woman murdered this year, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, and the 18th trans woman of color.

Transgender murders are at their highest rate in history in 2015, prompting activist and actress Laverne Cox to declare a state of emergency for trans women. Police ruled Jenkins's murder was not a hate crime because they believe she was attacked while returning from a night of sex work and targeted because she was a high earner. Media reports switch between female and male pronouns in describing her murder.

Shortly after, black trans woman Zella Ziona, 21, was shot to death behind a laundromat in Gaithersburg, Md., October 15. Police arrested Rico Hector Leblond, a friend who was reportedly "embarrassed" by his relationship with Ziona. Media reports initially misidentify and misgender Ziona, using her legal name.

In Houston, police began looking for missing black trans woman Darius Gatlin, 28, last seen September 11 dressed in a pink-and-white tank top, denim shorts, and pink-and-white shoes with flowers. Media reports consistently misgender her, calling her a "transgender man, " like this headline. Hers would potentially be the third murder of a black trans woman in Texas this year.

Despite a modest increase in the visibility of violence against black women in the wake of Sandra Bland's death and the #SayHerName movement, violence against black trans women continues to be egregiously underreported and misreported in both mainstream and African-American media outlets. In spite of the fact that trans women of color have been murdered at a rate of almost one per week this year in the United States. And the fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center documents that trans women of color are the group most victimized by hate crimes in the country. And the fact that almost 70 percent of victims of anti-LGBT murders are trans women of color.

The only events more criminally underreported than black trans women's deaths, though, are black trans women's lives.

Black trans women are not statistics, not tragedies waiting to happen. Black trans women are daughters, students, best friends, artists, students, hairdressers, construction workers. People who like flaming-hot Cheetos or don't, people who go to church or don't, people who prefer Beyonce's "Superpower" to "Drunk in Love" or don't, people who rock electric color hair or don't.

Last year, the wonderful Carefree Black Girl movement championed the need for media representations of black women and girls that challenge stereotypes of African-American females as saints or victims. Blogger Jamala Johns praises this movement for depicting "the freedom and exuberance of simple moments and pleasures: clutching flowers, enjoying the company of your equally stylish friends, reveling in creative endeavors, and even finding the ethereal beauty in not-so-carefree moments. For women of color, such basic depictions continue to go underrepresented." My point is simple: Black trans women need carefree images too, not despite but because of elevated levels of violence against gender-nonconforming black folk.

McDonald's power in being carefree is she's never careless. She's a staunch, intersectional activist for black women's rights who speaks and writes tirelessly about prison labor, women's reproductive rights, domestic violence, disability rights, and transmisogyny. She's championed fundraising for Kiesha Jenkins's funeral and an investigation into her death, while her interview on The Huffington Post went viral.

So don't take it lightly if in the midst of all that, she got her hair done up like a sea goddess and posted about it. Every person who viewed and commented on her fine-ass photo was declaring that yes, black trans women have the divine right to be creative and joyful with their bodies and lives. Shouldn't black trans women celebrate being on fleek, being in their brown skin and black hair looking good? And celebrate being sea foam goddesses, women with powers to make their own lives and looks shiny in a racist, transmisogynist climate that wants to bury them?

Follow the movement. Black trans women's lives matter more than their deaths, and the least we can do is pay attention and enjoy.

Omi TinsleyOMISE'EKE NATASHA TINSLEY, Ph.D., a Public Voices Fellow, is an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.

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