On the icy morning of November 20, 2011, we — Matthew Richardson and Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley — were joined in legal matrimony at the Hennepin County Court in Minneapolis. Our 2-year-old daughter, wearing Afro-puffs and a pink sweater dress, served as our ring bearer. Despite a driver's license that identified him as male, Matthew, a black transgender man, was nervous about passing for the stern judge. But we were pronounced husband and wife without incident and, after receiving the judge's words of advice for happy married life, celebrated with a small lunch hosted by a friend.
This was not a revolutionary act.
Our ceremony did not empower black trans folk in this country, nor did it prove there is hope or acceptance even in the climate of racist and transphobic violence that we live in.
The April/May 2016 issue of Brides magazine has just hit newsstands, and it features an “exclusive” with black trans activist Janet Mock about her Hawaiian wedding to photographer Aaron Tredwell. Resplendent and radiant in her pictures on a Honolulu beach, Mock includes a narrative that bears witness to her tender and enduring love for Tredwell. Many social media commentators and news outlets have responded positively to her touching story.
“Janet Mock’s story is a bright light on a dark time for those living in fear,” Erica Nechole reflected. “Her journey as a transgender rights activist and trans woman in media is no longer an illusion or dream for other transwomen; it’s proof that it can happen and you can find acceptance and love in process.”
We were also touched and inspired by the beautiful Mock. But her message has been edited and commented on to broadcast the message that being loved is enough to make the lives of black trans people and black women sustainable. And that is simply not true.
We are both black queer people who now live in Texas, and our ability to legally marry is crucial to our physical and emotional safety. It shields us and our young daughter from certain kinds of state interventions and everyday violence we might otherwise be more vulnerable to. And it reminds us that we have a bond, a deep love and tenderness, that helps keep us whole and sane in a world that treats black people, queer people, transgender people, and black women as disposable.
Our black transgender love gives meaning and security to our lives as individuals and as a family. But loving individual black trans folk, black queers, and black women is not enough to save our lives. CeCe McDonald was surrounded by loving friends when she was arrested for defending herself against a racist, transphobic attack. Seven-year-old Aiyana Jones was surrounded by loving family when police shot her to death while she slept.
We do consider that the life we make together is a political act. But this is not because one of us is transgender. It is because we share a personal and professional commitment to a black feminist politics that fights for the lives of all black women — trans and cisgender, straight and queer — to matter. Our revolutionary love is for the ideas that black women's lives matter and black trans lives matter, always and everywhere.
The same is true of Janet Mock. Founder of #GirlsLikeUs, a social media project that empowers trans women, Mock speaks widely on transgender rights, LGBT rights, sex workers’ rights, and feminism. Mock is a black trans woman who loves her husband dearly while fiercely loving the safety of all black women and trans folk. She and Tredwell live together as they work to imagine and create a world where all black queer and trans folk can live, love, and thrive.
So yes, let us celebrate the black love that trans men, trans women, gender queers, femmes, studs, and sissies share with one another and anyone else we choose. But as we do, let's not reduce the transformative potential of black transgender lives to our partnerships.
We, Matthew and Omise'eke, may love each other in part because we both want to change the world. But our love will not change the world. The revolution will not be domesticized.
OMISE'EKE NATASHA TINSLEY and MATTHEW RICHARDSON are associate professors in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.