I was pinning my hair when the black trans director Reina Gossett reached out to me about participating in a trans-centered segment of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. I’d worked with Reina as an actress on Happy Birthday, Marsha!, and she thought I would be a great fit for a reenactment of Meaghan Taylor’s arrest for being trans last year at the Drury Inn in West Des Moines, Iowa. I said “Yes” without hesitation.
Reina filled me in on some of the concerns she and Meaghan had about the framing of the “jokes” in the reenactment producers had planned. Through my activist work, I had previously connected with Meaghan and her lead counsel Chase Strangio at the American Civil Liberties Union, so I readily accepted when they invited me to meet them at the ACLU headquarters before heading to the Comedy Central studios in New York. There I learned that the reenactment was to include me (as Meaghan) alternately wielding assault weapons and drugs.
On the day of filming, I was a ball of nerves. This was my first time back on television after outing #MSNBCSoWhite, when I came out strongly against the exploitation and sensationalism surrounding trans people of color that I’ve witnessed as a media activist. Being outspoken in this way has been a blessing and a curse, because I’m both valued and ostracized for speaking truth to power. I still get in formation, though. I showed up for my Daily Show shoot five hours early, and had some unforgettable behind-the-scenes moments. While Meaghan was busy filming her interview, I swapped tips with makeup artist Jodi Morlock, and met some great folks from the ACLU.
However, I also stumbled upon the producer’s call sheet and was appalled to find there weren’t any other black trans women involved in the upcoming segments. That tokenism, coupled with problematic gags in the reenactment, caused me to consider withdrawing from the segment. It wasn’t worth having a big platform like The Daily Show if I end up being complicit in sending a distorted message to viewers.
Instead, I took a deep breath, and channelled the models I’ve been fortunate enough to call my media mentors, like actress and advocate Laverne Cox. It was her media savvy and celebrity connections that made this all possible, when she pitched the idea to Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams in an email last year. She reminded me that as important as it was for folks like us to be in front of the camera, we must also be working behind the scenes to ensure that our stories are told with the nuance they deserve.
I had no problem voicing my concerns with producer Stacy Angeles; I know she was tired of my input and constant requests for updates, but in less than a month, three anti-trans bills passed state legislatures — and our short segment turned into an entire episode. Luckily, the legendary Miasha Forbes and Pepper Mint were able to join the panel, and they even added two trans masculine black folks, Laith Ashley and Devin-Norelle, to participate. The best part for me was having Angelica Ross, CEO of Trans Tech, shine so brilliantly in the studio interview segment of the episode, especially after her last tv appearance. After Jessica Williams publicly thanked me on Twitter for holding the show accountable and making our piece better, I recommitted myself to speaking up no matter how many times it takes.
I’ve only seen positive reviews and reflections since the show aired. In fact, the people want more, especially the activists from the panel, who are organizing for The Daily Show to release an extended clip from their panel. Devin-Norelle said it was interesting to see what got left out of the three-hour conversation. Sonny Scrimmizzi said that they didn’t want it to be “the same show just with a different cast,” possibly alluding to the similarities with an Alicia Menendez piece featuring Janet Mock.
It was Janet Mock who reminded me to make more space for black trans girls and for laughter in the face of injustice. And Dr. Geena Buono suggests that all the trans folks who worked to produce this episode should be named and given credit. Other advocates featured included Gillian Alexandra, Joslyn DeFreece, and Sawyer DeVuyst. All across the nation, folks like us are being targeted by anti-black and anti-trans legislation, often referred to simply as “bathroom bills.” If you’d like to join these activist in convincing The Daily Show to produce an extended clip of the panel to use in campaigns against anti-trans legislation, sign here.
To be completely honest, my expectations weren’t high when I began this process. But overall, I had an amazing time working with the cast and crew of The Daily Show. They even invited me to visit the Comedy Central News Headquarters. But what I really wanted say on The Daily Show is that our fight is bigger than these bathrooms bills, and we can’t allow the opposition to distract all of our attention and resources.
The mainstream LGBT movement (read: white, cis, middle-class, able-bodied) is hellbent on championing single issues. Now that marriage equality is the law of the land, we must face the fact that we resourced millions of dollars and decades of time and energy while leaving behind the most marginalized members of our community: black folks, HIV-positive folks, and homeless and undocumented youth.
While all eyes are on us, we must use these opportunities of hyper-visibility to center on black trans women, like Deonna Mason, who was murdered by the police in Charlotte, N.C., last year. The media can be a powerful tool for changing people’s perceptions and raising awareness, and this episode of The Daily Show was a critical intervention. As we continue to become more visible, the opposition will also get smarter and spread more vitriol and lies. I support federal protections for folks like us, but I do not believe legislation will protect us from the violence we face, especially at the hands of the police state. Folks like us must continue to share our stories and shift our culture towards a more loving, empathetic and compassionate place for the most vulnerable.
CHERNO BIKO is the co-founder of #BlackTransLivesMatter and co-chair of #SheWillBe!