Author’s Note: This piece was written before a Black trans man named Tony McDade was reportedly murdered by Tallahassee, Fla., police on Wednesday. #BlackTransLivesMatter
To Black trans men, I see you, I see us. I see and I feel how difficult the moments are when any Black person’s death is made public. And, how difficult the moments are when we are shouting with our trans siblings for cisgender people to express more concern and outcry when we collectively lose Black trans people. I see and I feel many of us struggling to explain that we feel compounding vulnerability when Black trans people are harmed and when Black cisgender people are harmed.
I want to try to find better words for this newer type of vulnerability and targeting that many Black trans men feel, because I hope it will help us locate our pain and propel us into movement and continued collective support. I also don’t want this to read as a centering of the experiences of Black cis men, because all Black life matters. I do want this to be an offering to Black trans men who might feel similarly.
I was talking to a good friend the other day about how conversations about policing and gender-based violence always seem incomplete when they try to account for us. We’re both Black. We’re both trans. We both are often read by other people as men or more masculine, even if we both feel more nonbinary or gender queer. We both feel like targets. We both have always felt like targets.
Beyond the loss of life, we feel deeply impacted by the different forms of violence facing our communities. We will always remember what it felt like to feel in a different proximity to particular kinds of violence that many Black trans and cis women and femmes feel. In 2020 alone, at least 11 trans or gender nonconforming people have been killed in the U.S. and Puerto Rico — most of them Black trans women and trans women of color, including Nina Pop and Monika Diamond. And in the past few weeks, we’ve learned about the murders of at least four Black people killed by police or white vigilantes — Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Dreasjon Reed, and George Floyd.
I wanted to write this to speak to Black trans men and to people who care about us.
To Black trans men, I want to offer that we build more collective networks of support and care, like TBuddy, Black TransMen Inc, and Boi Talk. That we bring each other closer. That we continue to fight for all Black life, like many of us have been doing for years and years. That we do not silence ourselves, that we do not silence our pain.
To people who care about Black trans men, I want you to know that we are impacted by violence that happens to all Black people. Our lives and experiences do not only (if at all) revolve around being trans. Racism, ableism, poverty, xenophobia, homophobia, criminalization, incarceration, and so many other things impact us — not just one singular issue. Do not take for granted that we sit at the intersections of many kinds of vulnerability. When we lose any Black life, we are affected. And you should defend and fight for all Black lives, which includes our lives too. Black trans women and femmes are the ones who know this best, and we are grateful.
When I first began to identify as a trans man, I read Becoming a Black Man for a class and it felt like it spoke to this new reality I was living in. The world was starting to see me as I had always seen myself, and that meant that I was experiencing different types of gender-based violence that I had not encountered before. I remember after I started taking testosterone one of my first interactions with a cop was being called a “faggot” and being asked if I wanted to do something about it. I also remember being pulled over by a cop less than a minute from my parent’s house and him asking me where I got the car from, where I was going, and if I was a “male” or “female” after he looked at my driver’s license. Then he followed me home, for no reason.
I’ve always felt like the loss of any Black person’s life could be me or someone I know. I’ve felt that when people felt threatened by my existence as a stud lesbian, and I feel that now as people feel threated by what they read as my existence as a Black man, whether cisgender, gay or straight. I wanted to write this to say that many of us - Black trans men — feel unexpected kinds of hurt when we learn about Black men in particular being murdered by police and white vigilantes. In some way, this could now be us. After learning about the murders of Black men, I don’t think I feel more vulnerable now. As a Black trans man, I’ve always felt that.
For many of the Black trans men I’ve been talking to, I think a different piece of vulnerability feels activated when we are faced with a world that is perceiving us differently — when a piece of the world is perceiving us as Black cisgender men. And, when we know that running or wheeling down the street, or sleeping anywhere, or wearing a mask during a pandemic can be justification for our death or incarceration, things seem differently bleak. When any Black person yells ‘I can’t breathe’ while they’re suffocating from a cop’s knee on their neck, we feel the weight of that violence. It can feel like there is no room for us to be Black, to be trans, and to be Black trans men without worrying about our mortality.
Since I began identifying as a trans man, loosely around 2014, the U.S. continues to be in its newest recurrence of deeming all Black life as expendable and disposable. When I heard about Ahmaud Arbery’s murder in Georgia, the state that I’m from, I felt differently connected to him. Maybe it’s because I’m Black and from Georgia. Maybe that’s because I’m able-bodied and I go running sometimes. Or maybe it’s because I feel like there is now another way that some people see me — as a Black man — and that these layers feel like they ultimately lead to my expendability as Black and as trans. Maybe it’s all of these things and more.
Being a Black trans man means that there is no comfortable or protected experience. We have to continue to build networks of support and care that center all Black life, if we want to get us closer to safety.
Ash Stephens is a Black trans (mostly) masculine person who lives in Chicago. He’s the Policy Coordinator at Transgender Law Center and also a PhD Candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He’s an abolitionist and has organized with collectives Love & Protect and Survived & Punished: NYC Chapter focused on supporting defense campaigns for criminalized survivors of violence. He has previously written for Truthout.