In Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler's compelling documentary Still Black: A Portrait of Black Transmen, he reminds us that even though the men documented in his film are trans, that doesn't erase the systemic racism they experience because they are black men. One of the documentary's subjects, Ethan, talks about how after transition, he had to get used to being perceived as a threat in the public space, because black men are often treated as dangerous in our culture. This made me think about how before my transition to black womanhood, I worked overtime to not appear threatening to people around me or in the public space. I was aware that because I was probably being perceived as a black man, it also meant I was probably also being perceived as a threat.
A year before I started medical transition, I had been presenting in a very feminine way 24-7 but hadn't yet changed my name or started hormones. I wasn't passing for female at all, but I also wasn't passing as the construct of black masculinity that the white supremacy has told us to be threatened by.
That year I went to visit my brother in San Francisco, had an emotional breakdown and shaved my head. I was just exhausted — I think the stress of being harassed and threatened on a daily basis for years on the streets of New York City because of my gender nonconformity, and acting like it didn't bother me, had worn me down. I went from living full-time in an androgynous but very feminine space to attempting to live part-time wearing more traditionally male drag. But that didn't last long; a year later, I had my first hormone shot and started medical transition. It was a relief to finally stop being in denial about the fact that I am a girl.
But when I was attempting to live part-time in boy drag, I was hyper-aware of how perceptions of black masculinity influence the ways in which people behave in relationship to a body in the public space. I noticed how much harder it was to get a taxi, for example, when I was dressed in boy drag as opposed to when I was dressed as myself. In black male drag, I noticed white women cross to the other side of the street and clutch their purses tighter.
When I was perceived as a black man I became a threat to public safety. When I was dressed as myself, it was my safety that was threatened. It was usually other black people who policed my gender, called me out, or made fun of me on subways, street corners, and in delicatessens. I believe it is because I am also black that I became their target. These same folks would often ignore white trans and gender nonconforming folks in the same spaces, even those who passed even less than I did at the time. Systemic racism not only encourages the state and non-black individuals to police and monitor black bodies, white supremacy encourages other black folks to do so as well.
Almost 15 years into my transition, I am still black and I still live in New York City. I still sometimes hear "That's a man" screamed or whispered toward me as I walk down the street, but not nearly as much as I used to. So many basic things are better and more congruent in my life today as I enter the public space as myself, but I am acutely aware of how sexism and transmisogyny intersect with racism to police my now black trans woman's body in public space.
Policies like Stop-and-Frisk and condoms-as-evidence affect how girls like us get to navigate the public space. These policies disproportionately affect trans women of color, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. As the LGBT community begins to shift to prioritizing more trans issues, issues that affect people of color and poor LGBTQ folks also need to be put front and center if we say we're really interested in equality and justice for all.
Laverne Cox is an actress, producer, and transgender advocate.
More In This Series
Black, LGBT, American: A Search for Sanctuaries
Don Lemon: A Sense of Otherness
Wanda Sykes: On Being Real
Laverne Cox: Threat or Threatened
Twiggy Garcon: Ballroom at 14
Doug Spearman: Breaking the Code
Janora McDuffie: My Obligation
Aaron Walton: Angelic Troublemakers
Editor's Letter: Black and LGBT in America