Don't Wait For Tragedy To Strike: Listen To Black Trans Women While They're Still Alive

'Representation does not equal liberation'

By Jaelani Turner-Williams

In August, The Advocate reported the death of Maurice “Reese Him Daddy” Willoughby, a black cisgender man who was in a relationship with a transgender woman named Faith Palmer. Willoughby had been subjected to bullying by other cis men for his relationship, and later died by an apparent overdose after Palmer left him. And though Willoughby’s story resonated with many, there’s been an absence of protection for Palmer, who has detailed the emotional complications she’s felt since Willoughby’s death on her personal Instagram.

According to a post by the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, Palmer had reportedly fled to safety from her hometown of Philadelphia after Willougby threatened her life when she attempted to leave him. “Reese’s [death] is not the time to discuss cis men who date trans women,” read the Institute’s post. “Black women are always mourning and caring for the world while trying to keep ourselves alive. Our love and support to Faith.” The public response to Willoughby’s death versus Palmer’s safety and ongoing needs underscores how trans women, and especially Black trans women, are often written out of their own narratives so that cis people can be at the center. This erasure is particularly dangerous for a community disproportionately at risk of violence at the hands of acquaintances, partners, and strangers.

At least 26 trans people were killed in the U.S. in 2018, and trans women of color were victims of four out of five anti-trans homicides that year, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). This year isn’t promising to be much better, either: At least 18 Black trans women have been killed in the U.S. so far this year. It’s possible the number is higher due to jurisdictional practices of misgendering or failing to investigate certain crimes.

Faith Palmer is still alive, but she seemed to be an afterthought to many people who focused instead on Willoughby’s love of her in viral posts. “It is the voice of Faith Palmer and the many trans women of color whose voices aren't amplified that the media should be uplifting right now,” Dwayne Steward, Director of Prevention at the Ohio-based LGBTQ+ healthcare group Equitas Health, tells MTV News. “Until we do the real work to destroy the dangerous stigmas and systems that perpetuate violence against transgender women, tragedies like this will continue to occur.”

Meanwhile, this year marks the first time Presidential candidates have talked directly about trans issues on a national debate stage. Cory Booker discussed violence against Black trans women at the Miami debates, and other candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, have memorialized murdered Black trans women by tweeting their names. (That it took so long for politicians to show allyship is its own problem and rooted in part by another inequity. While it’s crucial for allies to actively support trans women, it is also important to see actual trans representation in our legislators: There are currently just 7 non-white, non-cis elected officials nationwide, according to the Victory Institute, and all of them are local legislators. That’s about 0.001 percent of all elected officials.)

Amplifying the epidemic of violence against Black trans women should be the bare minimum — and not something to settle for. Though these murders have finally begun receiving national attention, history shows that this isn’t new. And even if the deaths of trans women are reported, and their lives honored by their loved ones, justice is rare: According to the HRC, only 42 percent of the 110 known murders of trans women since 2014 have resulted in arrests.

The broader public can not feign ignorance of this epidemic. On September 5, Indya Moore attended the Daily Front Row Fashion Media Awards wearing custom earrings by Areeayl Yoseefaw of Beads Byaree that paid tribute to 16 of the Black trans women who were murdered in 2019; they also carried a photo of 17-year-old Bailey Reeves, whose death made 17. In the speech they gave while accepting Cover of the Year, the actor explained, “Just like me, these women dare to exhaust their freedom to exist by being visible. However, instead of being celebrated, they were punished for it.” They also pointed to the average life expectancy for trans women of color and reminded everyone in the audience that celebrating them meant also celebrating and protecting their sisters.

“Existence that requires bravery is not freedom,” they added. “A life that requires bravery is not free.”

Instead of waiting until the names of these women are memorialized in overlooked news headlines after their untimely deaths, there needs to be national urgency of this violent epidemic and unyielding work towards its prevention. That includes celebrating trans women for who they are, here and now.

In December 2016, Rae’Lynn Thomas was shot and killed by her stepfather in Columbus, Ohio; he was later deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial. Following Thomas’ death, BQIC organizer Wriply M. Bennet and a group of other trans women held a memorial for her. “The thing is, when I show up to marches, I show up because I need to,” the illustrator and one-fourth of viral protest group #BlackPride4 tells MTV News. “There are Black folk who need a voice, who need bodies, who need people behind them. As someone who's grown up in Columbus, I needed to show up [for Thomas], but when it comes to me and folks like me, we don't get the same consideration.”

Bennet says she and a host of other trans women helped ensure that organizations like Black Lives Matter adopt trans-inclusive policies. But there’s a lot of work left to be done, especially as discussions about trans women still often serve as a sidebar during advocacy events and conversations.

“We want to be recognized as who we are, as women, but we also want to be recognized as transgender women,” Bennet says, cautioning against tokenization and other half-hearted attempts to include trans people in conversations and movements. “It’s never as something that feels wholly and felt within the community, but only as a way to further their own conversation.”

According to Dkéama Alexis, the co-founder and core organizer of Black Queer and Intersectional Collective (BQIC), some people “talk about #ProtectBlackWomen but they're only talking about a specific type of Black woman.” For liberation to happen, that protection needs to encompass every Black woman. Whether cis people are actively transphobic or pointedly indifferent, they’re doing harm to the trans community, they added.

“There's a large portion of Black women who are not fighting for visibility and they're not fighting for representation. They're fighting for liberation and health and well-being,” Alexis told MTV News. “Representation does not equal liberation. Just because you show up in a space and you're there does not mean that you're respected or uplifted. Times are changing but there’s also so many more things to be done.”

Though Black trans women strive to be upheld on a public platform, they’re often denied health and mental wellness resources by some medical providers. They’re also commonly written out of their own stories: Marsha P. Johnson was only recently commemorated by the city of New York with a statue in front of the Stonewall Inn; the move came 50 years after she and fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera inspired a community to act.

“This country would be very different if children were taught about different types of figures, heroes, and the power that organized marginalized populations have amassed,” Aaryn Lang, an activist and board member at the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, tells MTV News. She points to the recent news that some states will begin teaching LGBTQ+ history in public schools as a start — but says that’s only part of a more holistic equation that also includes cis allies offering tangible support to the trans community. Groups like Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (G.L.I.T.S.), the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, and Emergency Release Fund accept donations to fund their missions of helping trans women of color who are in need of protection, reinforcement, and financial support.

A concerted shift in the way we think about sex and gender will also lead to positive change. “Beyond history, our schools must revolutionize the way that health and sexual education is taught,” Lang says. “Understanding that transness is a natural human occurrence and that bodies are able to exist in many different chromosomal and genital makeups open the world up to young people struggling to find where they fit. This information is life-saving and acceptance-creating. Young people need to grow up knowing that there is no standard on the human body.”

And all that is nothing without an initial acknowledgment of whose voice needs to be heard.“The best way that cisgender allies can help is by giving up space and power to uplift leaders of the trans and gender non-conforming community,” Steward says. “We must take our lead from those who are most affected. We simply must start listening and supporting what they've more than likely already been saying for years to deaf ears.”

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