Despite significant strides in HIV/AIDS prevention efforts over the past decade, transmasculine people, particularly in Black and Brown communities, remain underrepresented in research—which leads to their needs not being reflected in HIV prevention practices that are based on that research. It wasn’t until 2019 that studies were published looking specifically at PrEP access and uptake among transmasculine individuals.
According to Socorro “Cori” Moreland, an LGBT and HIV advocate and director of prevention programs at AIDS Project of the East Bay in Oakland, California, the role of visibility and access—in community, research, and clinical settings—cannot be overstated.
In October, at the U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS, Moreland—along with fellow LGBT and HIV advocate Tyree “Ty” Williams—presented at a workshop titled “Transmasculine Entanglement: Dismantling the Invisibility Complex.” The workshop offered strategies to advocates and allies on how to build community empowerment (particularly around holistic sexual health), fight for reproductive justice, dismantle barriers within health care, and be more effective allies to transmasculine individuals.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What It Means to Be Black, Transmasculine, and Invisible
Terri Wilder: Thanks to both of you so much for speaking with me today. Can you start off by telling me why this workshop was offered at the U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS?
Ty Williams: Cori has been doing this work for 10 years. He was one of the first trans men, from what I know, that showed up for the conference. And there were never workshops offered that were based around FTMs [female-to-male transgender people], let alone Black trans men.
And so, after years of having the conversation and Cori making sure that he spoke up for our trans brothers, finally we got the go-ahead. This was actually the inaugural transmasculine institute.
Wilder: Many of the speakers during the workshop talked about the ways that they have, in their own communities, built or worked towards building an empowered community of transmasculine individuals. Can you share some of the ways that you have both worked to build an empowered community?
Cori Moreland: The thing about being a transmasculine Black person is that we are invisible. What it means to be invisible is that a lot of people don’t believe that we’re real. We’re usually going in and out of society every day. We’re expected not to say anything, and we’re expected to be a certain type of way that’s stereotypical to being a Black man.
Tyree and myself, especially in the state of California, have worked hard to really empower our community. What that means is creating certain events for people to come and meet each other, and doing certain work. For instance, Tyree is working with his fraternity and making sure that they’re bringing attention to the fact that masculinity is not a bad thing—or being transmasculine is not a bad thing—and holding events so that people can understand what this fraternity is and what they do.
So, I’m talking about more than visibility, right? Visibility is important because visibility, for us, is safety.
We’ve created a transmasculine Black hub here in California, which is definitely getting bigger and bigger—with the help of Tyree and Luckie Alexander, of Invisible Men. We have a lot of people who are doing the work.
Wilder: How do you define an empowered community? What would be the vision of an empowered transmasculine community?
Williams: For one, let me say that being a Black man, being Black culturally, plays a big factor. We, within the Black community, like to sometimes throw things under the rug and turn our heads the other way. We have to stop doing that and start addressing the situation.
I’m a Black man first when I walk in the door. I’m a Black man in America. They won’t see a Black trans man, you know? I would like to see, when I hear conversations among Black cis men, these conversations include Black trans men. I would like to hear Black trans men feeling more safe to talk to Black cis men. Because we’re out here together.
Again, when we walk in the door, they don’t see trans; they see a Black man. I’m as equal as you are. For you to understand that and respect me and my manhood in the same way I respect you as a man—that’s what I would like to see.
I would like to see, within the trans community and as a whole, there are people that have space, and the elimination of the gatekeeping. We have got to work together. You know, all around the country, we have realized that, until we talk to each other, until we decide and realize who is strong at what point and who’s weak at this point, and who can do what, we will always be invisible.
Trans men have been around way before we have been talking about it. But somewhere down the line, we just fell off—it’s just been abysmal. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know where it started. But we’re here to change it, and that’s what we’re going to do.
For Transmasculine Individuals, Sexual Health Starts with Basic Access to Services
Wilder: What do you think are some of the top sexual health needs of transmasculine individuals?
Moreland: Access. Access to PrEP [HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis]. Access to other services.
As a Black transmasculine person, my experiences in health care have been more horrible than positive. Even to this day: still horrible, because I have to still teach people how to care for me.
When we think about sexual health needs, the thing about it is that if you’re still invisible, that means people aren’t going to understand anything of any measure when it comes to sexual health needs. They’re only going to think of you sexually, period.
For instance, I always share this story. I live in the Bay Area. It’s like trans Mecca, and people flock from all around the world to come live here.
I try to access PrEP at a known facility where they’re supposed to be champions of PrEP and PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis] and transgender care. They wouldn’t give me access to it. I had to lie. I had to go above and beyond.
What would have happened if I didn’t work in the field, or if I wasn’t knowledgeable about PrEP and PEP and how that worked? Or what if I didn’t know the linguistics around asking for these things?
I’ll say it again: Sexual health needs of transmasculine individuals only comes up when someone is fetishizing that trans man. If I was to walk into an agency and they are really attracted to me, and I disclose that I am a trans man, all of a sudden, I would have access. They’ll stop at nothing to get me that access.
But if I am not the apple of someone’s eye, or if I’m not physically screwing someone who is within a certain subcommunity, then there’s no access to sexual health services at all.
Williams: When you talk about transmasculine, you have to look at the reproductive system. There are transmasculine individuals that have kids, and carry kids, and would like to carry babies. What does that look like when they go into their clinic and they don’t have access—when they need even more access—and now they’re now probably being made fun of and being called “she,” all because they decide to use their body the way that they want to use their body.
We look at it in a mindset of that access being only for women and children. In our society, there are people that go through so much already to be who they are, and because they want to bear a child, they go through even more. And why? For what?
Also, when you look at top surgery, getting a double mastectomy—there are tissues that could be saved or that could be donated. There’s a lot more that we can do, and so much we can do with our bodies that we don’t want to talk about. But because we’re so invisible, until we get the basic access, we can’t get into these conversations. But these are the conversations that we have amongst each other.
Wilder: You’ve brought up PrEP twice now. The transmasculine community is consistently left out in HIV prevention, education, and campaigns, and I think this is based on this belief that transmasculine individuals are low risk. Can you talk about the HIV prevention needs of transmasculine individuals?
Williams: Right now, number one is cis Black women. Why would cis individuals now be the highest risk? You have to get back to our body parts. We are AFAB, or assigned female at birth. Some of us are intersex, but for the ones that are AFAB—and I speak for myself—it’s definitely kind of like you’re in the same category as still being a cis Black woman. You take away me being a man; you’re only looking at my genitals—and that’s just assuming that’s what I have in that situation.
That’s assuming because you don’t have to let them know that you might have had bottom surgery. That’s none of their business. All they need to know is that I need to get my medicine, or whatever treatment that’s needed.
So, when you start talking about the trials for a new PrEP called Descovy: We, transmasculine individuals, cannot take it because it has not been tested on us and we have had no trials for it. Why is that?
When I learned that cis Black women were No. 1 in [HIV diagnoses by subgroup], it reminded me that it doesn’t matter what they see or what we appear. At the end of the day, what matters is what’s in between your legs.
Moreland: If you were to walk in and not disclose anything, they would definitely offer you [PrEP]. But when you disclose, all of a sudden, you’re not a man. And so, why waste our time?
I do know some guys that are on Descovy who are trans, but they’ve had bottom surgery—and they didn’t disclose. They just went into the track as, “I’m male.”
It also goes farther into showing the misogyny that society feels. Society as a whole is very patriarchal and is very misogynous. We have to think about the people who are [participating in clinical] trials: gay cisgender men. What field is dominated by gay cisgender men, other than arts? HIV. It’s sad, but it feels like it’s a birthright. And so, if it’s a birthright, I have to hold onto whatever I’m going to do for my people. It’s always been my thing.
Wilder: During the panels on general health care access, you spoke about the discomfort you feel when people ask in health care settings, “What is your preferred name?” Why is this word preferred problematic?
Williams: Here’s one thing I learned from Dr. Lourdes Hunter, a Black trans woman: When you say preferred, that sounds like you’re giving the person an option. It’s like, “Oh, well I prefer you call me this, but it is what it is,” to sum it up.
The way she explained it to me—it really resonated. Depending on what state you live in and what area you live in, you paid beaucoup money, a ridiculous amount of money, and went through hoops, just to get your name changed, just for someone to “prefer” to call you that? No! That’s who I am. Own who you are. It shouldn’t be a “preferred,” it should be, “What is your name?” And that’s it.
Now, for maybe medical reasons, if anything, it should be, “What was your name assigned at birth?” And that’s only if necessary. When you start doing that, you’re also triggering.
There are so many layers. It kind of goes back to what Cori said: When we look at the LGBT, why is T even in there? This is not a sexual orientation. This is who we are. But putting us in this category is why you have the “preferred” in it. This is who I am. This is not my lifestyle.
How Fetishism Harms Transmasculine Individuals
Wilder: Can you unpack how people look at trans men in kind of a fetishized way versus a full human being? Why does it happen and what is it really about?
Moreland: First of all, we have to decolonize this thought process that LGBT is not all sexual-based, right? The T shouldn’t even be there because T as a gender has nothing to do with sexuality.
I’m going to use me as an example: I can change my gender, but I’ve always preferred women. I wouldn’t be a gay man after my transition. I’m with a woman, so I’m straight.
When we talk about fetishism, there is this phenomenon where people are expressing that there’s a certain type of masculinity that transmasculine people have. When you see somebody who is physically transitioning—where he’s gone from one way of looking to a whole different type of person—people are turned on by it. It becomes this fantasy type of thing.
I’ve had situations where I’ve been in a room and based on my look, people have told me, “I can’t even tell that you’re a trans man.” Specifically within the gay community or queer community, there’s almost this fetishism that’s kind of creepy, where it’s like, “Oh, you’re a trans man? I never knew that. Oh, you look so good. I just want to, you know,” do this and do that. What I’ve noticed is that it’s not really about your body parts, it’s about your masculinity and how well you pass.
I’ve had a lot of conversations around that, because even working in HIV care or HIV prevention, I’ve met people within the community that work at these places. I’ve had conversations with them or seen them in the act of fetishizing transmasculine individuals, as a whole.
As a transmasculine person, when I walk into a room, I feel like I’m a big cheese. That doesn’t make sense. It’s like all eyes are on me, and people are waiting for me to show whatever mannerism they think I might have. They’re waiting to see something.
A couple weeks ago, we were talking about access to care and what that looks like for transmasculine people. I always tell people: a way that you see that something’s in, or that there’s a fad, is to look online. If we’re talking about sex or we’re talking about sexuality, look at porn. Porn is like the community needs assessment of all things: You’ll know if something’s in because of how many views or likes or shares it has. So, I actually shared a couple of videos—not the full video, but the title of these porn videos—where we’re talking about transmasculine people having sex with people such as women and cisgender men. And there’s a lot of fetishism there, because these videos have over a million views.
When we talk about going into medical institutions and not having access to any care, and people telling you 9 times out of 10 that you’re low risk—but then, they’re at home, watching a porn video with a transmasculine person in it and liking the video, and knowing that this is happening. It boggles me.
That’s what I mean by fetishism: really craving the masculinity. But all you’re doing is craving the masculinity. You’re not looking deeper to get to know that person. You’re leveraging access to services and resources based on what somebody looks like, or how quick you can get them in bed, or what sexual favors you’re doing for them, or what you can get out of them.
Black Lives Matter, Police Discrimination, and Trans Stigma Within the Black Community
Wilder: Founders of Black Lives Matter have always, in my mind, put LGBTQ voices at the center of the conversation, since two of the founders identify as queer. And, as you know, many of the Black Lives Matter protests have been in response to the violence against and murder of Black men.
But, of course, it’s not only straight cisgender Black men. Tony McDade was shot and killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida, on May 27. Tony McDade was a Black trans man. Can you share your perspective around the ways in which Black and Brown transmasculine people are or could be impacted by police violence?
Williams: It’s a little personal for me, not just because Tony was a Black trans man, but because I’d had conversations with Tony previously, leading up to the death.
Tony died two days after George Floyd. We hear “George Floyd” and “Breonna Taylor” [during protests and speeches], but you’ll never hear “Tony.” Even when we talk about the Black Lives Matter movement and you see the articles in the papers, they only list those two names! Those two names are the only ones that matter.
The country watched a man take his last breath on television; two days later, we get footage of people yelling, “Don’t shoot him! Don’t shoot him!” and it’s dead-cold silence. Then, finally, the [trans] community stepped up and said, “That’s his name. His name is Tony.” Enough is enough.
I say this all the time: I am not ashamed about being trans, but when I walk out my door, when I wake up, I’m a Black man first. They don’t see anything else but a Black man. I’m a Black man with dreads, a beard. I’m from the South. I’m from Virginia. Sometimes, you’ve got to look at those stereotypes, in general. You can’t even fabricate being trans because you’ve got to worry about, are you going to make it home?
I’ve got to make sure my tone is right. I’ve got to make sure I say certain things in a certain way. I’ve got to make sure I walk, talk, everything! So, when we talk about Black Lives Matter, I don’t think trans individuals are centered enough.
Moreland: I’m from Oakland, California. I’ve actually met Alicia Garza and her husband Malachi Garza, who is a transmasculine individual. So, I’m familiar with Black Lives Matter because, in reality—and I always talk about this, specifically when I talk to people or when I give a speech—Black transmasculine people definitely assisted Alicia Garza and the rest of Black Lives Matter with the work for the movement, in order to get where they are.
A lot of movements are co-opted. Even if we look at the trans movement and [Latinx] community or the trans movement here. Or when we talk about ballroom, which was started by primarily Black trans women. A lot of movements are going to be co-opted. That’s just how movements are.
I can say for a fact that Tony McDade definitely was an eye opener for people who really weren’t woke to the fact that we were able to be shot and killed by police, especially for being Black masculine individuals. Tony McDade had a certain look to them that resonates with me because when I walk out my house, I’m a T-shirt and jeans person. I’m a Jordans person. I have gold grills sometimes that I wear in my mouth. That’s just what I do for comfort because that’s how I identify culturally.
As a Black man, it is hard to walk out of the house and, through your thought process, you don’t know what’s going to happen next—not only with law enforcement, that’s with your own community and with other communities. You have to be on your toes all around you, because you don’t know where the threat is coming from.
I’ve seen people actually post on Tony McDade, and I’ve seen the Black community, unfortunately, put Tony down because they are still equating trans with gay, or they have a distaste, or they don’t understand transgender people, as a whole. That’s sad because these are the same people that are watching Pose. These are the same people going to ball, and these are the same people buying fashion and art and all this other stuff that was designed by trans people. The situation at hand is what it is because society is so transphobic, Tony was never going to be as important to society as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
If we remember, not long ago, Black people were actually not known to be real people. We’ve been fighting for generations and within history, we’ve been fighting people’s perspectives on whether Black people were real. The same things are happening with the trans community and with the queer community. Because now we’ve graduated from “Black people are real” to “some of them aren’t.”
When Asking Trans People to Help, Pay Your Respects (Literally)
Wilder: Cori, you mentioned during the panel discussion that when people in social services or nonprofits—or even for-profit groups—reach out to trans people for their advice or input, but they don’t pay, that is violence. Can you talk about that?
Moreland: Absolutely. Just as physical racism is violence, we are also dealing with situations where economic racism or economic discrimination is a thing.
I mention all the time that we usually have to go above and beyond and teach people about how to treat us, or how to take care of us. But at the same time, if we are going to seek out community members and speak to them about their experiences and ask them for assistance, the thing that’s screwed up about it is that you don’t pay them.
Someone is giving up time and opportunity that they could be putting somewhere else. They’re giving experiences, and the whole nine yards, to come and teach people about things that they should already know. And it’s really common: They’ll offer a gift card, which I think is really disrespectful, or they will offer something that doesn’t equal the value of the information that they’ve received, if that makes sense.
My encouragement for people is, if you’re going to learn about trans folks or about the queer community—especially the Black and Brown community—pay that community member. In reality, they’re giving you a plethora of information that, to be honest, if they had a doctorate, they would be paid a lot of money to deliver that in whatever class they would be teaching or whatever speech they would be making.
It’s funny, because when we talk about Black Lives Matter and when we talk about Black trans lives not mattering, it’s real. The situation at hand is that we’re not even worth whatever we give, right? We’re not worth reciprocation for whatever golden things we give out.
It’s gold if you’re receiving any information from any trans person, because these are secrets within our community—even ways for you to interact with our community. People shouldn’t be taken for granted. Give back to the community that’s teaching.
“Passing” Is Privilege in Disguise
Wilder: I’ve unfortunately heard people say, in reference to a transgender person, “Oh, I didn’t know they were trans. They pass really well.” What do you think about the use of the term “passing”?
Williams: In so many ways, it’s actually dangerous. It can be disrespectful. Yet sometimes, it can be a compliment. It just depends. I don’t care for it. But, I’ve learned, you also have to meet people where they’re at. And sometimes that’s their way of articulating.
A lot of times, it’s articulated as a compliment. They think it’s a compliment, not knowing that they’re putting you in danger: It’s like, now they’ve outed you. It’s one of those conversations where we have to start bridging the gap.
That’s why I point to the cis community. We [in the trans community] know it amongst each other, but the cis? You know, some do, some don’t know. Then [it can become] like tokenizing. It’s, “Oh, that’s my one trans friend. You know that’s a trans friend, right? You know, the one I think I told you about?” What do you mean? I’m just a regular man, just like you are.
Moreland: Don’t you love it when they do that? Now that I’m at a certain point in my transition, I don’t really hear it that much, because I don’t really pay it any mind. And I’m really quick to tell people to shut up.
As Black transmasculine folks—not all, but many—we transition for safety, because if you’re looking kind of different, walking through places where you’ve grown up or walking through situations might put you in danger.
Even though passing is a privilege sometimes, it’s a privilege in disguise. I was able to transition in my hometown. I was able to pass in my hometown, and I passed really well. People would say, “Yo! I know your grandfather!” And I was like, “You do?” And they were like, “Yeah, you look just like him. But didn’t you have a sister? I didn’t know he had a grandson.” And I’d say, “Oh, well, now you know. It is what it is.”
I feel safe when it comes to me actually passing in society. It depends on how you live your life. I’m able to go to places where people don’t really judge me and I don’t have to worry about not passing.
But, at the same time, it’s really disrespectful, because: Think about those who don’t really pass. Think about the level of psychological damage that it does to you. I think it really does bring up mental health issues within our community, more so because people are like, “I have to pass.” And even if they don’t look a certain way, it’s giving that thought process that you have to look a certain way.
How to Be a Better Trans Ally and Advocate
Wilder: I feel like we’ve covered a lot in our time together and I’m very grateful for your time. Is there anything that I haven’t asked about that you would think would be important for us to close with?
Williams: When we look at or try to figure out how to help trans individuals, invest in trans-led organizations. We can do it: for us, by us. And also, the next time you think about protesting or you think about Black Lives Matter, when you think about Black lives and you say “all Black lives,” think about trans lives. Think about trans masculine. And don’t just think about it, be about it.
We’re just like you, and we hurt just like you hurt. We bleed just like you bleed. We put on clothes like you put on clothes. The only thing that’s different is we decide to live in our truth.
Moreland: Well said. All Black Lives Matter, not just Black Lives Matter. All.
I want folks to really understand the movements and understand the historical context around those movements. A lot of people will just jump on the bandwagon, but they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.
That’s why I said earlier: Black Lives Matter—with Alicia Garza and Malachi Garza, and the rest of the folks that created that movement—transmasculine folks were aiding and assisting in that movement to be as successful as it is. We have to encourage people to learn about the movement.
It’s like with the civil rights movement, where they just talk about Martin Luther King. In reality, Martin Luther King wasn’t the brains of the civil rights movement. There was a queer Black man who was the brains for that movement. Martin Luther King was just the person who was standing in, to create that illusion so that people were comfortable enough to follow the movement. It’s the same thing with Black Lives Matter.
I also believe in intersectionality when it comes to the communities, in general. I believe that we have to sit down with each other, and we have to fight for one another. The thing about Black trans folks is that we’ve always been in the forefront and fought for everyone else. So who the hell is going to fight for us? And that’s the issue.
Even in our own community, we have issues with other folks within the trans community fighting on behalf of our lives. I think that that’s a big thing to take away: It’s not just in the heterosexual community. It’s also other people in the trans community, as well, who definitely carry that perception that transmasculine people aren’t real.
Trans men are real. But transmasculine Black people are real men, as well.
Williams: One last thing: On October 6, we lost an icon, Monica Roberts. If you want to know history, someone that fought for transmasculine before we even came, one person that was visible and made sure that they spoke was Monica Roberts, through her blog TransGriot. Rest in peace.