As someone from more than one marginalized community, I’ve felt discomfort and disrespect when outsiders try to “fix” an environment in which they have very little experience. Even though I had experienced this as a Black gay man, I didn’t know that I had acquired some insensitive ways when it came to the experiences of transgender people.
The digital storytelling organization where I work was attempting to expand our focus—and things began, as they normally do, with difficulty. We had done a lot of work surrounding the Black, cisgender, queer male experience and very little about the other intersections we were connected to. Our work was respected in our community, but we couldn’t help but hear our closest friends who were of transgender experience tell us they felt hidden in these conversations.
Soon after, we were a part of a healing justice cohort, and we wanted to begin to do work with our transgender sisters, specifically around allyship as LGBQIA+ members. This healing justice cohort presented a concept that allows for the reimagining of wholeness at the intersection of generational trauma and oppression; it is the idea that we are whole and becoming whole just as we are. It relied on using the perspective of wholeness of a person or community of people to facilitate a strength-based, focused journey to completeness. Black transgender women had become the focal point of our new movement. As research surrounding the intersections of race and gender identity was expanding outside of sexuality, trans* folx were being looked at in their own groups instead of lumped in with gay men, as was often the unfortunate case in the past.
Still, very few trans people get a chance to be the face of their movement, even though transgender women started the LGBTQ+ movement of today as we know it—transgender women of color, to be exact. It’s even worse in my home state of Texas, which is the trans* murder capital of the nation, as it is a deeply conservative state. Even in our progressive urban areas—like my hometown of Houston, where we had an openly lesbian mayor—we couldn’t pass an equal rights ordinance, because conservative media portrayed it as a moral issue of gender identity.
We were considering all of the issues and how to appropriately identify with ways to handle the nuances of working in a new community and building good partnerships, when the worst thing that could happen happened.
In what was becoming too normal, my best friend, Mia Ryan, called me, upset and angry. She was an emerging activist who desperately wanted protection and safety for herself and her transgender sisters. Between sobs, she informed me there was going to be a community town hall to grieve another transgender woman who had been murdered—this one was local. I called my team members, and we ended up in a town hall meeting led by a national activist, DeeDee Watters, for the transgender woman who was unnamed; she had been sitting in the city’s morgue for two weeks. I sat next to Atlantis Capri, a transgender community elder, while she held her head high, exhausted by how frequently this was happening. The room was heavy. One of the members of the community then walked over to me to let me know they had released the murder victim’s postmortem picture, and she had an idea of who the woman was: Tracy Single. She fell onto my shoulder and began to sob quietly.
My mind began to race, thinking this town hall could be for her or any of the other transgender women I was sitting amongst. So many of the people I was sitting around that I couldn’t imagine a life without, and yet at this moment was.
I immediately reached out to DeeDee and Atlantis to find out what we could do. I had this entire plan, using our healing justice construct our organization was learning. We presented to them a plan to get them concealed handgun licensing, tasers, and self-defense training. Already reaching out to someone who could do all of the training, we were ready to get everything accomplished.
I’ll never forget the conversation I had with DeeDee. She said, “So, honest answer. Getting guns don’t necessarily make us safer. I think it’s a great idea, but we’re not always murdered or attacked by random folks. Most of the times, it’s people we know.”
Forsaking my personal experience of allowing those affected by issues to lead the movements to eradicate the issues, I immediately felt defeated and wanted to retreat. It seemed as if I didn’t even know how to be an ally and would just have to sit around and hope this cold world would somehow change. Then, as if it were a sign from the activist ancestors of the past, I had an epiphany: Support them from where they want to start their movement. We were trying to bring them ideas instead of providing our support for what they desired.
Most of the barriers for a transgender-led movement are about resources, not capability. A study led by the National Black Justice Coalition and the National Center for Transgender Equality showed that 26% of Black trans persons are unemployed, and 34% report a household income of less than $10,000.
I decided to give a call to a trans* activist here named Verniss McFarland III. Instead of telling Verniss my idea, I asked Verniss to tell me the first step in saving our sisters. Immediately, Verniss said without any time passing by, “We need a safe space to talk. That’s the start.”
I sat with that for a while. Before I could come back with any ideas, Verniss had created an entire Black Trans Empowerment Week. Verniss then came to me and asked that I put my actions behind my thoughts: “Ian, we need some sponsorship. We are underfunded and need the help of our brothers and sisters to create the space.” With the help of resources and a lot of the work left to Verniss, a beautiful week of empowerment, enlightenment, and engagement was performed.
This turned into us preparing to film public service announcements with the organization Verniss leads, The Mahogany Project, and disseminating them across the South. Though funding wasn’t an easy feat for Verniss, us collaborating with resources gave us both hope that one day we won’t have to witness such a threat to trans* persons’ lives. I let Verniss take the lead on my allyship, as it should be.
I’d had it all wrong: It wasn’t about finding a solution, it’s about being in the back for support. Trust Black transgender people with their lives, and, if you want to help, give them the resources.