Black Trans Lives Matter
NOTE: Just a quick content warning: this episode discusses violence against trans people.
[NANCY WHISTLE, THEN SLOW MUSIC]
TOBIN: So Kath.
KATHY: Yeah, Tobin?
TOBIN: Obviously, we are in this moment of reckoning, where so many people are waking up to what it means to be Black in America. And now, especially with Pride here, I hope that we'll also be making sure to make space for talking about what it means for people who are queer and Black in America.
KATHY: Yeah, totally. And, of course, a lot of people have been thinking about this for a long time. One of them is journalist Imara Jones.
[MUSIC BECOMES MORE URGENT]
KATHY: Imara is an award-winning journalist and producer. She is the creator of TransLash, a documentary series that talks about what it's like to be a trans person of color in the era of Trump's presidency.
TOBIN: Earlier this month, she wrote an article in theGrio about the particular dangers trans women are facing right now. It centers on the assault of Iyanna Dior, a Black trans woman who was attacked earlier this month in a convenience store in St. Paul, Minnesota, by a group of Black men.
KATHY: In the article, Imara writes, "I believe that it will be impossible for anyone to take us seriously when we say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ until the lives of Black trans women — indeed all women — are seen as equally valuable as the lives of Black cis heterosexual men."
TOBIN: We called up Imara at her home in Brooklyn to talk about this moment we're in, and how we as queer people should be thinking about Pride.
KATHY: Here's our conversation with Imara.
KATHY: We're curious. Have you — have you gone to protests recently? And if you have, what have you seen?
IMARA JONES: I have not gone this year for a couple of reasons. One is COVID.
IMARA: I personally am very uncomfortable with going out in the midst of the crisis. I don't want to be, quite honestly, Black and sick and trans in a hospital with COVID. I just don't want to put myself in that position. That's not wise. [LAUGHS] It’s not a wise thing to do, given the hostility of our medical system to trans people, given the hostility of our medical system to Black people. It's just not a good trick.
KATHY: Yeah, it's fair.
IMARA: And for that same reason, being Black and trans and a Black trans woman, I don't want to have any experience with the carceral state. That is to say that I don't want to have anything to do with the carceral system because, again, of its harsh and disproportionate and unfair and dehumanizing treatment of trans people.
I think thirdly, you know, there's a real question that I've been wrestling with that I wrote about recently in a much larger sense of whether or not Black trans women in particular should show up in this moment, shouting “Black Lives Matter,” when in so many ways we understand that within the Black community our lives are treated as if they don't matter and as if they are disposable. There are so many ways in which the grief and the frustration and the sheer rage that people feel — um, which people are feeling now around the death of George Floyd, which are totally fair.
I felt last year, when there was a string of murders of Black trans women last June and into July in particular — they started in May. It was a really dark, painful time. And I remember going to protest at that time for those women who died and were murdered and wondering where everybody else was. And so I kind of feel that everybody else gets to show up in this moment, right? That there are really valid reasons why, as a Black trans woman, I am not out on the street and it's very valid that there's so many other people that are showing up in this moment, which I wholeheartedly support.
TOBIN: Yeah. Well, and — and part of what you wrote about in that piece that you're referencing is this video that emerged of a trans woman named Iyanna Dior being attacked in a convenience store by a group of Black men. Um, I guess the first question is, where were you when you first saw the video and what was your reaction?
IMARA: Well, I was at home. [LAUGHS]
TOBIN: Sure. Yeah.
IMARA: I was at home. And I think I read the description of what happened and then I saw maybe five or seven sec— I didn't see very much of it because it's really hard to watch.
IMARA: What I saw shocked me. And then I learned a little bit more just through some things on my feed that it was in Minneapolis. And that really struck me, right? That on the first day of Pride Month was the day that she was beaten in Minneapolis, St. Paul, where those very same people are out in the streets or have been out in the streets or are supportive of people out in the streets demanding Black Lives Matter — demanding that they be seen as human beings — could engage in a mass dehumanization of someone else who was Black — at the time, without a second thought — was deeply enraging to me and deeply saddening and terribly shocking.
When I decided that I wanted to write something about it, I went to hang online and I actually found there's an entire 20-minute clip of the entire [A BREATH] affair, as it were. And there was a carnival-like atmosphere before they decided to beat her up. They actually had cornered her, essentially, in the convenience store, and, like, literally a carnival atmosphere — both inside the convenience store and in the parking lot — after they were done taunting her for 20 minutes. And, like … There was something about it in that moment where she was not treated as a human being. And that really got to me.
KATHY: You wrote in your piece that recounting exactly what happened to Iyanna in the video is important. And I see a lot of discussion about how much to describe violent incidents like these where it can be triggering for people. So I guess my question is, why do you think it's important to really talk about what happened in detail?
IMARA: I think that the part of the video that often gets displayed is the last part of the beating, right? The beating actually starts in the back of the store and then they kind of move in a semicircle to the front, and that front part where she's bent over and people are on her is what's been getting played online. But the entire thing that leads up to that, I think, underscores the depravity of the entire event. And that depravity is really important to understand, because it underscores the way in which, um, Black trans people are seen.
IMARA: And we collectively, as people, as humans have to reckon with that depravity, we have to see it. We have to acknowledge it. And we have to ask really hard questions of ourselves about how and why. We can't prioritize the death of Black men and at the same time ignore — and even encourage — the death of Black trans women, and somehow believe that we're going to build a just society for everyone.
TOBIN: Yeah. I mean, you know, we’re in this sort of extraordinary moment where — where more people than ever are open to the conversation about police brutality against Black people and also just general inequality that exists for Black people in this country. What do you think the barriers are to making sure that violence against trans women of color is included in that conversation?
IMARA: Yeah. I think the barrier is people seeing us as human beings rather than freaks or objects of entertainment or spectacle.
TOBIN: Yeah. And also, beyond Black trans women being excluded from the conversation, we've also seen trans men, like Tony McDade, be excluded as well. He was a trans man shot by police in Tallahassee last month. And some people have been fighting to have his name honored at protests. For people who don't get why he should be included, what do you say to them? Why is it important that Tony's name be included?
IMARA: It's the need to center trans humanity and trans lives, right? And I think the same people want answers from the Tallahassee police on Tony McDade — who they say was armed, who they say was this, who they say it was that. But there’re not really a lot of reports about what happened. It’s only what the police are saying happens. And then a lot of people are also talking about — she's not a victim of police violence — but Nina Pop, who is the most recent Black trans woman who was stabbed to death in —
IMARA: — rural Missouri in early May. So I think that those that push to include their names is just to center trans people and trans lives and Black trans lives in this moment. And there was even a march the other day that centered on Stonewall where a group of activists did a march that was explicitly devoted to them in the midst of the protest for George Floyd. So I think that's what that's about.
TOBIN: What would a truly inclusive Black Lives Matter movement look like to you?
IMARA: Well, I think a truly inclusive Black Lives Matter would look like the movement that the three original founders [CHUCKLES] had envisaged, right?
TOBIN: And we should say, the three founders you're referencing are Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi.
IMARA: That’s right. The irony is that two out of the three of the founders — well, first of all, they're all women — and then two out of the three are LGBTQ. And they, when they started, were deliberately creating a movement that was intersectional, and which is committed to fighting transphobia. It's actually one of their stated principles. But the problem is that because BLM, for all sorts of reasons that make sense — it's not a hierarchical organization, it's a decentralized one. Through decentralization, that means that — that a local group of people, whoever decide to pull themselves together and declare themselves to be BLM, are BLM.
And that means that you can end up — not trying to — but end up replicating the existing biases as they exist. And so, that's what I think that happened. I don't think that it's a strain of … I think that it's just a structural thing in the decision to create a decentralized organization, which means that those values that are held at the top don't flow down all the way to the bottom because it's not a top-down organization. So I really do think that that's a part of the issue here.
TOBIN: Well, so, you did a — a docu-series, um, about — a big theme in it was your experience of transitioning right around the time that Donald Trump was elected. It's a very simple question with a very not-simple answer, which is just, like, “What is it like to go through such a big moment in your life at that exact moment [TOBIN LAUGHS LIGHTLY BUT SERIOUSLY] in time when President Trump is taking office?” That seems like a lot.
IMARA: Yeah, it was a lot. You know, and honestly, like, for a lot of trans people, this is one of the things we talk about — the docu-series is actually going on. We're putting out a new one at the end of the month called “The Future of Trans,” but in one of the interviews we talk about, um, how for a lot of trans people or people who were questioning gender and, um, unsure or wanted to wait or a whole host of other things — that was clearly me in that category — the election of Donald Trump was the accelerant. [KATHY AND TOBIN HUM UNDERSTANDINGLY] Like, it really focused a lot of people's minds on resolving these issues in a way that was decisive and that, whatever you were going to do, you needed to start doing it. And so, the irony is that in the wake of Donald Trump, um, the demand for trans services was at historic highs.
The waiting month — the waiting time, still, for certain trans surgeries is a year. It's never been that.
IMARA: That the number of people who are entering into transition services and care is exploding to the point where there are serious issues around quality control. So the irony is that his election — wherever you were in your gender journey — for so many people it accelerated. There are also others for whom it did the opposite. So, certain people were delaying procedures, especially those that were in the military. Um, it had a big impact on trans people in the military and in certain other areas. But in so many ways it was an accelerant because, um, his, ym, opposition — I’m putting it lightly — but his opposition to accepting trans people into the society, which has now turned into out— now hostility, was apparent, and really pushed people to think long and hard. And I was definitely one of them.
KATHY: Well, so, we're now in June, and typically in the US that's Pride month for us. I've seen online a lot of people are saying Pride — Pride is canceled, basically. It's not a time to celebrate right now. But then other people are saying that sort of leaves out Black queer people. So I'm kind of curious how you're thinking about Pride this year.
IMARA: The first Pride parade was 50 years from this year. So last year was the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall, and this is the fiftieth anniversary of the first parade. So they did the parade a year afterwards. The parade, like — the motivations to riot — were about declaring the things that were needed to change. People needed to stop being harassed by the police. People needed access to jobs. People needed housing. All of those things were very much a part of the very first match, which was also, like — had some fun elements, because there were lots of, like, drag queens and performance and all the rest of it. So it definitely did have that, but it was fundamentally about issues.
So, I think that pride has to return to its roots. I mean, it is a celebration. There are celebratory elements, because culturally that's just a part of who we are as LGBTQ. It's just going to be what happens. But it's not meant to be a corporate celebration, it's meant to be a celebration of the state. It's a way that we remind ourselves that we are community. We celebrate that we are alive and we restate our demands. And so I think that the last thing is what we have to return to — that is to say that, like, this year has to be about stating our demands. That's how we do Pride this year, by returning Pride to its roots.
TOBIN: There's this thing right now where so much of what we would normally be doing is on pause, right? So, right now, theoretically, there would be Pride celebrations going on, and that's all on pause. But, you know, like, all the things right now, it’s, like, an opportunity to reimagine what it could be when it comes back. I guess specifically for the celebration part of it, what do you hope Pride celebrations look like in the future, um, as we reconsider?
IMARA: I love pride.
IMARA: If it wasn't fun, I probably wouldn't be — it wouldn't be a week long affair. It's fun, and it needs to be fun, but we need to make sure that we center in terms of who the Grand Marshals are, and the order in which we put the organizations, and what the themes are every year — that we remember that this is a call to re-orient ourselves every year to the unfinished business. [TOBIN HUMS AFFIRMINGLY] That means emphasizing less corporations, emphasizing less celebrity, to be quite frank. And it might mean a little less emphasis on celebrating or connecting with instruments of the government and the state and politicians.
So I think that all of these things we need to think about. The problem is that the underlying forces that drove us into different types of Prides are still going to be relevant, right? There's still going to be a lot of pressure to figure out how Prides are paid for, the money, the security, and then that leads you into a different set of decisions right there.
KATHY: Yeah, I mean, in addition to the money question, I just get so discouraged because, like, I have a friend who is a white gay man, and he doesn't seem to understand the anger and the hurt that's coming up in these protests. He's said, you know, "Why do they have to destroy businesses?” Um, and I've tried to talk to him about it, but honestly his experience as a white man is sorta outweighing his experience as a gay person. So I guess my question now is, do you think queer rights has lost its way?
IMARA: I don't think so. I mean, I think that, like, if anything, it's finding its way right — right now. I think it was truly lost — like, truly lost — when after marriage, so many of the mainstream organizations and so many of the mainstream donors and also allies and foundations and elsewhere were like, "Oh, we're done with the fight for gay rights. We're done with the fight for queer rights. We're done with the fight for lesbian’s rights. Everything else from now, it’s just gonna — it's just going to roll — it’s just going to happen, because now we have this momentum." That's when we were truly lost. We're actually coming back to sanity right now being like, “You forgot where you are —“
IMARA: “— and you forgot who you are.” And that's being reawakened in this moment.
[GENTLE CREDITS-ESQUE MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: That's journalist Imara Jones.
TOBIN: By the way, after we recorded this interview, Imara did end up going to a protest — she said one of the marches passed by her house, and she wanted to observe as a journalist. She was encouraged to see a number of folks holding "Black Trans Lives Matter" signs. Also, just FYI, we've put some links on our website to organizations supporting Black trans women in all sorts of amazing ways.
KATHY: Okay, credits. Our staff includes Zakiya Gibbons, B.A. Parker, Sarah Geis, Tracie Hunte, Jeremy Bloom, and Suzie Lechtenberg.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.