All lives do matter, but in reality, some lives are valued more than others. The brutal murder of 28-year-old Ohio Black transgender woman Rae’Lynn Thomas on August 10, 2016 makes me furious ― and you should be, too. She was killed in the one place she should have been safe; in her home with her family. According to media reports, Rae’Lynn, whose transition from male to female 10 years ago was accepted by her family, was murdered in front of her mother, Renee Thomas, by Renee’s ex-boyfriend, James Allen Byrd. According to New York City Anti-Violence Project, this is the 18th confirmed killing of a transgender or gender-nonconforming person in 2016.
Whenever a transgender person’s murder makes it to national media attention, I often react via social media by sharing articles with the side-by-side hashtags #StopKillingUs, #TransLivesMatter, #BlackLivesMatter and #TransIsWorthy. In a way, I am signaling for those so moved by the disregard of Black bodies to also care about the lives of Black transgender bodies. Black transgender people are Black, many of whom are committed to fighting against racial oppression. They also must contend with the systemic oppression brought on by gender and sexuality. Non-trans Black Lives Matter warriors must care also about its Trans subset, in the same way that Black Lives Matter rallies for non-Blacks to care about our lives as Black Americans. The intersectionality of both racial and LGBT justice struggles demands that both battles co-exist, their interests co-mingling. As a black, transfeminine person I am here to explain why both the black and trans struggles, together, should matter to people of both movements.
Just two weeks before Rae’lynn’s tragic death, I tweeted in response to the killing of another Black transgender woman, Dee Whigham, murdered in Mississippi where gender is not included in its hate crime statute. In my tweet, I used those aforementioned side-by-side hashtags. In a Twitter response from user Global_Muva with the handle @Gloss_N_Boss, I was quickly reminded of why I string those hashtags together. Instead of offering any empathy, this user took the time to tweet at me, “She was murdered? Well BLM is for judicial equality for black americans. Police didn’t stab her.” Along with that tweet was a gif of a condescending cheerleader. This animated rebuttal seemed to say: “How dare I confuse Black Lives Matter with a broader movement that would be outraged about a Black transgender woman being murdered?”
@Gloss_N_Boss’s ideaof BLM is actually the erroneously narrow one. I directed her attention to www.blacklivesmatter.com for her own edification. Under About #Black Lives Matter it reads:
Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.
As you can read, Black Lives Matter as an organization does truly affirm black queer lives, and proclaims that #BlackTransLivesMatter. However, while @Gloss_N_Boss is only one Twitter user, I have come across far too many like her across social media platforms that do not understand that BLM as a formal group is strongly affirming black transgender lives. Those who support BLM, and claim to be in alignment with it, must become better informed of the tenets of BLM, which includes protecting the transgender among us. There is much education to be done here by BLM, but the burden is on its supposed supporters.
President Obama stated that, “Homophobia and racism are part of the same mindset,” in an address at a three-day summit for the Young African Leaders Initiative held in Washington DC. in August 2015. I would go another step further and add transphobia to that list as well. As both gender and sexual minorities, Black transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been fighting alongside their cisgender brothers and sisters for true Black liberation from the very beginning. You could even say that the Gay Rights Movement, sparked by a black, gay gender-nonconformist, was one of America’s foundational liberation movements, which of course stands on the shoulders of the original African-American Civil Rights Movement, upon which the BLM movement also rests. In fact, many leaders of the BLM organization are LGBTQ.
But you don’t see these realities echoed in the common understanding of what BLM means. We trans individuals, as the “T” and “Q” in LGBTQ, must be affirmed from within the movement. Our mutual oppression and political efforts on all fronts make this conscious acknowledgment a well-earned necessity.
Since black people do not make up a monolithic community, it makes sense that we must apply an intersectional approach to dismantling social and systemic oppression. When a segment of our community is being victimized based on identity, it should affect us all to the core.
Rae’Lynn’s life is a shockingly poignant example. It is no Freudian slip that Rae’Lynn’s killer repeatedly called her “the Devil.” A term sometimes used to describe White people who are destructive to Black Americans, it is clear that it was used against Rae’Lynn to alienate her as complicit in the destruction of the black community, more specifically, the destruction of the Black man. This of course stems from sexism and femmephobia, but in the context of the ravages of racism/white supremacy and slavery. Certain related myths exist about the innately hetero-hyper-sexuality and hyper-masculinity of black men. I believe Rae’Lynn’s killer internalized these myths, projecting their “rule of law” onto Rae’Lynn, whose womanhood was seen as completely illegitimate, and an affront to black malehood, as she chose to openly embrace it. His built up rage at her valueing her feminine self led to him exterminating Rae’Lynn. This kind of rage is dangerous and undermines liberation, thus underscoring the need for more dialogue about loving and embracing difference.
I am no angel, nor am I a devil. What I am is a Black Jamaican, transgender American of working class upbringing who has empathy for the struggles of others. We black transgender and gender non-conforming people deserve the same kind of empathy, especially from within the Black community. We want you to feel outrage when we are violated by the police and government, when we are sexually assaulted, when we are denied opportunities to advance, when we are left out, or when we are murdered in front of our mothers in our homes. Whereas loving ourselves is a revolutionary act, so too is it a revolution for the black community to love its trans, queer family members, because we are yours. That is what we are asking of you.
Supporting the causes of the larger community, while waiting patiently for that larger community to then pay attention to our needs has never proved to be a good strategy for transgender people―nor has it been the case for African-Americans. Just as blacks have been political pawns, trans folk have been used to launch and further movements, and discarded once our value has been extracted. As black people, we should know not to ask trans people to stay out of sight, when our struggles are front of mind, in the headlines, outlining our needs.
The wait is over. Trans people need the black community’s full support now.
As someone who worries about her personal safety on a daily basis, I fear that I could be next. I give myself pep talks on the worst of these days before I leave my home. But, as Rae’Lynn’s murder shows, the poison of the outside world is powerful enough to permeate the home. The personal continues to be the political. I might not have a literal choice in the matter, but morally, neither do you.
Rae’Lynn’s death reminds us that there is still healing needed in the black community on so many levels if we are ever to achieve true freedom, because this takes unity. We must continue to challenge notions around the predetermination of gender and sexuality, and understand unequivocally that trans is worthy. Otherwise, there will be future Rae’Lynns, and it might be someone you personally already love. If the BLM movement has taught us anything, our reactions to the deaths of the most vulnerable among us shows us who we are as a society. What does the black community want to be?