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Black trans women want the media to show them living, not just dying

If the crisis of violence against black trans people is new to you, you haven’t been paying attention.

A photo of Chynal Lindsey, whose body was found in Dallas, Texas.
A photo of Chynal Lindsey, whose body was found June 1, 2019, in Dallas, Texas.
Chynal Lindsey via Facebook

It seems mainstream news media has just discovered that violence against black trans women exists.

In April, coverage of 23-year-old trans woman Muhlaysia Booker, who was attacked by a mob after a minor traffic accident, spread across social media like wildfire. One month later, Booker was fatally shot in a separate case.

CNN wrote, “Booker’s death drew attention to the pattern of deadly violence against transgender women of color. In five weeks, she went from a symbol of transgender resistance — catapulted into the national spotlight after a viral video showed her fighting back against a mob attack — to a martyr.”

It’s not that there isn’t a staggering amount of violence against black trans women: One day after Booker’s shooting, Michelle Tamika Washington, 40, was fatally shot in Philadelphia. Paris Cameron, Chanel Scurlock, Chynal Lindsey, Layleen Polanco, Ashanti Carmon, and Zoe Spears (the latter two killed in the same Maryland neighborhood) are among the 10 or more black transgender women reportedly killed this year.

The statistics are shocking. But the violence that my community faces is nothing new.

Black trans women face discrimination across multiple sectors within employment, housing, police brutality, and health care. All of these factor into our vulnerability as a community, but our experience is about more than just violence — far too often, these stories are never given a follow-up. Our allies may take to social media and send their condolences and solidarity, but the visibility is too often blunted in our pain and trauma.

“Our lives become a hashtag, we become a part of this ‘dead before 32’ narrative and in two weeks people forget [us],” Desi Hall, a black trans woman, tells me. Hall is a graduate student at Vanderbilt Divinity School and host of the TRANSfigure podcast. She questions why there isn’t more coverage on black trans women outside of the context of violence.

“We deserve for the whole story to be told,” Hall says. “Most of the time when people report on our deaths, they don’t even mention one single detail about us outside of how we died. Our deaths are turned into moments for profit.”

Every month of every year, I am reminded of my place in society when the media only pays attention to black trans girls like me if it involves violence. Sometimes the very outlets reporting on our deaths are the ones that have published transphobic articles in the past.

So yes, we should continue to learn the names and stories of Muhlaysia Booker, Chynal Lindsey, and so many more who have been victims of transmisogynoir today and in the past and never forget them. But activism and change goes beyond awareness of the dead.

Last month, the Trump administration announced plans to gut protections for trans people in homeless shelters, legislation that could go into effect as early as September. This comes at a time when black trans women — 34 percent of whom live in extreme poverty compared to 9 percent of non-trans black people — face deep housing insecurity. Black trans women also face the brunt of police violence: According to a National Transgender Discrimination survey, more than one-third of black trans people who have interacted with the police reported harassment, and 15 percent reported that they experienced biased motivated assault by officers.

Instead of just posting hashtags, we should be more intentional with challenging Trump’s attack on our access to health care and housing, issues that affect black trans people directly. We must push for legislation similar to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination within employment. We should donate funds to organizations that are taking actions to support us such as the Trans Women of Color Collective and Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. And we should allow black transgender women who are alive today to stand on our shoulders and amplify our voices.

“We’re only as relevant as the next sad story,” said intersex author Vanessa Clark. “What makes it even worse is when our deaths are used for clicks instead of as a means to be genuinely concerned for the trans community, and to actually care about those of us who are still here. We’re more than our deaths, and we’re more than a tragic story.”

At the very least, Hall says to remember that we are still people. “We are people who live complicated nuanced lives. We have a favorite flavor of ice cream. We have a favorite cartoon. We have a favorite person. Give us support while we are alive to see it. Everything else is just to make you feel better about doing nothing as we are dying, as we are quite literally being beaten in the streets.”

Give us nuanced obituaries, but also ask for our opinions on things that matter to us and to everyday people. We are three-dimensional humans just like everyone else.

Serena Sonoma is a transgender writer who focuses on culture through an LGBTQ+ lens. When she’s not writing, you can catch her obsessing over the latest episodes of Lucifer and Stranger Things.

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