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Why organizers are fighting to center Black trans lives right now

Black trans lives must be part of the larger Black Lives Matter movement.

Singer and activist Mila Jam raises her fist at a Black Lives Matter protest near the Stonewall Inn in New York City on June 16.
Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Within a 24-hour time span last week, two Black transgender women were reported dead. Their names were Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, age 27, and Riah Milton, age 25. They are among the 15 documented deaths this year alone of trans and gender-nonconforming people, according to the Human Rights Campaign’s latest report.

Just days before these murders were reported out nationally, I was quietly working with a network of young activists, community organizers, and artists to hold a rally and march for Black trans lives called Brooklyn Liberation. Inspired by the NAACP’s iconic Silent Protest Parade in 1917, where nearly 10,000 people took the streets of New York City to demand an end to the racial violence that gripped the country that summer, organizer West Dakota invited demonstrators to wear white and gather in front of the Brooklyn Museum this past weekend.

We cultivated this space to call for an end to the murders of Black trans folks like 38-year-old Tony McDade, who was fatally shot in late May by a Tallahassee police officer, and 28-year-old Nina Pop, who was stabbed to death in Sikeston, Missouri, earlier that month. News of the most recent deaths doubled our organizing efforts to hold an explicitly trans space in the midst of an uprising that has been largely centered around the murders facilitated by police (or former police) of Black cisgender men like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Our mission was simple: to expand the global conversation around Black lives to finally include Black transgender and gender-nonconforming folks, too.

As a Black gender-nonconforming person from Brooklyn, this action was personal for me. Like so many other young people from my community, I grew up experiencing hunger, poverty, childhood domestic violence, and housing insecurity. I spent most of my teenage years walking a tightrope — trying to find a way to meet my basic needs while still participating in the uprisings in 2014 and 2015 sparked by the tragic murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. It was during this time that I was first exposed to the disparity in media attention and community care that impacted the movement for Black lives. While people took the streets daily for Black cisgender men, there was rarely even a mention of folks like Aniya Parker, a 47-year-old trans woman shot to death in Los Angeles, California, in October 2014.

I believe that a large part of the reason that the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner were raised to the top of the national conversation — aside from simple patriarchy — was because their stories were easily intelligible examples of senseless violence against Black folks that our country has a distinct and well-documented history of. With Black trans people, however, the story has been quite the opposite. For decades, the existence of trans people was ignored and erased. American society adopted strict gender roles according to the binary of male and female, and up until recently, the World Health Organization classified transgender people with having a mental health disorder. Due to this and a number of other factors such as religion, colonization, and decades of negative media stereotyping, we found ourselves organizing in a time where no matter how hard we screamed, we couldn’t get people to take our cause seriously.

Horrified by this disparity, I made it my life’s work to bridge the gaps between racial and gender injustice. Just a few weeks shy of my 20th birthday, I gave a TEDx Talk addressing the need for intersectionality within our movements and went on to spend the next two years touring the country, and eventually the world, educating and organizing young folks of all backgrounds to get involved in our generation’s freedom struggle. Almost five years ago, we demonstrated in front of the Barclay’s Center in downtown Brooklyn to honor the lives of Black trans folks like India Clarke and Amber Monroe. In 2016, we marched with organizers honoring Mike Brown in St Louis, Missouri, temporarily shutting down highway 40 and raising the narratives of the trans women and gender-nonconforming people we lost that year.

Our actions in the past have focused on highlighting ongoing instances of intimate partner violence against Black trans women. Since then, our demands have elevated far beyond calls for accountability of individual perpetrators of violence, recognizing that we are fighting against a system designed to privilege some and marginalize others. This manifests itself in a number of startling ways: The Task Force’s latest analysis found that Black transgender people had an unemployment rate of 26 percent, which is twice the rate of the overall transgender sample and a whopping four times that of the general population. It also found that 41 percent of Black transgender respondents reported experiencing a period of homelessness in their lives. Lastly, it exposed shocking numbers about the disparities in HIV infection, where roughly 20 percent of Black transgender respondents reported living with HIV, which is astronomically higher than the 0.6 percent reported rate of the general population living with the viral disease.

The ongoing pattern of these murders, the lack of accountability for its perpetrators, and the sweeping outrage at racial injustice around the country today undoubtedly motivated people to hit the streets for our action last Sunday. Still, I was surprised as I stepped to the microphone to address the crowd of an estimated 15,000 people and saw a sprawling sea of demonstrators wearing white. To be honest, after years of organizing, I thought that people would never care.

I imagine that it was a confluence of events that made people take action, starting months before the brutal on-camera murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Watching our government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the epic failure of our public hospitals, schools, and economic relief process was stunning. It took our tax dollars and bailed out some of the world’s richest banks, airlines, and hotels and left the rest of us to fend for ourselves. At a time when the citizens of this nation needed it’s government the most, it failed us.

So we spent this entire spring learning new ways to care for one another. Spending more time in proximity to neighbors, sharing, and donating to countless mutual aid funds. Chipping in to keep our local businesses afloat and, most importantly, coming to accept the reality that the health and well-being of all members of our society are painfully interconnected.

We took to the streets of Brooklyn to demand a higher standard for our lives, one where we have the right to survive and live without the fear of violence or murder. We want a future that provides the basic human necessities to all members of our society, including some of the most historically marginalized. We are taking on a fight for liberation that, if victorious, will see all Black people (yes, that means Black transgender people too!) have the freedom to thrive with access to fresh water, food, housing, and health care in one of the wealthiest nations in the history of the world. And if Sunday’s march on Brooklyn was any indication, our fight is finally picking up steam.

Joshua Allen (they/them) is a nonbinary artist and activist from Brooklyn, New York, and a founding organizer of the Black Excellence Collective. They are currently serving as a member of Resist foundation’s 2020 funding group and working on their debut collection of prose and poetry titled All the Things I Never Said.