The United States – a nation built on the fodder of race – once again became intimately reacquainted with the conversation of racial reckoning in 2020.
Spurred by international attention during the global protests in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, an estimated 15 million to 26 million people participated in the 2020 Black Lives Matter in the United States – making it one of the largest movements in the country’s history.
A cornerstone of the Black Lives Matter movement is “Black Trans Lives Matter,” an explicit recognition – that even within a racial community of individuals who are chronically endangered via forms of systemic racism – the lives of Black trans people (especially women) are even more vulnerable to these forms of personal and institutional violence.
The Black Lives Matter movement has always relied heavily on the LGBTQ+ community – like the LGBTQ+ community has depended on Black trans women like Marsha P. Johnson, who was a central figure in the 1969 gay liberation movement.
The central focus of the Black Trans Lives Matter platform is a desire to change the treatment of Black trans people (especially women) in America by individuals and government institutions.
The Stonewall Protests
Prominent activists Qween ‘Andy’ Jean and Joel Rivera arrived at the historic Stonewall Inn after the killing of a Black trans woman in Missouri and a Black trans man in Florida just weeks apart in the summer of 2020. It was a new beginning for the Stonewall Protests.
Jean and Rivera co-founded the Black trans liberation protests that regularly take place on Thursdays
The Stonewall Inn, located on Christopher St. and Seventh Ave in the West Village is a notable location in the context of LGBTQ+ activism and liberation.
On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, sparking an uprising that was largely led by LGBTQ+ people of color and celebrated activist, Marsha P. Johnson.
That incident ignited protests around the country in the push for equal rights.
It also led to the creation of the Gay Liberation Front, the first group to advocate for gay equal rights on a public scale. Today, Pride parades and celebrations happen around the country on the anniversary of Stonewall Riots.
Jean and Rivera’s protests revolve around the Stonewall Inn, but have also taken place at Washington Square Park and through the streets of the city to underscore and bring visibility to the importance of trans rights and to condemn the ongoing killings of transgender people.
Black Trans Liberation’s Mission
Jean, a transgender woman, said in an interview with Gay City News that the marches are about dismantling injustice and calling attention to the joys of queer and trans identity.
“Leadership looks like you and myself,” Jean said. “When there is a disparity, we should be able to come together to galvanize, in order to not only create solutions, but to enact practices that can potentially, and eventually change the outcome for a lot of people and increase their safety and their well-being.”
In addition to protest, the Black Trans Liberation organization is highly involved in providing resources for the transgender and non-conforming community at an individual level.
The group aims to end homelessness within the trans population by providing access to meals, housing, healthcare and employment opportunities for transgender and non-conforming individuals in collaboration with local and national advocacy groups, according to their mission statement.
Some of their community partners include: BTFA: Black Trans Femmes in the Arts Collective, an organization dedicated to opportunities in the arts; G.L.I.T.S. Inc., which addresses health care for transgender sex workers; The Okra Project, a global coalition focused on food insecurity in the trans community; and Bridges 4 Life, which provides transitional housing.
Jean and Rivera also employ forms of “artivism” in their protests.
They center art as a tool of liberation within protest — always clad in fabulously self-styled costumes related to particular themes or histories the group pays tribute to.
Immersive Experience: An Evening at the Stonewall Protests
Filmed on Feb. 25, 2021 – the last Thursday of Black History Month – this immersive report invites the viewer to experience an evening at the Stonewall Protests in celebration of the African diaspora – and most importantly – the urgent call for Black trans liberation.
In the featured protest, Jean is the prominent speaker in a red dress.
Within the experience, Jean speaks passionately about the state of emergency within the Black trans community, urging the crowd to attend to the continued erasure of transgender and non-conforming indivduals, as well as dismantling systems of white supremacy and policing that have attempted to silence the community historically and in recent months.
Jean is a native of Florida and began her career at the Florida School of the Arts. In 2016, she earned her Master’s degree in Design from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is a well-decorated costume designer with credits in several off-Broadway plays.
In a prior interview, Jean makes the organization’s demands clear:
“Our liberation is not a magical destiny. It is not a location or a destination. It is a state of mind.”
Making Black Trans Lives Matter
Black trans women are killed at disproportionate rates because of the intersections of racism, transphobia, sexism, biphobia and homophobia. Each of those distinct identities means that they face discrimination, prejudice and inequities on multiple fronts.
In 2020, the Human Rights Commission tracked a record number of violent fatal incidents against transgender and gender non-conforming people. A total of 44 fatalities were reported by HRC, marking 2020 as the most violent year on record since HRC began tracking these crimes in 2013.
Halfway through 2021 – this trend has continued at an horrifying rate: at least 20 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been fatally shot or killed by violent means.
Trans and gender non-conforming people are facing a crisis – one that is heightened for trans women of color and especially Black trans women. Of the trans deaths officially recorded in 2018, 65 percent of them took place in the South and 82 percent were of women of color, according to an HRC report.
Violence against Black trans women has been accurately described as “a pandemic within a pandemic.”
According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the average life expectancy of trans women in the Americas is between 30 and 35 years old.
It’s difficult to know with certainty how widespread violence against trans people is in part because the government doesn’t track it.
About 74 percent of the victims were initially misgendered by police and local media. The numbers provided also exclude both unreported cases and serious attacks that did not end in fatalities. These victims were killed by acquaintances, partners or strangers, some of whom have been arrested and charged, while many others have yet to be identified.
Some of these cases involve clear anti-transgender bias. In others, the victim’s transgender status may have put them at risk in other ways, such as forcing them into unemployment, poverty, homelessness and/or survival sex work.
A tangible way to increase the quality of life of Black trans women would be to extend legal protections to them and to change the way that they are treated under the law, wrote Annamarie Forestiere, an editor for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, in a 2020 article entitled “America’s War on Black Trans Women.”
Starting points for the federal government would include: reinstating healthcare protections that the Trump administration has stripped, and for state governments to eliminate the ‘trans panic defense,’ Forestiere asserts.
Additionally, extending protections to sex workers (or completely decriminalizing sex work), enacting stronger police brutality laws (or defunding the institution of policing), and allowing incarcerated people to live in housing that matches their gender identity (or eliminating prisons entirely.)
Forestiere’s and Jean’s message aligns: by taking these steps, and others like them, lawmakers would do more than provide legal protections to Black trans women.
“They would also signal to society that Black trans women are valued, that their lives are to be celebrated just as much as everyone else’s”, states Forestiere.
They would tell the American people unequivocally that Black trans women’s lives matter.