“If I wait for someone else to validate my existence, it will mean that I’m shortchanging myself.”
– Zanele Muholi, HonFRPS
Pride Month (in June) and Gilbert Baker’s iconic rainbow flag are intended to celebrate the diverse, rich heritage of the LGBTQ nation and its myriad constituents. Each year, the support of numerous celebrities, corporate sponsors, and dedicated community partners offers a kinetic and ostensibly inclusive tableau of modern LGBTQ experience and identity politics. Yet, as a recent article in The New York Times adduced, for many LGBTQ people of color, Pride Month’s increasingly commercialized spectacle is a lost opportunity to shed light upon marginalized pockets within the queer community still grappling with visibility and acceptance.
Take, for example, Black trans lives. On June 14, an estimated crowd of 15,000 people gathered for the “Brooklyn Liberation” march in New York City. Reinvigorated by an environment where national conversations on race and equality are held in earnest, “Brooklyn Liberation” set about promoting “action” for black trans persons often denied civil rights or a public platform to speak their proverbial truth. Inspired by the NAACP’s 1917 “Silent Parade” in New York City, protest organizers from The Okra Project, Marsha P. Johnson Institute, For the Gworls, and Black Trans Femmes in the Arts asked participants to wear white as they called not merely for the end of discriminatory legislative policies under President Donald J. Trump, but justice for the rising tide of violence against Black transgender bodies as well.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, as of July 2020, at least 21 transgendered or gender non-conforming people have been slain in the United States and its unincorporated territories. Whether in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico or Sikeston, Missouri, the abuse and violent deaths of transgendered people has become an alarming if under-reported “epidemic” often obscured from public view.
Neulisa Luciano Ruiz (?). Yampi Mendez Arocho (19). Monika Diamond (34). Lexi (33). Serena Angelique Velazquez Ramos (32). Layla Pelaez Sanchez (21). Penelope Diaz Ramirez (31). Nina Pop (28). Tony McDade (38). Dominque “Rem’mie” Fells (27). Riah Milton (25). Selena Reyes-Hernandez (37). Brayla Stone (17). Merci Mack (22). Shaki Peters (32). Bree Black (27).
The names above, with ages in parentheses, reflect the disproportionate percentage of Black and brown lives lost since New Year’s Day. Each individual’s troubling death speaks to broader socioeconomic inequity often overlooked when it comes to public, well-intentioned discourse around improving LGBTQ+ lives and civil rights.
Consider the case of Neulisa Luciano Ruiz, a homeless transgender woman living in Puerto Rico accused of “peeping” while using a women’s bathroom at McDonald’s (the charges were later dropped). Hours after the police complaint found its way onto social media, Neulisa, otherwise known as Alexa, was targeted by assailants, followed in a car, and executed on camera. Footage of her ordeal was later posted to YouTube. To date, police continue to report “no news” in their ongoing criminal investigation.
A similarly grim tale exists for Dominique ‘Rem’mie’ Fells, a Black transgender woman and freelance fashion designer who organized a 2019 event entitled “Rock the Runway – A Trans Empowerment Fashion Show” in Philadelphia. Fells’s dismembered body was retrieved from the Schuylkill River near Bartram’s Garden on the evening of June 8. Following a brief investigation, local authorities issued a warrant for the arrest of a 36-year-old male charged with murder, possession of an instrument of crime, tampering with evidence, and abuse of a corpse. The suspect is still believed to be at large.
A too-familiar narrative
Alexa and Dominque Fells’s deaths are an all-too familiar narrative for transgender persons of color. Indeed, for quite some time, as a 2012 joint survey from the National LGBT Task Force, National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) made clear, these individuals face some of the highest levels of discrimination amongst their transgender peers, whether in terms of education, employment, housing discrimination, healthcare, or transphobia. Commenting specifically on the challenges Black transgender survey respondents face, NBJC executive Sharon Lettman-Hicks observed, “Nearly half of all Black transgender respondents report being harassed at work and at school. Twenty-six percent are unemployed and 34% report annual incomes of less than $10,000 per year.” Suffice to say, more contemporary studies further underscore the extreme socioeconomic hardships many Black and brown transgender people face on a routine basis.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the “Brooklyn Liberation” march was its emphatic declaration that black trans lives do matter to a not-insignificant portion of society. In their quest for inclusion within a national dialogue on civil rights, the march organizers succeeded in amplifying their voice to major news and media outlets, with many of these influential entities seizing upon the Black Lives Matter movement to highlight crowdfunding and volunteer opportunities for impassioned advocates and allies.
Still, even as mobilized allyship purports to elevate this important movement, more can and should be done. At a policy level, calls to reverse the “Discrimination Administration[’s]” anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ actions will be put to the test in early November. Likewise, at a cultural level, improved intersectional camaraderie within the LGBTQ community around Black and brown trans lives is also needed, especially as complaints over the “whitewashing” of LGBTQ Pride continue to swell. And finally, indeed perhaps most importantly, greater support and action from law enforcement and social services is required to help give transgender persons of color requisite resources and opportunities to succeed — let alone survive — in modern society.
One can only dream of things to come.