The Forgotten Black Women: Looking at Black History Month With Intersectionality
Originally published in The Hound on February 5, 2019.
With the turn of the month from January to February, Black History Month is coming into full swing. The month — originally meant to celebrate the many successes of African Americans throughout history — became a vessel for discourse on black suffering and oppression. Coming into the 21st century, such discussion on black issues has become significantly more intersectional. The rise of this principal has shed light on the issues that black trans women face both through daily discriminatory practices and through oppressive institutions. As someone who does not identify as trans, this article is meant to bring attention towards the issues of black trans women rather than to express personal accounts or stories.
For black trans women, violence is an omnipresent aspect of life. According to a variety of sources ranging from The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to CNN, 2018 was the deadliest year for trans women, especially trans women of colour (WOC). Violence against trans people has become an epidemic. With over 20 black trans women being the victims of homicide (motivated by transphobic and racist attitudes) last year, living in a constant state of fear is often the only option. In a short film series by the ACLU, Eisha Love, a black trans woman from Chicago, highlighted her experiences as a trans WOC in modern America. Love, after acting in self defence in a physical altercation with a man, was incarcerated in a maximum security men’s prison for four years. Not only was she misgendered and placed in a men’s prison without trial, but she also continues to be subject to anti-trans acts of violence and harassment. Like Eisha Love, black trans women around the world face rampant discrimination for no other reason than for being their truest selves. It is important to note that these women do not face such hardships because of their race or because of their gender, these two factors are not mutually exclusive. Black trans women face higher rates of violence and discrimination as a result of being both Black and trans at the same time, not being one or the other. The intersections of oppression are a pivotal component of discussing the status of these women on social hierarchies and largely contribute to how we can seek to improve a black trans woman’s place in society.
Black trans women, despite the immense struggle that they face, have been a major social influence in our modern culture. The trailblazer of the LGBTQ+ movement and one of the most significant advocates of trans rights, Marsha P. Johnson, paved the way for queer history to unfold. Johnson was a black trans woman who sought refuge at the Stonewall Inn in New York, a safe haven for many queer people in the 1960’s, and who would later in her life, become a symbol for the queer community. Marsha P. Johnson fought for freedom in the stonewall riots of 1969 against police raids that would often disturb the LGBTQ+ community living in Greenwich Village. Johnson’s famous words, “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us”, marked a new era of advocacy and activism on behalf of marginalized groups in America. While Johnson was murdered at age 46, her legacy will live on within and throughout the queer community. In the 21st century, trans activism plays a role, both on the streets and online. Janet Mock, a black trans writer, has continued the legacy of trans-advocacy onto social media platforms. In 2012, Mock started a hashtag campaign that went by the name #GirlsLikeUs to celebrate trans women and to push for better representation of these women in the media.
Looking at black history month through an intersectional perspective not only allows for better discourse on the intricacies of a black identity, but also contributes to heightened awareness around the struggles that black trans women face. This February, I urge you to dig further into black queer trailblazers and activists to discover the cultural significance that black folks have maintained within various sectors and subcultures of our continuously evolving society. With intersectionality, remember that:
“You never completely have your rights, one person, until you have all your rights.”
~ Marsha P. Johnson