Spotlighting the Intersection of Black and Transgender Identities

by Tori Cooper

This post is the second of a two-part series focusing on Black History Month through the lens of Black trans women. Read Part One here.

As we honor Black History Month, the Human Rights Campaign is committed to and focused on racial justice, equity and inclusion and combatting discrimination in all forms. The past year has brought the consequences of unchecked racism into sharp focus, which in so many ways aligns and intersects with the experiences of the transgender community.

In 2020, HRC tracked a record number of violent fatal incidents against transgender and gender non-conforming people, the majority of them Black trans women. This is the result of misogyny, racism and transphobia that is deeply rooted in society; we must work to end the stigma of being Black and trans and combat this epidemic of fatal violence.

As the Director of Community Engagement for HRC’s Transgender Justice Initiative, I’m determined to end this appalling epidemic of anti-Blackness and anti-transness. When HRC started the Transgender Justice Initiative, we committed ourselves to improving the lives of the multiply-marginalized: those who have intersectional identities and are most impacted by the intersectional discrimination of our society. We engage in organizational support by hosting justice and advocacy summits in several cities to connect local and national trans activists to share ideas and make valuable connections. Through our small grants program, we awarded $30,000 nationally in the form of thirty $1,000 grants to community members advancing transgender justice initiatives. To address the economic fallout caused by COVID-19, we also partnered with Destination Tomorrow, the Bronx’s LGBTQ center, to create a $10,000 COVID-19 relief fund.

The intersection of the Black and transgender experience is one that I know well. In fact, attending an HBCU was one of the major keys to establishing my own identity as a proud Black trans woman. During my first week on campus at Norfolk State University, I spent an hour sitting in front of the library watching all of the incredible, brilliant, colorful and diverse Black people that I would come to know over the next few years. It was such an eye opening experience to realize that there isn’t any one way to be Black, and that I didn’t have to conform to anyone’s expectations of Blackness. How someone chooses to express their race, their gender, their sexuality — it’s all personal! This safe space gave me the opportunity to explore by piercing my ears and trying on new clothes. Nobody looked at me like I was doing something wrong. Despite our difference, we all want to be a part of a welcoming Black community.

We know that trans history is a critical part of Black history. Consider William Dorsey Swann, a Black man who endured slavery and lived through the Civil War and its racist aftermath. In the 1880s, Swann became the first American activist to lead a queer resistance group and the first known person to dub himself a “queen of drag” — or, more familiarly, a drag queen.

My favorite Black queer icon is Sylvester, known to many as “The Queen of Disco.” Although he identified as a man, he found community among Black drag queens and trans women. Sylvester’s bold, gender non-conforming fashion and singing made him into a star. Listening to his music and watching him on TV allowed me to feel at home in my own identity. Sylvester died tragically of AIDS, but his story lives on as an extraordinary representation of the Black queer experience.

Without the exceptional contributions of Black LGBTQ people, LGBTQ rights in America would not be what they are today. The best way to honor this legacy is to build upon it and to continue pushing for full, intersectional liberation. In 2021, HRC’s Transgender Justice Initiative will further its commitment to supporting the Black trans community, including a stronger focus on HIV work. We’re starting with a partnership with Gilead to provide a $3.2 million grant to support communities disproportionately impacted by the HIV epidemic in the United States, particularly communities of color. This year, we’re also working on many more initiatives focused on equity and inclusion.

True liberation requires all of us to be united in defeating oppression. None of us can be free until all of us are free. This Black History Month, we’re reminded of the invaluable work of our Black, queer ancestors and of the important work still yet to be done.