Why Black Men Must Show Up For Trans-Women Of Color

by Timothy DuWhite

This past Tuesday I was given the honor and challenge to speak on the behalf of cis-black men for #TransLiberationTuesday.

This day was created as space where communities all across the nation could collectively mourn and speak out against the extreme violence black trans-women and gender non-conforming femmes face on a daily basis. This day was also created in wake of the 18 (the exact number is still up for question) trans women who were killed in 2015, most of whom were women of color.

I must admit, shortly after accepting Aaryn M. Lang’s (one of the organizers of the NYC demonstration) invitation to speak, I started to second guess if I even should. Lang requested that I speak specifically to my fellow cis-black men in the audience.

Her rationale was that it is our responsibility to speak to each other about allyship to trans-women as they are faced with genocide. Forcing the ownness of this sort of education onto the shoulders of trans-women (the individuals directly in danger) is an act of violence within itself.

My reservations in taking on this task came from a place of fearfulness.

However, my fear is a little different than the fear trans-women and femmes alike are forced to experience on a daily basis. My fear was how I might be perceived. My fear was if people would think I was “taking up too much space.” My fear was that I may forget some of the points I wanted to hit. My fear was that I wouldn’t be “inspirational” enough.

Yet, if you think about it, such glamorous worries to have, right? Especially when put into context of what I wasn’t worried about. You want to know the fear that didn’t cross my mind even once? Whether or not my gender expression would force me to be murdered before I am even able to get to said rally, let alone say a speech.

In my moment of self-contemplation I even had the audacity to question the tactics of Lang. I questioned whether or not a cis-person should even be given the opportunity to speak at all. I came to the conclusion that the most effective way for trans-women to rally together is for them to do the speaking and for cis-people to just listen. The disgusting nerve of me, to think I somehow know best about black trans resistance than even a black-trans woman herself. As if everything I know about resistance I didn’t learn from black femmes in the first place.

I share this story with you as an example of one of the primary problems facing trans-women of color today.

US! And by “us” I am referring to all the well-meaning cis “allies” who instead of simply showing up, shows their privilege. So often our privilege manifests in the time we have to think about these sort of things. I imagine a trans-woman does not take time to stop and “unpack” things while she is being assaulted on the street. I imagine her response is swift, deliberate, and with the intent to preserve her life. So, if we’re truly invested in taking the lead of trans-women, why not actually just follow their lead. Next time we are called upon let us also be swift, deliberate, and with the intent to preserve trans-women’s lives.

If you as an ally are ever unsure on the appropriate time to “take up space,” here are some examples: If a trans woman is being assaulted, take up space. If a trans woman is being misgendered, take up space. If a trans woman is being verbally abused in public, take up space. If a trans woman is being unfairly treated, take up space. If a trans woman asks you to do something for them, take up the space they allocate to you.

The idea of solidarity is to show up when needed.

One important point Lang wanted me to uplift is the fact that cis black men are so vocal and present for the murders of other cis black men, yet rarely for the murders of women and femmes.  The same women and femmes that consistently lead actions and organize around the worth of our lives. I think it is important to note in relation to this that one can not be both pro-black and pro-patriarchy.

However, sadly, this often seems to be the case. Black liberation can not be compartmentalized. As long as black trans-women remain oppressed and pushed to the margins we all remain oppressed and pushed to the margins. To borrow the words of Joshua Allen (another organizer of the NYC demonstration), “we must always center those who are most affected by violence.”

The truth of the matter is a lot of these murders are at the hands of cis-black men (majority are presumed lovers). So often we as black folk are afraid to acknowledge the violence within our own community out of fear it will just be used against us and deferred to a racist “black on black crime” trope. However, it is important for us to acknowledge that yes, a lot of these murders of trans women of color are at the hands of cis black men. Yet, this in no way negates the terror of the violence enacted against the black community as a whole by racist, white supremacist structures.

This in no way gives a pass to all the violence enacted against trans women of color that cis black men have no hand in.

Acknowleding this fact publicly is allowing us to hold each other accountable, despite what racist conclusion the “white-supremacist-gaze” might reach. There are so many factors at play that contribute to the way in which cis black men interact with trans-women.

However, we could spend our time talking about the effects of white supremacy in the black community, and how colonialism has shaped our ideals of what a “man” or “woman” is. Meanwhile, as we (and our privilege) take time “unpacking” this, more trans-women are being killed. Let us love trans-women enough to hold each other accountable despite how we might be “perceived”.
Too often the way in which cis-black men and allies alike are “sold” on the importance of preserving the life of trans-women is by saying that she could’ve been our sister, or our girlfriend, or our, any other woman-identified familial character. What troubles me about this “strategy” is that it hinges on the notion of possession. It assumes that the only way in which these women could possibly be seen as valuable is if we could somehow associate them with a person we constitute as being “ours”.

What I challenge allies to do is to not depend on such trivial association or possession.
What I challenge allies to do is to enact solidarity whether you could imagine a familial or interpersonal relation or not. What I challenge allies to do is to replace possession with love. I challenge you to replace possession with survival. I challenge you to replace centering yourself with centering the lives of those who could really use your assistance.

The moment during the rally that I think put everything into perspective for me the most was when Lang asked all the cis-black men to come to the front. Each man was given a sign with the picture and name of a slain black trans-woman and was instructed to hold it up high. For the entire night there we stood, sign waving high above our head and shoulders burning from holding up what eventually felt like the weight of the world.

Throughout the entire night Lang kept reminding us to keep it high despite whatever pain we felt.
She later explained that it is this sort of solidarity she is most interested in. The kind that is uncomfortable, or even hurts, it is this sort of weight trans-women are forced to feel daily. So today I ask that you join me in committing to keeping your hands in the air, no matter how much your shoulders burn, no matter how much better letting them rest to your side feels. Today, I ask that you too take on some of this weight.

Photo via Kei Williams