If there were a list of the most vulnerable minorities in the world today, Black trans women would surely be among the top. While all trans women of colour are at a higher risk of discrimination than others, Black trans women experience significantly higher levels of oppression from the police, government, and the public.
The forces of oppression manifested in negative attitudes towards non-heteronormative genders, identities, and sexualities have claimed many lives and caused so much pain. Last year alone, 350 violent deaths have been reported by Transrespect versus Transphobia Global during the Transgender Day of Memorial held on November 20, 2020. That number has only increased as 2021 rolled forward. A significant number of these lives lost to transphobic violence belong to Black trans women.
These very same forces that seek to police, restrict, and erase the identity of trans folks has served as a catalyst for some of the finest moments in history when Black trans women rose against the tide, took the narrative into their own hands, and showed the world their power, wisdom, beauty, and grace.
Here are ten Black trans women who changed the world.
Marsha P. Johnson
There would be no Pride celebrations without Stonewall, and at the heart of the Stonewall riots is a Black trans woman named Marsha P. Johnson. She is the pioneer whose impact and legacy are finally getting the mainstream recognition they rightfully deserve in recent years.
From a dreamer arriving in New York in 1963 to a revered household name in the present day, the extraordinary life of drag artist, sex worker, and Black trans woman activist Marsha P. Johnson is a story of brave resistance against a system that tried to erase her existence, a triumph of epic proportions that changed the world and continues to be relevant decades after her death.
Marsha is a crucial figure of the Stonewall riots that changed how the world saw LGBTQIA+ people after centuries of uncontested cisheteronormative supremacy. On June 28 1969, police raided the Village gay bar at the Stonewall Inn. They arrested people in the area on account of them being queer. A significant number of those nabbed that day were Black trans women.
Marsha and her dear friend Sylvia Rivera resisted arrest. They led a series of protests over a few nights – some credit her with throwing the first brick that initiated the storm of projectiles launched at the police. However, there is little historical data to support this claim. Nevertheless, this potent symbol of queer uprising gave birth to Pride celebrations, with the first Pride parade being held on June 28 1971. The NYPD issued a public apology for the raid in 2019, 50 years after the historical event that had a Black trans woman at its helm.
Marsha founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Sylvia to support transgender youth. She was also advocated for AIDS patients and was later diagnosed with HIV in 1990. She is known for her unbounded compassion and generosity despite suffering her own personal struggles that saw her going in and out of psychiatric hospitals.
She passed away in 1992, but this Black trans woman’s legacy and power remain undimmed, a light for the continuing fight for liberation and equality.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
Activist, feminist, and community leader Miss Major Griffin-Gracey is a Black trans woman icon of the fight for the rights of transgender folks. With the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGVIJP), she has led efforts to support trans folks with a particular focus on trans women of colour disproportionately incarcerated in the prison-industrial complex.
Miss Major has championed many causes throughout her lifetime and was a leader in the Stonewall riots. She led grassroots and community-based movements in 1978, which later developed into full-time advocacy to provide direct services to transgender persons struggling with addiction, incarceration, and homelessness — a significant majority of which are Black trans women. She had also helped provide healthcare.
In 2003, she came onboard TGVIJP as Executive Director. She led the direct service efforts for imprisoned transgender persons, particularly trans women of colour, providing personalized care and support. With the organization and her own personal capacity, she has been fighting against police brutality and the criminalization of Black trans women and trans women of colour.
Monica Katrice Roberts is the founding editor of TransGriot, a blog dedicated to the lives, issues, and experiences of Black trans women and trans women of colour.
She started the blog in 2006 when media coverage of issues affecting her community was almost non-existent. The blog takes its name from the griot, or storyteller in the West African tradition. She wrote about the transgender experience with depth, care, and respect not found in contemporary media outlets. She was often the only one writing about these things because no one else would.
Besides her work at TransGriot, Monica also helped identify murdered transgender victims. She helped ensure that they are afforded dignity even in death by speaking out against deadnaming and misgendering the deceased. She discovered that deadnaming, or calling the deceased by their birth names, delays justice because it prevents their friends from knowing about their passing in a timely manner.
Monica passed away on October 5, 2020. Houston City Mayor Sylvester Turner eulogized her as “a pioneer in every sense of the word”. The legacy of this Black trans woman storyteller lives on in the way she revolutionized how trans life is chronicled.
In 2017, a Black trans woman was elected into office, a historic first for the United States. Her name is Andrea Jenkins.
She has worked for 12 years as a policy aide with the Minneapolis City Council and ran to represent the 8th Ward in the City Council in 2016. She won the race with 70% of the vote, the first Black trans woman to achieve the feat. Shortly after her victory, she was elected Vice President of the City Council.
Andrea is also an artist and a scholar with an MFA in creative writing and MS in community economic development. She won the Naked Stages grant from the Jerome Foundation and the Pillsbury House Theatre. She has also worked with the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies of the University of Minnesota, where she curates the Transgender Oral History Project to expand its archives of trans narratives by recording the oral histories of three hundred individuals.
In 2018, Andrea was featured on the Time Magazine cover and other women who ran for office in 2017 and 2018, five of whom were lesbian and openly transgender. She was hailed by Queerty in 2020 as one of the fifty heroes, “leading the nation toward equality, acceptance, and dignity for all people.”
The case of artist and activist Cece Mcdonald brought to light the systemic violence and prejudice that Black trans women and other LGBTQIA persons of colour face every day. Near midnight of June 5, 2011, CeCe McDonald and her group of Black friends suffered a transphobic and racist attack outside a bar in Minneapolis that left her with a wound on her face that required eleven stitches.
Dean Schmitz, Molly Flaherty, and their group confronted CeCe and her friends with transphobic and racist slurs. While CeCe’s group was trying to escape, Flaherty smashed a bottle on CeCe’s face. In the chaos that ensued, CeCe fatally stabbed Schmitz with a pair of scissors in the act of self-defence.
She was charged with second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 41 months in prison after a plea bargain. She accepted to avoid risking a possible 20-year sentence after seeing how the odds were stacked against her on account of her being Black and trans. And although she is a woman, CeCe was housed in two men’s prisons. It took a massive online petition for the state department of corrections to finally provide her with the full regimen of hormones that she needs.
After her release in January 2014, CeCe became active in advocating for Black trans women and the LGBTQIA community. She was profiled by the Rolling Stone, made it to the “40 Under 40” list by the Advocate, received the Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Award by the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, went on a Black Excellence Tour with gender-nonconforming activist and prison abolitionist Joshua Allen, and had her ordeal immortalised in “FREE CeCe“, a documentary by Laverne Cox and Jac Gares.
Trailblazing activist, Emmy-nominated actress, documentary film producer, and multi-awarded Black trans woman Laverne Cox is an excellent example of using one’s platform to benefit an oppressed and marginalised community.
Laverne is the first Black trans woman to appear on the covers of Time Magazine and Cosmopolitan magazine and to have a wax figure of herself at Madame Tussauds.
She is also the first Black trans woman to win a Primetime Emmy for her role as Sophia Burset in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, the second to receive an Emmy nomination after Angela Morley first Black trans woman producer to receive a Daytime Emmy Award.
Laverne is a celebrity who utilizes her prominence in spreading awareness and contributing to the conversation about transgender culture and its intersection with race. Her impact on the fight for equality has been honoured with awards including the Stephen F. Kolzak Award from GLAAD, the Claire Skiffington Vanguard Award from Transgender Law Centre, and was named in The Guardian’s World Pride Power List, OUT Power 50, Root 100, EBONY 100, and Time 100 Most Influential People.
One of today’s most recognisable Black trans women is Tobagonian author, actress, model, and trans rights activist Dominique Jackson. She is most beloved for her role of Elektra Abundance in the FX TV series Pose.
Before her success, Dominique escaped abuse and persecution at home in Trinidad and Tobago after coming out as transgender. She fled to the United States, where she experienced many hardships, including homelessness and turning to sex work for survival. She was introduced to the ballroom scene in 1993. After living in many houses, she eventually settled with the House of Sinclair in New York.
Dominique worked as a model and has appeared in many campaigns and shows. She has also appeared in television and film, including the Oxygen reality TV series Strut. She earned a GLAAD Media Award Nomination. She began appearing in the role of Elektra on the critically-acclaimed FX series Pose in 2018. Her autobiographical book The Transsexual from Tobago detailed her struggles as a Black trans woman and was released after a thirteen-year writing process.
Dominique has worked with many non-profit organisations that provide health care and support for Black trans women and the LGBTQIA+ community. She uses her influence to enact positive change for the community.
Titica is an internationally-renowned Black trans woman pop artist and kuduro musician from Angola who has brought visibility to the Angolan transgender community.
Her success in Angola and her international popularity is due to her very unique brand of music that mixes kuduro with the Congolese genres Kallé and N’dombolo, and her ability to combine traditional kuduro dance styles and her training in classical ballet, creating a style and brand of femininity that is vibrant and uniquely hers.
In a brave act of reclaiming the hateful words thrown at her as a Black trans woman, she has chosen the stage name Titica, which means “worthless” in Portuguese. Her massive success in Angola and worldwide has made her name a beloved icon. She stands as a potent challenger to homophobia and transphobia.
Titica is an advocate for the rights and liberation of Black trans women and the entire transgender community, making a fierce stand for equality n her songs “Olha o Boneca” and “Abaixa”. She has also served as an ambassador of goodwill for UNAIDS, helping raise awareness about HIV, sexual health, and the LGBTQIA community.
Audrey Mbugua is a Black trans woman activist from Kenya who won a landmark case. The Kenya National Examination Council was ordered to legally change her birth name to her chosen name and remove all male gender markers in her academic certificates. She heads Transgender Education Advocacy (TEA), an organization dedicated to fighting for the rights of Black trans women and all transgender individuals in Kenya.
A graduate of Maseno University with a degree in Bachelors of Science in Biomedical Sciences specializing in medical biotechnology, Audrey was prevented from being employed by the name and gender mark on her academic certificates that no longer reflected her truth as a Black trans woman.
Since then, she has continued to fight for Black trans women and the rights of transgender folks in Kenya. With TEA, she challenged the 2016 Health Bill by submitting a memorandum before the Senate of Kenya, with the aim of legal recognition for transgender people, permission of sex reassignment therapy and changes concerning sex reassignment surgery, and an end to the stigma associated with transsexuality.
Audrey was nominated for the Human Rights Tulip Award by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2014 and stood on the vanguard of the fight for equality.
In Cape Verde, the local transgender community owes its colloquial name, “Tchindas”, to one Black trans woman who has given them a face and a voice: Tchinda Andrade.
Cape Verde is a small archipelago nation made up of ten volcanic islands. In the years leading up to 1998, Cape Verdean Creole didn’t even have words for genders and sexualities outside the male/female binary until Tchinda Andrade decided to live her truth and come out as a proud Black trans woman in the local newspaper. She has gained immense support and love from the public.
People have referred to gay and transgender individuals as tchindas since then. Owing to her role in paving the way for others to freely express themselves and live their truth, Tchinda is hailed as the mother of the Cape Verdean LGBTQIA community. She preaches tolerance to the local youth and is instrumental in turning Cape Verde into the most LGBTQ-friendly nation in Africa.
The film Tchindas by directors Marc Serena and Pablo Garcia Perez is told through the eyes of Tchinda, exploring the lives of the transgender community composed mainly of Black trans women in the days running up to the annual carnival. The film propelled Tchinda to celebrity status and helped raise awareness about experiences of Cape Verdean trans individuals, winning the Grand Jury Award at Outfest and a nomination for an Africa Movie Academy Award.
The Black trans woman is like a desert flower: the more inhospitable the environment, and the sharper the thorns, the more beautiful the bloom. However, this is not to say that we must let the efforts of these ten Black trans women go to waste by accepting the status quo. We must honour their contributions by continuing the fight until every Black trans woman and all transgender individuals can grow and bloom in a world where transphobia is but an unpleasant memory of the past.
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