The recent paradigm shift that has ushered in a gender revolution and increased inclusivity is no mean feat. For many years, the Trans community has been subjected to erasure by those who acted as societal gatekeepers.
Transgender people were left out of narratives told through media and other cultural products. In turn, this involuntary absence led many to wrongly think that Trans people do not exist, and if they do, then they haven’t attained accomplishments that suffice to be deemed noteworthy.
It’s no secret that erasure has affected Black Trans people adversely. The Task Force reports that Black transgender and gender non-conforming people face some of the highest levels of discrimination of all transgender people. And, according to the LGBT Funders organization, Trans people of color often face markedly worse health and economic outcomes as they navigate multiple systems of oppression.
But the tide is changing. As we gain more control over the information we access in an increasingly pluralistic and diverse media space, it’s becoming increasingly harder for the traditional gatekeepers to continue ignoring Trans voices or downplay their existence and contribution to the advancement of humanity or to treat Trans persons as pariahs.
Achieving this has taken a consistent, passionate, unwavering, deliberate and powerful fight by members of the Trans community.
This Black History Month, we take a look back at Black Trans figures who took a stand against systems that propagate oppression against the Trans community and the LGBTQ+ movement at large.
We hope that their stories will inspire you, instill hope and fuel your confidence in yourself and your ability to make a positive change.
One of the earliest figures in Trans history, Mary is something of an enigma. Though much of her life remains a mystery undoubtedly due to the erasure she underwent and there are questions as to whether she was a gay crossdresser or transsexual woman, in 1836, she made history owing to a highly publicized trial.
Mary’s trial arose from allegations that she had stolen a wallet containing $99 from a white male client of hers. When the police got hold of her key, they accessed her house where they found more wallets as well as watches and other valuables. It was believed that her mainly wealthy clientele had feared reporting these items as stolen for fear of their vices becoming public knowledge in a highly conservative society.
Despite the humiliation Mary was subjected to as a black, queer sex worker during the course of the trial followed by a half decade jail sentence, she held her head high. Each time she appeared in court, she did so resplendently donned in women’s clothing. She expressed with what we can imagine was a great sense of pride that she always dressed in such a manner in the presence of other people of color.
More importantly, Mary held on to her identity through it all.
Lucy Hicks Anderson
Lucy Hicks Anderson was born Tobias Lawson in 1886. Despite being assigned male at birth, Lucy expressly identified as female from a young age. She insisted on wearing dresses and being addressed as Lucy when she started school. When her mother took her to a physician, he supported Lucy’s being raised as a young woman.
After leaving school, Lucy worked initially as a domestic worker, which helped grant her financial freedom. She eventually went on to become a noteworthy chef. Following the dissolution of her first marriage, she purchased a boarding house with her own savings.
In 1945, a patron raised a complaint that he had contracted an STI at her establishment. As part of the investigation that followed which included testing for the said infection, the then district attorney for Ventura County discovered that Lucy had been assigned mae at birth.
On the basis that Lucy had been untruthful about being female on her marriage certificate, he tried her for perjury. She was found guilty, but sentenced to a ten year probation instead of a jail term.
During the trial, Lucy defended herself in words whose truth and power rings true to this day; “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman … I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman.”
Though she faced legal consequences, was sentenced to prison where she wasn’t allowed to wear women’s clothing and was even barred from returning to Oxnard, California by the sheriff, Lucy Hicks Anderson remained unbowed, resilient and true to who she was.
Marsha P. Johnson
Born Malcolm Michaels Jr. on August 24, 1945, Marsha P. Johnson was an activist, self-identified drag queen, performer, and survivor.
She found joy as a self-made drag queen renown for her unique design and costume creation.
Johnson quickly became a prominent fixture in the LGBTQ community serving as a “drag mother” helping homeless and struggling LGBTQ youth. Marsha was extremely successful and toured the world as a successful drag queen with the Hot Peaches.
In 1969, Marsha was one of the most notable figures who led the Stonewall Uprising, an act of activism that has earned her a special place as an icon of the gay liberation movement in the United States.
We remember Marsha for being a voice for the LGBTQ community, for fighting against oppression, and for dedicating herself to serving others through the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) which she co-founded with her friend Sylvia Rivera.
Underrepresentation in political spaces remains a significant challenge for the Transgender community.
Andrea Jenkins is among those changing this state of affairs, in her current capacity as Vice President of the Minneapolis City Council. She assumed office in 2018, at a time when only 0.1% of elected officials in the U.S. were LGBTQ.
Born in 1961, Andrea Jenkins grew up in what she described in a Minnesota Good Age profile as being “a low-income, working-class community”, raised single-handedly by her mother.
At the age of 30, Andrea came across a Metropolitan State University resource within the human sexuality program where she met others whose experiences intersected with hers. It was during this time that she explored her female identity and began to express it outwardly.
For 12 years since 2003, Andrea Jenkins was a policy aide for the Minneapolis City Council. This was a vital contribution, as local executive action is one way to advance equality for the LGBTQ+ community according to the Centre for American Progress.
In 2014, Andrea Jenkins helped to establish the Transgender Issues Work Group.
2015 saw her join the University of Minnesota as a curator for the Transgender Oral History Project (TOHP). Through this project, Andrea has helped expand the trans narratives archived in the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies.
Andrea deserves recognition for her efforts to amplify the voices of trans people by chronicling their experiences. She continues to play an active role in not only helping achieve political representation but also shaping public policy in a manner that upholds equality, dignity and acceptance.
Carter Brown is the Founder and National Director of Black Transmen, Inc. the first national nonprofit organization founded for the empowerment, advocacy, and equality for black transmen.
The inspiration to start Black Transmen, Inc. emanated from his own experience. He sought to provide transmen with the vital information and support he felt was missing as a trans man of color.
When Carter was at the height of his career, and had even bought a home to settle in with his wife and newborn daughter, it all came crashing down. When colleagues outed him for being transgender, he faced discrimination at the workplace as well as harassment culminating in him being fired for no other reason other than being himself.
Now, Carter aims to not only uplift other trans men who have been subjected to injustice, but also break the negative stereotypes around Black men.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is among the most notable figures of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. She has gained recognition for her activism and pivotal role as a community leader for transgender rights.
As a result of the key role she played in the Stonewall Riots, Miss Major was taken into custody where she encountered police brutality.
Undeterred, she used her own experiences of incarceration to empower others who have had similar encounters as well as trans women who were homeless or battling addiction. From working at a food bank to providing healthcare during the AIDS epidemic to serving as Executive Director for the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, her life is a reflection of service.
Miss Major deserves to be celebrated for her fight against oppression, violence and suppression of expression and her many years devoted to supporting incarcerated trans persons of colour.
Laith Ashley is a model, actor, activist and singer-songwriter. Born and raised in a Dominican American household, Laith first came out as gay at the age of 17, before he came to identify as transgender two years later, in 2013.
The following year, he began female-to-male transition via hormone therapy, and in 2015 organized a photo shoot with a friend. Though the photos, which he shared on Instagram, received outrage and negative comments, Laverne Cox reposted the images at a time when he was about to delete his profile.
Inspired to go on by Laverne’s gesture, Laith went on to feature on numerous campaigns for brands such as Calvin Klein and Barneys. He made history as the first transgender man featured in a Diesel campaign
Laith has been vocal in calling for more action to challenge anti-trans hatred and violence. He is also using his platform to educate the public on the Trans community.
In a Huffington Post interview, Laith was quoted as follows: “I want to show everyone that yes I am trans, but it’s not all that I am. The same goes for all trans people. Everyone’s transition is their own; my story, my transition, my identity is my own. Everyone’s identity, trans or not, is their own. Every trans person does not feel that they were trans from a young age, every trans does not feel they were born into the wrong body. It does not however, invalidate their feelings or their journey.”
Zahara Green is the Founder and Executive Director of TRANScending Barriers Atlanta. This trans-led, trans-issue focused non-profit organization aims at empowering the transgender and gender non-conforming community in Georgia.
Her inspiration to start TRANScending Barriers resulted from the rights violations she suffered during her five year incarceration at a men’s prison. As a result, Zahara sued the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Drawing from her experience, Green has gone on to serve as a board director for Black & Pink Inc., an organization that offers support to LGBTQ and HIV-positive prisoners.
She deserves recognition for her efforts to fight the gross abuse, violence and assault faced by members of the Trans community.
Kylar Broadus is a Black trans man who wears many hats. He is a former attorney, activist, public speaker, author and professor.
When he made known his intent to transition in 1995, he was subjected to a hostile working environment and harassment. As a result, he resigned in 1997 and went without work for a year, while still dealing with PTSD as a result of the negative experiences he had faced in the workplace.
Furthermore, Kylar came to learn that the company’s discrimination on the basis of gender was legal in the state of Missouri. Consequently, he embarked on a quest to use the court system to help trans people.
He served in the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National LGBTQ Task Force as well as the Civil Rights Project. In 2010, Broadus founded the Trans People of Color Coalition in 2010.
Kylar made history in 2012 when he became the first openly transgender person to testify before the U.S. Senate in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
He has contributed immensely to public policy and represented LGBTQ clients, helping advance equality, representation and justice for our community.
The experiences of every one of these phenomenal individuals intersect. Whether they are transforming the world today or they fought to bring down barriers in days long gone, these figures all share the same spirited fight for a day when members of the Trans community can live, work and be in a society that is safe and devoid of discrimination, oppression and suppression.
Over the course of Black History Month and beyond, we will draw strength and inspiration from their journeys as we navigate our own.