How 4 Black Lives Matter activists handle queerness and trans issues

illustrations of various lgbt BLM activists

An Inside look at how Black Lives Matter centers queer and trans issues.

Black Lives Matter is about far more than just police violence.

The network—a growing international organization with 26 local chapters in three countries—faces many misconceptions, co-optation, racist trollscounter-narrative arguments—and, sometimes, its own communities. And yet, it upholds a mission to be explicitly intersectional, leading to a movement that mobilizes for all black lives and advocates for an array of racial injustice issues that affect those in the community.

Many black queer and transgender organizers lead the movement while centering on issues that they, as the most marginalized black people, face: economic inequality, intraracial violence, state violence, transphobia, misogyny, and homophobia.

This National Coming Out Day, we are highlighting four queer and transgender voices of the Black Lives Matter network, their stories of coming out, and how queer and trans issues correlate with the organizing and activism work they do.

The following Q&As have been edited for clarity and length.

Kleaver Cruz

Kleaver Cruz

Title: Writer and chapter member at Black Lives Matter: NYC

Age: 26

How do you identify?

Queer. For me, I use gay and queer interchangeably, but really I prefer queer because of the idea that it just means to be who you are, but gay feels confining. It has a particular frame around it, whereas queer, there’s a lot more room to exist and express.

“To be black and queer is a resistance.”

What was your coming out experience like for you?

The result was best case scenario, but very nerve-wracking, to tell your truth, in that way. I had several coming out experiences, but the one to my mom, it ended very well.  

How has your experience as a young black queer man shaped who you are today?

I’m now loving it and understanding it as a position to constantly challenge what is considered normal. There’s something about queerness that’s a reminder [that] humanity is complexed as an experience. I love that I am consciously identifying in a way that’s a resistance. To be black and queer is a resistance.

Being in Black Lives Matter, particularly under the philosophy that all Black Lives Matter, is really powerful. To have been present for that physically, being in different spaces truly has been a game changer because it has shown me and demonstrated to me what a particular kind of love could look like.

What are some of the issues black queer men face in everyday life?

For me, personally, I can only speak from experience. There is a pretty consistent negotiation with gender and the performance of that, and this idea [that] there’s a spectrum instead of just being. Seems like there’s a particular pressure around performing masculinity and particularly a hyper-masculinity without really complicating even a commitment to gender.

Why is it significant to center queerness and transness within BLM?

The idea that whatever is occurring within the margins of a conversation or society or whatever the structure is, when you center or move it away from the margin, that actually forces a shift. In this case, we’re talking about what is a revolutionary shift.

Because we don’t talk about trans women of color in the way that actually supports them to live and survive and be happy; because we don’t really speak about their stories and say their names; because queer black people are to some extent in the same boat, to center their stories actually changes the entire conversation.

Those are the people we don’t talk about or hear from the most, and it is through that interaction and expression that I believe we can actually imagine what it is that we want on the other side of all this work and effort.

What are the challenges you face as an organizer in the movement?

I actually felt pretty safe because of the way that the New York City chapter has consciously and intentionally created itself. When we work together, it feels pretty safe. If anything, my usual concern is, what are the ways that we can be ensuring that safety and comfort be experienced by black women and trans women of color. How do we ensure that they’re OK, that they’re actually be supported beyond Facebook posts and those kind of things.

One example that just came to me is going to the barbershop. It’s interesting to be able to be at a rally and say all these things. Then, I’m at a barbershop, which is a pretty intense straight male space, and that I feel unsafe to speak up when I hear homophobic things.

“There’s some really incredible people that are on the ground and various spaces pushing and resisting and questioning.”

How has BLM addressed issues of police violence, state violence—and intraracial violence and its correlation with black queer and trans folks?

I work with young people. I feel like a lot of my work has been through conversations and speaking to my co-workers who work with young people around the way we can be doing this kind of work in schools.

How do we actually have a conversation with a young person who is making fun of a trans woman in a way that is educating that young person but also teaching them the importance of not perpetuating that hate.

How do you see the future shaping out for black trans and queer folks in the movement and also, society?

I have faith. There’s some really incredible people that are on the ground and various spaces pushing and resisting and questioning. I believe when more people get behind us and them in those beliefs and actions, we’ll actually have the potential and the possibility to create the necessary shifts.

Final thoughts?

I really believe that we are going to be free. There is a lot of work being done. It’s a two-fold thing, we’re doing work to address these issues and how they impact us systemically. … Also, the idea of imagining what’s on the other side of that, and that it’s really important for us to continue to do that.


Elle Hearns

Elle Hearns

Title: Central Region Coordinator at Get Equal and Strategic Partner at Black Lives Matter

Age: 28

How do you identify?

I am a black trans woman who is learning more and more about myself each day.

What do you mean by that?

There’s a fluidity to my life that exists that I didn’t know before, but that fluidity is very centered on exploration. For me, I don’t identify in regards to sexual orientation any particular way. That’s always a challenging question for me. The easiest thing for me to say is that I’m straight, but that’s not a reflection of the space I live in.

What was your experience as growing up as a young black trans woman?

My experience was very multifaceted. I think for every trans child there’s a slow process to developing an understanding of yourself. For me, I grew up in a single-parent home with two sisters, and my mom had my first sister when she was 15, had me when she was 19. I learned a lot about what struggling was, and I learned a whole lot about being a little black boy and having struggles, also being a little black boy who was existentially trapped in a boy’s body, but was definitely very much so female.

In my mind, I knew who I was. I learned a lot about struggles, hardships, also self-discovery and self-education. My childhood was one that consisted of a lot of different elements that I think a lot of folks can identify with.

What ways did you self-educate yourself?

For me growing up, there was always a struggle for models that I could relate to. I remember being very interested in black power. I did a lot of educating myself on Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement. I was fascinated with the power of black people.

“I don’t think dealing with suicidal thoughts at 12 because I didn’t want to be a gay little black boy, I don’t think I’ll be who I am without those experiences.”

I was also really fascinated by the idea that people like me existed during that time, but I never knew their story. For me, it was always about discovering the pieces of myself through self-education around what did it mean to be gay. At that time as a child, that was the only word that I knew about being queer or about the LGBT community. It was just gay. It was wrong. It was a sin. You better not be gay. That was part of the reason why I had to self-educate myself to really affirm my own existence and to understand the better things I was going through.

How has your experience as a trans woman of color shaped who you are today?

What we all go through in life shapes who we are today. Every single day we go through something, we experience something whether that’s a high or a low. For me as a black trans woman, I have experience so many different things that are popular for conversation, whether that’s the murder of family members, whether that’s vigilante violence, whether that’s police murders. Those are things I have experienced directly.

I think without my experience in jail or my experience as someone who was homeless, without all of those experiences, I don’t think that I would be where I am. I don’t think dealing with suicidal thoughts at 12 because I didn’t want to be a gay little black boy, I don’t think I’ll be who I am without those experiences.

What are some of the issues black trans women face in everyday life?

The over-sexualization of who we are, this idea that sexually that’s the root of our existence. Even in the LGBT community, [there’s] the lack of nuance around how we identify, as far as our orientation sexually.

A lot of folks would be surprised there are trans women who are straight; there are trans women who are poly; and there are trans women who are lesbian.

Some of things we talk about systemically and structurally within in the movement around the lack of access to housing, lack of access to jobs, lack of access to health services and just services in general. We can’t even have the option to have the gender on our IDs reflect our identities without getting approval from the state.

There’s the violence that happens to black trans women, whether that’s through murders or physically being insulted or verbally being insulted. There’s a culture and society that supports violence of trans people consistently and also this lack of understanding trans folks are sometimes gender nonconforming folks. There are a lot of things trans women experience directly and more intensely. I don’t think there’s ever been a space to have the conversation. That’s the beautiful thing, that it exists now.

Why is it significant to center queerness and transness within BLM?

It’s super important to center those things because at the intersections of all of the things that the state has put in place affect queer and trans significantly at a different level than other folks. There are barriers—specifically with black trans women—that exists to really interrupt our daily lives. The state has a large stake in that. For us, it’s a value add in to center those who experience the most forms of impact in our work.

There’s complexity that often has been missed in other movements. Whatever movement you want to look at, there’s never been such an intersectional space created. That’s really important as we continue to develop policy… and we continue to fight back, having folks that can actually speak to what they have experienced is truly the most powerful gift the movement could ever give to society.

These are my own personal views, I really have been interested in what it would look like for us to nationally have a ban on trans panic defense murder. We’ve seen across the country multiple times, with black trans women who have been murdered, defense attorneys have used trans panic as a way to lesser their sentences or to get them completely off. For me, that’s something I would love for policy folks and state legislation to really work on and to support, and also creating a system that isn’t so reliant on the state in order to change your gender marker.

They’re very basic, simple things that the policy world could enact. Those are things I’ve been bringing into conversations I’ve been having inside of Black Lives Matter, but also outside in every space I’m in.

What are the challenges you face being in organizer in the movement?

I think a lot of folks think it’s just pretty pictures and interviews. I don’t think folks understand the amount of sacrifice that goes into being an organizer.

For a long time, I was unpaid in organizing. Now it’s a little bit different, but it still

feels very unpaid. Black trans women in society are completely unpaid based off of research that was done with task force’s LGBT report that came out a couple of years ago. That’s where that high statistic of black trans women making under $10,000 came from.

Just being a black trans woman, I know the work that I do has never been valued, it’s never been looked at it the same way my cis counterparts are viewed whether that’s in payment, whether that’s in just even the way that media interacts—I think is very different.

I also think the toughest thing is having those conversations with folks that believe they are doing work that is reflective of what you need opposed to you being able to lead that work. That’s the challenging thing, that’s there’s a lot of folks doing work whether that’s in the name of BLM; whether that’s in the spirit of hindsight for black trans women, and folks are missing the mark. That’s really been a challenging process. For me, organizing is really setting the standard for who should be leading and also what should be produced from spaces.

“The future is now. The future is literally what’s happening right now across movements, across life.”

There’s also a lot of good. For me, it’s really important to talk about a lot of good. Folks have really wanted to say, ‘this is the new Civil Rights Movement’ or whatever. It’s like, ‘actually this is a movement that is standing on its own and it’s completely different than any other movement that’s ever existed. That’s the reason why it’s so powerful.’ But like all things black, there’s always great intent to destroy it.

I have been really resting in a space of gratitude for what the movement has done and for the work that so many people have created.

For me, the ultimate challenge is creating that as the reflection and center of why I do what I do and why I work with the team of people I work with, and why I believe so much in the people who have committed their lives everyday to getting up and existing and surviving.

The ultimate challenge for me is to not get lost in this work while also remembering that I am black trans woman. The experiences that are real for black trans women don’t escape me because I’m an organizer. If anything, they are more prevalent now than ever.

How has BLM addressed issues of police violence, state and intraracial violence, and its correlation with black queer and trans folks?

The ultimate correlation, the ways that we look at state violence, has really elevated and developed not to just the police are killing us.

I think that this is really creating that space to define what state violence is and how that shows up in the lives of queer and trans folks—especially when you are talking about the murders of black trans women. Why are black trans women being murdered? How do these murders equate to the murders that are happening at the hands of the police? We really created that space to that make the correlations to systemic and structural oppression.

How do you see the future shaping out for black trans and queer folks in the movement and also, society?

The future is now. The future is literally what’s happening right now across movements, across life. We are seeing folks able to be visible. We are also the result of what it looks like to be visible. There’s an uprising in the murders of black trans women.

We’re seeing the future of our existence now. What we are doing now is really carving the future five, 10, 20 years from now. We’ve achieved so much in such a little amount of time whether that’s seeing folks around the country mobilized to support black trans women after five or six black trans women in August were found murdered. That is presidential candidates actually discussing what they are going to do for black trans women. We’ve never seen that be a part of any candidates conversations before. The future of queer and trans people looks bright. It looks better than it’s ever looked before. There’s a great need for us to continue to sustain our work and sustain the conversations we created.


Arielle Newton

Arielle Newton

Title: Editor-in-Chief at Black Millennials and community organizer at Black Lives Matter: NYC

Age: 24

How do you identify as LGBT?

Queer. Yep, I just say I’m queer.

Not defined by lesbian or bi, right?

No, I don’t do those terms. I just say queer because queer is just an umbrella term that means I don’t conform to traditional gender or sexuality standards or norms. So in that way I just say that I’m queer.

What was your coming out experience like for you?

I had two coming out experiences. The first was in high school. I came out as bisexual. And the second was a couple of months ago when I came out as queer on my blog.

Coming out as bisexual in high school, I don’t really remember it because I grew up in New York City and went to a very progressive school. Those types of experiences are actually quite normal. Folks are very welcoming and supportive of that.    

“I think because I identify as black, queer, woman, radical—I feel much more receptive to people.”

When I came out as queer, I think it was a little bit more transformative because now I’m a radical, now I’m an organizer, now I’m an activist. So these labels are very important to me because they mean so much.

So coming out queer a couple of months ago is a lot more of a refreshing type moment for me because I’m part of a radical community that is all about radical black love. I now know that to identify as queer is an active resistance, and there’s that an entire politic around it that I wasn’t really previewed to before.

How has your experience as a young black queer woman shaped who you are today?

Everything is from incident. There’s never one moment; there’s never one thing. It’s always an aggregate of things that inform who you are, that inform you view points, and that’s definitely been my experience. I think because I identify as black, queer, woman, radical—I feel much more receptive to people. I’m completely critical of everything now because I know that things don’t exists in a silo. That one action in this area is going to affect an action in another area.

What are some of the issues black queer millennial women face in everyday life?

One of the issues is just post-racialism. I feel that we are co-opted by white gay cisgender male-bodied men. That’s a form of racism, and that’s a form of violence that I don’t think really get talked about all too much.

When I was up at my university, especially, white gay men would regularly say things, ‘Yeah girl. Yeah sista. You my n***a!’

They think it’s OK because they’re gay, maybe. I think they view themselves as—rightfully there is the oppression of white gay men, but the fact that’s the way that they try to build relationships with me is by calling me the N-word and trying to appropriate or co-opt dialect that they that I’m most familiar with. Folks are talking about it a lot more now, but I think that it’s a very hard-hitting or tangible reality black queer millennial women or black queer millennials as a whole are facing.

Why is it significant to center queerness and transness within BLM?

Revisionist history tells us that the black liberation struggles have come by way of black, cisgender, heterosexual, respectable, god-fearing men, and we just know this to be untrue. The leadership of black queer and trans folks has been violently erased.

If we want to dream radically, we can’t repeat the same mistakes of the past, or we have to confront white supremacy and how it’s deliberately designed to divide and conquer between our people.

On this part of the black liberation struggle, because the struggle never ended … we are going to say black queer and transgender folks have always been the leaders of black liberation. This go around and in this chapter, we are going to make sure we uplift folks who are the front lines, who are the most marginalized and who are doing a lot of labor in pursuit of black liberation.

What are the challenges you face being in organizer in the movement?

Intersectionality has been a real true issue for me. One, I had to first unlearn my anti-blackness. That’s a process in of itself, and I’m not all the way complete in that. I’ll be honest and say there’s still [bits] of anti-blackness that I embody [that] I’m actively trying to unlearn.

With in that similar vein, I have to unlearn my trans antagonism. I’m a black cisgender woman. I’m very unfamiliar with having space that is my own. Now I have to my space or give up my space in some instances to black transgender women. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.

I can easily say I’m not leading this. I have too much privilege to lead on this issue. Sometimes in practice that can be difficult. I can unintentionally harm people, transgender people who are being harmed left and right, both from within the black community and then by the state.

I’m very clear that white supremacy taught me to be trans-antagonistic. Unlearning trans-antagonism behavior is difficult, but it’s not nearly as difficult as existing within a transgender black body.

When I’m all up in my feelings and I’m like, ‘It’s unfair. Who is going to help me? Who is going to educate me? I’m very clear at saying that’s a form of cisgender privilege. So check it. Don’t bring that to my trans brothers and sisters who are dealing with so much hardship that I can’t begin to imagine. I have to work through my discomfort and unlearn my discomfort because that discomfort is deliberately designed to keep me from all of my people. That’s has been the biggest hardship in my organizing thus far is how I relate to and co-labor with black transgender people.

My queer politic is being formed and that’s a part of it, understanding transgender reality. Before I came into the movement, I didn’t even know that transgender people exist in the way that they do. I didn’t internalize it. I don’t want to say I didn’t care, but it wasn’t actively in that kind of work. I wasn’t exposed to any text or dialogue or speech or labor that transgender black folks have performed.

In theory, I be like, ‘of course transgender folks have every right to live in peace and it’s wrong to commit hate crimes against transgender folks.’ That was all my politic was, but now after researching and learning more about how the relationship between economic insecurity and how that’s tied to being transgender and black, and how sex work is criminalized and stigmatized, and how that ties into transgender realities.

All those different points now are becoming clearer to me. Even sometimes I’ll very hesitate to speak about transgender issues because for one, I’m not fully prepared and I’m not as knowledgable about the subject as I should be. On the other hand, when we’re talking about juggling space,  I don’t know if even my space or my place to do that. I don’t know when I’m becoming an advocate or I’m just using my privilege to silence or erase someone else. These dynamics are something I’m working with.  I won’t name specific individuals, but I do have a bunch of selfless transgender black people who are really being patient with me in a way that I’m thankful for.

How has BLM addressed issues of police violence, state violence and intraracial violence, and its correlation with black queer and trans folks?

It’s in everything that we do. A vast majority of the leaders within the network are queer. Collaborative solidarity with transgender folks is a huge priority for us. I feel like it’s already embedded in everything that we do.

Transgender black folks called upon BLM to stand in solidarity with black transgender women who are getting killed. We often say this all the time, when issues of police violence happens folks get mobilized when it’s a cisgender black male-bodied man, and when black transgender people—especially women—are murdered interracially or by police, there’s just dead silence.

“My queer politic is being formed and that’s a part of it, understanding transgender reality.”

When that [Black Trans Liberation Tuesday] call was put forth—I think six or seven trans people were killed in a span of a few weeks. The death rates are rising like crazy. It’s a disgusting number of transgender women who are being killed. Black transgender activists and organizers from across the country call upon BLM to really put our money where our mouth  is—to really say all Black Lives Matter to where we’re calling this day of action for black transgender women who were killed.

How do you see the future shaping out for black trans and queer folks in the movement and society as a whole?

I believe that progress will be made. I think progress is already being made. In my radical world that I dream about constantly, I don’t strive to center whiteness at all. I don’t believe in begging, I don’t believe in banging on a door to get into a house that I’m not welcomed in. I will admit I’m interested in seeing how the larger LGBTQ movement goes intersectional— mostly because the LGBT establishment has just put so much energy into gay marriage, rightfully so. I’m be very clear, that decision was long overdue. I do appreciate all the labor that went into granting folks the basic right to marry who they love.

Now that that battle has been won, what’s next? In the near future, I’m interested in seeing these LGBT institutions, that have relied extensively on the labor of black and brown queer and transgender folks, respond or really keep trying to push for true inclusiveness. The LGBT establishment has relied a lot upon the endorsements, backing, and finances of the corporate world. Let’s just be clear: The corporate sector just finally gave in. It’s more profitable and marketable if your company is gay-friendly. Now that they are so indebted to corporate interests in many ways, that’s a stark contradiction in fighting for intersectionality, especially along racial lines. Corporate interests is tied up in prison industrial complex, relies on cheap and free black labor to sell products. LGBT establishment is in a space now where we’ll see what choices they make. We’ll see how they rebrand themselves to be more intersectional and more critical about how they truly fight for liberation. 

Kei Williams

Kei Williams

Title: Community coordinator at Black Lives Matter: NYC

Age: 26

How do you identify?

I identify as a queer transmasculine individual. It’s still aligned with my gender, but also my appearance in terms of how society views me. I would not say that I am, for example, solid on the purpose of transitioning into male, which is why I prefaced my gender with queer—queer transmasculine.

Kei is not my biological name; it’s not my birth-given name, but it’s the name that I prefer and actually my legal name now.

What was your coming out experience like for you?

My coming out experience was kind of a mix up. I come from a very religious family. My dad’s side of the family is very Islamic-faith based and my maternal side is very Christian. I’m talking aunts, uncles, ministers, preachers. Coming out to my family has looked a little bit like holding onto being labeled as bisexual or telling immediate family—which is like my mom, my dad, and my siblings—that I’m bisexual. Then, primarily having relationships that are considered lesbian.

As I have gotten older, that has transitioned more so into queerness in terms of an open term of gender. It went from my family just seeing me in significant long relationships with women to dating people who are gender nonconforming, other people who are queer, even dating cisgender hetero men.

I have identified as queer for the past four or five years, branching away from being considered a lesbian and just being queer because that’s what fits me better.

In terms of it now, it has been getting my family to adjust to name changes. Kei is not my biological name; it’s not my birth-given name, but it’s the name that I prefer and actually my legal name now.

Slowly, it’s been now getting my family used to language around pronouns, which has been the challenging part. That’s where we are now in terms of coming out and the transition into getting my family to understand queerness and gender on larger terms than just heterosexual, homosexual, that very solid rigidness. That has been a little bit challenging.

What pronouns do you prefer?

The pronouns I prefer are they, their, them.

How has your experience as a transmasculine queer individual shaped who you are today?

It has really caused me to focus more on trans rights, gender equality rights and just being a queer professional person and how the interactions happened in the workplace or in conversations. It’s very odd.

You have to learn what to approach and what not to approach. You have to kind of balance when’s important to you and when’s not important to you. It’s a lot of juggling working in the world as a queer person, as a transmasculine person and having conversations around gender, but learning how to not be so sensitive about it as well.

Even though your feelings can get hurt, and they often do get hurt when you are talking to people about gender who just don’t get it, are ignorant to it, or refuse to give it.

The way I view the world is a lot more open-minded and not so rigid in my expectations. I believe in flexibility and I believe in openness. Fluidity is very much how I live my life, very much how I go about my life.

What are some of the issues black transmasculine people face in everyday life?

It goes along with gender. It’s hard when you are under consistent enough attack, fear of sexual violence [or] sexual assault, safety measures become extremely important to you as a transmasculine person.

Also, the misogyny we push out at transmasculine individuals because of how society is patriarchal. As a transmasculine person, I had to unlearn, undo a lot of my misogyny towards women and misogynistic way of thinking, and also being responsible for feminism in this weird way when you’re trans, or you’re queer, or you’re gender non-binary. In some way … you are really in the gray.

I may get catcalled at the same time I may be getting hit on by a gay guy. What does that look like when you are transmasculine and you’re getting catcalled because this person might see you as a woman, but then you turn around and I go to read a speech and the gay guys are flirting with me.

The issues that come to the forefront are definitely sexual assault, safety in regards to sexual harassment and misogyny.

Why is it significant to center queerness and transness within BLM?

The need to center trans folks, [gender-nonconforming] GNC folks in BLM obviously that has been a very key thing. When we had the Movement for Black Lives in Cleveland, all the opening ceremonies, all the closing ceremonies, were led by Elle Hearns, who is a trans woman. To hear from elders—we’re talking about from a Black Panther Party member Ramona Africa—say, ‘this movement is different because it includes all black lives.’ It includes all black lives.

When you center trans and GNC folks, you’re really saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t just about cisgender black men being killed by the police.’ When we hold spaces like we did in Brooklyn for Trans Liberation Tuesday for the 20 trans women killed just this year alone, we are saying we’re not going to stand and be silent. Again, we are here for all black lives. All Black Lives Matter.

What are the challenges you face being in organizer in the movement?

“Again, we are here for all black lives. All Black Lives Matter.”

The challenges I face being an organizer in the movement is really capacity. It’s an issue for all of our organizers. And it’s also having time, having energy, but also remembering to practice self care, which is hugely important especially for the New York City chapter. It’s a juggling act.

How do you see the future shaping out for black trans and queer folks in the movement and society as a whole?

I have so much love, welcomeness, and warmth around my gender, my identity, in the movement. Us being centered—GNC and trans folks—is a clear sign on what our impact will be and can be in the long run of the movement. I have nothing but optimism and hope. Founders of BLM are queer, and a lot of the major coordinators that got BLM started are queer folks; having that be part of the foundation can only show you where it could possibly go.

To see us centered and key in this movement let’s us know we’re here, we’re here to stay, we’re welcome, and we’re respected. In terms of society, the end goal is liberation for all black people.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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