If we believe that black lives matter, then we must love and protect black trans women too.
Born this week in 1923, my grandmother Mary was an awe-inspiring woman. As a caretaker, fashion designer, and caterer, she wore many hats—but her elaborate church hats were her crowning glory. Each piece was one of a kind. Every week I’d watch my grandmother remodel an old hat by sewing on sequins, feathers, flowers and scraps of fabric to perfectly match her dress. It became something of a ritual, until she died last year.
Although I was honored to serve as her end-of-life doula, overseeing her funeral process was one of the hardest challenges I’ve ever faced. Seeing her body coffined for the first time was particularly upsetting, because she appeared as a bad wax replica of the woman I knew and loved. One afternoon before her funeral, I took care to apply makeup—to give her face some of its color back—and paint her nails. And I did everything I could to recreate her stylish hattitude.
As the blueprint on my own path to womanhood, my grandmother taught me a valuable lesson: Presentation is everything, even in death.
Because the media and the public often get it wrong, we trans women need to tell our own stories in a way that honors our legacy—and presents us for who we truly are. That need prompted me to break the news of yet another black trans woman’s tragic death on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Earlier this week, Amber Monroe, a 20-year-old student in Detroit, became the 12th trans woman of color lynched in America this year. And in the few days I spent writing and reflecting on her life, yet another black trans woman—22-year-old Shade Schuler—was found murdered in in Dallas, Texas.
2015 is already outpacing last year’s rate of trans women of color being killed, simply for being who they are. It cannot and must not be this way.
After I shared this image, the support and online amplification—from celebrities such as Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox, and many other community members—elevated Monroe’s story into the digital media space. Outlets such as Autostraddle, Fusion, and BuzzFeed immediately reached out, in an earnest effort to ensure Monroe’s life was covered with care. By and large, she hasn’t been publicly misgendered by the media or by law enforcement officials—an avoidable mistake that not only dishonors trans people, but also makes it that much harder to grieve in peace.
As the Raw Story reports, Monroe’s lynching follows the murders of four trans women in 2014 in Detroit’s Palmer Park. Monroe had actually been shot at least twice before, but she wasn’t comfortable reporting it to law enforcement—because of the broken relationship the between black trans women and police. Indeed, trans people in Detroit have highlighted intolerance and harassment from the police as a disturbing root cause for violence against the community. “It could have been me,” said Lilianna Reyes, a transgender woman of color, at a meeting hosted by the Detroit police department.
This broken relationship was chronicled in a dream hampton documentary titled Treasure. The film tells the story of Shelly “Treasure” Hilliard, a 19-year-old trans woman of color who was brutally lynched—after the Detroit Police coerced her into being an informant. With the stigmatization and criminalization of trans people persisting in law enforcement, it furthers the oppression faced by folks like us. We must continue elevating the conversation around the social and institutional violence and, in doing so, include the ways black trans people are disproportionately and uniquely affected.
However, situation in Detroit is far from unique. For black trans people, Detroit is America. In my home state of Ohio, three black trans women were lynched during a six-month period between 2013 and 2014. This unfortunate reality prompted me to join the larger #BlackLivesMatter movement, because we must declare that all black lives matter, including black trans folks.
For black trans women especially, there is no shortage of death. Our average life expectancy is a paltry 35 years, less than half that of the average cisgender woman. The violence against black trans women is occurring at a rate that remains alarmingly high, and contributes to that shortened life expectancy. We’re only eight months into 2015 and already we’ve surpassed the same number of trans women of color murdered in all of 2014. During this year’s winter months, eight trans women of color were murdered.
For black trans women especially, there is no shortage of death. Our average life expectancy is a paltry 35 years, less than half that of the average cisgender woman.
That series of lynchings prompted bestselling author and MSNBC host Janet Mock to call for a “national outrage over these bodies that no one is protecting,” in an interview with Bill Maher. Many members of the trans community heeded her call for us—and for others who have learned of our plight—to transform the visibility into power.
We tried everything. We hosted days of action, marched, rallied and launched visibility campaigns. Although the violence decreased for a short while, India Clarke’s murder last month launched a string of brutal attacks, just as I prepared to celebrate my 24th birthday. And with Shade Schuler’s death this week, four trans women of color have been lynched this month alone.
But the war on trans women of color—and especially black trans women—doesn’t begin and end with these murders. Unfortunately, the media often enables the stigma and discrimination already endured by trans people, by portraying us as less than human. Instead of being honorably covered when targeted by hate or malice, many outlets misgender and slander trans women of color in death, using mug shots, birth names, incorrect pronouns. Even worse, they speculate on so-called justifications for their murders—such as sex work, homelessness, and drug use, which removes the accountability from where it belongs: on anti-trans violence and oppression.
To be black and trans is to live in a constant fear of persecution. My use of the term “lynch” here was meant to be provocative, because many people remain unaware of the history of brutal killings against black people. The term “lynch,” coined during the American revolution, denotes an illegal and public execution. Not all lynchings happen on poplar trees in the south. In fact one of the most infamous lynchings didn’t involve a noose at all.
To be black and trans is to live in a constant fear of persecution.
Emmett Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi in 1955, while visiting family members—all because he spoke to a white woman. The 14-year-old was brutally beaten, and shot execution style by a mob of angry, viciously racist white men. Till was shot and killed for moving through life as a black young man. And Amber Monroe was shot while moving through life as a black trans woman. These tactics of terror remain present today and threaten the lives of trans women of color, in an effort to incite fear and sustain our marginalization.
Many of the causes of death have yet to be released, but from what is known, a majority of the black trans women lynched this year were either shot, burned, or stabbed to death. As I bear witness to these stories, I’ve contextualizing the violence against folks like us through the lens of Ida B. Wells’ A Red Record, a work of investigative journalism that tracked lynchings in the 19th and 20th century. Her legacy empowered me to utilize communication technologies like social media to lift up our stories.
But we shouldn’t only talk about trans women’s lives after an untimely death. As Mock wrote on her blog:
“The names of our sisters shouldn’t only make headlines when we walk a red carpet or lay in a casket. It’s part of the reason why I am weary of amplifying these women’s deaths, because it often feels like these women’s names are only spoken by the majority of us when they can no longer respond.”
In life, and in death, we must #SayHerName, the names of black women—including trans women—who have been killed by police officers or vigilantes. It is time for us to tell our own stories and to write our own accounts of history. Even though our society failed Amber Monroe in life, we can honor her legacy by not reducing her to this one tragic moment. We must lift up the experience of our community’s most vulnerable and at-risk populations.
If we believe that black lives matter, then we must love and protect black trans women too.
Writer’s note: The Ruth Ellis Center will be assuming costs associated with Amber Monroe’s funeral. To make a donation in support of Amber’s funeral, visit http://www.ruthelliscenter.org/for-donors/ruths-angels. Please include “Amber Monroe” in the memo line. For info on reporting standards for the transgender community, consult GLAAD’s media guide.
Cherno Biko is a media activist and human rights advocate based in Brooklyn. She has appeared on Fox News and MSBNC, and was named to the Trans 100 and the National Black Justice Coalition’s 2014 Emerging Leaders list. Follow Cherno on Twitter @ChernoBiko.
Illustration by Max Fleishman