This year was a bloody one for transgender women of color in Washington, D.C. In late July, Lashai McLean was shot to death 10 blocks away from the office of Transgender Health Empowerment in Northeast D.C. Just 11 days later–and one block away from the scene of McLean’s slaying–Tonya Harrell was shot at but escaped. And in April, Chloe Alexander Moore was physically assaulted by an off-duty police officer.
McLean, Harrell and Moore were just the most recent victims in a sustained pattern of anti-trans violence in the nation’s capitol. Coupled with the acute racial disparities detailed in the landmark national survey "Injustice at Every Turn,", D.C.’s transgender women of color are carrying the heaviest of loads.
Because violence and terror and discrimination isn’t the sum total of people’s lives, I’ve asked a range of transgender women of color living in D.C. to tell their own stories. I wanted to know everything–the experiences they’ve had with employment, their families, men, housing, girlfriends, spirituality and dance floors. I wanted to hear about how they survive–and thrive. Below is the first in a series of as-told-tos. The first brave soul to answer my nosy questions and let me edit her responses into a narrative is Danielle King.
A longtime activist, King is the development manager of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality and the founder of the National Aurora Campaign (more on that below). Ms. King also serves as vice president of D.C. Black Pride, which was one of the first black LGBT pride festival and remains one of the nation’s best-known. She lives in the Chocolate City with her shih tzu’s, Mimi and Puccini.
Here is Danielle King’s story in her words:
Before I began to transition in 2003, no one was really talking about gender. Being transgender was still associated with drag queens on the "Jerry Springer" show or with prostitutes. That was it.
We certainly didn’t discuss it in my Catholic household in Camden, N.J. It took me until after I graduated from college at 22 to learn about and express my gender identity.
During the first five years of my transition, I had to educate my family. I would wage these personal wars with them, constantly telling them, "It is unacceptable to use inappropriate gender pronouns with me, to not refer to me as Danielle." After all, my middle name has always been Danielle! (My father contended that it was misspelled, but my mother told the real truth–how she’d carried me with the hopes of having a girl. But upon learning that I was born male, she made it my middle name.)
Lost and Found
Eventually, I found a support system on the street, in gay clubs and in the ballroom scene. Folks I met there would say, "Yes, you can be who you are, but maybe you want to consider prosthetics or silicone injections to complete the look." It was common knowledge that many of them would resort to stealing in order to finance the beauty they’d obtained.
I would also meet these very attractive black transgender women who were prostituting themselves. I didn’t engage in it myself, but I would hang out with them on the street corner to learn from them and to develop closer relationships with my peers.
I’m not trying to create a grim picture; this is just the way that they knew how to survive. Only out of fear did I not choose these options. It wasn’t because I had more self-worth than them.
Since then, I have seen many of my peers die because they lacked healthy, legal support systems that allowed them to grow into their womanhood. That’s the greatest motivator for me. It’s why I started the National Aurora Campaign, a nonprofit that links transgender people of color with one another so that we live longer, healthier lives. It’s been a slow process–definitely a labor of love. But one day it will create a network and sisterhood for black transgender women the way the Deltas or the Alpha Kappa Alphas do.
Modern Day Lynchings
To me, mentorship is a matter of life and death for us. I know only one or two transgender women of color who have reached old age. HIV/AIDS is still very prevalent in our community. Many of us are living in lower-income communities. We’re trying to put food on the table and pay to transition. We’re not pursuing higher education. It’s almost a setup for poverty.
Violence is also a huge issue. African American youth in Compton, in the Bronx, in Camden are just catching it. I had a cousin, a Crip, who got shot, retaliated and ended up being killed and dumped in a cemetery. Amidst this kind of violence, we’re seeing young black transwomen being targeted.
When a funny, beautiful woman like Lashay McLean is getting shot in the damn back, and when someone as wonderful and promising as NaNa Boo Mack is being stabbed to death in broad daylight only blocks from a drop-in center for transgender youth, these aren’t murders. They’re lynchings.
The difference is we’re not acknowledging these lynchings within the black community. Black clergy are not standing up in the pulpit and speaking out, and trans activists are not working together effectively. We’re not holding people accountable.
And there’s a lack of mentorship, of older black trans people saying to young black trans people, "No! It’s not acceptable for you to be in the streets and put yourself at risk. It’s not OK for you to skip school in the daytime and prostitute at night."
We’re engaging in sex work, as a form of economic survival, but also as a form of validation. We have got to address this. We have got to talk about what it’s like getting up in the morning, catching the train or bus to school or work and that ride is tense because you’re the subject of giggles and whispers. (My friend Tiana calls this the "judgment hour.")
Or if you are passable, how you’re still not well received in your community. But then you have a sexual experience with Rahim from next door. He’s telling you you’re good enough and he’ll also pay. Suddenly you’re a commodity. You’re wanted. We sometimes glorify that, but I compare that pseudo-validation to the high that comes with crack cocaine. It puts us in situations where there is greater violence.
What’s Race Got to Do With It?
I’m not saying that transgender people of other races don’t go through these things. But I think inequalities that come with being a person of color are only amplified when you add the transgender experience. So it’s not only that we don’t have enough support systems in place, it’s that there are systems in place that perpetuate inequality.
Also, it seems like communities of color are just more vocal about putting you in a box. People almost demand an answer. They’ll say things like, ‘If you’re gay, you’re gay!" I think that’s one of the reasons that many of us transition early–to comply with those internal and external pressures. Economics is also a factor. There’s such an urgency to transition with success and assimilate into society so you can get a normal job and you don’t have to live this underground life. Time is literally working against you.
Meanwhile, it seems that our white counterparts transition later in life. They tend to be more established, have their education and the money to transition. Also, if you’re, say, a white transgender woman, white, male privilege hasn’t automatically left you.
This makes me think about how Tyra Hunter was hit by a car and died because the paramedics paused to laugh at her when they realized she was transgender. I think about how the hospital refused her care. Had she been white, I truly believe they would have been too fearful of a lawsuit to behave this way.
Support, Self-Love and How to Be Beautiful
Despite all of the grim reports, I am encouraged. Today my church, Covenant Baptist UCC, is my support system. It is full of phenomenal, well-educated people who have gone to bat for LGBT issues and believe everyone has the right to be who they are.
We’re seeing more and more influential transgender people of color like writer Janet Mock, Isis King from "America’s Top Model" or my friend Dr. A. Elliot, an African American transgender woman who practices medicine here in Washington, D.C. We have social justice organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality and health groups Transgender Health Empowerment and blogs like TransGriot. We’re more visible and we’re talking about how our peers are dying because they’re transgender.
And for the first time in my life, I feel like the African American trans community is beginning to work together; technology has helped us with that. I also think we’re much kinder to ourselves. We got our start in ballroom culture, which is all about being passable, pretty and fierce. But I think our collective understanding of beauty has become wider and more inclusive.
Personally speaking, I feel a sense of freedom. I’ve undergone this journey and I feel more comfortable in my skin than I ever have. I no longer concern myself with being the most passable woman. I used to worry about that a lot. Now I just try to be the best woman I can be. I can say that I’ve undergone a shift in my mentality. I now realize that basing womanhood on being passable devalues other women. I assume that most people know that I’m transgender and I’m OK with people knowing. I’m proud of my experiences. Most importantly, I love myself.
Editor’s note: For more on the intersection of race and LGBT politics, check out "Better Together," a report from the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.com.