Still No Freedom Rainbow for Transgender People of Color

Fifteen years after Tyra Hunter's death spawned national outrage, trans people of color remain besieged by bias.

By Mandy Carter Feb 07, 2011

It was the morning of Aug. 7, 1995, and Tyra Hunter, a popular African-American hairdresser, was on her way to work in Washington, D.C. Suddenly, the car she was in was broadsided. In this situation, one would expect that Hunter would have promptly been taken to a hospital, where she would have received whatever medical care she needed. But tragically, and outrageously, that is not what happened.

When emergency personnel arrived on the scene, they helped the barely-conscious Hunter out of the car and began treating her, but only until one of them realized she was transgender after cutting open her clothing. At that point, they backed away from her, began laughing at her and taunting her with anti-transgender slurs. They stopped treating her in a life-threatening situation. In what world does someone sworn to help others in emergency situations stop treating them to attack them?

When she was finally transported to a hospital, her ordeal didn’t end. Doctors refused to treat her, and by the time she was finally granted medical care, it was too late. Hunter was pronounced dead the same day.

Tyra Hunter’s death outraged us–and launched us into action. It became a national symbol of the hate directed at transgender people. It led to a successful lawsuit filed by her mother against the city, and to the establishment of Transgender Health Empowerment, an organization that opened D.C.’s first drop-in center for the transgender community. Yet while transgender people have taken some steps forward in the past 15 years, too many continue to face the same grim reality of discrimination that killed Hunter.

The fact is that transgender people–in particular, transgender people of color–have simply not experienced the same strides forward as their lesbian, gay and bisexual brothers and sisters. A landmark new report, "Injustice at Every Turn," presents undeniable proof. This report, released on Friday, is based on a comprehensive survey of over 6,000 transgender people and the findings are too shocking to ignore, especially when it comes to African-American transgender people.

Our transgender brothers and sisters are far more likely to lack proper medical care, to be unemployed, to live in extreme poverty, and to be HIV-positive–and that’s when compared to their white transgender counterparts, not just the general population. The survey’s respondents were four times more likely than the general population to live in extreme poverty. One in five reported having been refused a home or apartment, another one in five report having been refused health care. More than one in five, 22 percent, reported having been harassed by law enforcement, and nearly half reported fear of seeking assistance from police. African American respondents reported all of this in even higher numbers.

As an African-American lesbian, my feet are in both communities, yet I see and experience the constant divide between them. We need to build a bridge and "construction" needs to start on both banks and meet in the middle. To me, this says that there is timely and much needed work to do in our heterosexual African-American community to educate ourselves about and begin to include the LGBT community in our issues. Understanding that that "gay" doesn’t mean rich, white and male.

As importantly, the white LGBT community must come to grips with the impact of race and the economic disparity within our own ranks, and create the space for the very difficult conversations needed to address the reality of white privilege.

There is clearly an intersection between a broader, structural racism throughout our society and the pervasive prejudice against transgender people. For instance, because black transgender people tend to start out from a position of greater poverty than their white counterparts, they all too often have no strong safety net to support them if they come out and are rejected by their families. As a result, many black transgender people wind up on the streets, too often trading sex for physical, or emotional, survival. So no wonder that black transgender people in the survey reported a rate of HIV infection over 41 times higher than the national average (for comparison, the total respondent pool reported a rate of "only" four times the national average).

These findings, then, are a challenge to all of us. We cannot afford to simply bemoan these grim statistics; we must take action to lift up the T in "LGBT."

As someone who has been out, visible, and active in the social, racial and lesbigaytrans movements for 43 years, I have long seen this need firsthand. We need to challenge the many establishment gay organizations who unfortunately have a history of neglecting the needs of those who are not white, male, or upper middle-class. Yet much of the time, our own black LGBT organizations similarly fail to give visibility to the black transgender community. This has to change–now.

I have high hopes for what we can accomplish if we address this problem not just as an LGBT issue, but also as a broader black civil rights issue. When Tyra Hunter died, it might have been unthinkable that the NAACP, at its 100th annual conference in 2009, would announce a partnership with the leading black LGBT civil rights organization, the National Black Justice Coalition, to form a first-ever task force on LGBT equality. Fifteen years ago, few could have imagined that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of faith would find an accepting home in LGBT-affirming black churches, but today they do.

This report is a much needed wake-up-call to all of us in the LGBT movement, and all of those committed to civil rights. The facts are clear: discrimination against black people and against transgender people is deeply intertwined. And we cannot truly be either for gay rights or for racial equality if we overlook an entire population.

I have long said prejudice is prejudice whether it is based on skin color or sexual orientation or gender identity. And maybe the best folks to be making this point are LGBT people of color who embody both. Tyra Hunter is no longer with us to carry that message, but for her and all those we have lost or who live in pain and silence, we must build that bridge, we must make those connections and we must push for change.

Mandy Carter, a nationally recognized black lesbian activist, has been an organizer in social, racial, and lesbigaytrans justice movements since 1968. A co-founder of the National Black Justice Coalition, she lives in Durham, North Carolina.