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    Categories: Commentary

We Cannot Remain Silent

When this time in history is looked back upon by future generations, we will be judged by our ability to support a more inclusive society where everyone—regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual identity or expression, religion, disability status or any other socially constructed identifier—is able to feel safe and live free from discrimination and fear of harm.

In America, in 2017, it is sadly still the case that too many people live in fear of being harassed, abused or killed. This unfortunate reality is exceptionally true for transgender people—especially for transgender people of color. Consider for a moment that in this year alone, 21 transgender people have reportedly been killed, and with the exception of two, all of these individuals were transgender people of color. The neglect of transgender people is among the most important human and civil rights issues of our times.  As a country committed to liberty and justice for all, not a single one among us can remain silent about or disengaged in the work required to end the constant attacks, literal and figurative, on our transgender family members.

Growing up as a little Black boy in Inglewood, California, I did not meet or see people who showed up in the world like me–a strong Black person who is equally proud of being LGBTQ or same gender loving (SGL). As the Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), a national civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black LGBTQ/SGL people, I now have the honor and responsibility of supporting Black families by centering the lives of Black people who are often neglected—those of us whose lives are too frequently rendered unworthy or invisible.

This erasure happens too frequently for Black transgender and gender nonconforming people who are some of the most marginalized members of the Black community and society, more generally.

It is for these reasons that NBJC partnered with the National Center for Transgender Equality, Black Transmen, Inc., and Black Transwomen, Inc., to release a report highlighting responses of Black transgender people who completed the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS). Within the Report on the Experiences of Black Respondents, we can learn more about the many obstacles that must be overcome by individuals who are both Black and transgender in America.

Consider, for example, that among respondents, 20% reported being unemployed, twice the rate among Black people in the U.S. population (10%) and 38% of Black respondents were living in poverty, compared to 24% of Black people nationally.

When it comes to accessing culturally competent health care services, 34% of the respondents who saw a health care provider in the past year reported having at least one negative experience related to being transgender, including: reduced treatment; verbal harassment; and physical or sexual assault. These experiences further shine a light on the fact that health disparities like HIV continue to disproportionately impact our transgender family—6.7% of the Black respondents were living with HIV, which is nearly five time the rate of all USTS respondents overall.

These findings are alarming and should elicit the support of leaders, both elected and self-appointed. For too long, Black transgender and gender nonconforming people have been willing to give their blood, sweat and tears for the advancement of Black liberation—and we continue to fall dismally short of standing with them as they are attacked by occupants of the White House and members of our community. The liberation of African descendents requires that we support the liberation of Black transgender individuals as none of us can be free until all of us are free.

At NBJC, we are committed to advocating for policies at the intersections of civil rights and LGBTQ rights. The data in the Report on the Experiences of Black Respondents from USTS highlights disparities that must be discussed and remedied. Elected leaders and government officials, at every level, must do their part to address the many issues that uniquely and disproportionately impact the lives of too many Black transgender people.

In addition to ensuring that we hold leaders accountable for doing their job, it is also important that we, as a community, do the work required to change our language and confront the practices that negatively impact the lives of our Black transgender and gender nonconforming family members.  

We must do the work required to ensure our Black transgender family members are safe and supported in meaningful and authentic ways—this includes confronting those using offensive language designed to exclude and offend. No longer can we allow transgender people to be bullied, harassed and murdered without speaking up and acting out—in positive and productive ways. We have to correct our own loved ones when they misgender someone or stigmatize transgender people for simply being.

Most importantly, we must build a community where our transgender family are loved without the threat of abuse or violence, and empowered to live out their dreams where poverty and life circumstances are not suffocating.

The continued killings of primarily transgender people of color each year happen mostly at the hands of other people of color. This means that all of our families, communities, organizations, places of worship and any other space of influence must be talking about what we will do to end the violence and build inclusive environments that recognize, affirm and support Black transgender people. This is the work that we will be judged upon.  

— David J. Johns is the Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition