Culture & Conversation Human Rights

How the Movement for Black Lives Is Fighting Transphobia and the Patriarchy

Rachel Anspach

Movement leaders believe that activists are doing unprecedented work to combat gender and sexuality-based discrimination. Yet they agree that much remains to be done.

The queer Black women leading the 21st century’s Black liberation movement have been vocal about their aim to use an intersectional approach while fighting against state-sanctioned oppression.

“We are intentional about amplifying the particular experience of state and gendered violence that Black queer, trans, gender nonconforming, women and intersex people face,” states A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice, released by the Movement for Black Lives at the beginning of August. “There can be no liberation for all Black people if we do not center and fight for those who have been marginalized.”

The policy agenda is the fruition of an effort by over 50 organizations devoted to Black liberation, which came together to put the movement’s demands down on paper for the world to contend with. The entirety of the agenda was crafted with those “at the margin of the margin” in mind, said Ash-Lee Henderson, a member of the policy table leadership team that transformed the vision for the agenda into a reality.

While it represents a critical step in the effort to build an inclusive movement, organizers view the agenda’s goals to root out patriarchy and transphobia as aspirational. “This document will not get us free; it is a tool,” explained Henderson.

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Henderson, who also serves as Project South’s regional organizer, pointed to the agenda’s recommendations around economic justice and health care as particularly beneficial to femmes and Black women. The latter currently has a median wealth of $100, significantly lower than single Black men and white women.

The agenda’s recommendations include restructuring local taxes and fees to combat the disproportionate burden falling on the working class; increasing protections for domestic workers, farm workers, and others excluded from most labor protection policies; and expanding federal health care to include coverage for services needed by trans and gender-nonconforming individuals.

Cherno Biko, an organizer for Black Trans Lives Matter, thinks the agenda’s most pressing demands for Black trans folks are decriminalizing sex work; decriminalizing HIV; and defunding/demilitarizing the police. “The average income of a Black trans person in America is less than $10,000 a year, so many Black trans folks are forced into survival sex,” explained Biko. “[The state] makes our bodies illegal; they make how we have sex illegal.”

A report on the Baltimore Police Department released by the Justice Department on August 10 exposed the force’s routine discrimination against Black women, particularly those whom officers perceive to be transgender and/or sex workers. This included police refusing to investigate sexual assault reports from these populations and using slurs to blame victims for their own rapes—with a prosecutor referring to a woman who reported a sexual assault as a “conniving little whore” in an email to an officer, who responded “Lmao! I feel the same.”

Movement leaders believe that activists are doing unprecedented work to combat gender and sexuality-based discrimination. Yet they agree that much remains to be done. This work not only entails resisting hetero-patriarchy perpetuated by state institutions, but also its manifestations within the movement.

“Patriarchy exists, and it doesn’t just exist outside of liberation movements,” noted Henderson. “As we’re trying to dismantle the institutions that are harming Black women and Black people as a whole, patriarchy is one of them.”

For the activists I spoke to, manifestations of patriarchy in the movement are reflected in whose leadership is recognized by other activists; who is given the microphone at rallies; whose experiences of oppression activists put the greatest effort into making visible; and who is given the authority to make decisions at organizing tables.

With the policy agenda, activists seek to broaden dominant conceptions of state violence beyond the police killings that often gain media spotlight. At the same time, they recognize the importance of ensuring that the movement’s most visible narratives center women alongside mena goal that has yet to be realized.

“We’ve seen uprisings happen around Blackness, but only attached to Black men,” reflected Black liberation organizer Ashley Yates. “And now we have to keep doing that work to create the culture shift that says, once again, Black women matter too.” This means increasing organizing and media strategy efforts around cis and trans Black women who are victims of police brutality.

Activists pointed to the African American Policy Forum’s #SayHerName campaign as an example of what this ongoing culture shift looks like. #SayHerName launched in May 2015 with a report (of which I am a co-author) highlighting Black women’s experiences of police brutality, and a vigil in which family members who had lost Black women to police violence came together at Union Square in New York City to honor their loved ones.

Yates also emphasized that significant organizing is already being done around many women’s cases, yet mainstream media consistently fails to uplift these stories. For instance, BYP100 has done significant organizing work around Rekia Boyd, a young Black woman who off-duty Chicago police officer Dante Servin shot in the back of the head in 2012. These efforts—which have included national days of action and shutting down Chicago police accountability task force meetings—have received low levels of coverage from national outlets.

In addition to police violence, the interpersonal violence faced by Black women has not been one of the most visible narratives uplifted by the movement. Black Women’s Blueprint, an organization that helped shape the policy agenda, estimates that 60 percent of Black girls are sexually assaulted by their 18th birthday. Black trans women are particularly vulnerable to violence, with at least 19 trans people murdered so far in 2016, the vast majority being Black women.

The policy agenda strives to center Black women and femmes, but large gaps remain between the commitment and reality. The organizers I spoke with all emphasized Black women’s leadership as a key tactic in reaching their goals. “We’re making ourselves known as Black queer women not for an arbitrary reason, but because we need to do a culture shift,” explained Yates. “We need to hear about Black women making powerful decisions at organizing tables.” This is critical not only to change perceptions of women’s roles in social movements, but also to ensure that their experiences of marginalization are central to the movement’s goals, resources, and tactics.

Another related strategy is organizing convenings where women and femmes share their experiences of marginalization, brainstorm their vision for remedies to these injustices, and come up with concrete steps they can incorporate into their local organizing. Henderson facilitates the Southern Movement Assembly, regional convenings in which a wide range of advocates come together to create solutions to inequality in the southern United States (and beyond). Henderson mentioned the work of Women Watch Afrikawhich provides vital services to primarily African immigrants in DeKalb County, Georgia—as influenced by these convenings.

“We have to hold ourselves accountable to what we said we do, and make sure we do it every single day,” said Yates. “This means making space in everything we do to highlight and center Black women.”

For these organizers, this looks like developing political education tools to show how sexism and transphobia manifest in community life; finding non-academic language to foster conversations about gender and sexuality; and continuously coming up with creative strategies to counter intersectional oppression from the state. In these efforts, the policy agenda provides a critical tool for organizers.

There is no clear or easy path to rooting out overlapping systems of oppression, but organizers remain hopeful. “Many of us are putting our very bodies and families out here for the rest of our lives until we see freedom,” said Henderson. “Because of those trans folks, those gender nonconforming folks, those women that I see all across the country and globe that are doing this work, I have so much faith that we are going to be able to do real transformative work together towards winning.”

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