When Ben Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP, answered my question about Black trans lives last week at the Stanford panel on “Policy and the Path to Justice,” his answer left many in shock. To me, it was just a confirmation of an everyday reality. The following is not meant to “call out” Jealous for what he did. It is meant to call him in, to call all those who might have done or continue to do the same thing in. This is meant to shed light on the experiences of those of us who are stuck between life and death, between Black Lives Matter and the transgender tipping point.
On Monday, May 23rd, Ben Jealous set the stage for an audience — in which there were many Black and queer/trans folks, including myself — by attempting to prove his allyship in stating that he had a friendship with a trans woman. After establishing this staging, he went on to (within the context that the audience had) severely misgender her. However the individual he was referring to chooses to identify, what Jealous did was inherently, and most definitely, violent.
Stanford NAACP and Stanford in Government hosted a panel with three Black organizers across the US: Charlene Carruthers of the Black Youth Project 100, DeRay Mckesson of Campaign Zero, and Ben Jealous, former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In social justice oriented work, we sometimes fail to recognize that everyday experiences — the interpersonal and the internal — are some of the most contested sites in the fight to dismantle systems of oppression, so I asked the members of the panel directly: what were they doing in their lives to tackle and deconstruct sexism? Transphobia? Homophobia? What were they doing for Black trans lives? For Black queer lives?
All night, I’d heard, especially from Jealous and McKesson, how they had dedicated time and effort toward pursuing policy to benefit Black and brown trans women — one of the most highly targeted populations in relation to hate crime violence in the United States. When I asked my question, I wasn’t necessarily seeking out a response from Charlene. She had provided a clear argument for why centering our most marginalized identities in the fight for liberation liberates us all. She declared: “We need to move past ‘allyship’ for trans folks through policy. Are we hiring them? Are we honoring and amplifying them in positions of leadership?”
My question was geared towards the two cis-Black men on that panel. It’s easy to talk the talk when policy and paper are doing the talking, but I want to know if you are walking the walk in your personal life, with regards to yourself and the individuals you interact with. I want you to show us what it means to decolonize your spirit, deconstruct, and systematically interrogate the habits bestowed upon you by a cis-white-heteropatriarchal society.
It’s not uncommon for activist communities and radical spaces to have problematic dynamics. We are all capable of re-inflicting the harm that is done to us, systematically, back out onto other bodies and identities. We see it in the way white women don’t come through for Black feminism and Black women. We see it in the way Black men come through with misogynoir. I see it in organizing spaces, where cis-men are disrespectful, mansplaining, and (violently) taking up space, relative to other marginalized identities in the room (women, gender non-conforming, trans and queer-identified, etc). If you are not embodying the spirit of your so-called politic in your daily endeavors, to me, you are not embodying it at all. So I asked each of them: What are you doing?
Jealous was the first to grab the mic. And boy… did he grab the mic.
He began by discussing some of the policy he had supported, focusing on advocating for Black trans women. Not answering my question, but a valid attempt preceding his blunder. Jealous called on what I like to title the “I have a [insert token]friend/family” response. The age-old answer that white folks have utilized when attempting to claim anti-racism: “I have a Black friend, I swear I’m not racist!”
He spoke of his “adopted brother who was a boy but is now a Black trans woman sex worker in the Tenderloin.” He referred to her with he/him pronouns, continuously, and kept referencing her as his brother.
Jasmine Hill, the moderator for the evening, very gently and graciously called Jealous in by asking him to refer to this woman’s pronouns with she/her. In response, he refused, claiming ownership over this person’s identification through his longstanding relationship with them. Apparently, knowing someone throughout their life, both before, and after transitioning, gives you the authority to gender them as you see fit. I’m experiencing this right now with my family. My parents refuse to refer to me with my preferred name or use gender-neutral pronouns. Several family members have established that it is within their right to call me the name I was given at birth, explicitly letting me know they do not care how I identify, nor do they wish to respect it. There is a serious carelessness to this kind of claim to “freedom of speech and expression.”
Their active choice to disregard how I identify is a form of entitlement oftentimes embodied by cisgender folks. As a result, I don’t come home, or when I do come home, I don’t argue. I’m too busy having to prove my existence to the world everyday — I have people demanding to know my gender, I get kicked out of bathrooms, I am profiled, judged, and harassed — to have to also do it with the people who have known me longest. The difference is, they don’t know me now. And I’m too tired to explain because when I try, I get assaulted with the same defenses. They recall up images of my past in order to somehow justify how my present (for them) is not a reality.
Whether or not Jealous’s adopted sister refers to her past self in the context of he/him pronouns is something we will never know. What I do know, is that Jealous mishandled the situation. Even after several collective sighs from the audience, dismayed looks by accompanying panel members DeRay and Charlene, and another attempt by Jasmine to diminish the intensity of the micro-aggression, Jealous refused to either apologize or correct his behaviour towards the audience. He, at one point, said, “he… she… whatever…” and waved his hand in the air before continuing on, once again acting as though knowing this individual since childhood was an excuse for his behavior.
There are several dynamics at play here. The first is very clearly and obviously ego. The man knew he’d made a mistake, following his statement. It was evident because while Charlene followed up with an emotional moment triggered by his response, he chose to look at his phone and ignore the panel for the remainder of the event.
The second dynamic is that of male entitlement in the space. I’d received news from several folks attending the event that throughout the talk, Jealous had taken up his fair share of air time. In fact, someone timed him during one of his responses, and came to a six minute marker before he wound down to a close. This is not a centering of marginalized identities in the space. This is no introspective way of handling and occupying a leadership position. Mansplaining to the Black woman moderating the panel, after a royal screw up does not make you a better man, leader, ally, or partner.
Whether you like it or not, it makes you a perpetrator of violence. Through the silencing of women’s voices; through the active taking up of space as a cis-male body, one that is predisposed to occupying said space; through the inability to understand how consciously choosing to gender a trans woman in front of an audience on a panel around social justice is an act of violence; through all of this, you are inadvertently answering my original question. The answer?
There is work to be done.
There is work to be done around accountability, especially for a national leader of a social justice oriented organization. Apparently, Jealous had been recorded using male pronouns for the very same individual when referencing her at a keynote address in 2012 for the National LGBTQ Task Force. If you are going to bring up a trans person on a public platform, you should be solidly aware of how they identify. If how they refer to themselves does shift across time, then it is your responsibility to contextualize that for your public. Otherwise, don’t bring them up at all.
When you are called in by a moderator who has your and everyone’s best intentions at heart, apologize. Admit that you made a mistake and impacted the room in a harmful manner. I promise, you will be more respected as a leader when you show yourself and your vulnerabilities to the people you claim to fight for. We are here, we have always been here, and we have always been listening.
There is work to be done around the deconstructing of toxic masculinities. I want to make it clear that I understand that holding a cis-Black man accountable requires nuance. Blackness complicates these conversations — the typical trope of, “don’t speak up when a Black man does you wrong, we can’t let the white man have an excuse to drag him in the dirt.” That is real. As Black people we have to deal with stereotypes that permeate our very existence in this world — biases that determine how we are perceived walking down the street, into a shop, and into our own homes.
But this does not mean cis-Black men are incapable of perpetuating discriminatory practices towards Black women, trans folks, and queer folks. We are all capable, and we should all be held accountable.
I can still remember how it felt, when Jealous responded: the visceral arch in my back, the caving in of my chest, the iron fist around my heart, the breath being knocked out of my lungs. I didn’t expect to react this way. I didn’t expect to react at all.
Anyone who says otherwise is indifferent to the ways in which the vast array of marginalized identities that navigate society are forced to do so, while dealing with various biases and phobias placed against them.
Racism. Sexism. Transphobia. Homophobia. Ableism. The list goes on.
Reese Walker. 32 years old. Reese was a beloved daughter, LGBTQ advocate, attended beautician school, and was looking forward to pursuing social work. She loved drama, the arts, and music. Her family described her as the life of the party. Reese was found, brutally murdered, with multiple stab wounds and cuts on Sunday, May 1st of this year, in her apartment in Wichita, Kansas. She was a Black Trans woman.
Keyonna Blakeney. 22 years old. Keyonna studied at Bowie State University, worked at Mac Cosmetics, and lived in Washington D.C. She was found deadfrom trauma to her body in April of this year in a Maryland hotel room. Keyonna was a Black Trans woman.
Shante Thompson. 34 years old (a month shy of 35). Shante was a Houston native, a beloved child. She was beaten, shot, and killed in early April of this year. Shante was a Black Trans woman.
Kedarie/Kandicee Johnson. 16 years old. Kedarie/Kandicee was known for “singing, listening to music, hanging out with friends, and surfing the internet.” They were a dancer and a budding stylist. Their body was found on March 2nd of this year in Burlington, Iowa with multiple gunshot wounds. Kedarie/Kandicee was Black and identified as genderqueer and genderfluid.
Amos Beed. 38 years old. Amos was an artist, a community member, and a loyal friend. He died in the hospital on Sunday, May 29th of this year after being viciously attacked in Burlington, Vermont. Amos identified as a white trans man.
Jasmine Sierra. 52 years old. Latin@ Transgender woman. Murdered on January 22nd, 2016.
Monica Loera. 43 years old. Latina Transgender woman. Murdered on January 22nd, 2016.
Maya Young. 25 years old. Black Transgender woman. Murdered on February 21st, 2016.
Demarkis Stamsberry. 30 years old. Black transgender man. Shot in the head in February of 2016.
These are but a few names of transgender individuals who were murdered this year. And these are only the reported names. Last year alone the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs responded to 22 homicides of transgender and gender-nonconforming people. 19 of these reported homicides were people of color.
As I was looking for more information on each of these beautiful souls, I was shocked to see how many articles online chose to misgender and/or not use the correct names of the victims. This speaks volumes on how the world sees us and our lived realities.
The invalidation hurts the most when it comes from the people closest to us, and for myself and many others, that includes direct and chosen family. Community is family — Black people are family. Black men are family. And yet I find myself time and time again disappointed with the lack of compassion and understanding awarded to me by these members of my family.
You don’t care.
That is what you say when you refuse to say my name. That is what you say when you refuse to use my pronouns. That is what you say when you misgender someone, even in death. That is what you say when you tell me, “it’s too hard to remember those pronouns” or, “they isn’t grammatically correct,” or “I’ve known this person my whole life, so it’s different.” That is what you say when you say “he… she…. whatever.”
You. Don’t. Care.
If you did, you would recognize the difference between intent and impact. You would interrogate whether or not your words will land with compassion and care and work to make sure they do.
We are constantly targeted for harassment as a result of our identities. We are dying because of our identities. As transgender people, and especially as Black and brown transgender people, we are in a state of emergency.
We are real. We exist, and we are not figments of your imagination. The least you could do to dignify our humanity is refer to us as we see fit and respect how we choose to identify.
If you do not practice your politics, your activism and allyship is bankrupt. The stakes are too high for an activism with a shallow depth of field. Bodies are on the line. We must be extrospective and introspective both in and outside of the spaces for which it is most convenient for us to be seen as legitimate movement builders and system shakers. This requires us to work, daily, to be aware of our behaviors, where they stem from, and whether or not they are in line with the rhetoric we spew around allyship.
Audre Lorde once said, “the quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.” It is important that we, in our many intersectional identities, strive towards an activism and an allyship which permeates all aspects of our lives. Let us all strive towards a beautiful quality of light.
Elijah Ndoumbé is a mixed/Black trans-genderqueer activist, artist, and third year African & African American studies major working to decolonize their mind, body, and spirit.