Trans Women of Color Are Being Slaughtered: Here’s Why It Matters to a White Mom in Maine.
by Emily Wedick
The murder of Ebony Morgan in Lynchburg, VA this week marks the 15th slaughter of a transgender woman of color in 2017. The systematic erasure of society’s most marginalized and vulnerable population is nothing short of an epidemic, and none of my friends outside of the trans activist community are talking about it.
I’m a white mom in Maine, a state that is 94 percent white. (Yes, take that statistic in for a moment.) My daughters are learning about race not through their daily interactions, but through books designed to help white kids in white towns understand diversity. On her Women’s March sign, my 5-year old daughter asked for help to spell out “you can have different skin,” underneath large letters scrawling, “I [heart] everyone.” She understands injustice, but she cannot yet comprehend the benefits she reaps from being white.
She also bears a burden that she does not yet understand.
An idyllic childhood in coastal Maine has forged my daughter’s love of the sea and the treasures washed up by the tide. She is constantly curious, windblown, and in motion. She’s obsessed with obscure animal facts, fairytale princesses, and pirates, and she can make fantastical creations out of the couch cushions. She is also transgender.
Because my daughter is transgender, I worry. But because my daughter is white, because she lives in a supportive community, I know that my daughter will always have safe shelter. I also know that is not the case for the mothers of black, Latinx, and indigenous transgender girls.
Because we live in a progressive community, I feel safe sharing our story in op-eds and on morning radio. I speak out on the steps of city hall and am covered by the local news. I share trans-related advocacy pieces on social media in hopes of invigorating my friends and family into action.
I always reserve a line or two to raise awareness about the elevated vulnerabilities for trans people of color, but I’ve never focused my message and outrage around it. Writers are told, “write what you know.” I know I will never fully conceptualize the terror and injustice that black trans women, and those who love them must suffer. But now I am paying attention, and it has taken these murders for me to realize that maybe that’s exactly the point.
Because my daughter is transgender, I worry about her self-esteem. I worry about her being bullied at school. I worry about bigoted bathroom bans and other transphobic legislation. But because my daughter is white, because she lives in a loving home, in a supportive community, with an affirming school, I know that my daughter will always have safe shelter. I know that her risk for suicide — while steeply elevated as a trans youth in comparison with her cisgender (non-transgender) peers — will be diminished because of these advantages. I also know that is not the case for the mothers of black, Latinx, and indigenous transgender girls.
2016 was the deadliest year on record for transgender women in America, and 2017 is already catching up at an alarming rate.
Transgender women of color represent one of the most targeted groups of violent hate crimes and homicide in America. 2016 was the deadliest year on record for transgender women in America, with 27 brutal murders on record, most women of color. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs released a report on multi-year trends in which more than two thirds of the homicide victims were transgender women of color. And 2017 is already catching up at an alarming rate.
Earlier this year, I had the honor of seeing TV presenter, author, transgender activist, and total icon Janet Mock speak at Colby College, a small and well-heeled liberal arts school in central Maine. Ms. Mock paid homage to Sylvia Rivera and Marcia P. Johnson, the oft-forgotten trans women of color who ignited the gay liberation movement with the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969. They were the mothers of a movement that rejected them. Nearly 50 years after the Stonewall riots and two years after the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, transgender people are still fighting for what Ms. Mock called “the lowest common denominator,” the basic right to exist in public spaces, the right to use the bathroom.
It may be difficult to recognize when you have privilege, but it is brutally clear when you don’t.
Privilege is a concept that can make people uncomfortable. It may be difficult to recognize when you have it (privilege and wealth don’t always go hand-in-hand), but it is brutally clear when you don’t. All women face a certain degree of gender-based discrimination, from unfair pay, to harassment, to sexual violence. There are far too many white women living beneath the poverty line in my state, whose children are hungry, who lack basic healthcare, who rely on diminishing social protections for survival, who are caught in a cycle of poverty. Soaring rates of opioid addiction and related deaths are a fierce epidemic in Maine. No doubt, many of the women affected understand systematic oppression.
But once you layer on enough vulnerabilities, your very existence becomes a radical act. Transgender women of color live at the perilous intersection of racism, sexism, and transphobia. As a result, many are too poor to access basic protections, like housing. This leaves countless trans women of color homeless and utterly vulnerable to unimaginable street crimes. Not to mention those engaged in sex work as their only viable employment, for which they are shamed, and often blamed for the horrors that befall them.
Dismantling the power structures that allow trans women of color to become so vulnerable in the first place (such as policies that perpetuate homelessness, unemployment, cycles of addiction, and discrimination) starts with moms like me recognizing how we’re privileged in society, even as we face challenges of our own. We can and must educate our children about institutional racism, misogyny, and transphobia. If we can teach our children (and remind ourselves) to hold deep empathy for those who’ve been relegated to the edges of society, maybe one day we can break down the stigma keeping trans women of color in the shadows.
They say a rising tide lifts all boats. If we can start by lifting up our most vulnerable, who knows? Maybe we’ll begin to brick together a social safety net that can raise us all. In the meantime, trans women of color are sinking fast, and it is time for all of us to start talking about this violence. Not in spite of the fact that we are least affected, but because of it. Moms of privilege, we have the power to change the conversation. It starts with raising awareness in our own homes and communities, transgender child notwithstanding.