UPDATE: United Airlines Apologizes and Makes Trans-Inclusive Policy Change.
The (In) Humanity of Being Black AND Transmasculine. 21 Year Old Black Trans Rutger’s University Ph.D. Student Physically Threatened Aboard United Airlines Flight from Newark to LAX.
“The black transgender lacks any being-in-the-world, and the lure of gendered embodiment functions as a foil to black muteness. In other words, the body is called upon to speak being where there is none. Black bodily experience is charged with the impossible — to transform black into ontological subject. Indeed, a body is not an ontology. Embodiment might provide the ground for phenomenological experience, but once “ontology leaves existence by the wayside,” as Fanon (1967a: 110) suggests, black embodied experience is unexplainable and inassimilable ontologically.”
— Calvin Warren; Calling into Being: Tranifestation, Black Trans, and the Problem of Ontology. TSQ 1 May 2017; 4 (2): 266–274. doi: https://doi-org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/10.1215/23289252-3815057
Dr. Calvin Warren is a Professor whom I applied to work with in graduate school. He writes some of the most intelligent work about the zones of non-being synonymous with being categorized as Black in an anti-white world. In other words, white people in Italy during the 15th century defined the ‘human’ to always exclude Black people. Blackness ontologically ( or in essence) is the foil for the human. Therefore, Black subjectivity inaugurated through the forced kidnapping and trafficking of Africans; or for Black people the process of becoming trans-Atlantic, makes Black trans people perhaps one the most productive sites to see white supremacists commitment to eradicating Black life.
I offer these reflections to introduce the following events which happened on March 6th, 2019. What follows below is my account of what happened on United Airlines flight 2394 traveling from Newark to Los Angeles.
Tonight, while I should be free to write my senior thesis this evening, I write this essay on the floor of the LAX International Airport. It is likely, I will not eat dinner tonight because the dining hall will be closed when I make it back to my undergraduate campus of Pitzer College. My flight landed at 5:17 pm, but I had just spent the last three hours attempting to avoid arrest. I write this in a hurry, so I challenge you to read for meaning despite any grammar mistakes which may appear in the below text.
While I was on a flight back to my undergraduate campus in Southern California from a campus visit to Rutgers University, a white middle age man threatened to punch me in the face during my flight to LAX. He was allowed to leave. I was questioned. This is what it means to be Black and trans in America.
I will answer the question the manager asked me at the gate when I filed a report about being verbally assaulted on board a plane. Why did he threaten you?
Why does the world hate Black trans people?
These are both questions I carry with me in my body tonight. Here are the sequence of events to my recollection. A great deal of this story can be corroborated by a video I attach at the end of this article (Content Warning: Anti-Blackness). Additionally, Jean Tauber, a journalist who I sat next two once I was moved by the United Staff to the front of plane, can support this testimony.
After boarding in group four at 1:40 pm EST, I fell asleep for the first two hours of the flight. When I woke up in seat 36 C, the passenger directly in front of me, in 35 C, had reclined his seat back to the point in which the tray table pressed into my sternum. I did not protest but rather as I woke up I took out my laptop, and began some course work.
He had reclined his seat all the way back to my knees , but then turned around in a rage and expressed that “my knees were in his back.” I then responded the only thing I said during the interaction “You can’t take up all the space.” He then loudly proclaimed loudly enough for multiple rows to hear that he was about to “punch me in the fucking face.”
As a proud Black femme boi who is 5”7 and 135 pounds, the amount of space this man was taking up to hit my knees is actually incredible. I know he was aware that I was not a cis man. Even though it is likely did not have the grammar, to articulate my identity, he observed and then attacked my anti-normativity because it was in proximity to his space (or rather, my seat). Black trans people are often told we do not make sense in either the white trans community or the Black heterosexual community. We have created terms like boi, stud, femmeboi, papi, etc to try and make anew identities which reflect our reality. My trans and/or queer aesthetic triggered trans panic for this white man.
After the threat, I said loudly, “ You just threatened to physically assault me, and called over a white male flight attendant.” He then intervened, and asked me what had happened. After I described the events, he told us both to “get along” and walked away. I wonder what would have happened to me if this white gay man did not scold him. How would have the situation been handled if I was the aggressor? He was simply told to be nice and not argue.
For the next twenty minutes of the flight I felt unsafe and had this white man continuously turning around in agitation. He continued to encroach on the seat Rutgers University had paid for on my behalf. A fabulous graduate visit was tarnished because I was reminded yet again that I will never be safe even when doing mundane things which may seem to cis people as completely devoid of political meaning. This was embarrassing and I felt unsafe.
A white flight female attendant eventually came up to me and then told me she would move my seat. I told her I appreciated the act. She then informed me once we arrived to the back of the cabin to wait for my new seat, that she did not believe that the man had said he would punch me in the face. I told her that I had immediately called over another flight attendant, who I then called over again to corroborate my story.
Once I had evidence, I became bothered by her attempts to undermine my experience, and told her that as a Black trans passenger, I felt disrespected. She retorted that she agreed I was taking up too much space, because she had tripped over my feet when I had been sleeping during the flight. I informed her of my chronic sleep apnea, and perhaps, I would not have had my feet in the aisle if I had been given the leg room I was entitled to just like the other passengers. I then had to cite the American’s with Disability Act to discuss how sleeping without a CPAP machine can potentially cause these types of disruptions in my movement while sleeping. Still, I apologized for the inconvenience.
She then informed me, that he had apologized to her for threatening to punch me in the face. I then told her, that I was extremely upset that I was being questioned when I had threatened no ones physical being. I told her that if as a Black trans masculine person, I knew that if had I threatened to physically harm to a white man, I would be arrested. She then through unlogics of colonialism placed her racial science onto my body looking me up and down and saying that at first, “she didn’t even know I was Black.”
At this point the entire experience felt surreal. I told her to stop being so racist because Black looks every single way, sweetie. I informed her that I would likely be calling 911 when we landed. She then agreed to moved me to Economy Plus and apologized.
I told her as a working class person I stand in solidarity with her, but, in this moment, she had sided with someone who had threatened to physically harm another passenger. Agitated, she told me I should be grateful for her assistance loading my bag into an overhead bin before take off. I wondered if she expected this same gratitude for her service from the white middle ages cis man and his wife who sat in front of me?
I am 21 year old first generation graduate student simply visiting graduate programs. I am by all standards of respectability politics, patriarchy, and pigmentocracy extremely privileged. Yet, I was almost assaulted for doing nothing but sitting on a plane. My racial identity was then called into question when I cited the reasons for my feelings of unease. She called me “mixed race” just like many of United’s Flight Attendants.
Here, I gesture towards another theorist Dr. Jared Sexton and his brilliant critique of ‘multiculturalism’ in the aftermath of Neoliberalism. I bring Sexton into my narrative, to point to the way in which white supremacy is centered in ‘mixed narratives.’ In other words, there are no pure races — ergo, I am Black. Capital B. See how my Blackness and flesh becomes a contested border under the everyday logics of white supremacy. Everyday I wake up Black and grateful for the divine blessing of having ancestors of African descent.
I am grateful for my safety, but I also feel the weight of knowing that as a Black trans person, I am never safe in this country. No degree will ever protect me from the mission of white supremacy — to murder me and then erase my legacy.
I had a wonderful visit to Rutgers GWS, but I am angry that this trip has to be tarnished by this memory. How does society continue to crush me to maintain the monopoly white, cis, and heterosexual men hold on masculinity?
These threats of physical assault are what it means to be Black and trans masculine in this world. I’m tried of being in danger because of patriarchal masculinity, and then having trans misogyny being mobilized to discredit trans masculine people’s experience, by nonsensically charging masculine of center people as the major site of the production of toxic masculinity. Of course, anyone can be an agent of the patriachy. To be Black and trans masculine is to fight for a sacred masculinity. Just because a cisgender imaginary limits an understanding of masculinity outside of the enclosure of cisgender identity — it does not mean that masculinity is a synonym for toxicity. Look no further than Stormie Delarvie, a Stonewall Riot Veteran and famous male impersonator, for historical evidence.
As an abolitionist, I chose to not call the Police (slave patrol) when we landed. I also wanted to get back to my campus, as I have an honors senior thesis to complete. However, I ask where were the bystanders to stand up for me? What if I had not learned to advocate for myself?
For the remainder of the flight, about 2 and 1/2 hours, I finally sat next to a older gay white man traveling to a journalism conference. He helped me while I was literally shaking in fear, and we later before departing, exchanged emails. I also believe a Federal Air Marshal came and spoke with me about the physical threat made on my person. However, I cannot stress enough that in a plane with a full crew and flight deck, over a hundred people watched me be harassed, without reason, by a man nearly twice my size. Then, my fellow passengers watched two white female attendants actively cross examine, and further criminalize me. I recorded some of my interactions with them. I will link this video below. The video begins when we the flight landed and I was about to deplane.
The flight attendant tried to force me off the plane when we landed. I gathered my things and recorded this video.
I recorded the white flight attendants, because I knew just like Jussie Smollet — my humanity would be denied. You cannot violate Black trans masculine people because like Eva Hayward said in describing our Black trans sisters, we as Black trans people, are told “Don’t Exist” for the double crime of being both Black and transgressing the boundaries gender — an always contradictory an active process. The fabricated libel of me “taking space” is the coded way in which white men continue to enact an endless cycle of violence against colonized people stolen from the continent of Africa.
I continuously repeated through out the entire ordeal, that this was racial bias, and I understood that as a Black trans organizer that if I had threatened to punch someone in the face while on board, I would surely be taken off the flight in handcuffs. As I continued to repeat my claims, the all white crew grew increasingly uncomfortable. I was asked by four different United Employees, what I did to provoke being verbally assaulted. Again, I answer nothing. What will the do to help me that night? Nothing.
I was physically threatened by a white cis heterosexual man because I was existing in my body in a classed space. I am not supposed to be in an airplane, and perhaps, even in the academy. But yet, I still am.
I deplaned and immediately walked up to the woman of color working at the gate, I continued to disclose what had just happened. She saw I was upset and assisted me in getting over to customer service. After a tremendous wait, I filed a report about what happened on-board the flight: being physically threatened, criminalized, and then having to record the flight attendants to ensure I was not arrested. I did nothing wrong but exist.
No one on the plane came to my aid. What if I did not have this language? What if I did not have the strength to advocate for myself and document this hate crime? I have undergone so much violence in this journey to graduate school, and yet I was still shocked and scared.
This has been already an extremely challenging semester as an undergraduate visiting and making graduate decisions. I am one of the only Afro-Latinx trans masculine people in the Academy. We must note, how Black trans masculine people are always already criminalized by the state for our ontological existence. My body attempted to what Continental philosphy never can, hold space for me being. Black trans people are undergoing a genocide because we dare to exist in spaces designated for normative bodies. I will never be the EnLIGHTENments version of the human because Blackness troubles cisheteronormative investments which manage and foreclose subjectivity through the violent imposition of the colonial process: hierarchical conceptions of Western gender.
In the end, no academic degree will not protect you. Underneath the 45th President of the United States, white men feel emboldened to attack and threaten trans masculine people.
The manager I filed a report with, was a Black women named Ms. Evans who apologized for the interaction. and agreed to file a report on my behalf. However, she cited that the flight attendants would likely file a counter report citing that I had kicked the back of the mans seat. Not only is this a ludicrous and felicitous lie — but it is the exact arm of the prison industrial complex which has incarcerated every “legal male” in my family, but and maybe yet, myself.
I would like to use this moment to call awareness to two Black transmasculine people who were physically attacked for existing in public space last year: KP and Zahir. I stand in solidarity with KP Martinez, Ky Peterson, Zahir Malachi Martinez, and the thousands of TQPOC survivors of violence and harassment who are intimidated from disclosing the violence we all experience for the crime of living in our truth. I am still living for the day when I can heal and not have to instantly archive my aggressors in order to be believed. Trust Black trans people. Protect Black trans masculine people.
I’m alright y’all I just need a minute to catch up and recover. Please expect slow response time till Monday. In the meantime, please support the campaigns below.
@UnitedAIrlines how are you protecting your trans, Black, and disabled passengers?
#boycottUnited #UnitedinWhiteSupremacy #BlackTransLivesMatter Black Lives Matter
Please see below other rampant examples of United’s mission to enforce white supremacy 10,000 feet above sea level.
Amanda Stevens was preparing to board her flight from Albany to Chicago She was told that her T-shirt was making the…www.dailymail.co.uk
video evidence: https://youtu.be/9ziZ6dzUtpw
UPDATE: 24 HOURS after incident no response from United. I am calling on all academic institutions who support Black trans people to BOYCOTT UNITED AIRLINES. #BlackTransLiveMatter
Final update: United Airlines apologizes and funds round trip flight to Amsterdam! I will now be able to attend my houses’ 50th anniversary. United listened to me and hired LGBT organizations to address people’s pronouns on board. The USA now has its first airline with trans awareness and gender diverse pronoun options.