End the Toxic Silence: Protect Black Transgender Women

Photo courtesy Wiki Commons

William T. Hoston, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Political Science
 University of Houston — Clear Lake, author of Toxic Silence


In 2018, transgender women of color in the US are again facing a widespread epidemic of transphobic violence and murders. Nineteen transgender deaths have been reported as of September, mostly black transgender women (14/19, 74%). Moreover, due to the constant problem of misgendering and patriarchal policing methods, as we head toward the end of the year, these given numbers could potentially be higher. Thus, signifying a grave problem in addressing and the reporting of transphobic violence and murders. This epidemic calls for us to act as LGBTQIA allies in the attempt to address the humanity of transgender women.

This is not a new problem affecting the transgender community, specifically black transgender women. At the end of 2015, black transgender women accounted for 17 out of the 22 total deaths (77%) of transgender women in the US. This total marked the most black transgender women murdered within a single year on record to date.

In 2015, my research interests centered mainly on the topic of black masculinity. I had written two books that focused on the importance of examining the social construction of black masculinity, the need to appreciate the diversity within the black male subculture, and the seriousness of protecting black human life in an American society that views black masculine bodies as social and political threats deserving of death.

This societal and cultural concern prompted me to shift and expand my focus to research the deaths of black transgender women. I wanted to discover why the black community and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was not front and center to the deaths of black transgender women as they were for the racialized state violence against black men and women. The BLM movement was established to help socially, politically, and legally legitimize the value of black lives. However, during the early stages of the BLM movement was a lack of attention to the deaths of black transgender women (and some would argue that there is still a lack of conscious awareness to these deaths).

For me, there was an urgent need to focus on the transphobic violence and murders of black transgender women. This urgency was outlined in two essential points of emphasis. First, black transgender women’s inclusion into the societal and cultural responsiveness of the black community and the BLM movement revolves around the need for equal rights and protections, which must be given for their human survival and well-being. It can be argued that black transgender women are first human beings, who represent every possible human, physical form (i.e., from being medically assigned the sex of male at birth, from being identified as a black gay man, from transitioning to a black transgender woman, and from being perceived as a black cisgender woman). Thus, there is a fluid and complex viability to their humanity.

Second, blacks would not have progressed to this point in history without acting as a collective group moving in a unified direction to achieve societal, cultural, and political liberation. Therefore, all black voices that resemble the diversity within the black community must be heard and their lives must matter if we are to achieve collective group actions that further the interests of blacks in American society.

This led to me writing the book, Toxic Silence: Race, Black Gender Identity, and Addressing the Violence against Black Transgender Women in Houston. This book is primarily concerned with the toxic masculinity that threatens the humanity of black transgender women. The guiding framework centers on giving them a voice to address the increase of transphobic discrimination, violence, and murders. In that regard, the book focuses on three objectives: First, to better understand what it means to be a black transgender woman within the black community and in the larger American society. Second, to expand our knowledge and understanding of the societal and cultural impact of the black male-to-black female (MtF) transition on black masculinity and black femininity. Third and last, to address the deadly effects of toxic masculinity within the black community that leads to violence against black transgender women.

For the book, I had the pleasure of interviewing nine black transgender women from Houston, Texas. Approximately 23 black transgender women were contacted. Nine women — Bobbie Golden, Arianna Gray, Venue Love, Naomi Mars, Jae Palmer, Sophie Rush, Mia Ryan, Jessica Sugar, and Alexandra Sweet — agreed to participate in the study. The city of Houston is a suitable contextual laboratory to study the lives of black transgender women for the following reasons: First, from 2010–2016, the city was led by a Democratic mayor, Annise D. Parker, who was openly lesbian in office, and who aggressively pushed for measures such as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (Ord. №2014–530), commonly known as HERO, which, among other things, would have provided transgender protections in public accommodations such as entering gender-preferred bathrooms. Before and during her time in the mayoral seat, Parker was a staunch LGBTQIA activist, which helped to create a more LGBTQIA-friendly atmosphere of acceptance and inclusion in the city. Second, Houston ranks among the top metropolitan cities with a large LGBTQIA population.

Toxic Silence contributes to a growing body of transgender scholarship. The book provides two important findings. First, the black church as a social institution has added to this oppressive dynamic of dismissing black transgender deaths by maintaining a set gender hierarchy within the black culture leading to a multigenerational effect. Borrowing from Cathy Cohen (1999), the issue of black transgender deaths is cross-cutting, which affect only certain segments of a marginal group, and partly the reason for it not gaining more awareness from the black church. Instead, it is not perceived as an issue that the black church as a whole should outwardly address because that would possibly signal their approval of the gender identity of black transgender women. As a result, secondary marginalization, a form of blame shifting, provoked by the black church has the potential to increase the rate of black transgender women who are murdered within the black community. The gender identity of black transgender women is viewed as a mere moral failing and the issue of their deaths as “cross-cutting” brought on due to their sinful life choice to transition from their medically assigned sex.

Second, black cisgender men commit the vast majority of transphobic violence and murders against them. The women interviewed believe that a traditional gender norm gives rise to a toxic masculine makeup. This type of masculinity is most put on display when black cisgender men are motivated by hate, engage in intimate personal relationships with these women, or solicit their services as transgender sex workers. Afterwards, they rationalize their decision and their sexual involvements with these women, which often leads them to question their masculinity, and as a response, use violence as a defense mechanism to regain dominance, control, and gain a psychological sense of wholeness. This allows them to subdue their attraction for these women and return to a very strict idea of gender norms. Toxic masculinity, in this manner, is harmful to the humanity of black transgender women.

This book acknowledges and understands the importance of telling this cultural truth without pathologizing black cisgender men. The men who commit such violence are following a fixed masculine script and do not believe that they are at cultural liberty to adhere to the sliding scale of masculinity. As a result, for some of them, patriarchal and heteronormative frames have worked to suppress their true sexual orientation. When these black cisgender men do act on their sexual desires behind closed doors, it often leads them to question their masculinity and use toxic violence to psychologically reverse the mental component of the act and to regain masculine control of the situation. Nonetheless, this is no excuse to dismiss the actions and behaviors of some black cisgender men who participate in such violent acts.

In the words of transgender activist Lourdes Ashley Hunter, who is the National Director of the Trans Women of Color Collective, “Every breath a black trans person takes is an act of revolution.” This declaration serves as the plea for radical change in a gendered American culture.

For a culture to function to the best of its ability, the people within it have to work with each other for each other in the building of a collective consciousness. We must understand that transgender people, in general, are fighting battles each and every day against people whose experiences are grounded in the advent of power relations — patriarchy, heteronormativity, and socioeconomic status — thus, their interpretation of the lived experiences of transgender people is biased by their needs to establish fundamental differences rooted in dominance over acceptance and inclusiveness.

In the end, this book calls on the black community and culture to end the toxic silence and act as allies to be more accepting and inclusive of differing sexualities and gender identities in an effort to improve the generative power of black solidarity.