By Shaadi Devereaux
I was sitting at a bar in San Francisco recently when a handsome young man sat next to me and the usual song and dance occurred. It resulted in the offer of a drink and extended conversation. Eventually, with one finger on my pepper spray, I told him I was a trans woman. I was waiting for the shock but he still didn’t get it. “What’s that mean?” he asked.
“Like Laverne Cox,” I replied. “Don’t you watch Orange is the New Black?”
This answer has replaced my usual tutorial in which I have to turn gender & sexuality professor and lecture over a now-warm passionfruit Cosmopolitan. Because now, suddenly, I exist in the imagination of the world. Not just as a ghost, but as a human being with a point of reference. I suddenly have a visible narrative and it’s more than the Chupacabra of gender, swooping down to tempt your husband into tranny porn and steal away your kids into the apocalyptic abyss of the wrong toy aisle. With this new point of reference, though, I begin to wonder: what will be my place in the American landscape as women like me become more and more visible?
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There is no doubt that in 2014 trans women of color made their mark in the media. Laverne Cox lit up our TV and magazine covers, blazing a trail for what it means to be a trans woman in the 21st century. Janet Mock took back and redefined our narratives with her chart-topping biography and moved beyond the role of subject in her new role on MSNBC’s SoPOPular. Carmen Carrera broke ground by refusing to be reduced to her genitalia on national television. Reina Gossett uncovered and shared archives of an entire history of TWoC resistance. And Cece McDonald fought for her life and became the face of prison abolition for girls like us in 2014. All while other trans women of color added our own stories, contributing to this movement and shift in consciousness with our own special gifts, but out of the spotlight. TWoC across the country have created their own small collectives and started their own initiatives and direct services. Fearless women, like Ruby of Casa Ruby in D.C. have supported local communities with little more than copper pennies and iron wills. Like Ruby and Laverne, we all silently blaze our own perilous trails filled with the black mambas and jungle thickets of cisheteropatriarchy. Yet still we are going into the New Year with insensitive reporting of our lives, little to no labor rights, high rates of intimate partner violence with little support and a skyrocketing murder rate.
Many have been left wondering, “What is the buzz around TWoC right now? And where do we go from here?” or as Time asks, “What’s the Transgender Tipping Point?” In a landscape of violence and erasure, what has finally tipped us over into the collective awareness and allowed TWoC the access to tell our own stories on a variety of platforms?
In actuality, the “tipping point” has been a long time in the making and undergirds a long history of resistance and self-definition in the face of gender oppression. It is a far-reaching history punctuated by the Compton Cafeteria Riots and Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson calling for intersectional movements. But why were TWoC written out of history like so many others? Who replaced the image of brown girls throwing their passionfruit Cosmos at cops with the image of white gay boys with ken doll haircuts and Barbie Dream House bank accounts? How did we separate TWoC’s struggles from the trials of Blackness, Indigeneity and Latinidad? And after being forgotten, what has sparked the resurgence of these women into the bulletins of our newsrooms and those of our hearts, a generation later?
Trans women of color have hypervisibility: a bullseye placed on our lives by the larger society because of the preoccupation with policing us—particularly, policing where we can be and how can we can visibly engage gender. When you add other intersections of race and racialized notions of what it means to have gender in those bodies, this hypervisibility becomes a virtual powder keg. This hypervisibility has now clashed with a broadening landscape of women’s and LGBTQ issues brought into the forefront of the American consciousness and pop-culture, landing us somewhere between cheez whiz, artisan quinoa, and Dancing With the Stars. Suddenly, we are beginning to turn our heads and take a look at the estranged cousins of our movements, so easily dismissed before. Who are these Brown and Black girls full of fire and unshakeable womanhood, who ask, in the legacy of Sojourner Truth, “Aint I a woman?”
Perhaps our minds have turned to the question before our ears were ready. We’ve tuned into the frequency of girls like us, in hopes of reclaiming the narratives of our own lives. In figuring out who we are as a society, TWoC offer remarkable insight. In answering why TWoC seize the imagination of the mind so vividly, either as haunting ghosts or sensational fetish, we begin to unravel a larger narrative of just what it means to be a man, a woman, both, neither and, ultimately, human. People constantly ask if we are now ready to deal with transgender people. I think the question is really: “Are we ready to deal with ourselves?” Are we ready to live in a world without a script and strict casting call for humanity?
I would argue that the focus on TWoC is not so strange. It is in fact, a return to ourselves. So many of our movements are peppered in the cultural contexts of Paris is Burning, while ignoring the bodies of those who were living in a femme future far ahead of their time. We have seen straight into the eye of the storm of patriarchy, our bodies taken off ground and swirled in razor sharp dust, and lived to tell the tale. And so we find ourselves swept from the grey of Kansas and into the Technicolor land of Oz, following the yellow brick road of our personal truths, gathering a Twitter-esque following of the rest of humanity as we go. Our liberation marks the descent of a culture in which oppressive and nonconsensual assignments of gender mark non-male bodies as inferior and worthy of subjugation. Our bodies mark the onset of revolution.
The truth is that placing the societal mirror on the lives of TWoC and centering our experiences in the landscape of social change has always marked the tipping point of the advancement of human rights. One great example is the case of Ruby Ordenana, which resulted in a major piece of sexual assault legislation that served as a model for the entire country. We’ve always been the ones living at the very edge, who have no choice but to challenge existing systems with terrifying accuracy, intimacy & brilliance or risk losing ourselves to the rocks below. The recentering of our bodies, acknowledgement of our narratives of survival and resistance, and collective efforts to understand the violence we face, mark the onset of Revolution. So, my question is: “Are we ready to give up our violent comfort zones and step fearlessly into the Trans Femme Revolution of 2015?”
While you think it over, I’ll have another passionfruit Cosmo, flirt with a Heat player, and wait for the rest of the country to catch up to the revolution that lies between my thighs and the SuperNova that swirls between my ears. Have one yourself as you mull it all over. The drinks are on him.
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Shaadi Devereaux is a Black and AfroIndigenous writer using media to build narratives for Trans Women of Color. She is also an independent contractor and consultant on Women’s Global Initiatives and Human Rights.