Host Raquel Willis is joined by Elle Hearns to discuss writer and feminist Chimamanda Adichie’s comments about transgender women and to explore the ways trans women are resisting in the Age of Trump.
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Raquel: Welcome, welcome, welcome back to the BGD podcast! I am your host, Raquel Willis, and as usual I’m here again breaking down the world around you with a dope, amazing intersectional lens. There has been so much going on, especially concerning transgender people and particularly transgender women, in the past few weeks. Dare I say months. Dare I say years. And to break down some of these moments that have bubbled to the surface is Elle Hearns. My dear, dear friend Elle Hearns. And if you don’t know Elle, Elle is an amazing, revolutionary black trans activist woman extraordinaire. She has, for many years, been a major presence in the larger Black Lives Matter network. She is a former organizing director, a partner, a strategic partner – let me get that right – and then most recently she has become the founder and executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. I’m so glad to have you here. Welcome, Elle!
Elle: Thank you so much for having me! Hi Raquel!
Raquel: Hey! [laughs] How have you been doing this week?
Elle: I’ve been doing really, really well. It’s been a really, really busy week but you know I’m so honored and so proud to be able to stay busy and doing the work that I love for the people that I love.
Raquel: Of course and that’s what I love about you! You are all about the work, all about your people, all about uplifting and elevating trans women of color, particularly black trans women. So thank you for all that you do and someone who is not known for doing that whatsoever, especially recently, Chimamanda Adichie. So if you don’t know who Chimamanda is, she is a Nigerian feminist writer. She has written some amazing books. Americana, Half of a Yellow Sun, a bunch of different things. She may most be known for having her words basically sampled, I guess that’s what you can call it, I’m not a music person [laughs] but sampled in Beyonce’s ***Flawless, off her self-titled album. So she was on Channel 4 in the UK having an interview and one of the questions that the interviewer asked her was about trans women and whether trans women can really say that they know what a real experience of being a woman is and not in- in many more words than that, right. And so Chimamanda’s response was “When people talk about are trans women women, my feeling is trans women are trans women. I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences. It’s not about how we wear our hair or whether we have a vagina or penis. It’s about the way the world treats us and I think if you live in the world of a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of women who have lived from the beginning as women and who have not been accorded of those privileges that men are. I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women because I don’t think that’s true.” So of course, that convoluted, inaccurate, messy response drew all kinds of reactions, most of them were disdain for what she was saying. I, you know, jumped into the mix with my Twitter fingers and wrote an op-ed and, of course, other trans women have spoken out. Laverne Cox did a thread about male privilege, another trans writer Morgan Page wrote a BuzzFeed article, and Jan Richards who is a trans actress most known for Her Story wrote an article for NewNowNext. So there’s been a lot of responses, I would like to hear your thoughts, Elle. Particularly as someone who is involved in movement work and regularly has had to juggle these kind of conversations with cis women.
Elle: Well, yeah thank you for all of that context, Raquel. It’s really amazing context and great memory of the events that unfolded around this particular conversation. I want to thank you, one just for the work and your words that you offer in response. I think it was needed and it seems to have been such a great educational resource for people who were struggling with her response and yeah I’m thankful for your words and the words of Aaryn Lang, who started a cute hashtag around the comments Chimamanda made around male privilege. It’s just been an interesting time and so I have personally just observed the conversations that people have been having and and really just sitting and processing it. I think these are dynamics that constantly consume people’s minds but people don’t talk about these things out loud, so you know although I do not agree with any of the things that were said, I do appreciate the honesty in which Chimamanda responded because it gave us all an opportunity to see where her thoughts are and so, for me, I really don’t respond to people who don’t have forward thinking as a basis for the offerings that they make in the world. So Chimamanda is just not someone who I actually have entertained but I have been impacted by her comments because they have impacted the community. I think one of the things that’s just really important is conversations around gender and unfortunately Chimamanda missed the mark and which could have been a conversation where she really elevated our own thinkings around womanhood and femininity and just the binary in general but it was just not something she’s had access to nor has she ever had to imagine herself outside of a particular gender and I think that’s one of the things about the enforcement of white supremacy that many don’t understand unless you’ve actually had an experience and so, for me, someone commenting on an experience that they’ve never had is actually not even worthy of a response because it is essentially archaic in it’s thinking that womanhood is something that has not evolved but also something that has not always belonged to women who don’t necessarily have the experience that a cis woman has so I have been perplexed and the ways that people have given her space and continued to coddle her as if she is not this critically acclaimed thought-provoking person who should be held to a higher standard and also who should be receptive to accountability. You know it is these kind of views that influence communities and influence the very reasons why women across the world are being murdered and being maimed and being discarded because they are discarded first in intellectual- in intellectual theory which then, you know, manifests itself in many ways, including, you know, leading to physical violence.
Raquel: I really love the point of discussing how she has been coddled because to me it’s been complex. Of course, I’m definitely seen I think more cisgender black folks cuddle- cuddle- coddle Chimamanda. Which, I guess, I’m not you know particularly surprised by because like you said I think there is an element of her honesty that should be- we can be grateful for because there are a lot of people that I think nod along when we discuss our experiences as as black transgender women but don’t actually, like, do the work of engaging what it means to shift their framework around gender, right, and to rethink how they move throughout the world with the knowledge that they have been able to exist comfortably in a way that transgender people have not. So there’s that but there the other side of that has been- it was irksome to see so many white folks- white cis folks and I understand the white trans folks who have kind of discussed it too, but it’s been difficult to see those conversations not be looked at with nuance because I feel like the ways in which Chimamanda has been called on to be accountable to her actions are very different than how more prominent feminists like Lena Dunham is called to check her antiblackness, right, or Amy Schumer even and even thinking about Emma Watson and we discussed her on the last episode and her kind of problematic discussions about Beyonce a few years ago, so- so I I’m all about you know holding Chimamanda accountable and I want people to hold everyone accountable in the way that they want to hold this black woman accountable.
Elle: Mhm, mhm. You know, I definitely hear you. I definitely hear you. I think there has to be more- you know, we talk about accountability a lot but we actually have no method or practice around what that means. So typically, it is the most privileged who are enforcing the rules of engagement around this, you know, idea of what it means to be accountable. So I’ll start there but I do think that it’s really important to assess that when Chimamanda gave this interview she wasn’t giving this interview of responding to the questions from a black woman, she was responding to a white woman. So she opened up herself to a level of engagement that was beyond that was beyond a space where she could be actually supported by community so I just think that who who we talk to and who- it’s just that that’s a dynamic and I think it’s important to really just dig a little deeper around that because yes, I think that everyone should be held accountable but in this particular instance, you know, I don’t want to absolved Chimamanda of the accountability that was necessary but I definitely think, and I think just for me, I have a practice where I’m actually not engaged in holding white people accountable just because, and let me be clear, in these particular pop culture conversations because I’m not invested in in whiteness. I’m not invested in white people. I am invested in black women and I’m invested in black sisterhood so for Chimamanda to be held accountable by people who are not black, I think that is a challenge. It’s always challenging when- because this is also what people wait for, but I think Chimamanda’s comments didn’t take into consideration that, you know, there’s a community of people that she was isolating. I think her comments were very spot-on with the traditional feminism that has been enforced by white people. So, you know, when you provide commentary that’s in alignment with, you know, a particular group of people, you should expect to receive critical responses not only from the people that you come from, but also of those people who hold the key to the very space that you are attempting to enter and so, you know, hopefully that makes sense.
Raquel: That makes a lot of sense, thank you for that! And also, you know, one thing that you brought up just now about, you know, that she was engaging this white woman interviewer and this whole framework that is very much in line with a white feminist idea of womanhood, and limited womanhood even, is also the accountability of media, right, and to have this journalist, even the way that she framed the question, was inaccurate and misguided and it did seem, in many ways, again that she was trying to elicit a certain response and so that trend of the media which, of course, you know we can’t expect a mainstream white supremacist cishetero media to really show up for us in the ways that we need it to, it’s interesting that that happened- this interview happened and then also looking back there was a there was a presenter actually on, I think, the same network in the UK who wrote this Op-Ed about how trans women aren’t real women a few weeks before and then think about other publications like the New York Times and other places that so readily give space to cisgender women who are transphobic to discuss their issues with trans women and their womanhood is a problem and something that needs to be addressed in the larger culture because all of this, you know, to put it in context all of this trickles down into our everyday lives, right, and so thinking about the trans women of color who have been murdered this year in the United States, you know, what I want to hear, you know, your thoughts on how all of this is connected.
Raquel: And how all of this trickles down, especially as someone who is often on the frontlines in the movement.
Elle: Yeah and you know I think that’s the important piece around movements. Movements exists to not only combat these theories but to build power for the communities that are always on the insulting end of these- of this type of rhetoric and so, you know, propaganda is such a thing that people do to remain in power and it’s the very thing that, you know, 45 has utilized to, you know, cement his place in American history. So you know I think it’s really important for people to understand that in whatever way the oppressive systems show up there is a responsibility that people have to resist especially if you believe in something and you know something to be true. This idea of trickling down it’s not something that Chimamanda could ever leave because Chimamanda is speaking from a complete place that is displaced. She is not a trans woman, so the experiences of trans women, she never be able to speak to and that’s the reasons why the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, you know, has been created. That’s the reasons why you know I, along with many other people, have contributed to Black Lives Matter because we understood there was something fundamentally wrong with the consciousness of people not only in this country but worldwide. The murders of trans women in this country far are outnumbered by the global murders of trans women in countries, you know, across the globe but especially in Latin America. So when this type of agenda is really being influenced by someone who is respected in a community that should be offering protections and support, it’s the movement that actually circumvents and interrupts any of these things actually continuing to trickle down, if you will, because the goal is actually for those who are on the bottom those who have never had access to talk about their lives to be the ones who have the power to not only dictate but actually guide people to the freedom, you know, that we know, we- you know, people are living in free ways because they have nothing and that’s a freedom that can never be taught or ever spoken about by someone who’s never experienced something. So you know I firmly believe in the power of trans women and I’m so thankful that, you know, we have trans women who actually can say “this is not okay” and that, you know, not only should the violence end physically but that it should also end systemically and structurally and that’s something that you know the responses, I think, have served but it’s actually much bigger and much broader than just Chimamanda and I hope that the people who have been engaging never lose sight that, you know, this has been something that we’ve been working towards long before she made these comments and anyone who’s wrestling publicly you know those are not people that you can count as your comrades, those are not people that you can count as your solidarity partners, those are people who will lead you straight to the pits of hell and you know I think that the movement is a place that is going somewhere and where the movement is headed is the complete opposite of the comments that Chimamanda made and it’s definitely the complete opposite of the women whose lives continue to be taken.
Raquel: And so with that and you talked a little bit about the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, so you know I want to give you a chance to kind of discuss how this institute came about and , you know, what are your hopes moving forward.
Elle: Yeah well I spent the last three years helping to build, develop, and support the Black Lives Matter Network and also organizing, you know, around the Movement for Black Lives when it was emerging but you know things that I would I was noticing in my organizing really challenged me to move forward in the bigger picture of what I was thinking and dreaming of for black liberation and so I was often in space alone as the only black trans woman and you know doing organizing work as the only one or doing any work for that matter as the only one is a very isolating and very limiting space but more importantly if you know I was the only one then, I was the only one representing so many communities in those spaces and so it was really important for me to make sure that I never got trapped into a space that wasn’t recognizing the fullness of, you know, black people and so that’s one of the things that really led me to creating the Marsha P. Johnson Institute is to really give the space for intersectionality a full chance at operating in a way that really progressed black liberation forward and not in a tokenizing way or in a way that was commodifying the experiences but to really support the experiences elevating into a place of power and so that is, you know, what led me to creating the Marsha P. Johnson Institute specifically after a National Day of Action for Black Trans Women, the first National Day of Action that I organized along with Aaryn Lang and Shanetta Johnson. I just saw the power of black trans community but I also saw the need to support that power continuing to find itself. So I started the concept in 2015 and now, you know, we’ve moved ahead and I’m very excited about what’s possible for the Institute and also honoring the legacy that you know Marcia P. Johnson started so long ago with, you know, STAR and her work with Sylvia Rivera and really ensuring that solidarity is a practice as opposed to just a theory that everyone continues to, you know, spit out into the universe.
Raquel: Right, that’s so amazing and, of course, you know as a friend and someone, to watch the work that you’ve been doing it for years has been an inspiration and amazing, so thank you for all that you do and all that you will do moving forward and I did want to circle back about the Trans Day of Action that just happened. So last week, March 15th was a National Trans Day of Action to elevate and honor the lives of trans women, black trans women who have been martyred, trans women of color and femmes and what was your experience like because you actually spoke in DC, right, and were a part of that rally in DC.
Elle: Mmhmm. Yeah, so you know Protect Trans Women was a national day of action that was organized by GetEqual and Angela Peoples and so it really is just a continuation of the Black Trans Liberation Tuesday legacy that, you know, we held nationally. I’m thankful that GetEqual actually was the organization that I was employed with when that national day of action happened, so it’s only right for them to continue the legacy of doing that national organising work to elevate the lives and experiences but, you know, it’s always it’s always difficult because you want to hold the space for the lives that have been taken, but you also want to hold space for those who will be attacked, who the system will come for next, and so being in DC is always a great joy because of the legacy that is in DC, you know with wonderful folks who have been doing work for black trans women for so long so I was joined by HIPS and Casa Ruby and just young, black trans women who are really fighting to survive and who are also supporting organizations, do the work for community, so it was really empowering and it was extremely cold but you know DC came out and that’s something that, you know, I’ll forever be grateful for and they came out in the same ways that they did two years ago with the very first national day of action so, you know, it was a successful- a successful day of action and I’m just really proud of the solidarity that, you know, amazing black women like Angela Peoples have struggled, you know, they have really struggled to show but have really committed to showing up and you know those are the people that I would love to continue to give space to as opposed to, you know, folks who are struggling. I appreciate the struggle out loud but some struggle you have to do with yourself before you actually place it outside of yourself and so I’m glad to, you know, have been supported and to still be supported with the vision that, you know, I had three years ago. So yeah it was great. It was amazing. Thank you for amplifying all of the actions and supporting with the media pieces.
Raquel: Of course, of course! Media maven! Oh yeah, no it was great. Especially on the planning calls to hear, particularly cishet folks like leading the charge and to also see folks really, like, put an effort to listen to trans people, even while they were trying to lead and take some of the burden off of the trans women who are always doing this work, the black trans women who are always doing this work, and so in addition to DC there is also a pretty big action in L.A., there were some in some smaller places like, I think, Greensboro, North Carolina and throughout the South.
Elle: The south! Little Rock, Arkansas, they did a banner job. Look. Raquel: And Miss Major was there right?
Elle: Yes, Mama Major was there! [laughs] Which is always amazing, Mama Major still fighting and kicking ass and taking names and telling folks to squad up, so it was really amazing. You know, New York had multiple actions weeks prior. You know, so it’s just been really amazing shout out to BLM NYC and the trans women who did organizing there, yeah. Atlanta. I know Atlanta’s planning a march, so you know, the trans resistance continues. The movement, it lives, and you know people are really answering the call to take action and that’s the only thing that we can do in these times are- you know, it’s really to continue to take action.
Raquel: Definitely, definitely and I think you know before we end off like it’s just so important that we honor that trans people have been doing this work. Black trans people have been doing this work forever, for centuries.
Elle: For centuries! For forever! You know trans- trans women didn’t just pop up yesterday we’ve been here and, I mean, we’ve been here as long as anyone can trace black lineage and so it’s really important for anyone who truly wants to be in the fight for black lives to understand the ancestry of all of us, you know. These gender-social constructs really, really require people to go much deeper than the societal ways that they’ve been taught because all of it has been enforced by white supremacy and that’s actually the boldest call toaction is to support the dismantling of that.
Raquel: Definitely! Definitely! Well, thank you so much, Elle! It’s been a pleasure listening to you and hearing and dialoguing with you and you know it’s always great to hear about the knowledge that you have from the movement and from doing this work for so many years. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we close out? And you know make sure you follow Elle on Twitter at @SoulFreeDreams.
Elle: Yeah absolutely, the only thing that I will offer is that you know one of the things that we are attempting to do with the Marsha P. Johnson Institute is to ensure that we are creating equity for our members and for our future members and so we are currently hosting a fundraiser this month is actually Marsha P. March where we have partnered with Safety Pin Box, a wonderful group that’s really teaching white people specifically how to be allies but this month all of the content for their base, their members is written and organized by black trans women and so it’s really an educational resource this month for cis people to learn how to be better in solidarity and to also learn about the history of black trans women. So if people would like to donate to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, you can follow the hashtag #MarshaPMarch, you can follow @SafetyPinBox or you can follow me directly at @SoulFreeDreams and the donation link will be available there, so thank you again to all of the folks donated, all of the folks who have supported, and all of the support of the people who have thought about liberation outside of themselves. It’s truly given the space to be able to, you know, not only see me, but see the community that I come from, so I’m very thankful.
Raquel: Definitely, well thank you again, Elle. Everyone, thank you for tuning in yet again. This is, you know, we’re basically at the end of Women’s History Month or at least before our next episode. So again thank you for everything that you have been doing because I know our listeners are constantly elevating intersectional stories about women of all types, all backgrounds, all experiences. Obviously, our experiences are diverse and that diversity should be honored. So, again, thank you for all the support and until next time! This is the BGD Podcast, a production of Black Girl Dangerous Media. Thank you!