Sunday, February 8, 2015

Storming the Stage: #TransLivesMatter and #BlackTransLivesMatter

Creating Change, the National Conference on LGBTQ Equality, brings together about 4,000 activists every year to learn, make connections, and get energized and ready to go back home and do the work of gender, sexual and racial justice. The conference is in its 27th year, so some things are routine and very structured, like the opening plenary. For many years, comedian Kate Clinton has hosted, and plays jester, introducing the different speakers, getting everyone to feel good about themselves and proud that they are present.

But just as Kate Clinton took the mic at the plenary, suddenly a group of about 50 people carrying signs came into the giant ballroom, chanting. They stormed the stage, filling it with chants of "Trans lives matter! Trans lives matter!" We thousands in the audience stood up, chanting with them, not knowing exactly what was happening, but knowing it was definitely not scripted.

It soon became clear: this group of mostly trans women of color were not going to allow us to do LGBTQ business as usual.

Bamby Salcedo at the mic after the group took over the stage*
Many of the women on stage spoke passionately about the epidemic of murders of trans women of color, and the lack of urgency that the vast majority of us sitting there are guilty of. One of the groups' leaders, L.A. trans activist Bamby Salcedo read a list of demands, including that LGBTQ foundations and non-profits invest more money and resources into the survival of trans people, as well as make sure many more trans people are in leadership positions. Salcedo said with so much passion that I had chills: "If you serve us, you need to include us."

Would we cis people stand it if the life expectancy for lesbians was 30-32 years old, as it is for trans people? Would we white people sit quietly by if the vast majority of murders against LGBTQ people were against white LGBTQ people who looked like us (as is it, 87% of LGBTQ murder victims in 2011 were people of color)? I don't think we would. We have to do better, it is literally a matter of life and death.

The activists who stormed the stage reminded us so intensely that they cannot wait for the LGBTQ community to do marriage equality first and then maybe move to violence, to economic injustice, to youth homelessness, to the incarceration of trans women in male prisons or solitary confinement. And they should not have to wait if we really are a movement that is one for trans people, is one for racial justice.

This was underscored the next day, as one of the Ferguson organizers, Ashley Yates called all of the black trans people in the audience to the stage, "I want them to see y'all...Clap for them because they are beautiful" (video here, especially starting around minute 13). Because not only do we need to be specific that black lives matter (make sure you know the queer black feminist herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter movement here), we need to be specific that black trans lives matter because black trans people are some of the most marginalized, the most penalized for their identities than other groups in our movement.

The words of the black and Latina trans people who spoke on stage need to be catalysts for all of us in the LGBTQ movement. This very much includes those of us who work in higher education and say that we want to center and serve the most marginalized students on campuses. Queer and trans students of color need our LGBTQ movement, including on college campuses, to step up. To truly support them, to truly provide them resources and skills for navigating and improving a racist, cissexist world.

I've been going over and over in my mind the words of the people on stage, declaring black lives matter and trans lives matter. It's a call to action, a call to look really honestly at the work I'm doing and seeing where I am failing to fully center and support queer and trans students of color. I can do better, our campus can do better. And I feel so grateful to the student interns at the LGBTQ Center, because they were at the conference too, and they are ready to radically re-envision what it means to support black and brown queer and trans students on our campus. In fact, they were already ready. So it's on me, it's on other campus directors, it's on other white cis queer people to listen and to act.

To model that listening, I'll end with a quote from one of the black trans women who spoke from her heart on the stage (minute 19 here):
"I want everyone to take this energy with you...helping trans people is so simple. It's treating us like you want to be treated out in the streets. It's not allowing your friends or your colleagues to misgender us, to disrespect us...We shouldn't have to fight right next to you [without respect] when we've been fighting for you for so long...I hope we take this beyond this room because it's easy for us to get caught up in things liked this...but then to go home and not do anything. We all have power...we can completely overhaul this shit, we are overhauling this shit."

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Photo credit: The Bilerico Project

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