Modern Day Femmes: Stories of Revolutionary Black Trans Women
|Branden Janese||Oct 15, 2020|
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The stories of Black revolutionary people in history are oftentimes untold, unpreserved, and unsearchable. The stories of Black trans women, a community of people who created and defined American pop culture as we know it, are still on the shortlist when it comes to receiving resources and rights enjoyed by the rest of the LGBTQ community.
I spoke with three Black trans women, all from different walks of life, who are creating history with their work in the arts and in community organizing. We spoke about the frustrations of being ripped off by white gay men, the history of the ballroom scene, and how crucial it is for Black trans femmes to create and organize exclusive spaces that are maintained and sustained by Black trans femmes.
Model, Writer, & Chef
Back in June, Chala hosted a virtual variety show called TRANSFUTURISM: A CELEBRATION ENVISIONING BLACK TRANS FUTURES to help raise money for G.L.I.T.S, an organization that supports LGBTQ communities worldwide. She spoke to me about respectability politics in the trans community and how Black trans people are excluded from queer spaces.
Branden Janese: I love the idea of transfuturism. I think that’s brilliant. The first thing I thought of was the old saying, “you can’t know your future until you know your past.” Can you give me some history on Black trans culture?
Chala: Black trans culture at the root is queer culture. Everything that the cis gays have, they took from Black trans people. Displaying the parties, the rights — everything comes from Black trans women. The dances, voguing, saying things like “sis,” that is all Black trans women. And a lot of cis white gays either don’t know that or don’t care to acknowledge that, which is something that is really frustrating. It’s frustrating because Black trans people are still by and large ignored and even excluded from queer spaces. Even in New York, there are still so few queer spaces that are intentionally geared towards Black trans people. It’s difficult to find a space that is just for us. That’s why it makes me so upset, because queer culture as we know it — there would be no pride with Marsha P. Johnson. Black trans people, Black queer people, are really the ones who went out there and fought for queer liberation and we are still the ones who are given an afterthought.
BJ: Can I ask you why you think that is? Is it purely based on race or are there some underlying things in the community that if you are not immersed in the community, you wouldn't know.
Chala: It’s a double-sided thing. It definitely is predominantly transphobia that plays a large part. Respectability politics that specifically I see [are] from white cis gay men. The biggest push for gay rights was just for marriage equality. That was the main concern, we should be able to be just like cis people and we are no different than straight people. As a Black trans person, I am very different from straight people. I am very different from cis people. I am not seeking their approval. That is a phase we are slowly transitioning out of. That needs to be just like the straight community in order for straight people to accept us. We should be able to stand on our own and say we don’t need straight, cis acceptance.
BJ: When you say respectability politics, can you talk to me more about that?
Chala: Respectability politics is all about people with marginalized identities trying to conform to the more mainstream normative ideas of what is acceptable and most respectable in society. It's something that as a Black trans person I see on many different levels. It plays into misogyny and what a woman is supposed to wear, look like and how she is not supposed to get too loud. It plays into racism and how Black people are expected to not come off as “aggressive.” How we are expected to hyper-follow every rule and law or else the negative things that happen to use are just written off as, ‘well hey if you just comply, if you just followed the rules, then you wouldn't have been shot dead in the streets.’ We have seen examples of people who comply and try to sit in the “respectable Black person framework,” and they have still been murdered. Respectability politics don’t work for anyone. All it does is take marginalized people and have them play a part in their own marginalization.
Music artist, Writer
Quay Dash is THE Black trans woman of Rap. Her flow is a mix of Uptown style and edge, and the coolness of the Lower East Side. I spoke to her about the politics of being a clout piece in the music industry, the term ‘Black Trans Lives Matter,’ and DJing for Bjork’s birthday party.
Quay Dash: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. I've been trying to work on some new content, but with COVID and personal issues, I've been slow. But I’m getting back in there and working on new content.
BJ: I can’t think of one person that is comparable to you. Can you?
QD: No! And it’s crazy. Usually, there is someone I would say, but not anymore. I agree with you.
BJ: What do you do in the world?
BJ: How was DJing at Bjork’s birthday party? That must have been crazy.
QD: I got to meet Bjork in the flesh. I remember she wanted me to play some techno that evening but I wasn't in the mood, so I played hip-hop and R&B instead. It got the party going and Bjork was pretty happy. It was pretty dope.
BJ: Talk to me about your history growing up trans in the Bronx.
QD: Growing up as a gay male and transitioning into a trans female, it was pretty rough. Being from uptown [New York], being in a really rough city where people are homophobic and transphobic, you hear slurs from people in the street who say fucked up shit. It was really rough, even being on the trains. It was very dark. It still is very dark. I had a friend who died, Islan Nettles. She was one of the Black trans women that I knew who was killed from a transphobic attack.
BJ: I remember that, she died a few years ago.
QD: Yeah. It was crazy. It was really fucked up.
BJ: What are your thoughts on Black trans femme culture being stolen by the mainstream?
QD: I feel like almost everything has been stolen not only from Black trans women but from the LGBT community in general. We have been ripped off and it’s fucked up. I even see it with white people. There is not enough whiteness for them, so they steal from Black culture. It’s whatever they can do to put more money in their pockets. They drain us. They think we are stupid. It’s fucked up that we don’t get any recognition at all.
BJ: Does that idea of things always being stolen from you ever deter you from continuing to make music?
QD: It gives me more ideas to write about and make better and more music. As a Black trans artist, I am inspiring other, younger Black trans girls to do good and show these people we are not some fucking jokes out here. We are human beings and we deserve to be respected. We deserve that recognition.
BJ: Let me ask you this, because I support the Black Lives Matter cause and can't help thinking that saying "Black Lives Matter” is patronizing. Do you ever feel insulted by the phrase 'Black Trans Lives Matter'?
QD: Yes, I do. I feel like that every day. We all know that we matter, it doesn't need to be put in our faces. We all need to come together as a culture and strive to do better and be better.
BJ: As a Black trans femme artist, do you feel that people have an ulterior-motive when working with you?
QD: Yeah. I worked with [this producer] and she definitely had her own goals when it came to working with me. Every time we worked together the songs were good, they were hits. However, I learned that sometimes people will use you. I’ve been used by white artists, producers and record labels. They see me as a way to add more leverage for them and get more money for them. They want that Black trans connection. It gives them more clout. I just had to stop. I can’t sell out and work with some strange white artist. There was an artist who donated $500 to my [platform]. They wanted to come set up a studio in my apartment and everything. But with everything going on [in the world] and the issues I’ve had in the past with management and white record labels, I don’t want to work with y’all. I didn’t even open the emails. But thank you for the donation.
BJ: Right! That’s what I always say. If you want to suck up, send money.
Founder of BTFA Collective
Jordyn is the founder of The Black Trans Femmes in the Arts (BTFA) Collective, a collective of Black trans women and non-binary femmes dedicated to making space for themselves in the arts and beyond. What makes her one of the most influential people in the Black trans community is her commitment to building and organizing spaces where Black trans femmes can support and sustain themselves. She spoke to me about her studies in Black trans history, creating digital spaces during the pandemic and the importance of listening and supporting Black trans women.
Branden Janese: Can you talk to me about what BTFA is?
Jordyn Jay: BTFA is really centered on building power within the community and not relying on the existing art infrastructure to support our work and create our own art ecosystem that is sustainable and self-sufficient. BTFA actually started out of an art meetup that I hosted in September 2019, so this is kinda our return to the community to check in and see how everyone is doing to see how people feel about the work we've done so far and see what we can do in the future.
BJ: What’s it like creating space for Black Trans femmes in the digital world during a pandemic?
JJ: It’s been really essential. For a lot of Black Trans femmes, a lot of the ways that COVID-19 has made people feel are very familiar to us. Feelings of isolation, fear, discomfort in public spaces, those are things that are a part of the Black trans femme experience. Compounding that with everything that’s going on, especially the violence against Black folx, specifically Black trans folx, it’s really important for us to have a connection to the community. That’s how Black trans folx have survived and thrived for so long. The ways in which we are able to connect with our sisters in different physical locations as us and to share our stories through “The T Talk Live,” which is a talk show that we host on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 pm on our Instagram. We speak to Black trans femme artists and talk to them about their lives and their experiences, what they are working on, and what they are working through at this time. Occasionally, we’ll have a Zoom afterparty where we can unwind and kee kee as girlfriends. It’s really been a healing space for a lot of us. It’s been a space of joy in the midst of anxiety, oppression, fear, anger and grief. It’s actually really surprising how this pandemic and quarantine has allowed us to grow and strengthen as a collective.
BJ: Can you talk to me about the history of Black trans femme culture?
JJ: I got an undergrad [degree] in prison abolition and [learned] how art and performance can be a lens to understanding prison abolition. I worked with analyzing a lot of vogue and ballroom performances. My work is currently centered in New York, but I am in the south. I got a grant to research the intersectionality of Black trans femme performance and nightlife with activism in the South. I was so angry as I was studying to get a Master’s degree in art politics that there was no representation of Black trans femmes in the literature surrounding art politics. So I took it upon myself to write the literature and also to connect with the community and figure out what’s happening now. How do we make sure this eraser never happens in the future? Black trans femmes have always been a part of the arts, but we have not been documented well.
When I was doing research and writing papers about our history and our existence, there was great difficulty in researching that history because of the way the language changes over time. The language of a Black trans femme or even transgenders is very new. So, finding Black trans folx within history is a very difficult process of reading between the lines and understanding the nuances of language, and having to oftentimes [use] derogatory language to earth the truth about people in our history.
There has been a history of Black trans femmes at drag balls in the 1920s in Harlem and in drag and burlesque performances in New Orleans in the 1930s and ’40s. Those balls are what led to the creation of the ballroom scene in the 1970s. Crystal LaBeija was participating in drag balls and she was so angry about the fact that the Black queens were never given their due, so she worked to create ballroom. Out of ballroom comes so much rich history and culture, and permeates every piece of pop culture that I would say exists today. The way Instagram models and celebrities do their hair, dress themselves, and even the hairstylist come from ballroom [culture]. The ballroom is the most visible Black trans femme creation. There have been other Black trans femmes in the arts who have not been given their due and we don’t know their names, or even that they are Black trans folx. Black trans femme people were definitely involved in the Harlem Renaissance as well. It was a very queer space.
The history of Black trans femmes performances often happens in the margins and in spaces that were seen as unsavory. And in those spaces, Black trans femmes were able to perform their authentic identity because the spaces were seen as so outside of mainstream culture that anything seemed possible. But because of the positionality of those spaces, a lot of that history is lost and erased because it was seen as not worth being told.
BJ: In that sense, where do most of your frustrations lie in terms of the existing art culture?
JJ: One, in the way that funds are allocated. I have some data from LGBT Funders that shows that only 1.8 percent of their funding goes to trans folx.
JJ: That money usually goes to a one time project or to trans related work, and that work is usually run by cis white folx. The collective itself was funded by us for the first six months of its existence. A lot of trans folx fund their own art from other trans folx because there isn't an equitable allocation of funds. That connects to the larger issue I have with the art world and why it is so white, upper-middle class cis, hetero. There is not an understanding amongst the people in power that the ability to create art is a privilege, and in order to make art an equitable space, there must be an allocation of resources that seem unrelated to the art for folx who are privileged enough to have access to those resources.
Black trans femmes can’t produce art if they don’t have a stable place to stay, if they don’t have a stable income, if they don’t have access to health care and [if] they are constantly sick. Those systematic barriers are unseen to those in power in the art world. So, it reads as though there aren't any Black trans femmes creating art when the reality is the systematic barriers created around the art preserves the whiteness, the cisness, and the heteroness of that space. People aren't willing to have those conversations about what it looks like if we break down those barriers because they are aware that those barriers are what keeps them in the upper echelon.
BJ: Right, right.
JJ: I say this all the time, I think that the talent and the creativity of Black trans folx [are] scary to a lot of people in power. Our existence is creativity. We have to learn how to live, love, feel beautiful and exist in a world that wants to constantly erase us. Our possibilities are limitless.
BJ: I mean, shit, the creativity of straight Black people scares the status quo, so I can only imagine how shook Black trans femmes who create everything out of nothing put fear in the hearts of the white man in power. Do you see that changing at all? Do you see more funds being distributed in the future? Do you see more grants being given out?
JJ: I see that happening right now, [at] this very moment. Organizations that we work with are receiving large amounts of money. I see a lot of cis, white queer people stepping up and donating and using their platform. However, I see that out of fear to hurry and act in this moment. I don’t see a lot of long term commitment to supporting Black trans folx. However, I see Black trans folx taking advantage of this moment, planning and building to ensure a future where we are able to sustain ourselves. Black trans folx have always had the answers, we just never had the resources. We’re finally getting a chance, a shot, to be a part of the conversation and we are taking it and running with it.
BJ: Talk to me more about what you mean when you say that Black trans folx have always had the isolating feelings that everyone experiences now with the pandemic.
JJ: Absolutely. Most Black trans folx are kicked out of their home at very young ages. They are isolated from everyone they know and their families. Because they are struggling with their identity, they are often isolated from a community that they don’t even know exists or know how to connect with yet. Even the ones who are not kicked out are often isolated from the community. There is an anxiety that comes with stepping out and living your truth as a Black trans femme. Black trans femmes have experienced the fear that everyone is feeling now — the discomfort of being in public spaces, the weariness of health systems, the government and policing because of harassment. These are things that are a part of our everyday experience and have been for decades. So this is a moment where a lot of people are experiencing things that are very familiar to us.
BJ: There seems to be a call to action to check the violence that has been happening to the Black trans community for decades. How can people show up more, show up better, and show up with more sensitivity for Black trans lives?
JJ: I think the first way is to donate directly to Black trans people or Black trans-led organizations. There are always Black trans people asking for help on social media —whether that’s to leave an abusive or a dangerous living situation or to support them getting surgery, there is a myriad of reasons why you see Black trans people seeking help. Donating directly to Black trans folx, not to large entities that do not actually redistribute their funds to Black trans people, is the most effective way to help Black trans lives. But also, violence to Black trans people happens before any physical violence occurs. It is a part of the society that we live in for Black trans people to be erased. There are so many ways in which people who participate in society contribute to the violence against Black trans people. It’s in the language people use when you shame someone, even a cis woman, by saying she looks like a man, or engage in homophobia, that is contributing to the death of Black trans women. Because when men who sleep with trans women hear these messages and internalize these messages, there is so much fear and self-hatred that then leads to the violence of Black trans women. Beyond donating, it's about changing the language in the culture so that people are given space to love and live the way they want to.
BJ: So well said. Brilliant.