Beyond the Victim Paradigm for Black Transwomen

The past year has seen a plethora of articles, blog entries and studies highlighting the social disparities faced by black transgender people. From introducing readers to our experiences of employment discrimination, restricted access to medical care, and encounters with police and civilian violence, the recent inquiries into black trans life have begun to provide important visibility to a community that is often overlooked.

In particular, it is the tortured lives and untimely deaths of black transwomen, as evidenced in the upcoming trial of CeCe McDonald and the homicides of Brandy Martell and Paige Clay, that have added to the recent surge of independent articles investigating black transgender subjectivity.

Undoubtedly, this newfound attention to the plight of black trans folks by primarily cisgender allies is timely and necessary. It has, however, created a narrow representation of black identity that doesn’t recognize transwomen beyond the transphobia/victim paradigm.

A primary way in which the victim paradigm is enforced, is through the use of language that negatively frames their experiences. The lives of the women profiled are written about using descriptors such as “burden,” “victimized,” or in statements that boldly declare “nobody cares,” ultimately implying that black transwomen have little to no agency or cultural efficacy.

In an article for The Root titled No Justice for CeCe, Kelle Terrell exhibits this trend by writing

“black transgender people like CeCe McDonald will continue to look over their shoulders, scared as hell, knowing that when danger lurks, if they have the audacity to fight back and not allow themselves to be killed, there’s a good chance that they are the ones who will be punished. The message is crystal clear: Transgender people have very little value in this world, dead or alive.”

The assumption made by Terrell that black transwomen are confined to living a life of perpetual fear based on expectations of violence and inevitable death, is a troubling gesture that paints a grim picture of black trans subjects as being fearful of our own identity. This rhetorical move negates the agency of pleasure and personal acceptance that is involved in living openly and freely as a black transgender individual, despite the societal consequences of doing so.

The victimization of black transwomen is also produced by associating violence as the main impetus for their inclusion in the public discussions of LGBT visibility. Though violence and death are, in fact, a harsh reality for my sisters, in order to present a more complex image of black transwomen, it’s important that we also seek out and produce affirming stories of survival to demonstrate the multiple ways in which they actively resist the limitations of the “murder narrative.”

At the same time, we cannot continue to marginalize or completely erase the voices of black transwomen from the discourse of their lives by relying on non-trans “gender experts” or white trans subjects to articulate the nuances of blackness. Including and actively listening to the voices of black transwomen, reflects their vital role in the social construction of their own identity, further destabilizing notions of a silenced victimhood.

Indeed, there exists real threats against black transgender people as we experience intersecting levels of discrimination on a daily basis. For black transwomen, though they embody an identity that deems them second-class citizens like cisgender women of color, they are not merely victims. But if we do not introduce alternative black trans narratives, how will we know?