We are living in an incredible moment.
With the explosion of transgender representation taking shape in the past few years, women of color are arguably the most visible and are taking the lead in elevating affirmative trans discourse.
Popular activists such as Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, for example, exemplify what TransGriot blogger Monica Roberts defines as The New Black Transwoman–a nod to Alain Locke’s concept of the New Negro, which sought to challenge stereotypes of blackness through intellectual self-representation.
Included in this group of pioneering transwomen is model-actress Isis King, of Top Model fame whose recent American Apparel advertisement of the Legalize Gay campaign has both made history and sparked a wave of discussion regarding “appropriate” transgender representation. Despite the accusations lodged by activist Ashley Love and misinformed supporters that the ad misgenders Isis King–an argument I completely disagree with and choose not to engage–it is, nevertheless, monumental for multiple reasons.
At the same time that black transwomen are becoming so visible in the media as intellectually driven activists, they still dominate the transgender woman as victim narrative, which many trans and non-trans advocates alike are guilty of perpetuating. This victim ideology has reduced the experiences of transwomen to that of being fearful of their own existence as their identity has been likened to that of an inevitable death sentence. However, with the visibility that comes with being in a highly circulated campaign that has the potential to reach millions, Isis strategically challenges this offensive narrative by presenting herself as a fearless agent of her own representation. Her presence in the campaign introduces an alternative image to a mainstream audience that is used to only seeing black transwomen in news outlet photographs that highlight their deaths.
In addition to the nefarious representations of victimhood that accompany trans of color identity, the unemployment rate for us is overwhelmingly high. If anything, Isis is helping to pave the way for more trans people of color to seek and acquire employment in the modeling industry where we have been previously excluded or relegated to hypersexualized imagery. Furthermore, it is rare to see a woman of color, especially a black woman, exist in the mainstream as a symbol of beauty without having to flash her backside or gyrate in a music video. As black women of all gender expressions continue to be marginalized from the dominant standards of what makes a woman attractive, the visibility of Isis allows for a refreshing, albeit controversial, challenge to this history.
Finally, Isis’ ad matters because whether or not trans folks can agree on if it is a suitable representation, it is an important move that continues to shift the public discourse of trans identity away from privileging white bodies. Her visibility serves as a reminder to all trans folks of color that we are here, we are leaders, we are allies and we are indeed beautiful.