Trans women of color: At a nexus of disadvantage

Trans women of color continue to fight for LGBT rights even when they’re left out of larger conversations. How can white queers support and include them in ways that don’t turn them into tokens?


Sylvia Rivera (From Wikipedia)


Marsh P. Johnson (from Wikipedia)

It doesn’t take a progressive liberal visionary to recognize that minority status often correlates with a lack of privilege. Any identification that isn’t white, cisgender, and heterosexual is subject to prejudice by the majorities that exclude these groups. Even women, who make up a majority of the American population, are victims of discrimination. The reality that many see is that straight, cis white men are the most privileged members of our society.

But privilege is not a straightforward dichotomy split along a line dividing the haves and the have-nots. It’s a more complex and nuanced web of factors that give some people opportunities and deny them to others. For example, the infamous feud between Miley Cyrus & Nicki Minaj helped bring a dialogue about White Feminism into the mainstream, thereby creating space to discuss how race often intersects with struggles for gender equity and how women of color are often left out of conversations their white peers have. This is why Hillary Clinton is struggling to win over the #BlackLivesMatter movement; they raise concerns that she doesn’t include them in her vision for a better future for Americans.

This is important conversation to have as intersectionality becomes a higher priority for thinkers, feminists, and social justice advocates everywhere. The idea that we can’t separate social justice movements from each other and assume that what’s right for white women is right for brown and black women has gained steam as activists make the case that struggles can overlap and intersect.

In my own experiences, I’ve seen how these nuances can operate around skin color. I’m a dark-skinned Italian. Don’t mistake that for me saying I’m a person of color. My ethnic background, as far as I know, is still entirely Europoean. I’m even a quarter WASP. Even though my other three quarters are various forms of immigrant Catholic (Swiss, Italian, & Slovak), I still benefit from privileges that latinx and black people don’t have. By the standards of the racial minorities most disenfranchised in our society, I’m still light skinned.

But I grew up in a small farm town in Ohio, where I was an olive in a pool of lilies in cream. I didn’t face the same discrimination that some of my peers did; the Confederate sympathizers and self-proclaimed Neo-Nazis I went to school with harassed my classmates of African and Philippine descent more than me. But my experiences there still showed me the various ways privilege is withheld from groups, even white outside of the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

Specifically, I recall a 9th grade history class where another Italian classmate and I were cast as Sacco & Vanzetti, the infamous Italian anarchists, in a mock trial. Aside from my classmates’ willingness to dump us into these roles, the lesson I took away from that experience was that, aside from genocidal maniac Christopher Columbus, these two executed criminals were the only Italians discussed in history classes.

And the conversation wasn’t framed around the prejudice Italian-Americans faced in their early years as a new wave of immigrants, when they were victims of prejudice, lynchings, and other hate crimes. Instead, the point of the lesson seemed to be that identifying the other was a powerful way to unite a majority.

Even this poor education on my Italian heritage outshines what i learned about my Eastern European roots–namely, that everyone behind the Iron Curtain was a red menace not to be trusted in the ’50s and that’s about it.

My point being that the education system is inherently prejudiced against those who lack the power and agency to shape it. While my experiences showed me one side of this failure, it’s often a more intense lesson for those in the black and latin communities who still face the more vocal prejudice that Italians (and the Irish in a similar experience) have been able to leave behind thanks to a process of assimilation. (Although I would argue that characterizations like those on Jersey Shore and in the only Italian form of cinema–the mobster movie–still perpetuate negative stereotypes and prejudice.)

This same systemic prejudice operates in arenas other than education as well. Economic opportunity, social opportunity, and even justice are often all denied or granted based on the color of someone’s skin.

What does this mean for trans women of color (TWOC)? As women, they face misogyny. As trans women, they face transphobia and transmisogyny (which is a synthesis of transphobia and misogyny aimed at transfeminine experiences). And as racial minorities, they face racism. The combination of those three struggles means that they often don’t have the educational opportunities others enjoy, leaving them at a disadvantage in the search for economic opportunities, which limits their social opportunities as well. At any given time, a TWOC may face a combination of these various forms of discrimination and prejudice.

Despite (or perhaps in spite of) this, TWOC have been on the front lines of the LGBT struggle since its early days in America during the middle of the 20th century. Activists (and icons) like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were both  veterans of the Stonewall riots and both started advocacy organizations dedicated to furthering the cause of the fledgling LGBT movement. Their exclusion from the recent Stonewall film was a huge source of the controversy around the 2015 project. The larger blindspot around black and Latina trans women is troubling and on-going. Trans women of Asian descent are likewise often erased from the movement and face their own specific blends of prejudice, transmisogyny, and fetishization.

While it’s heartening to see activists rally around calling out the exclusion of TWOC characters from a project like Stonewall (which seemed like a pretty straightforward white savior fantasy version of true events), what’s necessary now is including TWOC–both in the media and in our real-world organizations and our lives.

That’s the real reason I wrote this post. I want to invite any TWOC (or any trans person of color regardless of gender identity; Satan’s Jacuzzi supports non-binary babes) to engage with me on these issues. Please, submit to this blog if you feel safe and comfortable sharing your story. My goal is to create a space where your voices can be heard on your terms. (Even if that means calling me out on my privilege.)


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