June = Pride. But this celebratory month this year also marked the 14th reported murder of transgender people, mostly Black and Latinx. Generations have aged, political will has waxed and waned, and revolutions have been re-branded. The Civil Rights Movement has evolved into Black Lives Matter, the fight for LGBTQ equality is now called Pride, and where those two meet is called ‘intersectionality.” Despite the obvious progress, transgender People of Color are still fighting for something more basic than equality. They’re fighting for visibility. Why?
History is context. The 1969 Stonewall Uprising that started the gay rights moment was initiated by Black and Latinx drag queens, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Yet somehow, the gay, White, man has become the poster child for American Pride. And it was only in 2017 that Philadelphia added Black and Brown stripes to create a more inclusive rainbow flag.
Trans Erasure: 51 years of Pride stands on the shoulders of transgender women of color. But it’s 2020 and they’re still being systemically erased. The U.S. Census and the more detailed American Community Survey exclude questions about gender identity. The BLM movement has finally received global attention but the murder of Black trans people gets minimal mention in mainstream media. And perhaps the most telling, we exclude them from our social networks — in a recent GLAAD study, only 18% of the respondents knew a transgender person. How can a trans person succeed when their very existence is denied?
Use what you have. As an immigrant woman of color, there’s a lot that I can’t do to support trans people of color. But I knew I could leverage my public health perspective, privilege, and photography to reframe the visual stereotypes for transgender people of color.
1. Public Health
My initial interaction with the trans community was through the prime lens of public health communications. While working for an HIV program, I learned that they are a “high-risk population.” Then I read the sub-text: about how many trans people are abandoned by their families, don’t get jobs, face violence, and are forced into sex work just to survive. Working in public health taught me to distinguish between outcomes like HIV and underlying issues like racism and transphobia.
A public health degree taught me the complexities of epidemiology and qualitative research methods. But no classroom lesson compares to the experience of working with trans-serving organizations. I quickly learned that an individual’s lived experience is more complex than a single data point, and their existence can’t be conformed to the dual-gender checkbox.
It’s a relative concept. And while you’d think an immigrant, woman of color wouldn’t have any, I have overt privileges: being educated, financially empowered, and disinterested in the mirage of The Great White American Dream. Now factor in that the average life span of a Black transgender woman is 39, and I’m 43. So, there’s also the subliminal privilege of not fearing death just for being my true self.
Attempting to be useful to the trans community began with recognizing that my limited privilege could create small, individual action. What continues to make this work possible is rejecting stereotypes, listening with empathy, and not taking up space. Using my privilege to be an ally has grown it from scarce to abundant.
I’m a photographer for People of Color because I know the power of respectful representation. Laverne Cox’s Netflix documentary, “Disclosure,” confirms how trans people (of all races) have been visually depicted as aberrations, excluded from telling their own stories, and denied their equal right to being “seen.” All so that the gender-conforming world can justify their discrimination.
Through my public health communications experience, I already knew that mainstream media has perpetuated a false and negative narrative about the trans community. Then, when my search for positive imagery of trans people in mainstream media came up short, I knew I could do something about it.
To be honest, I reached out cautiously to the trans community of color because I wasn’t even sure they would want me. But our conversations have gradually manifested into positive imagery for the incredible teams at Casa Ruby, Miss Gibby at Damien Ministries, and the Trans March on DC. Through my lens, I watch them be their authentic selves. Contrary to the rhetoric, I see them look out for each other, and fight relentlessly to be seen and respected. It leaves me in awe.
If life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are fundamental rights, the trans community deserves them just as much as you and I.
Black Trans Lives Matter.
Pavni is a public health communicator and a People of Color photographer. View her work on Instagram @impactlensphoto