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Unblocking Our Paths: Creating Visibility for Black Transgender Women and Femmes

By Ogechukwu C. Ogbogu, Contributing Opinion Writer
Ogechukwu C. Ogbogu ’24 lives in Wigglesworth Hall. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

Thursday, March 31, was the first federally recognized Transgender Day of Visibility — a day made to recognize and support transgender persons in the US and globally. Visibility requires both awareness and a reorientation in how we regard transsexuality and trans individuals. When discussing Black womanhood, there is a common erasure that others and I must learn to better recognize: the invisibility of Black trans women within our conversations and our understandings of Black womanhood.

Transmisogynoir, coined by a womanist writer known as Trudy, describes the compounded structures of anti-Blackness, cissexism, and misogynoir that oppress Black trans women and femmes. Misogynoir, coined by the queer Black feminist Moya Bailey, is used to illustrate the combined oppression that Black cisgender women experience through anti-Blackness and misogyny.

These definitions introduce yet another level of intersectionality often discussed in relation to sexism and racism. Black trans women and femmes’ experiences illuminate how cissexism oppresses not only Black trans women and femmes, but Black womanhood as a whole. For as long as Black women have existed, Black trans women and femmes have also existed.

Trans womanhood is continuously erased from our history of Black womanhood. Through reconstructing the histories of Black women through the lens of transmisogynoir, we can make visible the souls, existence, and labors of Black trans women and femmes.

When Black people were brought to the Americas via slavery, slaveholders categorized them based on productivity, which strongly correlated with their gender assignments. Hortense Spillers and Audre Lorde, Black feminist theorists, discuss the ungendering process of Black women’s bodies, which occurred through the “reproductive economy of chattel slavery.” That is, Black women were seen as producers of a product: slaves.

Gender constructs and cissexism have continuously been used to commodify Black women and deny them opportunities on the basis of race, class, cis/trans status, and criminal status. Black women have always existed outside of the gender binary, yet these binary systems ultimately capture and commodify Black women’s bodies by limiting them to their productive capacities. Womanhood and value are tied to fertility, which in turn denies and erases the womanhood and experiences of intersex and Black trans women and femmes.

The violence done to people who are transgender is not just a lack of inclusion in conversation. It extends to cis people’s distant relationships with Black trans women and femmes, which are seldom interpersonal or relational. There is a block between both of our worlds that can be removed by acknowledging and embracing Black trans life.

Black trans women and femmes are more than statistics, books, and subjects to be prodded over and thought-tested to grow our understandings of gender and race. They are people with hope, joys, and fears that we all experience. They continue to bring life and futurity to all of those around them — even if the rest of society ignores their contributions and livelihood.

The existence and work of Black trans women and femmes have been critical to advancing the liberation of womanhood and Blackness, while also proving essential to the challenging of gender roles that limit and oppress both trans and cis Black women. This is demonstrated through the work and contributions of Black trans women including Frances Thompson, an enslaved Black transgender woman who was an antirape activist and the first Black, first woman, and first transgender person to testify in Congress; Miss Major Griffin-Gracey, who advocated for incarcerated trans women and fought against incarceration more broadly, especially for poor trans women; and Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender rights activist, an organizer who helped house poor queer youths, an AIDS activist, and leader of the Stonewall riots.

Black trans women and femmes continue to radically change law, creating both internal and material liberation for Black queer youth and women. And yet, these women and more continue to be violated. Black trans women and femmes are otherized within the spheres of Blackness, womanhood, and queerness; their bodies and lives are continually violated even after sacrificing all of themselves for others.

Currently, 34 percent of Black transgender women and femmes are living in extreme poverty; 41 percent have experienced homelessness; half who attend school have faced harassment; nearly half have attempted suicide; and 65 percent have experienced sexual assault.

With a life expectancy of 35 years and a 65 percent rate of sexual assault, a deeper conversation needs to be had on the violence committed against Black trans women. It should include all women and be more intersectional. The need to provide bodily evidence as proof of assault as demonstrated with rape kits is a method that many Black cis women have utilized but is one that is not accessible to all women including Black trans women who may not survive assault or whose bodies are denied by society.

When I engage in conversations on campus or in classes about transness and trans womanhood, they often revolve around intellectualizing violence or theorizing Transness. In the Harvard community, we must question the spaces that we currently inhabit and ask: Who is within this space? Many spaces including other Black women spaces have made small efforts to include Black trans women and femmes, but more must be done: changing our vocabulary, our guest speakers, and observing how many Black trans women and femmes feel comfortable even entering our spaces. Your organization and club must be willing to have these conversations — willing to challenge themselves and change, and willing to center Black trans individuals, women, and femmes in order for them to be seen.

How do we imagine Black women’s futures beyond these oppressive structures of transmisogynoir? When expanding this conversation of Black womanhood and our survival, we cannot stop the discussion of Black trans womanhood and femmehood at death. Black trans women and femmes have materialized and imagined worlds and futures that rupture and create space for all people’s survival. Learning and centering Black trans women and femmes in the reimagining of Black womanhood is vital to liberating Black women and our femininity from oppressive structures, and allows us to define womanhood for ourselves.

Ogechukwu C. Ogbogu ’24 lives in Wigglesworth Hall. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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