#translivesmatter allies Black women homophobia inclusion LGBTQ social justice trans women transphobia
An Introductory Guide to Being a Better Ally to Your Black LGBTQ Sisters2/25/2015
by Kesiena Boom It’s a well-documented fact that shared oppression does not always foster a supportive and united front. Black women are ...
by Kesiena Boom
It’s a well-documented fact that shared oppression does not always foster a supportive and united front. Black women are super aware of the ways in which Black men—despite our joint experiences under racism—are often all too quick to step on us; perpetuate and dismiss our experiences of misogynoir; and gloss over our specific problems under white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. This can be viewed in a nutshell by the current swathes of classist misogynoir being directed at Amber Rose by her ex-boyfriend, Kanye West, who has previously been vocal on issues of white supremacy both through his work and his words. Whilst the hate thrown at us by Black men is straight up abominable and is rightly a source of much frustration for Black women, we must remember that those of us who are cisgender and/or straight are not exempt from the ability to step on, degrade and oppress those who are meant to be our kinfolk, just like Black men do to us. That is, queer Black women are routinely let down by our heterosexual and/or cis sisters who are meant to have our backs.
This can manifest in two ways: simple omission and the erasure of our issues (whether deliberate or not); or through explicit hate, mockery, and discrimination. The former is exemplified in the seminal text Ain’t I A Woman by bell hooks. This book is recognized as one of the ultimate “how-to” guides for the Black feminist in any stage of her revolutionary journey. However, as a straight and cisgender Black woman, hooks lacks insight into the ways in which heterosexism, homophobia, cissexism and transphobia (especially transmisogynoir) operate and cause harm. Within the book she fails to discuss the ways in which Black LGBTQ women are open to a multitude of perils due to their sexuality and/or gender identity and how she, as a straight and cisgender woman (despite her own racialised sexist oppression) can contribute to the dangerous hegemony of heteronormativity and cisnormativity which lead to violence and abuse against queer communities.
Ain’t I, as a Black lesbian, a woman worthy of consideration? Ain’t I here too?
A facet of the latter way in which intra-Black woman prejudice appears can be seen in an offensive tweet by controversy magnet Azealia Banks, in which she used a transphobic slur to describe her consternation at being likened to transgender actress and liberation advocate Laverne Cox. Laverne is utterly, completely and totally objectively beautiful; there is no way anyone can disagree on that. Azealia’s discomfort at being told she resembles Cox is quite obviously rooted in transmisogyny and is a perfect example of how Banks’ own status as a bisexual woman does not remove her cisgender privilege and her ability to denigrate her fellow queer Black sister for her trans identity.
Clearly there is a need for change amongst us. So how can straight and/or cisgender Black women step up to the plate and do better in 2015 in order to lift each other up and protect each other, despite our differences in sexuality and gender history?
STEP #1: SPEAK OUT.Often, in the face of inequity or hatred, we can be moved by several reasons to inaction and quietude. Whilst many straight/cis Black women harbour no ill will or negative feelings towards their lesbian, bisexual, and trans sisters, they may not challenge the less than positive sentiments that are thrown at us by others, especially if we are not present. They may feel that it’s not their battle, or that it’s not harmful if we’re not around to hear it. They may be afraid to call people out for fear of being slapped with the ubiquitous ‘angry Black woman’ sticker, or they may feel too uneducated on the subject in order to effectively rebuff someone’s salacious claims or insults.
But here’s the thing sisters: IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.
This is something the ever magnificent Miranda Bailey (played by Chandra Wilson) of Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy reminded her husband of, in last week’s episode entitled “The Great Pretender,” when he reacts negatively to learning that his sibling is a trans woman.
Heterosexual and cisgender Black women must understand: Your feelings come second here, your identity is not the one being belittled and demonised. It is up to you to take a stand and say, “You are wrong and it has to stop.” You are responsible in that moment for being the person who doesn’t let the situation stay unchecked, because if you do, then how will change ever come? Does it matter if you can’t lay down a five-minute smackdown with multiple receipts? Hell no. The important part is that you don’t let your silence signal your complicity. This is especially important in regards to misgendering. If you hear someone referring to a trans person with the incorrect pronouns, you correct their ass. You don’t let it slide even if the person in question isn’t in the room. Identity is not something to be respected part-time. Correct pronouns are not “preferred,” they are a mandatory, necessary, affirming part of making sure one’s identity is acknowledged. They are a crucial signal that solidifies perceptions of gender and it's imperative you’re out here making sure people respect that.
STEP #2: INCLUDE US WITHOUT TOKENIZING US.If you’re running an panel, event, conference, or any kind of forum dedicated to Black women, then you can’t simply exclude us or pretend we don’t exist; nor can you assume that our specific issues and needs don’t require centering. We need representation, we need our stories to be told—both to inform non-queer folks and to affirm and reach out to other Black LGBTQ women. Our voices and narratives need to be woven into the fabric of Black womanhood, and it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t Other us. Don’t add us on as an afterthought, solely in a “special” slot that focuses purely on our queerness.
We need to be invited to speak out about our experiences as mothers, as educators, as victims of the prison industrial complex, as sex workers, as leaders, as revolutionaries. There can be a tendency to view queer Black women as an anomaly, as something that just doesn’t happen at all or too often. The mainstream white queer media ignores us. The Black community sometimes acts as if Blackness and queerness are incompatible, something to be kept hushed up. We know damn well that there have always been those amongst us Black women who are LGBTQ, but some of us have bought into the idea of whiteness being inexorably tied to queerness.
STEP #3: SAVE YOUR PITY AND ACTIVELY SUPPORT US INSTEAD.Black transgender women are entangled in a vicious web of oppressions which means that they face enormous risk of violence simply by existing. It’s impossible to know exactly how many trans Black women are murdered each year due to factors such as the rife misgendering in death that occurs, but at least four have fallen so far in 2015. When news breaks of a sister being slain, there is inevitably an outpouring of grief and lamentations. Allies, both queer and straight, rush to shout their sadnesses from the rooftops and exclaim the heinousness of the situation. Whilst it is natural to experience this flood of mourning, it is of no use to the dead. When we only speak of Black trans women in death, we are doing them disservice. The same goes for all queer Black women who fall victim to violence. It is not enough to miss those who have passed, we have to cherish them while they are here. As allies it is not sufficient to be moved by the awful fates of LGBTQ Black women, but instead it is an ally’s job to elevate our voices in life. Find ways to amplify the causes that Black queer women are working on for ourselves. Do not presume to know what is best for us, but come to us and ask how you can help. Give us space for free to organise in; use your networks at school, work, church, mosque, community centres, etc. to help us fundraise for whatever it is that we most urgently need at the time. Do not see us as objects of pity to be saved, but recognise that your liberation is tied up in ours.
Only when the most oppressed amongst us are free, can everyone be.
Photo: Jamie McCartney / Getty Images
Kesiena Boom is a Black lesbian feminist and writer who adores Audre Lorde, sisterhood, and the sociology of sexuality. She is twenty years old. She is a regular contributor at For Harriet and Autostraddle.com. You can tweet at her via @KesienaBoom.