“So many transgender women of color are attacked and violently killed. In this case, CeCe is basically being prosecuted for surviving.” – Billy Navarro Jr.
A couple nights ago I read this compelling piece by twitter-friend and colleague Erica Inchoate, regarding the curious silence from certain prominent figures in the trans community, such as Dean Spade, on the prosecution and incarceration of CeCe McDonald. CeCe is currently being charged with second-degree murder on account of one of her attackers being inadvertently killed as she defended herself from a group of white, cisgender men against a violent hate crime, clearly motivated by her gender and race.
What followed was a conversation on twitter regarding why the trans community seems comparatively so much more invested in those trans women of colour who lose their lives to such violence than those who survive, those who are still living with those risks, and those who are presently suffering from the injustices inherent in the system that produces this violence, like CeCe. Why, exactly, do we seem so much more keen on “remembering our dead” than fighting for our living?
And whose dead? Whose living?
Certainly I wouldn’t want to suggest for a single solitary moment that we should forget about the dead bodies piling up year after year. Those victims, like Paige Clay or Shelley Hilliard or Coko Williams, deserve our acknowledgment and mourning. And neither would I want to suggest that there’s some overwhelming surplus of trans ink spilled on the subject of lethal violence against trans women of colour. If anything, recognition of this fact of trans lives is still woefully inadequate. But relative to the degree of energy being invested in those living under injustice, like CeCe, there’s a noticeable discrepancy. And does this remembrance or recognition of the deceased serve any meaningful agenda if it’s not done with an eye to how circumstances could be improved for the living? And to how to keep our living with us? How to ensure no further blood is so spilled?
There’s a lot to unpack in that discrepancy, and the motives behind it, but what initially leaps out at me is the relatively limited way in which the problem is typically framed by the trans community. More often than not, we speak of these victims as our dead. We speak of them as victims of transphobic violence. There are three extremely important issues missing from the picture in this manner of interpreting things: 1) this form of violence doesn’t simply affect “trans people” in some broad and sweeping sense. It specifically targets trans women. 2) this violence is not targeted towards trans women indiscriminately. It is vastly disproportionately represented amongst trans women of colour, particularly black, aboriginal and latina trans women. 3) this violence does not occur in a socio-economic vacuum. There’s a noticeable tilt towards the victims being economically disadvantaged, the crimes occurring in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and the victims often being involved in sex work.
When we think about the curious silence regarding these mitigating factors, we can also illuminate some of what might be driving the manner in which emphasis is placed on the dead while the surviving and still yet living (and still yet to transition, yet to be born) are left out in the cold. Presenting this violence as simply an issue of transphobia in some general and abstracted sense, rather than an intersection of trans-misogyny, racism and poverty, allows us to more easily appropriate these deaths to help commodify and market the plight and suffering of trans people as a collective whole. Remembering the dead, rather than fighting for social justice in the here and now, provides an opportunity for selling our narrative as a community defined by shared victimization. What’s lost in that process is recognition of how that victimization is not shared equally amongst us.
Trans women of colour, particularly sex workers or those living in poverty, essentially end up operating as “expendable” martyrs for the cause of the trans community itself, with little attention paid to the dynamics of who, exactly, is benefiting from their martyrship. Is it trans women of colour themselves who experience any marked improvement in their safety and quality of life as a result of us holding up their lost as the face of transphobic violence? Or is it simply those trans people already positioned with the social privileges – male privilege, white privilege, middle-class privilege – requisite to access any sympathy at all who end up benefiting from selling these statistics? I’m sorry to say so, but there’s something immensely creepy about a middle-class white trans guy holding up an image of a deceased black trans woman sex worker as in any way representative of his struggle.
Of course, it should hopefully go without saying that I don’t think any trans person, regardless of gender, race, income, ability level, nationality, relative binary status, etc. in any way “has it easy”, nor do I think any of us are magically freed from oppression on the basis of our gender variance simply because we have access to other social privileges. In terms of the current cultural climate, and who does and doesn’t “count” in our society, we’re all very seriously fucked and deserve a whole lot better. And while certain privileges will still confer certain advantages relative to those who lack them, the absence of cis privilege is still going to mean you’ll never be on the winning end of kyriarchy. And being trans, especially a trans woman, always leaves the shadow of murder and assault hanging over you.
That said, trying to raise awareness of the oppression you’re experiencing by blithely ignoring the intersectional discrepancies between it and that of another trans person who has been far less fortunate is a disturbingly cynical act. The reason the dead fit better into this structure is that they’re unable to object and unable to request we actually do anything for them rather than for ourselves using them as a martyr, warning, or scare tactic with which to help drive home a given narrative.
An even darker element is the fact that as a whole, much of the trans community still buys into and wishes to propagate certain victim-blaming concepts that suggest we’re meant to lie low, blend in, not be noticed. If you get hurt it’s your own fault. Playing against this is another element of the community that says you must be out, must be open, must be heard. If we don’t progress forward, it’s your own fault. Nowhere in that discourse is the fact that trans lives inhabit differing circumstances, with differing risks and differing options, taken into consideration. For some, blending in is an impossibility. For some, blending in is a necessity for safety. For many, both of those are true simultaneously.
At this point, we have enough martyrs. We don’t need any more names to recite at Transgender Day Of Remembrance. We don’t need our statistics to be any grimmer. And we certainly don’t need to internally reenact the sensibility that certain lives are disposable, or that anyone ever had it coming.
It’s time we redirected our resources and focus on providing actual answers and actual improvements for trans lives. The countless trans lives that are being lived, right now. This very moment. Often in immense suffering and injustice, like CeCe, who right now, as you read this, is sitting in a cell because she had the audacity to refuse becoming another martyr. Are we going to allow her to be forced into that role anyway?
Engaging in this redirection, and enacting actual improvements in quality of life for trans people, requires acknowledging the inequities in our community, and the disproportionate manner in which trans people are victimized. It requires acknowledgment that transphobia and cissexism are not flat, evenly distributed oppressions, but something that is meted out in accordance with how vulnerable you are on account of other, intersecting axes of oppression. It requires acknowledging that transphobia and trans-misogyny are not interchangeable, that race makes a shockingly big difference in how hard and dangerous your life as a trans person is going to be, and that we still live in a world where human rights and safety cost money.
Let’s look at this. Let’s talk about it. Let’s figure out what we can do about it. Let’s be willing to ditch our venerable status as victims and start figuring out how we can make things better. Preferably before the next Paige Clay gets buried.