Laverne Cox’s newfound fame earned by her role on Orange Is The New Black has given her an active political voice. The transgender actress made a speech recently detailing what it means to be a black trans woman in the United States. In this speech she focuses on the intersect of two systems of oppression prevalent in our society. The oppression of two groups, the black community and the trans community, affect Laverne and others like her doubly. It is no secret that these two groups are devalued in societal systems, but it is still questioned why it is the combination of these two labels placed upon a person that makes them the target of an intense form of systemic discrimination that has lead to them being the most targeted victims of violence in the LGBTQ community.
The black community has been the target of violence and oppression ranging in forms from blatantly overt to almost unidentifiable. In terms of citizenship in our society, it is easy to say that in the past the black community has been excluded. In response, I feel the black community created their own citizenship to remain strong against tides of adversity. I feel like for black males, this citizenship also came embedded with hegemonic masculinities that told them that any feminine behaviour was not acceptable. Homophobia also crept its way into this new citizenship. This need to be strong for their race obliterated another citizenship inherent to all of us. Plummer’s concept of intimate citizenship describes a “bundle of rights concerning people’s choices about what they do with their bodies, emotions, relationships, gender identities and desires” (Surya and Munro 348). The intersect of black citizenship and intimate citizenship is fraught with conflict. For a black trans person this then in turn threatens their trans citizenship as any behaviour other than that of extreme masculinity will be rejected and ridiculed.
We are told that a flaw in feminist theory is the “simplistic equation of masculinity with oppression”. (Surya and Munro 355) I think we can further extend this to the flawed simplification in our equation of whiteness with oppression. Systemic anti-blackness that has oppressed the black community has formed a hierarchy within the race itself. These power structures have created many divides, placing those that are fairer skinned above those that are darker, men over women and cisgender women above those that are transgender. It is unfortunate that some within the race itself have accepted these power structures as truth and perpetuate such systems of oppression themselves. Comparable to the exclusion of the “hijra” in Southeast Asia, these social ladders leave many black trans people at the bottom of the social hierarchy within society as a whole as well as with the hierarchy within their own race. They are unjustly excluded and victimized by a group to which they expect membership. I don’t wish to label the black community as oppressors, but instead as victims trying to hold onto power in a system that was not of their making.
To continue moving away from the equation of whiteness with oppression we can look to the hypersexualization and other racial subtexts in the sexualisation of the black female body. This false perception of black women as beings with insatiable sexual appetites was created during colonization and remains perpetuated today. Julia Serano describes to us a categorization of trans women as either ‘deceivers’ or ‘pathetic’ (Serano, pars 4-11). The hypersexualization of the body of a black trans woman either as a ‘deceiver’ or ‘pathetic’ proves to be extremely damaging. The black trans women whose sex at birth is not blatantly apparent to men, or rather the ‘deceivers’ illicit anger in men who feel an unjustified sense of trickery. Serano tells us “deceivers are… used as pawns to provoke male homophobia” (par 8). I feel it is the age-old story of hegemonic masculinity that tells a male he should reject his attraction to trans females. Rather than sort through his own emotions these men lash out with anger and hatred. For a black trans woman, this anger and hatred is made amplified by the hypersexualization of her body. For what Serano has dubbed the ‘pathetic’, someone’s whose birth at sex is obvious, their body will never conform to the expectations (laced with racial subtexts) that have been placed upon it. Constantly being made to feel as if they are not a ‘real woman’ these black trans woman are the target of constant ridicule and discrimination as well.
We cannot separate the oppressions of being black and being trans for an individual that is both. In a society fuelled by power systems it is rare to see those give up what power they have to move the oppressed to loftier positions. Those that speak out against anti-blackness cannot choose to not support the trans community by simply ignoring those members that belong to both groups. As Leverne Cox reminded us of Cornell West’s words during her speech, justice is what love looks like in public and currently there is a lack of love for black trans women amongst both the black and trans community. (Cox)
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Cox, Laverne. “Laverne Cox on Bullying and Being a Trans Woman of Colour.” Everyday Feminism. Youtube. 2 December 2014. Web. 7 Mar. 2015.
Monro, Surya & Warren, Lorna. “Transgendering Citizenship.” Sexualitites. 7.3 (2004) : 345-362. Web. 7 Mar. 2015
Serano, Julia. “Skirt Chasers: Why the Media Depict the Trans Revolution in Lipstick and Heels.” Julia Serano. Web. 7 Mar. 2015. < http://www.juliaserano.com/outside.html#skirtchasers>