COMMENTARY: Black trans women need the space to be listened to, supported

After the brutal killing of George Floyd in May 2020, more people began waking up to the fact that Black lives matter.

However, Black trans lives are often left out of the conversation when it comes to our needs, the rights we deserve or even how to support us so we have a voice. I’m here to remind you that Black transgender women are also Black. We need the space to be listened to and supported, not just during Black History Month, but year-round.

I am a Black transgender woman and 11 years ago, I sought refuge in Canada because it’s illegal to be who I am in almost all countries in Africa, including Kenya, which is where I’m from. For me, Canada offered hope in a bleak landscape, and I was quickly embraced by Toronto, which is now my home.

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However, I and my community continue to be punished by a society that robs us of our dignity in so many ways, including the hostile environments we endure, such as educational institutions, and obstructing our efforts to make an honest living. I have faced all these obstacles as a trans woman, which we will classify as part of transmisogynoir.

Many of us, myself included, would be happy just to have a decent job. If you look at any major corporation today, you will find many out and proud gays and lesbians. Why? Because those corporations have strict policies against harassment and discrimination — which has attracted a talented, hard-working gay and lesbian workforce. Such protections have, in turn, allowed many gays and lesbians — in the developed world — to become upwardly mobile, have good jobs, get married, raise families, live dignified lives as contributing members of society.

Read more: 3 Black Canadians on inspiring the next generation of queer leaders

But there’s still an additional ignorance, lack of understanding and compassion for being a Black transgender woman. In a survey on employment by The National Centre for Transgender Equality, we often are subjected to the most severe forms of discrimination in the workplace — unable to obtain identity documents, bullied by coworkers, treated as “freaks” — if not frozen out of the formal labour market entirely.

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A 2015 report by the Trans PULSE Project, found that in Ontario 12 per cent of trans people were fired for being trans, and 18 per cent were turned down for a job because they were trans. Additionally, 28 per cent of trans people in Ontario were unable to get employment references with their correct name or pronoun.

But it doesn’t end there.

Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM), is a systematic collection, monitoring and analysis of reported killings of gender-diverse/trans people worldwide. They reported that a total of 350 trans and gender-diverse people were murdered between October 2019 and September 2020. That’s six per cent more than the last reported year. And out of those 350 people killed, TMM states 98 per cent of those were trans women.

In the U.S., people of colour made up 79 per cent of the 28 trans people murdered. The average age of the trans women who were murdered was 31, with the youngest being just 15. It also troubles me that in the year 2020, in the same TMM report, 62 per cent of the murdered trans people were sex workers.

Read more: LGBTQ people more likely to see negative job impacts due to COVID-19: study

Today, more of us, myself included, are comfortable coming out in public embracing our true identities — a sign of progress. That, in turn, increases the number of us who can bond, network, speak out, become activists. This is the reason why I founded Trans Workforce — born from my frustrations in trying to find gainful employment as a trans woman in Canada.

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Has the higher visibility exposed more of us to heartache and harassment from a resistant society? Yes. But it is the price we pay to achieve our rights. And I mean rights — not privileges. We demand fairness and equality, not special treatment. We must double our efforts to break the cycles of stigma and discrimination everywhere we see it.

We all know that it was trans-identifying and gender-nonconforming people who threw the first bricks and ignited the gay liberation movement at the Stonewall riots in 1969 New York. Folks like Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera, are beloved icons of the gay liberation movement. Brick by brick, we trans folks helped lay the foundations for the freedoms we see today. Except as a transwoman, I am here to tell you that my community has been locked out of the house that we helped build.

Biko Beauttah is a human rights activist who calls Toronto home. Her work is mostly focused on transgender and refugee rights. Find her on Instagram: @bikodesigns.

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