TransGriot Note: This is the text of the speech I'm delivering in the Thomas Library
Good afternoon to the Bryn Mawr College faculty, alumni, students, guests and friends. I bring you greetings from the Bluegrass State and feel honored to be standing here on your historic campus and in the Philadelphia metro area once again at your gracious invitation.
I’d like to thank the Women’s Center and Nicole Matos for extending the invitation. There was much hard work put in behind the scenes that allowed me to be standing here before you today. I especially want to thank those of you who took the time out of your busy lives and class schedules to listen to me.
You might be wondering why a prominent blogger is standing before you today. I asked myself the same question on the plane ride here,
But one reason why I’m here is probably best answered in this quote by D’Jimo Kouyate.
He stated in ‘The Role of the Griot’: ‘The griot was the oral historian and educator in any great society. The griot was well respected and very close to kings- in fact closer to the king than the king’s own wife’
I don’t know if I’m at that level yet, but for those of you who peruse my TransGriot blog on a regular basis, you know I’m not just any old blogger. I’ve been a witness to and chronicler of transgender history. I helped make some of it in my own right and shape enough of it in the 90’s and this decade to earn myself an IFGE Trinity Award.
When I came to Philadelphia to pick up that award in 2006, I became only the third African-American transperson to receive it. The Trinity is the second highest honor the United States transgender community bestows upon its members for meritorious service to it, and I’m proud to be in the same pantheon of African American winners of this award such as Dawn Wilson in 2000 and Dr. Marisa Richmond in 2002.
It’s fitting that I’m standing here in the Thomas Library during LGBT History Month. As the child and godchild of historians, it was always my favorite subject when I was matriculating through school.
My late godmother, Pearl Suel, who wrote the African American history curriculum for the Houston Independent School District and my parents made sure that I was grounded in and just as cognizant about Black history as I was about American, Texas and world history.
And just as my mother and late godmother probably intended I’ve developed a deep love of it as well.
That is the reason I’m here today, to talk about a history and people that heretofore have not been discussed as much in GLBT circles.
I have the honor and pleasure of talking about Black trans people, but it’s going to be tough for my loquacious self to try to keep this expansive story to 15 minutes or less.
Ever since Christine Jorgenson stepped off the plane from Denmark on February 12, 1953, the attention of the world and in the United States has been focused on my white transsisters and transbrothers. Black transpeople in the States and across the African Diaspora have been pretty much ignored by mainstream media until recently.
And when it comes to Black transmen, the coverage is even worse.
That news and information blackout has been detrimental to my community, to me as an African descended transperson growing up in the 70’s searching for trans role models that shared my ethnic heritage, and the transgender community in general.
Did you know that the first person to undergo SRS at the now closed Johns Hopkins Hospital Gender Program in Baltimore was an African American transwoman named Avon Wilson?
One reason you don’t was because the Harry Benjamin/WPATH standards in place at the time advised transpeople to just blend into society. And that precisely what many African descended transpeople did. All we’ve been able to discover about her life after SRS is that she got married to a musician named Warren Combs according to the July 13, 1967 issue of JET.
I started hanging out in Montrose, our gayborhood back home in Houston in 1980 just as the HIV/AIDS epidemic was beginning to cut a devastating swath through our communities. It erased much of that history as well.
But thanks to iconic publications JET and EBONY magazines, and other sources such as the photos of Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles ’Teenie’ Harris, we’re beginning to get a glimpse into those lives.
Some of that history has some fascinating connections and backstories. For example, the Harlem based ballroom community that was showcased in the 1991 documentary ‘Paris Is Burning’ morphed from the elaborate drag balls that were held during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s.
In 1935 a gay Black man named Alfred Finnie began an event that became a Chicago Halloween tradition with his First ‘Finnie’s Ball’. He was killed in a 1943 gambling brawl and didn’t live to see his creation become a must attend glamorous South Side event.
At its peak it drew over 1000 people and got regular coverage in the nascent EBONY and JET magazines. The Finnie’s ball survived until the 60’s, but the tradition of the multicultural Halloween drag balls was carried forward into the 70’s, 80’s and beyond by the late Jacques Cristion.
Speaking of ball traditions, when the New York ball houses began to form chapters in cities up and down the East Coast and into the South and Midwest in the wake of the ‘Paris Is Burning’ documentary, one of the cities that began housing chapters was Philadelphia.
It’s not surprising since Philadelphia does have a Black GLBT community here with activist roots.
You have several good ones who live in this area, and one of them, Dionne Stallworth, was one of the founders of the trans community’s first national lobbying organization, GenderPac. I helped found the second one, the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition in 1999.
These organizations owe a debt to one of the first recorded instances of trans-specific activism and African American trans people were front an center in it happening.
I’m not sure if it’s still open, but it occurred in April – May 1965 at a place called Dewey’s Lunch Counter.
Dewey’s was a downtown Philadelphia eatery that served as a popular hangout for African descended GLBT people but Dewey’s management had no love for their GLBT clientele.
Citing the claim that the GLBT customers were driving away other business, they began refusing to serve young patrons dressed in what they called 'non-conformist clothing.'
Of course this being the 60’s, they did what any people facing oppressive and discriminatory behavior would do. On April 25 150 kids in ‘non-conformist clothing showed up at Dewey’s and were turned away. Three kids who were inside the restaurant and refused service were arrested by the Philadelphia police along with an advisor after they refused to leave.
That triggered a week long informational picket of Dewey’s decrying the treatment of the trans youth and a subsequent May 2 sit in. The Philadelphia police were called once again, but this time there were no arrests. Dewey’s then backed down and dropped the transphobic policy
Note that the first instance of transgender people protesting for their rights was by transgender African-Americans. This also took place a year before the transgender led Compton’s Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco and the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York.
One of the things that I have long lamented as an African descended transperson eager to learn about my predecessors is that there isn’t much written material about the lives of African-American transpeople.
You have Sharon Davis’ out of print book entitled ‘A Finer Specimen of Womanhood’ or The Lady Chablis autobiography ‘Hiding My Candy’, but other than that it pales in comparison to the shelves of books and websites written by and about my white transbrothers and transsisters.
Thanks to a deal Johnson Publishing Company inked with Google, archived copies of EBONY and JET are online and available to search through their Google Books feature.
I was happy to discover as I perused those digital copies that Chicago based Johnson Publishing Company not only documented the Harlem and Chicago drag balls, they covered other stories with angles that involved trans people as well.
For instance, while the rest of 1953 America was following the exploits of Christine Jorgenson, JET readers followed the saga of Carlett Brown, who was attempting to become the first African American to have SRS.
Carlett was on track to become the ‘First Negro Sex Change’ until It was reported in the July 9 issue she was arrested in Boston after shopping at Filene’s for violating the anti-crossdressing ordinance. She was in the city to go to the Danish Consulate and get her visa to travel to Denmark. The August 6 issue reported she postponed her trip to get facial feminization surgery in New York, and then was barred from leaving the United States until $1200 in federal back taxes were paid. The October 15, 1953 JET issue reports that she ended up taking a $60 a week cook’s job at an Iowa State frat house to earn the money to pay off her IRS tax debt before the trail through these Jet issues runs cold.
Philadelphia transwomen pop up in these JET archives as well with the March 1967 story of then 28 year old Carole Small, who was working as a female illusionist and singer garnering quite a following in (West) Germany and awaiting SRS in Denmark.
It ends with her stating, "Black women in America are the luckiest on the face of the earth and it will be marvelous to be one."
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find out if she did it and how her life turned out post surgery,
Back in 1982 soul singer and sex symbol Teddy Pendergrass had the car accident that paralyzed him. There was another passenger in the car with him that morning, a then 31 year old model by the name of Tenika Watson. She talks about how the accident that paralyzed him also negatively affected her life. There are ciswomen to this day that still hate on Tenika and blame her for the accident that was caused by malfunctioning brakes on Teddy’s car.
That’s a nice segue into a larger point I want to make. Whether the Bible thumpers and the neo-Know Nothings wish to accept that or not, we are part of and weaved into the fabric of the African-American community.
For every pastor who’s spouting right wing crap about how ‘he don’t want no sissy church’, many of them not only have gay choir directors sitting at their organs and pianos, they have transwomen in their choirs and their congregations that they hit on before or after Sunday services.
Our problems as African American trans people mirror those of our parent society. Just because I morphed into this fine brown frame doesn’t mean that I don’t get called the N-word or face less racism or discrimination. I get called the B-word on top of it in addition to facing sexism and all the other problems Black women face in this society.
I submit that the only thing tougher than being a Black man or Black women in this society is being a Black man or a Black woman in this society with a mismatched body.
As Black transpeople we take the brunt along with our Latina sisters of the anti transgender violence that menaces this community. About 70% of the Remembering Our Dead list that memorializes trans people lost to violence is made up of transgender POC.
The employment discrimination we face plays a part in that. While many of my sisters and brothers work 9 to 5 jobs, go to college and are doing their part to be productive citizens in this country, some of my sisters aren’t so lucky.
Economic circumstances force some of my sisters into sex work or plying the world’s oldest profession on the streets where they are more vulnerable to random violence.
But some of it is just transphobic hatred and ignorance that leads to our deaths.
Some of it is due to our historic negativity with police departments. That played out in the Duanna Johnson case in Memphis last year in which a police assault of her was caught on videotape.
As some of you here are probably aware of, the Philadelphia Police Department still hasn’t come up with a rational explanation for how Nizah Morris ended up with a fatal head injury after accepting a Christmas Eve 2002 courtesy ride from a downtown bar.
We have problems with the medical establishment, which played out with fatal consequences in 1995 for Washington DC resident Tyra Hunter.
Tyra was a popular hair stylist who was headed to work as a passenger in a vehicle involved in an accident in her Southeast DC neighborhood.
When the DC fire department arrived, EMT Adrian Williams cuts open her pants, discovers a penis in her panties, utters an expletive and stops treating Hunter for six critical minutes as he starts cracking jokes. In the meantime the neighborhood residents are pleading with him to resume working to save her life.
She unfortunately died a few hours later. What was even more galling to trans people in the DC area is that Williams was promoted. Her mother received a multimillion dollar settlement a few years later, but I’d be willing to bet she’d rather have her child back.
When it comes to first responders protecting and serving the public, unfortunately that doesn’t extend to us.
Some of the violence and ignorance we’ve been subjected to has come from our own people. That pains us as African descended folks who love our people and want to do our parts to help our community survive and thrive.
It’s not all negative. There are some positive trends developing as well. We’re finding more acceptance amongst our families, ciswomen and fellow African descended people. Thanks to my blog, our allies and other transwomen of color blogs, we’re beginning to lift the cloak of secrecy and misinformation that enveloped many of our lives. We’re busting myths, revealing our history and imparting knowledge to people inside and outside the African American community as well.
I’m also happy to see that continental African transpeople are beginning to blog about their lives. That’s sorely needed to take down the lie that being transgender or gay is ‘un-African’.
For far too long in the media, just as with our white counterparts ciswomen have played transwomen in various TV shows. Veronica Redd played transwoman Edith Stokes on a 1977 episode of ‘The Jeffersons’, and Sheryl Lee Ralph played a transwoman named Claire in ‘Barbershop-The Series’ Actress Kerry Washington just played a role as a Black transwoman in the movie ‘Life Is Hot In Cracktown’
But far too many times Black transwomen are depicted as prostitutes, murder victims or for comic relief and not serious roles such as Rebecca Romijn just had on ‘Ugly Betty’ playing Alexis Meade.
That’s why Isis King’s and Laverne Cox’s recent turns on reality TV shows were groundbreakingly important. It opened people’s eyes to the ignorance and discrimination we face while at the same time showing America, the world and more importantly our African descended brothers and sisters that we exist, we are proud to be Black transpeople and we are beautiful people inside and out just trying to live our lives.
The passage of ENDA and hate crimes legislation now moving through Congress will also help propel the positive momentum forward.
I believe it’s past time for the African descended trans community to organize itself on a national, regional and local level. Many of the current organizations in the GLBT community do not have us on their boards, much less seriously concern themselves with our issues.
To paraphrase Kwame Toure, it may be time for us to close ranks in order to participate in the greater society.
I envision us doing so in order to push an agenda that addresses some of the issues that impact our subset of the African American community such as employment, education, access to health care and hate crimes. It will also aid us in sorting out the cultural, social and political issues within the African American community and improve our intersectional approach with other groups.
I believe that much of the positive momentum and attention we’ve been garnering lately simply is because our allies wish to be on the correct side of the moral arc of history as Dr. King so eloquently put it.
But even with the additional drama of being Black and trans, I and some of my brothers and sisters would probably tell you that we wouldn’t change being us for anything in the world. There is nothing more liberating than to finally be comfortable in your own skin.
Black transpeople have been intertwined with the lives of our African cisgender brothers and sisters for generations. The sooner the haters realize that and quit hiding behind the Bible to justify killing and demonizing us, the sooner we can get started as African descended transpeople offering our help and talents in fixing the ills that impact our entire community.