Friday, May 09, 2008

Destruction Of The Black Transwoman Image

One of the things that I and my transsisters have in common with our biosisters besides our shared cultural heritage is defending the images of Black women from constant assault inside and outside the community.

Ever since the advent of the slave trade, the Black female image has been subjected to a wide array of slights, outrageous comments, and bigoted or racist behavior.

Black women have dealt with everything from being sexually assaulted by slave masters who considered them less than human to being toured as carnival exhibits as Saartjie Baartman was in the early 19th century as the Hottentot Venus. We also have our wide-ranging skin tone palettes, full lips, curvaceous bodies and ample butts constantly derided as either 'exotic' or 'ugly' vis-a-vis the Eurocentric standard of beauty.

We African-American transwomen share like our biosisters the same problems in addition to others brought on by our transgender status. At least my biosisters don't have to contend with being disrespectfully called 'sir' or called a man.

Oops, check that. Any sistah who's 5'8" or taller, has short cropped hair, is an athlete, or full figured and tall with broad shoulders has had that shade thrown at them. I just remembered the Khadijah Farmer case now currently in litigation.

But I'm digressing. The transwomen division part of the Black female image destruction is in large part courtesy of the escort and porn worlds. We didn't start out with negative images. Over the latter half of the 20th century as coverage of transgender issues became more frequent on local, national, and international newscasts, there was a corresponding explosion in transgender themed adult material. One major irritant to me and many African-American transwomen (and the irritation is shared by our Latina and Asian transsisters as well) is that the images are predominately women of color.

While there are also white transwomen involved in those worlds, they have balance because John and Jane Q. Public have also seen news stories in which white transwomen are seen as businesspeople, politicians elected to office, et cetera. Since the stories are either ignored or aren't being told that transwomen of color are doing mainstream and remarkable things, the negatives get disproportionately shunted to and pile up for African-American transwomen.

Many of us take our transitions seriously. We are talented, intelligent, accomplished women in our own rights. But you wouldn't know that (and probably don't) know that based on the disproportionate attention focused on the subset of our transsistahs involved in the escort and adult entertainment world.

Unfortunately the tendency to judge African-Americans by the worst we produce, combined with our near invisibility in terms of the 55 year history of positive media coverage of transgender people vis-a-vis our white sisters have been devastating to our efforts to educate our fellow African-Americans on transgender issues. It's probably one of the factors in why we initially lost eight CBC votes in the ENDA debate last fall.

We also haven't been helped by Hollywood movie or television portrayals or fictional accounts that perpetuate the 'Black transwomen are hookers' myth. You only need look at two television characters to see what we African-American transwomen have to contend with.

On one hand, you have Rebecca Romijn's Ugly Betty character Alexis Meade, who plays a major role in running a magazine empire. Jazzmun gets to play Dontrelle, who is guess what?

What is a prostitute, Alex?

I'm a big fan of actress Kerry Washington, but in the upcoming movie Life Is Hot In Cracktown based on the novel of the same name, she gets to play a transwoman. While I'm not thrilled that she's playing a character who once again feeds into that 'Black transwomen are hookers' stereotype, I know based on her past work that she's a stickler for authenticity.

She hired Valerie Spencer as her advisor and had Valerie on set to ensure that her character was on point in terms of the emotions and drama that we deal with. I'd just like to see Kerry Washington, any sistah actress or Jazzmun one day get to play an African-American transgender character like Alexis Meade or the Edith Stokes character Veronica Redd played back in the 70's.

Unfortunately, the stereotype is overpowering whatever positive things we try to do as African-American transwomen. When the members of TSTB were in the process of organizing the first Transsistahs-Transbrothas Conference in 2005, the white transgender community was fearful we'd take that moment to permanently separate ourselves from them. I took pains as one of the organizers to write an open letter in February 2005 explaining why we were doing it and posted it to a few transgender oriented lists.

One of the responses that came back on the tgusarights list was from a person calling herself Brenda Jean, who stated that our conference 'would make it easier for us to service our tricks'. That negative image was revealed during the wrongful death trial of Tyra Hunter to have partly played a role in her untimely death from an auto accident. She was not only disrespected at the accident scene by the EMT, but was ignored after she arrived at DC General Hospital and administered a drug that they give to emergency patients they presume to be drug addicts.

There was one night back home when I was watching my friend Sivi Ross do a drag show in a predominately white GLBT club called Cousins. I ended up reading a patron the riot act after he disrespectfully propositioned yours truly by saying the words "How much?" to me.

We also have to contend with as African-American transwomen when we enter relationships with us being lumped on the 'exotic' end of the scale. In some men's minds, what could be more 'exotic' than a beautiful African-American woman with (or who used to have) daddy's equipment? (And you know the stereotype about African-American men)

Just as our biosisters have to constantly fight a never ending battle to debunk these stereotypes, African-American transwomen will be in the same fight on a different flank to combat the stereotypes unique to us.


imogen said...

Another great post. Thank you for maintaining this blog- I don't know how often you get positive feedback (I read you on a livejournal rss feed, so I rarely even look at your URL) but I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate everything you write. So thanks!

Monica Roberts said...

Thanks for commenting!

A writer always appreciates it when they get feedback for their writing.

Monica Roberts said...

This is an e-mail I received from Liz:

The profession and medical fronts don't help either. I've heard many white trans women complain about being labeled Autogynephilliacs.

Meaning they transition because of some arousal to self or though of being feminine. But little is talked about Blanchard's and Baileys theory on Androphillia. He characterized androphiles as being typically minorities and of lower I.Q. and a penchant for prostitution and sex work. Not far from the theory they back in the 30's and 20's about blacks having inferior intellect to whites.

But what's sad really is Ray Blanchard and Bailey theories and papers are still published in leading journals, books and resources on gender and sexology.

Unknown said...

You know, the American education system is completed f'd up when I didn't even know who Saartjie Baartman was until my third year of college (and even then, only in a class that's part of a very specific part of Sociological Study, women's studies). I think part of the problem with acknowledging and destroying the pattern of destructive and offensive stereotypical imagery is admitting the images even exist-- and that's going to require a whole ton of white folks to admit how deep this stuff goes.

The thing is, I never realized how unusual my upbringing was until recently, when I got serious in my trans* studies, and women's studies. I only recently (about 2-3 months ago) reflected on the fact that most of my (real) friends from growing up were women; I realized I gravitated towards people with whom I could relate.

And looking back, those friends, were mostly black. And I don't know if it's the same reason as above (that I related to them better), or if all the white kids stayed away from me because I hung out with black kids. I've known about racism to a degree, from my friends growing up, but until recently, it hasn't even hit me how it pervades EVERYTHING sometimes.

I'm probably seemingly rambling, and I'm on the edge of tears, because the world seems crazier to me every day. I at any time vacillate between feeling like I'm able to make a difference, and feeling powerless standing in the path of institutionalized hate. But I love your blog, Monica, because I know that at the very least you effect me, and that tells me I can effect someone else, maybe... and maybe that's enough of a difference.

TC said...

As long as you're out there living your life with dignity despite all the haters, people will keep seeing that the Black Transwoman Image isn't anywhere near the whole truth.

Speaking of Bartman - Broca, the anatomist, tried to measure her skeleton after her death to prove a theory of his about blacks' proportions being closer to apes' than white people's are. But he found that the opposite was true. Broca didn't give up his racist theories, but he had to go around looking for some other kind of evidence.

Monica Roberts said...

Yes, you can change the world.

One person at a time.

Milly Shaw said...

Fantastic article. To my shame, I'd never stopped to consider how the world might be different for black transwomen. Thanks for opening my eyes. =)