The Root on Black transgender people.
"Can you imagine what it's like to see people you work with refuse to
walk on the same side of the street with you or sit with you at lunch,
or to be told that you are unhirable, just because you are a transgender
man?" asks Kylar Broadus, an African-American lawyer and board member
of the National Black Justice Coalition, a national black LGBT civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.
Broadus, who was born a woman and transitioned into a man 17 years
ago, has been passed over for jobs because of his gender identity. "I'm
basically unemployable because I can't hide the transgender part of me.
Most likely I am not getting hired once employers see that my Social
Security card and school transcripts all have a female name," he says.
"I am a human being who deserves the right to make a living like
Broadus' experiences are not rare. The harsh reality is that whether
they possess a J.D. or a GED, members of the African-American
transgender community face severe discrimination, according to the
recent study Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (pdf). The survey, the first of its kind, was a collaboration between the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Center for Transgender Equality
and the National Black Justice Coalition. It collected data from more
than 6,500 transgender Americans and found that all transgender people
face severe bias ranging from housing and health care to education and
But when researchers took a deeper look at the discrimination that the black respondents faced
(pdf) -- all 381 of them -- the data jumped out at them. "What was
really poignant were these stark differences. In every case, black
respondents fared worse than the nonblack respondents in the national
survey," says Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National
Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "This is because black transgender people
face anti-transgender bias coupled with structural and institutionalized
The Greater Challenge of Being Black and Trans
Monica Roberts, a 49-year-old black transgender activist and founder of the award-winning blog TransGriot, wasn't shocked by Injustice at Every Turn's
findings -- they reflect what advocates have been saying for years.
"There is this saying that when white America has a cold, black America
has a fever. Well, when black America has a fever, black transgender
America has pneumonia."
The employment-discrimination data alone support Roberts' train of
thought. Overall, black unemployment is at an all-time high at 16.7
percent, but 26 percent of black transgender people are unemployed --
that's three times the rate of the general public and twice that of the
rest of the transgender community. And while a crippling economy is a
serious factor behind the statistics, it's important to note that
current laws -- in 35 states it's perfectly legal to fire or not hire someone because he or she is transgender -- exacerbate these unemployment numbers.
Thirty-two percent of black transgender respondents have lost a job
because of bias; 48 percent were not hired because of bias; 34 percent
were living in extreme poverty, reporting a household income of less
than $10,000 a year; and almost 50 percent admitted to selling drugs or
performing sex work in order to earn money to survive.
Unfortunately, these disparities don't stop at employment. The report
also found that 20 percent of black respondents are HIV positive (the
general black population's HIV prevalence rate is 2.4 percent); 21
percent of those who were attending school as transgender people had to
leave because the harassment was so severe; 41 percent have been
homeless in the past (five times the rate of the general U.S.
population); 29 percent of those who had been in jail or prison reported
being physically assaulted, and 32 percent reported being sexually
assaulted; and 34 percent reported not seeking medical attention when
injured or sick for fear of being discriminated against in health care
A State of Despair
One of the most shocking findings was that nearly half of the black
respondents reported having attempted suicide at least once in their
lives -- this rate was higher than that of any other racial group in the
Nipper states that the numbers speak volumes about the emotional and
mental distress that members of the black trans community endure
throughout their lives. "From cradle to the grave, black transgender
people are experiencing high levels of abuse and harassment from all
over -- their teachers, employers, the prison system, the health care
system, you name it," she says. "And there are barely any safe places
for them to go to deal with this stress."
Despite the devastating statistics, it's important to recognize that
the very existence of such data is a victory of sorts because
historically, reaching the transgender community -- especially people of
color -- has been incredibly difficult for researchers. Even the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention falls short on specific data
on transgender people. And despite acknowledging that this community has
the highest HIV risk factors of any group, the CDC lumps transgender
people into the same category as men who have sex with men. (In August the CDC stated that it is revising this approach.)
"We go underreported because we live in fear," says Broadus. "I
remember first coming out in my community in Missouri, and there were
people who came to see me speak who had literally locked themselves in
their homes and never really came out because they were terrified of
what would happen if they did."
Nipper adds that her organization understood this fear and created a
grassroots approach in collecting the data. "We did a lot of outreach
across the country. We worked with groups and allies, and we used online
surveys and went to the bars and clubs to really reach the transgender
community to participate in this survey."
Now advocates have the data they need to prove to lawmakers that this
population needs better protection under the law. "We plan on taking
this data and our recommendations and pushing for, among many things, a
federal anti-discrimination employment bill," Nipper says.
So Why All The Hate?
Despite the increase in positive media coverage around LGBT issues -- and shows such as Glee, Modern Family and True Blood
that raise the national consciousness around what it means to be gay or
lesbian -- it's hard to deny that transgender people, especially
African Americans, are somewhat left out of that national conversation.
(The most visible nonwhite transgender faces are Isis from America's Next Top Model and People.com editor Janet Mock.)
Broadus believes that such blatant omission only leads to more
ignorance, sensationalism and hatred toward his community. "We find
ourselves the butt of joke on The Jerry Springer Show or some sexual fetish in porn," he says. "We are rarely seen as authentic people."
Sharon J. Lettman, executive director of the National Black Justice
Coalition, is confident that the report will be a wake-up call for what
African Americans need to do as a community. "Our black transgender
sisters and brothers are black people, too, and we have to love them better."
The good news is that there has been a surge in black transgender
leadership over the years. Just this May, in conjunction with the
National Black Justice Coalition, Broadus started the Trans People of
Color Coalition as a means for transgender people to advocate for
themselves. "This is an effort to build a movement," he says. "People
are finding their power and realizing that they are worthy."
And while black transgender activism is important in changing the
hearts and minds of straight America, it's also crucial in further
educating the white and black lesbian, gay and bisexual
community, especially the white-dominated LGBT movement, which for years
has been accused of being racist, trans-phobic and AIDS-phobic.
Roberts believes that issues of respectability politics help explain
why gay-friendlier causes such as marriage equality have sucked all the
oxygen out of the LGBT movement and left little space for transgender
issues and black LGBT folks across the board. "There is this illusion of
community, and it's frustrating as hell," she says. "Historically, the
transgender community has backed their rights, while they were
stabbing us in the back when it was time to reciprocate. It was black
trans folks who started the Dewey's lunch-counter sit-in [in
Philadelphia in 1965], and it was trans women like Sylvia Rivera who
jump-started the Stonewall Riots [in New York City in 1969], when the
conservative queers were sitting in their closets."
In the end, Nipper is bothered by the disinterest of some of her
colleagues when it comes to transgender equality and this particular
report, especially since the 'T' of the LGBT community has the potential
to catapult the movement much farther than it's ever been. "The people
who are the most vilified, the most harassed and the most abused
represent the furthest margins. If we can correct their issues --
transgender issues -- we can correct the issues that impact everyone in
Kellee Terrell is an award-winning Brooklyn, N.Y.-based
freelance writer who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture.
Terrell is also the news editor for thebody.com, a website about HIV/AIDS. She blogs about health for BET.com. Follow her on Twitter.