I recently wrote a piece for The Washington Post about how the US media reports on trans women, and was struck by the women of color, particularly black women, who are shaping the narrative around the discussion of gender identity in this country.
Black women have emerged as the public faces of the transgender tipping point, as Time Magazine recently described it.
Writer Malcolm Gladwell describes the tipping point as the “point at which an issue, idea or product crosses a certain threshold and gains significant momentum, triggered by some minor factor or change.” In this case it is the point in which we, as Americans, not only talk about and relate to gender identity, but how we treat transgender people. According to the Time Magazine article, there are about 1.5 million transgender Americans who are coming out of the margins to assert their civil rights, becoming more vocal and more visible. And black women are at the forefront of that movement, determining what images Americans see and associate with transgender rights and identity.
It was no mistake that “Orange Is the New Black” star Laverne Cox graces Time’s recent cover. But she isn’t alone. There’s also Janet Mock who wrote The New York Times best selling book, “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More,” a coming of age story in which Mock describes her experiences growing up as a trans girl in Honolulu, Hawaii, Oakland, Calif. and Dallas, Texas. “People may not see me as trans, they may not read me as trans, but I will always be read as a black person, as a black woman in our society,” Mock recently told BET.com. Mock also talked about the dangers of being a trans woman of color.
And there’s CeCe McDonald, the trans woman who spent 19 months in a men’s prison for defending herself during a racist and transphobic attack. McDonald was released in January; she talked with MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry about the dehumanization she suffered as a trans black woman in the prison system. “No on can take my identity away from me…,” McDonald told Harris-Perry.
These are but three women leading the fight for transgender rights. They aren’t the only black women involved in the struggle (here are five more trans women who blazed the trail for equality), but they are the three who have become the public faces in the media when it comes to talking about gender identity.
The fact that black women are at the forefront of changing hearts, minds and attitudes about transgender people is part of a rich legacy of marching, riding and bleeding in the fight for civil rights. From women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman to a defiant Rosa Parks and children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman, leading the fight for respect and dignity and creating social change is what black women do, even though others tend to get the credit.
Black women were pivotal in the critical battles for racial equality during the civil rights era. If Time Magazine is right and we’re now undergoing a new civil rights movement for transgender people, then Cox, McDonald and Mock are proving to be just as vital in taking up the mantle and paving the way.