On The Silencing of Trans Women of Color: A Response to Trans Glamour vs. Trans Activism

This piece was written and originally published by L’lerrét.

Trans women of color are doing the damn thing and laughing off the scrutiny and criticism of their oppressors. While this piece is a direct response to Elle Boatman and her Op-ed on Advocate.com entitled “Trans Glamour Versus Trans Activism,” I do want to start off by noting that what I say in this piece applies to all persons that seek to silence the many trans women of color who show up and show out advocating for their lives and the lives of others around them.

Before I start to truly critique the piece, let me provide you all with some context. Basically (and I mean basic-ally), Elle has written a piece about the Iconic Candy Magazine cover shoot that featured 14 trans role models and pegged this to be demeaning and harmful to the movement. She even made it look exclusionary and misleading, stating that only Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Geena Rocero are trans women who do any sort of activism/advocacy work. Really, Elle?

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Now, I do agree with the fact that media focuses on femme women and seeks to peg that as ideal but in the scope of the original argument, to be a white person critiquing transgender women who are of color as embodying norms and not representing the whole community and invalidating the work they do as activists, I start to itch. That doesn’t sit well with me. Allow me to elaborate.

I want to first start off by critiquing the idea of celebrity. I think it’s funny that once people of color get any type of nationwide coverage on something other than violence or drugs, they’re automatically pegged as a celebrity. Celebrity is a white centered notion placing higher value on individuals who are coveted and desired. As trans women of color, we don’t have the luxury of being wholly desirable in a cisnormative, white centered society. We are plastered throughout the media only when folk find out that other male celebrities do in fact desire us and they begin to do a slander campaign to strip us down and dehumanize our very existence.

Janet Mock wrote a book and was super successful in doing so. Because she was palatable to the public and sensationalized because they “can’t believe she was born a boy”, she became a hit. Cis folk asked her to speak at various events and they put the pressure on her to try to speak for her community as a whole which she tried hard not to do. None of these women asked for ‘celebrity’. They wanted a lifestyle. They started to actualize their dreams and goals and upon achieving them, they were devalued and pegged as a “trans _________”. They can’t escape their identities nor can they escape the bigotry of the society that will forever seek to muffle all of their efforts to just make a living and be happy.

photo from Mariano Vivanco for Candy Magazine

photo from Mariano Vivanco for Candy Magazine

Activism cannot be quantified and I think operating under the idea that it can makes people feel super uncomfortable. As a white woman, you may not understand this, but the simple act of getting up and being in the public eye and proclaiming your transness unapologetically is an act of revolution for every trans person of color, and in that right, they are doing the work. How dare you demean the existence of women who didn’t have to speak on their identity but chose to do so in order to work towards a more inclusive and visible society where young black and brown persons feel value and can imagine dreaming up more than trying to blend in and get “normal jobs” and be respectable; a society where they can finally feel beautiful and in charge of their own destinies. How dare you label the work of fellowshipping to the younger folks looking up to these possibility models as insignificant.

Elle proceeds to state, “Showing 14 conventionally, if not exceptionally, beautiful trans women and advertising them as the leaders of the trans community only reinforces the ‘normality’ of straight, cisgender society by pandering to the pervasive notion that your worth is intrinsically connected to how easily you can mimic the cisgender, heterosexual ideal.” This is a very dangerous statement because it’s focusing on a false notion that trans women in the public eye seek to “mimic” cis people. When was that ever the case? It’s common for trans women to be jealous of other trans women because of the way they construct their identities.

We are so focused on breaking the chains of normativity and ‘ending gender’ that we seek to take away the agency of those individuals who mold themselves in ways that just so happen to be what the greater society deems acceptable or beautiful. Demonizing femmness because it “adheres to patriarchal gaze” is problematic because, in turn, you demonize all folk that long to access femininity. And instead of decentering heteronormativity and the long history of hypersexualization, you just avoid the issue, which still centers heteronormativity and teaches women and any femme presenting folk to cover up and not do what they damn well please with their bodies because “men are watching.” What sense does that make? How does that help anyone?

It’s odd that a white woman is critiquing the ways in which trans women of color perform gender and how they “conform to the norms,” seeing that norms and everything having to do with beauty and gender and acceptability are meant to keep non white folks out. Elle says that these women “blend in” and are “conventionally beautiful,” when that just isn’t the case. Being black in the first place automatically knocks one out of this country’s historical colonialists and white imperialist convention.

Furthermore, I as well as many other black trans women can attest to the struggles of trying to navigate as a trans woman when your body was struck with years of testosterone and you grew like other black men – strong faces, muscles, wider noses, veiny arms, etc. There have been a multitude of conversations amongst trans people of color where they testify to the fact that passing in white spaces is a piece of cake while not so much in our own communities.

Just because your eyes can’t see the struggle and you think “oh they just blend on it” doesn’t mean there isn’t a struggle. Do you remember cycle 11 of ANTM when Isis was harassed by the cast members for having “man hands” or a “man face that doesn’t photograph well”? Do you remember Laverne Cox constantly opening up about her experiences walking in the street and being called a man? Did you not watch the award shows and see the Twitter response with everyone claiming her as a tranny and invalidating her womanhood? Or even comparing her size to Nicki Minaj’s when on The View, and using that to snatch her womanhood away from her?

Do you not hear about a few of the trans models who constantly feel pressure by the industry to get countless surgeries because of the ways in which their aesthetic is masculinized? But everyone is a “conventional beauty” right?

Monica Roberts commented on this issue and very eloquently remarked: “Trans women of color are demonized for their race and being trans, unlike our white counterparts. Especially in light of earlier this year when elements of the white transfeminine community were attacking Janet and Laverne, and all the murdered trans women in the US since June have been TWOC. So yeah, I’m definitely going to ask the question: Whyare glamour and activism issues in this case when it wasn’t for Christine Jorgensen, April Ashley, Caroline Cossey and most recently Jenna Talackova?” *sips tea*

candymagazinecover

It was also interesting that Elle suggested folk that should have been on the cover and they were white women. Quite typical of her to resort to that and it validates my argument that this is white tears in action and an attack on the women of color doing the work and doing it effortlessly. Are you mad that trans women of color can achieve their goals, inspire others, and look desirable all at the same time? Are you mad that we’re no longer just in the tabloids for ‘sex scandals’  but now for just being bosses and looking like them? Are you mad because they can afford to? Are you mad because the trans movement started deviating from the white people’s “I was born in the wrong body and just want to be normal” narrative and images which have not been dominated by people of color? Why can’t we finally just be allowed to be great? Folk see a lack of whiteness and cry foul when they forget the centuries that folk of color have been marginalized and considered ugly. Because you know about the three trans women of color that the white centered world deems palatable doesn’t mean they’re the only ones out here doing the work.

Elle continues, stating:

Many in the trans community are content to celebrate this as a milestone in the fight for equality. And in a fashion sense, I suppose it is. But even then it’s absolutely not representative of the majority of trans women, let alone the trans community. While it succeeds in its diversity of skin color, it fails to accurately represent the body size and shape and weight, even the sexuality, of most typical trans women, nor does it do anything to highlight how these (admittedly beautiful) women did, in fact, contribute to the fight for transgender rights.

This is quite laughable because she admitted her bigotry in this statement. These trans women of color don’t deserve the title of activists because they don’t “represent the marjoriy of trans women, let alone the trans community.” Really Elle? So you and your buddies deserve it because you all are white and do jobs that adhere to professionalism/respectability politics. And what does sexuality look like to you? I didn’t know sexuality had an aesthetic. Little do you know, not all of these folk identify as heterosexual and we can’t assume that they all even identify as women.

Also, multiple people can’t be faces of trans movement? Are you so pressed about that title that you seek to tear other trans women down for doing their shit well? Jealousy of people of color is super real, apparently. Laughable, but real. And again, these are “typical trans women.” They are just living their lives and doing outstanding work and society dubbed them trailblazers. They don’t have “ideal” bodies by any means. You can ask every single on of them. You can look at them. You can ask them about their experiences. Not all of them got work done. But even if they did, who is shaming them for their own self actualization helping the movement? The work they do doesn’t need to be highlighted explicitly because the proof is in the pudding. Just because their work does not benefit you or your friends doesn’t mean that it doesn’t benefit anyone. There are thousands of trans people of color that look up to and benefit from the work of these lovely individuals. Let me just highlight a few for you.

Isis King from ANTM

Isis King from ANTM

Isis King was the first transgender woman of color to ever be a part of the show America’s Next Top Model. She made it possible for other little black trans girls to feel that they are enough. She opened the door for the possibility of black trans women to begin to even conceptualize a life where they too can break into the industry and redefine the standards of beauty that long excluded them. Not only that, but Isis has been speaking at colleges around the nation and even has taken the time out to speak to young black trans women of color, one-on-one, to inspire and motivate. But she’s not really doing the work, huh?

Gisele Alecia (better known as Gisele XTRAVAGANZA) is the mother of the House of Xtravaganza in New York. If you know anything about the underground LGBTQ Ballroom culture, you’ll know that houses are made up of a mother or father who take in young LGBTQ folk that have been thrown out of their homes due to homophobia, or abandoned, or are just looking for work/money to survive or thrive. They provide shelter and survival for these folks in exchange for money that they earn walking in balls throughout the nation to help the house thrive and continue to be a force. She’s done so much more but I think that qualification is enough for your white definition of activism, right? But she’s not really doing the work, huh?

via topicalcream

Juliana Huxtable via topicalcream

JULIANA HUXTABLE! She’s the queen of non conformity! She embraces the politics of sexuality – a concept misconstrued when adjacent to black women in general. Her style is against respectability politics and acceptability. Not only that, but Juliana blurs the gender boundaries in fashion and is even identified as a queer DJ, hoping to ensure solidarity among self identified sisters across the whole spectrum. But she’s not really doing the work, huh?

Carmen Xtravaganza is also a mother of the international house of Xtravaganza. She was in the LEGENDARY documentary Paris is Burning. In an interview with the great Monic Roberts with TransGriot, she was quoted as saying:

The kids today have a very shallow understanding of being trans. For them it’s about looks and looks only. Yes, it was about how do I look, but back then we had a sense of self and understanding about core values of community. Nowadays there is a lot out there for younger trans folks to access compared to the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s. This is something I’m on a mission to change starting with speaking out and explaining my life narrative. I am involved in developing a project with my sister Koko Jones Xtravaganza called “Stories From The Edge.” Our vision for “Stories From The Edge” is to travel to colleges and community based organizations around the country to tell our stories, which vary, and explain that everyone has a different path and no path is wrong as long as you get to where you want to be.

But she’s not really doing work, huh?

The Legendary House of Xtravaganza via carmenxtravaganza.biz

The Legendary House of Xtravaganza via carmenxtravaganza.biz

I could go on and on but I know my sisters and wouldn’t dare justify their contributions or lives to those who don’t value them. If you decided to do a little more research and not just go off of what the white cis media tells you about these folk, you would know this information and then some. If you decided to take the time out to not slander and invalidate these people, and actually learn some history outside of the white shit y’all force down our throats, you’d realize how fucking awesome these people are. If you decided to ask somebody, you’d realize that trans women of color have ALWAYS been breathing life into the movement but the media stripped their accomplishments away and hid their identities. But the women in this CANDY cover are the Marsha P. Johnsons and Sylvia Riveras and Miss. Majors. They are the legacies and the vision. They are the revolution. They are me and my sisters. They are a force and we refuse to allow you to take that away from us.

Elle ends her Op-ed with “So let’s recognize this photo shoot for what it is: a highly successful, Westernized, heteronormative, transgender fashion statement. Let’s not conflate that with an accurate portrayal of the trans* community or its activism.”

While I do believe that passing privilege is real and I do think that certain folk embody beauty norms better than others, I question the validity of the notion that trans women of color ever embodied heteronormative, westernized “transcend fashion statements.” Especially when I see dark skin, box braids, natural curly hair, curvy figures, and oh – the fact that most of them are anything but white, and they pridefully accentuate that history.

photo from Mariano Vivanco for Candy Magazine

photo from Mariano Vivanco for Candy Magazine

So I ask you: Are those lists that the cis white media publishes to honor trans activists that actively exclude trans people of color — besides the few names they deem acceptable — not enough? Are the white-dominated GLAAD awards not enough? Is Trans 100 not enough? Are the multiple articles on certain white trans folk winning homecoming or fighting school battles or dating one another not enough? Was the T-Word not enough? Hell, are your history books and the indoctrination of young black and brown boys in girls in education and socially not enough? Get it together.

My name is L'lerrét Jazelle Ailith and I am a 21 year old queer, black, transgender woman born and raised in Baltimore, MD and attending college in New Orleans, LA majoring in Chemistry and minoring in Women's Studies. I am a co founder of the New Orleans chapter of the Trans Women of Color Collective and am a blogger and aspiring model/actress. I hold true to my identities and allow them to shape my own views and understandings of the world around me. I am interested in understanding gender normalization and the Trans* experience and even how race influences our institutions. Through critical analysis, I plan to slay dragons and breathe life into the movement.

L'lerrét has written 3 articles for us.

26 Comments

  1. I’m glad I had all this pointed out to me. The bad went right over my head in the original article on first pass through.

    I’m not sure how to effectively convey this idea but I’m going to do my best: The way it casts sideways critique at the women involved in the photo shoot is nasty, and in addition to being racist as hell it ruins it’s ability to get at the one decent point made in the entire article, which is that there IS an objectifying focus on glamor w/r/t coverage of trans women. The problem isn’t these women, the problem is the people who direct what gets put in these magazines and newspapers and blogs and who aren’t willing to put up a photo or interview with any trans woman activist to whom they don’t expect their cis readers will say “wow, I can’t even tell she’s trans!”

    I mean, that is a problem. I think it’s a big problem. We just need someone to write about it who isn’t a bald-faced racist. ‘Cause I’ll tell you there are countless trans women of color out there doing the work just like these indispensable women pictured here, but who aren’t considered photogenic enough to be worth talking about. ‘Cause after all, in the eyes of cis people, we’re only worth anything if we’re pretty enough to pass.

    • I like what you’ve said here. The toxicity of passing (within a trans context) is a genuine issue which still clearly gives the trans community conniptions. Both it and racism need to be continually discussed. And that the issue is NOT the women in the photoshoot but how they are characterized and marketed by media (and, let’s face it, Candy Magazine is celeb-focused rag targeted for gay men to throw on their coffees tables, not for discussing activism or social justice).

      How media creates and nominates trans spokespeople and who it gives access to is a very important topic, whether that was Susan Stanton, Mara Keisling (who became a media-nominated ‘leader’ of the trans community literally out of nowhere), Nikki Araguz, Rene Richards or now, Janet Mock and Geena Rocero (who made a single TED talk and was instantly deemed a leader of the trans community). This says absolutely nothing about the intrinsic value of these women or their potential activism (some of whom I value as spokespeople and leaders and others I totally don’t). This isn’t just about WOC breaking through as leaders because, let’s face it, I don’t see Earline Budd, Pauline Park, Ruby Corado or Miss Major in those articles even though they’re been around waaay longer as real activists and leaders and have important stories to tell. Yes, Janet Mock wrote a book but there were two other equally important prior autobiographies by black trans women which were largely ignored and made invisible when Janet’s book was being mentioned as “the first” and I would say a lot of it had to do with who’s acceptable to media and who they want to bother listening to.

  2. While I appreciate most of this, pretty sure Jenna Talackova shouldn’t be grouped in with a bunch of hella white people…Talackova is Babine…First Nations. And not in a “my great great grandmama was a Cher’kee indyun princess” way, either. If you don’t have an idea of what it means to be First Nations (or indigenous in general), nevermind an FN trans woman, you’ve got some SERIOUS learning to do…I wouldn’t even say that Talackova is white passing. So, if you’re going to include Carmen Carrera as a TWOC but Talackova, I don’t even know what to say to that. Indigenous representation is never a thing, and Talackova’s presence in the media was a DAMN big deal, and not just because she was trans.

    • And the Babine people’s active participation and funding of her achieving her dreams was one of the most under-reported aspects to that story. Real community support in the truest sense of the word.

    • YES THIS. Like, indigenous Americans and Canadians are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than ANY OTHER RACE, more likely to experience sexual assault, domestic violence, etc etc etc, and in Canada it’s a really huge issue in particular. SUCH an oversight.

  3. This article is why Autostraddle is so important to me, thank you so much I love it.

    Hell, I’m whiter than white bread and these women are role models and heroes to me as a trans woman, not for being “conventionally attractive” but for being amazing stand up outspoken women!

  4. Wow. What a racist piece of shit of an article. Elle’s commentary was about the idea that these women are role models simply because they’re out there being famous and pretty. If you have something to say about that, then do, but don’t go and act like it was some big racist diatribe simply because many of the women in question were not white. And, frankly, Elle’s article wasn’t so much about them as it was the publisher and editors and the way the media is acting towards it. It wasn’t these women who came out and said “I’m a role model because I’m pretty,” it was those responsible for the magazine and the media that covered it.

  5. One last thing and then I’ll shut up…”Why are glamour and activism issues in this case when it wasn’t for Jenna Talackova?”
    Ummmmm…it WAS. Hello, she was competing for Miss Universe. EVERYBODY had something to say about how, yeah, she’s trans, but she’s still buying into objectifying women in a really huge way and that’s damaging, etc etc etc. Actually, pretty sure it was mentioned when a piece was written about her in the midst of that whole thing.
    So…yeah. Maybe read up on these names you so casually throw around, ESPECIALLY when you go into detail defending Isis King. Talackova received heaps more flack than Isis King (what with being disqualified from Miss fucking Universe and all, and then also being accused of buying into damaging institutions that objectify women and such).
    Sorry not sorry, but this oversight is hugely irritating, and erases not only indigenous struggle, but also straight up factual reality.

  6. Thanks for this. I remember when I first saw the TIME cover of Laverne Cox – while I thought it was awesome, I also felt uncomfortable because the media gaze to me seemed to be centering glamour and adherence to cis-female norms. But your essay has made me rethink my ideas and I really appreciate that.

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