When George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a fire was started that quickly ignited the world in protest against police brutality. People who had been quarantined for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic took the streets to demand justice for lives lost to a system of policing that is inherently violent. We’ve been demanding systemic change that puts that violence to an end once and for all, not just for Black cis folks, but for all Black people. In the midst of the fight for Black lives, Black trans folks are still experiencing violence and loss in our communities. We are outraged and fearful for Iyanna Dior after watching her be attacked by a group of cisgender Black men. We are mourning the loss of Tony McDade at the hands of police. We are reminded of Layleen Polanco’s death in Rikers Island jail as the nation responds to the violence of prisons. In a time of social distancing, the weight of this grief and anger is too much for any of us to bear alone.
Fear, grief, and loss are all too familiar for many Black trans femmes, and that is why it’s important to carve out space for our joy. Many of us don’t feel safe expressing our pain with Black cis communities in the form of marching and protesting, so we organize to create virtual structures of support for Black trans communities, ourselves. We are the Black Trans Femmes in the Arts Collective, BTFA for short. We highlight the beauty and talent within our community by curating conversations and performances about living, loving and creating as Black trans femmes.
We highlight the beauty and talent within our community by curating conversations and performances about living, loving and creating as Black trans femmes.
It’s been just under a year since we launched in September 2019 in response to a lack of scholarship and media attention around Black trans femme artists and our work. A group of us gathered to address the erasure that keeps Black trans femme artists in the shadows. Our mission is to build power within our community, organizing and advocating in and through the arts, so we can explore the possibilities of our own creativity. Our collective includes artists from all sectors: art educators, art administrators, art activists, and art curators. We organize performances and galleries that showcase our talent, host workshops that provide us with the skills to advance our careers, and connect our community with the resources and opportunities they need to be successful.
Even in a place like New York City where there is a large Black trans community, there are not many spaces where we can convene that are operated and occupied by other Black trans femmes. We often enter spaces that aren’t built with us in mind, and with that comes a performance of self that may be inauthentic or exhausting — because we aren’t given the safety to be our raw, exposed selves. When we have the chance to be among each other, we can share the parts of ourselves that are most vulnerable and tender. Standing on the sidelines of our first open mic night, we saw infectious smiles light up the room from our people, some of whom hadn’t felt motivated to leave their homes in months. For some, BTFA events are the only spaces where they feel free enough to come as their authentic selves.
It is our philosophy that, when Black trans femmes are given space to be vulnerable, we take the risks necessary to access new realms of creativity that are not welcome in cis, non-Black, and masculine spaces. We experience unprecedented freedom. Freedom to tell our truth without fear. Freedom to release expectations and limitations of what transness and blackness should look like. Freedom to breathe. We not only curate spaces where that freedom is central; we organize towards the existence of that freedom in all spaces.
One of our campaigns involved video testimonies of our collective sharing who they are, why the collective matters to them, and what they have to offer the art world.
During COVID-19, BTFA is using storytelling and performance to curate digital spaces of joy that move us towards liberation and collective healing. At the suggestion of Miss Mojo, one of our board members, we’ve brought intimate conversations between Black trans sisters to Instagram live — thus giving birth to the T Talk. Using Instagram live as a talk show platform, we’ve been able to bring in Black trans femmes to share stories about art, family, spirituality, and so much more. Mojo adds competitive flair to our programming through her Battle of the Bops, where Black trans femmes with a love for music go head-to-head in a battle playing their favorite hits, similar to the popular Verzuz battles with famous musicians on Instagram Live. These spaces have created opportunities each week for Black trans femmes to be in community virtually, to celebrate each other, and to collectively heal amidst a global sickness.
As we continue to experience loss and violence in the Black community — and specifically the Black trans community — these spaces are just as essential to our survival as material mutual aid. They are our emotional and spiritual mutual aid. There is a spiritual power in the collective when Black trans femmes come together to celebrate and spotlight our joy. We place joy at the center of our spaces, because spaces created for us are often only interested in our trauma and pain. When we center our joy, we create space for possibility and hope. While trauma and pain keeps us tethered to the past, joy allows us to dream of and push ourselves toward a brighter future.
We place joy at the center of our spaces, because spaces created for us are often only interested in our trauma and pain. When we center our joy, we create space for possibility and hope. While trauma and pain keeps us tethered to the past, joy allows us to dream of and push ourselves toward a brighter future.
Our work also addresses the material needs of our community. We work alongside other grassroots Black trans-led organizations like For the Gworls, Black Trans Travel Fund, and The Okra Project. On June 2nd, we came together to launch the Black Trans Protesters Emergency Fund to support and protect Black trans folks protesting for Black lives. The fund caught the attention of celebrities like Hari Nef, Indya Moore, Hunter Schafer and the production team of Schitt’s Creek. But we need people to not just aid Black trans people in moments of crisis; we need people to support our joy and freedom through our art. Black trans femmes need food, healthcare, and housing, but we need to be able to do more than survive. Just like any other population, Black trans femmes have dreams. We are a community filled with artists and creatives, but trans-specific funding is rarely allocated to the arts and arts-specific funding is rarely allocated to trans people, especially Black trans people. BTFA is closing that gap so we can accomplish more than just survival, because Black trans femmes have so much more to offer.
Black trans femme existence is creativity. We are constantly creating and learning new ways to live, to feel beautiful, to find joy, and to experience love in a world that wants to erase our existence. Through our art, we build our own worlds where Black trans femmes are loved and celebrated.
During this pandemic and beyond, we invite other Black trans femmes to join us in celebrating the creativity in our community and organize with us to make more space for Black trans femme joy. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to see more of our work and stay connected. For those who would like to donate to support our work, you can do so here.
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