In 1989, Kimberle Crenshaw theorized the term “Intersectionality” as she sought to explain the ways in which African-American women experienced various levels of oppression due to class, race, and gender. (Crenshaw, 140) This term not only problematized the mainstream, middle-class, Anglo feminists movement, but also the nationalistic movements largely dominated by African-American male leaders that silenced African-American women’s voices in the Civil Rights movements of the 60s and 70s. Although far from being the first African-American woman to speak out on the multi-layered oppression faced by her community, Crenshaw formulated an axiom that not only explained the complexity of issues that plagued African-American women, but other feminists of color as well, that fought for a place within the various social movements of the time.
Different groups of women of color began mobilizing and creating their own communities where their experiences with intersectional marginalization would materialize into activism and new epistemologies that validated their experiences. By publishing works, participating in talks among other mainstream feminist scholars and engaging in activism to help their communities, women of color in the late twentieth century created a movement that would greatly benefit the generations to come. Anthologies like But Some of Us are Brave: All the Women are White and all the Blacks Are Men: Black Women’s Studies or This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color helped create and theorize the lived experiences and intersectional issues plaguing women of color. Poets, writers, scholars, activists and artists contributed to second and third wave feminist movements that would create a new space and theories that explained and uplifted the struggles of class, sexuality, gender, and race.
The theorization of intersectionality helped mobilize new movements and form coalitions among women of color, however, what happens when intersectionality appears within these same spaces of struggles? What happens when theoretical approaches by queer women of color like Cherrie Moraga oppress other marginalized groups of women, or when bell hooks falls short on addressing her cisgender privilege? (Moraga, 188) What happens when gender and sexually intersect, and transgress queer, feminist and racial theories?
A new approach—that adds complexity to intersectionality, or altogether dismisses the model as an inherently oppressive paradigm that does not allow transgender folks to transgress both sexuality and gender in a way, so their experience does not become tokenized, co-opted, erased, or exploited—happens.
Transgender women of color disproportionately experience more violence, physically and mentally, engage in exploitative sex-work and have one of the highest suicide rates than other communities. (Cox on Couric Show, 2014) Now in 2015, with social media, and internet streaming television services, transgender women of color experience both positive and negative portrayals of their experiences but they, in the very least, also raise much needed public awareness to the masses on what it means to be the erased, co-opted and exploited “T” from the LGBTQIA+ world.
The academic community is now beginning to theorize and historicize the experiences and voices of the transgender community, however, media and public figures are now fighting for public recognition and mobilization of transgender rights in a very public and accessible platform. Ardent supporters of transgender rights and public figures include Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Carmen Carrera. Obviously, other transgender folks have different experiences that do not play out in the same way as these celebrities, and these activists’ voices are equally important. However, for the purpose of this academic project, I will focus on these particular public figures of color in order to demonstrate the negative and violent acts endured by transgender folks even within a public and privileged space.
In demonstrating the various ways that transgender women of color experience violent and demeaning micro-aggressions for just being themselves, we have:
All of these represent very problematic and belittling aggressions towards transgender women of color. Although all three women respond to these assaults with poise and calmness, they should not have to continue endure the tokenization and aggression from privileged cisgender folks. Their experience is theirs and they do not “need to educate” others on very private matters, rather they choose to do so out of personal choice, yet cisgender individuals take for granted their position of power and expect an explanation from transgender folk as if existence warrants explanation. As Anzaldua eloquently wrote in 1980, “You might as well ask me to try to justify why I’m alive.” (Anzaldua, 169) Luckily, for the rest of us, Carrera, Cox, and Mock use their positions within the public eye to raise awareness and undergo the scrutinization posed by privileged cisgender folks.
Not all is grim, however, as various scholars and activists continue to advocate for the visibility of the transgender community. Scholars, like Susan Stryker, historicize the community as an active and revolutionary group. Adding validity within historical data helps legitimize marginalized folks and at the very least, Stryker’s work recognizes the Compton Cafeteria riots of 1966 and calls out the co-optation of work done by transgender activists from folks within the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. (Stryker, 153) Similarly, theoretical work by Julie Nagoshi and Stephan/ie Brzuzy call out the lack of intersectional understanding towards transgender communities and problematizes feminist and queer theory as improper when addressing the transgender experience. (Nagoshi and Brzuzy, 434)
Not all strides and progress occurs in the public eye, or academia and community organizers and activists continue to work to improve the lives of transgendered women of color at the grassroots level. Again, the rampant violence and brutality either experienced by transgender women of color because of their engagement in sex work—sometimes as a means to pay for their transitions—or simply because of racialized police brutality, are at the forefront of community organizing. Not all lived experiences are the same for all transgender women of color, but there are many activists forming coalitions in order to help raise awareness. Below are few examples of effective community organizing and the positive outcomes that stem from these organizations.
Take for instance: http://www.twocc.us/
Transgender issues are issues that affect us all because as communities of color we cannot continue to perpetuate violent and oppressive systems towards folks that cause us to question our privileges. We cannot allow the activism and strides made by the transgender community to witness co-optation by other communities. We also cannot let these calls for action go unheard or without response. The only worry I have as I explore transgender history and theory as backdrops to the public transgender figures, is the very real and ongoing experience of folks of color throughout history. What happens now that someone with class and racial privilege like Bruce Jenner undergoes transition? Obviously, she will one day play a significant role as a transgender figure but Jenner does not represent the lived experience of transgender women of color that already experience silencing and violence because of intersectional oppression. Will we experience an erasure and co-optation of transgender women of color like Cox, Mock, and Carrera because a White woman transitions publicly? Let us hope that history does not repeat itself, and folks of color do not have to endure another blow from the Cisgender Hetero/Homonormative White Supremacist Capitalistic Patriarchy. (hooks, 22)
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