2015 has been the deadliest year nationally and internationally in the trans* community. In the United States alone, at least 21 trans women of color and gender nonconforming people of color (GNC) have been murdered. Transphobic media reports that misgender victims suggest this number is likely even higher. In New Orleans, members of the LGBTQ+ community mourned the loss of Penny Proud, a 22-year-old trans woman who became the fifth trans woman of color killed in 2015 when she was found murdered in February. Proud’s death was subsequently all but erased from local coverage, and when it was covered, she was repeatedly misgendered.
Despite the lack of local outrage in mainstream sources over Proud’s death, young, queer and trans* organizers around the city worked hard to ensure that Penny’s life was remembered. After her death, leaders from BreakOUT!, an organization that works to end the criminalization of LGBTQ+ youth of color in New Orleans, stepped in to make sure their sister would not be forgotten and organized a rally in her honor. They took to the streets, making a powerful demand that we not only honor trans* people in death, but honor them while they are still alive. On May 20th of this year, the same rally call was made again when organizations from all over the city—led by BYP100 and including Women With A Vision (WWAV), BreakOUT! and about a dozen total local partners—organized a day of action in solidarity with a national campaign called #SayHerName. The #SayHerName campaign highlighted the erasure of the violence that happens to Black women in mainstream understandings of state and structural violence and was hosted locally at the site of Proud’s murder. Despite the rainy day, over 100 people showed up to the rally and vigil, where organizers spoke on the importance of centering Black women in the movement. At the event, WWAV’s Wendi Cooper, head of the “Girls With A Pearl” program specifically centered on creating safe spaces for trans* women in New Orleans, spoke to the need to center Black trans women in our liberation struggles and honor the vulnerability and resilience of a group that faces high rates of state, structural, and intercommunity violence.
November 20th is traditionally honored as Trans* Day of Remembrance. This year, led by organizers in New Orleans, the day was remixed to not just be a day of remembrance, but also a day to honor the resilience and resistance of trans* people still living in this white supremacist cis hetero patriarchal society. Organizers partnered with different groups for events culminating in an intergenerational, multiracial Black trans*-led rally and march—and the New Orleans City Council designating each November 20th the date for the Trans* March of Resilience.
I have the pleasure of knowing the young leaders of the local TMOR event, Milan Nicole Sherry and Christian Lovehall (a.k.a. Wordz the Poet.) They were kind enough to answer some questions about the event and where we need to go from here.
Tell me about the local Trans* March of Resilience (TMOR). What was the history behind expanding beyond the usual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) memorial events?
Milan Nicole Sherry: Traditionally, TDOR is run by LGBTQ organizations across the nation who hold vigils to honor trans* individuals that have lost their lives to transphobic violence and suicide. They are mostly private events within the LGBTQ community and held in safe spaces. In my past experiences, we walk into those spaces and it’s traumatizing and depressing. But when we left those spaces, for me, as a Black Trans woman, there wasn’t enough change being created to stop the deaths. Mostly only LGBTQ organizations and allies know about TMOR because it’s something we put on our calendars, but it’s not like if you got a calendar at Home Depot it’s listed as a day. Usually, November 20th is a blank date to society, it doesn’t know what it means for us in the trans* community. In February, me and my partner Christian were sitting in our room having a conversation. Both of us are trans and Black. Out of that conversation, he asked what I thought if we got together and did a march. I was like, “yeah, that’d be dope.” As radical organizers, we looked to past movements and they wasn’t always peaceful. Sometimes you have to get into people’s faces to let them know and to get your message out.
How does the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement connect to TMOR and the #BlackTransLivesMatter campaign you all did?
MNS: Back in 2013 when the BLM movement started and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin and all those other cis hetero Black men were killed, the BLM campaign got very large. The movement became strong and a lot of people supported it. As a Black trans woman, I was definitely down for it but… how do I say this?… The other day [Christian and I] were having a conversation with my brother and he made a reference that he knew “someone like us.” And we we’re like, “What you mean like us?” And he’s like, “You know, trans.” And it kind of took us back a little bit because again, we understand the place he’s coming from, but we don’t just walk around as only trans* people. We’re human beings. So at the end of the day, and back to the earlier point, we don’t think of it as much as others do or think we do. We’re Black. So of course I was down for the BLM movement, but when I realized the movement wasn’t down for me—when Islan Nettles, a Black trans woman from New York who died in a hospital after a transphobic attack and there was no outrage or support from the BLM movement—the message they were sending out to me was that Black Lives Mattered, but not my Black trans Life. So I started pushing out a social media campaign called #BlackTransLivesMatter and we stuck to TMOR to keep pushing that message. We know that this year is the deadliest year for the trans community so far, and trans women of color are the ones being killed the most. Almost every time, they are also misgendered or their murders are not reported or shared on social media or other outlets. And often, trans people are blamed for their murders. This year, out of the 23 trans women of color murdered, one was Penny Proud, a Black trans woman from here in New Orleans. When it hit so close to home, we knew that we needed to take immediate action. The sad part about it is when we did the first NOLA Trans March, there were 10 trans women of color that had been killed, but unfortunately that number has risen over time. This year we wanted to create change, to take it to the streets and let the world know our Black Trans Lives Matter and what that means for us as trans people who are still living. We did a national call and reached out to other organizations and there were nine solidarity actions in nine cities in eight states. From the looks of it, all the events were a success.
As a transgender man, what were your organizing goals for the event?
Christian Lovehall: I’m always looking for solutions and ways to progress in the movement. I’m not a person who likes to see the movement at a standstill. I don’t like to see organizations do just enough in order to keep their jobs. Change and freedom is the goal. I thought it would be revolutionary to put together a march on TDOR, to raise awareness about the day to folks not in the LGBTQ community, those who are known as our oppressors. We wanted them to know our pain and to see the mourning that takes place on that day. As far as the TMOC, we’re at a point where invisibility is hurting us. It’s hurting me personally as a trans man. I wanted to raise awareness of the police brutality and racial profiling we face as Black men, [and] the high suicide rates of trans masculine people. Trans women are slowly gaining visibility and access to resources and that’s awesome, but I don’t want myself or my brothers left behind. I recently started the #FreeKy project, a photo awareness campaign to bring visibility to Ky Peterson, a Black trans man in prison for killing his rapist in self defense. CeCe McDonald’s [a Black Trans woman who went to prison for defending herself ] case got attention and visibility. Laverne Cox even stepped behind her. Now, she’s no longer in prison because it was a huge rallying campaign. I wanted to let people know that just because Trans men may pass in society and blend easily, it doesn’t mean we aren’t struggling and experiencing different kinds of pain. As for not having an organization behind me, I advocate for individuals because I feel like while it’s easier to organize when you have an organization behind you, individuals are just as powerful and make change too. I am the founder of Philly Trans March, which I did literally by myself. It was an idea I had and through conversations with other people and word of mouth. We had 350 people in the first year. We shut down the city from just one person being committed to an idea. It was helpful to have BreakOUT! for TMOR and I am so thankful to them for partnering with us on this. It did make things easier, but I am the kind of person where whether or not I have an organization, I am a freedom fighter because that’s what I know. I am conscious of my history. Before the NAACP and those groups, there was just the people and that’s what will always be there.
What was it like getting November 20th officially recognized by the city?
MNS: Our keynote speaker for the march was Tela Love. We chose her because before there was Milan Nicole Sherry, there was a Tela Love. I have watched her do a lot of work and advocacy for our community and she started me in this journey to consciousness and being a revolutionary. While we were talking to her about TMOR, she went behind our backs to City Council and talked to them. On November 20th during her keynote, she was talking about our work in the community and how trans people of color don’t get recognition for the work we do, even though we don’t do it for recognition or accolades. We do it for community and survival, but we received a proclamation which was a historical moment in NOLA and in the trans community.
For more information on getting involved with BreakOUT! visit YouthBreakOUT.org
For more information on getting involved with Women With A Vision, visit WWAV-NO.org
For more information on getting involved with the Black Youth Project 100, visit BYP100.org