Dozens of demonstrators attending a Black Lives Matter “Trans Liberation Tuesday” protest in D.C.’s Franklin Square blocked traffic in the middle of a busy downtown intersection Tuesday night as they sought to shine a light on the recent rash of homicides of transgender women of color in 2015.
Chanting “Black Trans Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name,” the demonstrators stood in the middle of the intersection of 14th and K Streets NW and literally got in front of cars trying to pass through the intersection. Some were carrying placards or signs while others simply obstructed traffic. One driver tried to escape the intersection, driving through a group of protesters and using his car to push them back before speeding off. Police eventually were able to herd the demonstrators back onto the sidewalk without making any arrests.
The shutdown of the downtown intersection was an unplanned, spontaneous action that grew out of the larger rally in Franklin Square, which was held to commemorate the lives of the transgender women killed in recent years. At one point in the rally, organizers chanted the names of the deceased three times, releasing a black, yellow, pink or blue balloon (the colors of Black Lives Matter and the transgender flag) into the air for each life lost.
Organizers of the demonstration, which came to fruition as part of a collaboration between Black Lives Matter and GetEQUAL, had hoped in particular to attract cisgender black men to the rally. Organizers stressed that it was important to stand in solidarity with transgender women of color being victimized, some at the hands of cisgender men of color. In total, 19 transgender women or gender non-conforming individuals have been reported murdered in 2015, including 13 confirmed black women.
“I’m here to talk about what black cis men can do, and I can’t start that without talking about that there’s not a lot of black cis men here,” Aaron Goggans, one of the rally organizers affiliated with Black Lives Matter DMV, said as he addressed a multi-racial crowd that was heavily stacked with transgender and cisgender women.
“We put this call out to everybody, and, once again, the people who answered this call, the people on the front lines, the people who honestly did 90 percent of the work were black women, both black cis women and black trans women,” Goggans said. “When you talk about answering the call, you just have to show up. It’s a simple ask. When black trans women are dying across this country, and all they did was ask us to put on a rally at a park…black cis men need to show up.”
Goggans’ comments were echoed by other organizers, including Jonathan Lykes, who gave a fiery speech to the crowd dressing down cisgender men for failing to show up in force to show support for their black transgender sisters, and Preston Mitchum, who spoke to Metro Weekly after the rally.
“I don’t think apathy is separate and apart from how we treat women and trans women in general,” Mitchum said. “I think apathy largely stems from a patriarchal, misogynistic environment that society has created and that many of us have perpetrated. I think the problem is we often don’t take enough time to unpack our own privilege, being cisgender men. When we look at the acts of violence that happen against black trans women, a lot of it is from our black cis brothers, and so it was a time to call us out and to hold ourselves accountable and responsible for standing up and saying their names.”
One black trans woman in the crowd who stepped forward to speak was Venus, who is originally from Baton Rouge, La., but relocated to the District to transition. Venus, in an emotional speech, talked of the obstacles she faces as a trans woman and her fears that she could be at risk of being attacked. But she also thanked the assembled crowd for coming to the rally, saying their presence shows they want her, as a trans woman, to live and thrive.
“I’ve been harassed in the street, in the Metro,” Venus told the crowd. “I’ve had to start carrying a knife in my purse. Any time that a trans woman has been murdered, I’ve fallen on my bedroom floor in tears. …Last week, I was on my floor. And I said to myself, ‘There’s a war going on. There’s a genocide. And I feel like I’m walking into a minefield every time I leave my house.’ But my attitude has changed, because all of you are saying you are with me.”
Local D.C. transgender activist Earline Budd, who has been active in D.C.’s LGBT movement for more than 40 years, also addressed the crowd, saying: “When I read the purpose and the meaning of this rally tonight, I could not sit at my desk. Because even though D.C. has not had any murders from last year through today, the violence has been enormous against our community. And it has to stop.”
Organizer Elle Hearns, a transgender Black Lives Matter strategic partner and GetEQUAL’s Central Regional Coordinator based out of Columbus, Ohio, urged the crowd not to be complacent and to pledge to do something specific to help fight for black trans lives. Organizers asked attendees to write down on pieces of paper or white boards actions that they would promise to take to fight on behalf of the rights and dignity of transgender women of color.
“I want to be very clear that, although it is beautiful to see all of you, there is more work to be done,” Hearns said. “The hashtag that was utilized today was putting the #TBackInBlack. There’s a reason for that. When you talk about ‘Black Lives Matter,’ you do not think of black trans people. You do not think of the black trans women who are being murdered. You do not think about the black trans people who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. When black people are being murdered by the police, we are also being murdered. And we carry all of that.
“The reason that we are here is we learned about the murders of five black trans women in one day. And there was no outrage. There was no shutting down in the streets. There was nothing,” Hearns continued. “This has been a consistent epidemic in this country. This is nothing new. …There’s nothing new about my rage. There’s nothing new about Venus having to travel around this city with a motherfucking knife because she doesn’t know if she’s going to be next on a list. So be very clear that today, it is a celebration, because our sisters were never celebrated before. But also be clear that this is a call to action that you are all being charged with to sustain.”
Following the rally, Hearns emphasized the importance of developing real-life, tangible relationships with transgender women of color as something concrete that can be done to show true solidarity with the community. She also said people also need to be educated and aware of the threats posed to transgender women of color in a society with structural systems that aid in the oppression of trans women on the basis of both race and gender, as well as gender identity.
“I think it’s important for people to know that this list is only through the month of August. This year is not over. So I don’t even have to say what that means,” Hearns said. “There’s a great chance that my name could be on this list. If there’s anything for folks to leave here with, it’s to know that the very people you heard from today, any of our names could be on that list at any time.”