In our continued conversation about how Black cis women can be better for Black trans women, we spoke to actress and activist Laverne Cox about the historical trauma that she believes contributes to this division. See what she had to say below.
We’ve been speaking about the divide that exists between Black cis gendered women and Black trans women and we’ve been talking about how Black cis women can be better for our sisters. So, first off have you noticed a divide?
Well, yeah! Of course I have. What I’ve been noticing is that a lot of Black trans women have been trying to have a deeper conversation with the Black community, with cis Black men and cis Black women, about us still being Black. Even though we are LGBTQ–and specifically trans–we still are Black. We still deal with structural racism. And I think the biggest thing for me, my sisters–I have so many incredible cis Black women in my life who have held me up and have been incredibly supportive. But I think the big thing for the cis women who might not be there yet is to understand that trans women are not a threat to your womanhood as a cis Black woman. I think pitting marginalized people against each other is a tool of oppression. Second, if any one of us is taking a stance against another member of a marginalized community, we’re playing into the dominant narrative. If we’re fighting each other, the bigger fish of oppression are already doing their work. I think that piece is super important.
With trans folks, we need jobs, we need housing, we need public policies that support our life chances. And I think too, all the violence that’s happening against trans women, Black cis women need to be having conversations with Black cis men about their attraction to us without shaming cis Black men. Because they are. They have been since the beginning of time. I’ve dated men in the past who’ve said, they would never tell a cis woman they date in the future that they dated a trans woman because they’ve been shamed before by cis women for being attracted to trans women. Having conversations without shame with the men in our lives about their attraction to trans women and that being okay. Not being this thing that makes them less of a man or questioning their masculinity. There are deeper assumptions that go into all of that. So I think the bigger piece is whenever I’m uncomfortable with someone else, I have to do a lot of work to interrogate what that’s about for me.
If a cis woman has a problem with a trans woman, what is that about? This is deep. I know historically, in America, Black women, during slavery Blackness was synonymous with being a man and womanhood was synonymous with being a White woman. So Black women have been historically erased in this country. So I think with that history of being erased as Black women and the womanhood of Black women always being called into question, the historical trauma of that is sort of being represented in the bodies of trans women is part, I think, of what’s going on. So reconciling ourselves to heal from the historical trauma of our womanhood as Black women being erased by systemic oppression, I think is something that has to happen. There’s a healing process around the history of trauma that has to happen so that we don’t take that trauma out on each other. So we don’t take that trauma out on trans women. We have to reckon with that history of how Black womanhood has been disavowed and discounted in America and not allow that history to be projected onto the history and lives of Black trans women because we are not the ones that hatred is about. And the oppression of Black women is the bigger system that has done that. So our job is to love each other and work to heal so we don’t take that trauma out on each other.
A Black trans woman wrote into the podcast The Read and said, the only time Black cis women talk about us is when we’re dead. She said there are so many more conversations that can be had about Black trans women before it comes to that type of tragic situation. What are your thoughts on that?
I think part of it is we have to look at who’s killing us and why they’re killing us and the shame of that. There’s a trans woman, Michelle Williamson, who was killed a few years ago by a man who was a Latin King, which is a gang. They dated and broke up and he was afraid that his fellow gang members would discover that he once dated her, so he killed her. So these are the kinds of things–this is one example but again this fear of being discovered so men are killing us. So how then do we have conversations with the men in our lives–not that we’re responsible for the men in our lives–but having those conversations–across the community so that we can just keep Black trans women alive. And part of that is so that people don’t do violence against us but what are the public policies in place that keep us safe? If we’re homeless, we’re more likely to experience violence. So then, what we have is a housing conversation. HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) wants to discriminate against trans people in homeless shelters. We have to have conversation around employment, if you can hire a trans person, if you have the capacity to hire people, ‘Maybe let me hire somebody trans.’ Let me give this person a job so they’re less likely to be on the street. Access to healthcare, these are some of the things that can keep us from being killed.
And then what conversations can we have inter-personally so people can begin to interrogate their unconscious biases so we can begin to interrogate so we can keep us alive. And then having conversations like we’re having now, ahead of someone being murdered so that we can begin to prevent those murders.
When you think about Black trans women and Black trans men, they start as trans children. And they’re coming from households that may not be familiar with what it means to be a trans person, especially in the Black community where we have so much tied in with the church and religion. So what are some things that Black mothers can do to support their trans children before they even get out into the world?
I’m actually in Alabama this week visiting my mom. Just love your child. Love your child and listen. Kids are their own people. So allowing kids to be their own people. Obviously, you have to set rules and regulations as parents but letting people be themselves and listening to your child because I’ve always sort of known who I am. Then I think that piece of letting go of shame. The shame was huge for me. There was so much shaming that would happen. And it wasn’t just how she [her mother] would shame me for being so feminine, but it was also about how she would talk about people in her life. So it wasn’t just what she said to me, it was the example that she set. Your child has a sense whether it’s safe to come out or disclose that they identify as another gender, they get a sense of that not just by what you said to them but by how you behave to other people in your life. Brene Brown has a great manifesto about shame that is think is crucial for anybody who wants to be a parent. It’s about letting go of shame in the way that we parent and letting the kid know that they are loved and lovable no matter how they identify and then having that be expressed in action.
Laverne recently partnered with Smirnoff for World Pride. We asked her about how she goes about partnering with companies who aren’t just out to capitalize off of a movement.
I love Smirnoff. They’re always so much fun and Smirnoff has been a big supporter of the LGBTQ+ community for nearly half a century and I love that so many people are supporting so many LGBTQ+ folks during the month of June and whatnot but Smirnoff has been there for many decades. So that felt really special and awesome and I thought it would be fun.
During June, we see a lot of companies change their logos to rainbows. They don’t really do anything else throughout the year. How do you determine which companies are really serious about the message of inclusion versus ones that are just trying to capitalize off of a moment?
I think it really is about what they’re doing through the rest of the year. I mean, I’ve been working with Smirnoff for almost a year. And that wasn’t pride related that was just them wanting to work with me and the legendary Ted Danson. Also, Smirnoff has this Love Wins campaign and they have this beautiful rainbow bottle and for every bottle made, a dollar is going to be donated to HRC [Human Rights Campaign: Advocating for LGBTQ Equality] and they have a commitment of donating $1.5 million by the end of 2021. So those kinds of commitments that continue throughout the year are really what it’s all about, I think.
You can watch Laverne’s commercial for Smirnoff in the video below.