Isis King, who we know from “America’s Top Model” and most recently from Ava DuVernay and Netflix’s “When They See Us” spoke to us about how Black women, parents, LGBTQ+ members and men can be better for Black trans women.
MN: There was trans woman wrote into The Read [[the podcast] and said, cis women you have to do better because the only time you ever talk about us is after we’ve died.
Isis King: You said after we’ve died?
Isis: And not even then, I feel like the only time cis women talk about trans women is if it’s related to a guy. Like, they found out a guy was sleeping with a trans woman. That’s really the only time that the topic is every prominent. The death is not really prominent. Another trans woman just died in Rikers and nobody’s talking about.
MN: And that’s the narrative. The death becomes secondary to this notion that there was deception involved. And because there’s deception involved, the death was warranted.
Isis: And people don’t understand this is a new day and age. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are some people who don’t tell their truth but most of the time they do. And then, for whatever reason—maybe he feels guilty afterwards or maybe someone found out. And he has to act like he didn’t know. I know every girl I know is honest. I think it’s hard for a lot of people to believe that a trans woman can change her gender and be desirable especially in the Black community. Because so much of it is embedded in you from the churches and the toxic masculinity that goes on, that carries on through generations.
MN: I was wondering what other problematic behaviors have you seen from Black cis women and what would you like to see in terms of support?
Isis: I’m Black and I come from an all-Black environment so it’ll be like, ‘Oh you’re cute. You’re my friend’ until you get somewhere and guy flirts with that friend and not you. I think that we’re equal until we’re not equal. Maybe you out the person, ‘Well, she’s an x, y, and z.’ People don’t see how what they say or do can potentially put us in harm. And I think people don’t really care until it’s someone in your family whose trans. And also, I feel like people in general, but especially in our community, you have to allow someone to tell their truth. You have to give them the space too because we’re not trying to deceive people. We should live in a world where we should be comfortable and safe. But a lot of times we’re not even safe to share our honesty. A lot of times people think ‘You’re trying to deceive people to get something or have sex.’ A lot of times we’re not sharing our truth because we want to make sure we’re safe. We’re not safe. And people disregard us. A lot of times men are seeking out trans women and then disregarding them afterward like we’re nothing.
So for women, we just want to be loved just like every other friend or family member. We’re not trying to compete with anybody. One, we’re all Black. If anyone has seen, “When They See Us” you can see how another Black person has been treated in the system that we live in. So unfortunately, that’s something that we all [face] so why would you want to do that to your own brother or sister. I think we can get better with that by just realizing, ‘Oh, you’re living in your truth.’ Look at it like this is something brave. You felt that strongly about who you wanted to be that you decided to do this because this is a dangerous life. So if you think about a person wanting to be their authentic selves, and take this risk, it’s something that should be commended and not judged like, ‘Oh you’re trying to be like me.’
I posted something the other day like, “Black trans women are women.” And someone was like, ‘We can’t have anything to ourselves.’ And I was like, ‘What does that even mean?’ What exactly am I taking from you by me transitioning? What am I taking away from you as another Black woman? I obviously can’t have kids, I can’t have a period. But I’ve met many women in my lifetime who struggle with fertility, who can’t have children. To put us in this box and say, ‘Well, you can’t have kids,’ Sometimes you don’t realize how that effects other people who aren’t trans. I just don’t see how people make it a competition where I’m trying to take something from you because everyone is their own person. No matter what I do, we’re all going to have different experiences.
The Black church
What I don’t understand about our churches. I’m a spiritual person, I grew up Christian. I consider myself a very spiritual person on my own. I feel like the church will forgive someone who’s a rapist, someone who’s a pedophile, someone who killed, a pastor who cheated on his wife. But let you transition. They shun you. They talk about you like you are exiled in some cases. You don’t feel comfortable coming around. We can do all of this but no, you can’t do that. You could be the most amazing, positive person in the world. And I think that’s a huge contradiction. Instead of lifting someone up in who they are, you would rather say this is the one thing that you can’t come back from. And it’s like, ‘Who are you?’ And that’s the reason why so many men are ashamed, not just with trans women but being gay too. And that’s why so many of us are being kept secret. In my early twenties when I transitioned, I said nope. Even when I meet guys, still now, he said, ‘You know I don’t do the gay thing.’ He’s a public figure and I was like, ‘My car is bigger than yours. I been out way longer.’ I refuse to be diminished to be someone’s little secret. I’ve worked too hard and I’m too confident in who I am.
MN: You’re talking a lot about being comfortable with yourself and I think beyond gender, beyond sexuality, beyond presentation, I think there are so many people who are uncomfortable with themselves and so it offends them to see someone living authentically.
Isis: Yes. A lot of times that’s what it boils down to. I was talking about people who are mean to other people. You see people who are comfortable and confident in themselves and they can’t handle it. Because they can’t understand how you can endure something that is so drastic and be happy with yourself because they are miserable maybe because they didn’t follow their heart or their dreams. And it’s like, that’s not my fault. And on top of it not being my fault, it’s never too late to live in your truth. But it’s not my fault. And I shouldn’t be bullied or hurt or harmed because you are uncomfortable with you are. That’s your fault. I’m just living my life.
MN: When I initially thought about the divide between Black cis and trans women, I thought about just cis gendered heterosexual women, but there’s also a lot of discrimination against trans women within the LGBT community. Have you ever experienced anything like that?
Isis: Well yeah. Just like you have the one girlfriend who might out you, you have a lot of gay guys who will say, ‘Oh that’s a man.’ Or ‘Oh look, she’s trans.’ We’re not spectacles. I don’t’ think people understand that that really puts us at harm. And Black and Brown ones are the most dangerous. You have men who feel like they need to prove their masculinity by hurting or harming someone. That doesn’t make you more of a man. If anything, I feel like that shows you’re insecure with who you are for whatever reason. That doesn’t make you more of a man. I have [experienced discrimination from within the LGBT community] but the older I got, I took myself out of different environments. But it can happen anywhere. I keep myself out of environments with that type of energy. I always try to present a respectful energy so sometimes that helps a little bit. And it’s like, ‘If you gon’ pop off, what?!’ People love to talk under their breath.
When They See Us
I’m in part four and it’s about Kory Wise. He was the only one tried as an adult. SO when all the rest of them get out, he was the only one who went to an adult prison. So it’s like his own journey because it was way different from them.
MN: I saw you tweeting that your representation in that series helped to change a lot of people’s perception about the trans community. What was it specifically that people said about your performance?
Isis: I know one mother sent me a DM and said, ‘I’m a Black mother of three boys and I never wanted any of my kids to be gay or trans. But after seeing that, it made me realize that I will love my kids no matter what if any of them decide to be any of those things.’ And she said, ‘Thank you for softening my heart.’ And it kind of reminded me of “Top Model” when someone told me that hearing my story helped them not commit suicide and it’s like, ‘Oh wow. It’s a bigger purpose.’ I think since it’s not an LGBT project, a lot of people are not looking at it for that reason and it brings this storyline into the homes of Black families all around the world. So, when you’re forced to see that and see the emotions of a child, leaving home or not feeling welcome, it really forces you to look at the Black community and see how we’ve ostracized the LGBT kids and siblings, family. Especially when it comes to be trans because trans women have the highest suicide rate, the highest murder rate, the highest homelessness rate. And not that all these things can be avoided by family support but it really helps strengthen us and help keep us out of some of the dangers that we face. And it can start conversations, like this mother with her sons. Teach your sons to be accepting of all people. If a child is not afraid to share who they are or what they love with their family, then I feel like that whole toxic masculinity will be gone from an early age because you no longer have to prove your masculinity. In our communities, if a guy is feminine, you’re punished. A lot of times you’re beat for that.
Marci Wise was a real person and she died. And it makes you think, ‘What can I do to keep that from happening to my child?’And I think that’s the conversation. It forces us—for some—to really look at ourselves.
MN: I think at the very least it will make people ask themselves, is my love unconditional or not? If you’re supposed to love anyone unconditionally, it’s supposed to be your child. I never understood putting your child out.
Isis: I think it goes to being embarrassed. I wasn’t put out but I moved to New York to transition because when I started mascara, it was already too much. So I moved away so I wouldn’t have to deal with that. But it made me realize, ‘Oh what are people going to think?’ It’s like, it’s not about you. Get off of your high horse and realize it’s not about you and give us support. Because we’re the ones who have to live in our truth. We’re the ones who have to risk being harmed for who we are. Stop thinking about yourself.
MN: I think it’s about letting go of the expectations you have for your child and what you think their life is going to be.
Isis: When I first transitioned, girls said ‘Oh, you’re going to be a sex worker.’ I said, ‘No I’m not. I’m going to be a designer.’ And they just laughed, like ‘No. If this is the life you want, this is what we do.’ It’s what we assume. I was like, ‘I’m going to prove everyone wrong.’ Because I’m the type of person, you’re not going to tell me what I’m going to do before I even have a choice. You should have a say over your body. If that’s what you want to do, that’s fine. But to say that’s what you have to do before you walk out the f*king door and live your life? No.
I’ve been on Top Model now. I’m an actress. We’re doctors now. So the kids will have someone to look up to. When I was growing up, it was only, ‘That’s a Man’ on Maury or Jerry Springer with the sidepiece who’s going to come on there to fight. So I feel like seeing that representation is something that is going to give strength to trans people. They’re going to see, I can still be whatever I want.