Peppermint at Los Angeles Pride 2019
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
How Black Trans Artists Are Fighting To Achieve Racial Justice & Amplify Queer Voices
Throughout the past month, one would be hard-pressed to not come across the worldwide uprising against racial injustice. A casual scroll through Twitter soon turns frightful upon seeing explicit videos of Black people being killed at the hands of police and the everyman. Or take a quick peek on Instagram, and you’ll discover colorful infographics that lead to educational resources.
In America, the publicized battle for equality dates all the way back to the civil rights movement in the mid-'50s. It continued with Black Lives Matter in 2013, as social media made it easier to share events of police brutality. Only now (due to the uneasiness of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic), the modern-day protests feel even more revolutionary.
But despite the nationwide assemblage to protect Black bodies, there has been an integral voice missing from the conversation. Among the overwhelming support for targeted Black cishet men and women, the cries from Black trans people have been predominantly silenced.
"It’s telling because Black Lives Matter was started by Black queer women," independent singer Neverending Nina tells GRAMMY.com. "Now, its leaders are sort of being co-opted by the normalcy of cishet imagery [that now represents the movement]. Don't forget that it has to include all Black lives; we can’t push [equality] if not."
The Black community is already marginalized as is, yet their queer, trans and non-binary members have historically been shut out from the conversation—or even fallen victim to it. In 2019, approximately 22 transgender people and gender non-conforming people were killed, according to a report from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). A majority of those deaths happened to be Black transgender women.
On May 3, 28-year-old Nina Pop was reportedly stabbed to death in Sikeston, Mo. A few weeks later, 38-year-old Tony McDade was shot and killed by police in Tallahassee, Fla. On June 1 (ironically the start of Pride Month), graphic footage surfaced of Iyanna Dior being beaten inside and out of a convenience store in St. Paul, Minn. LBGTQ activists like Janet Mock spoke in outrage against the incident, with Dior ultimately surviving. The following week, two Black trans women—Philadelphia’s Dominique "Rem’Mie" Fells and Riah Milton of Liberty Township, Ohio—were killed within days of each other.
As these deaths fall under the radar, the queer roots of Black Lives Matter (as well as Pride Month) become more homogenized. Pride was birthed from the 1969 Stonewall protests, led by transgender activists of color Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Fast-forward to 2020, and it is now led by white faces, filtering the very essence of why it started in the first place.
"Here we are 50 years later since Stonewall," says Nina, "and we still don't have prominent Black trans voices at the head of these organizations that our ancestors put their bodies on the line for. When we do speak on that, it's a pushback from the same community that we’re fighting for."
The recent Black Lives Matter protests have stemmed from the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor (whose name also succumbs to overshadowing due to her womanhood). Yet the stipulations for impartiality among Black people begin to quake when presented with trans issues. The violence-based attacks against them hasn’t faltered: HRC reports that 15 transgender or gender non-conforming people were fatally shot or killed in 2020 thus far.
"If it’s not a literal murder, it’s oppression. But that oppression has many effects," drag queen and RuPaul's Drag Race alum Peppermint tells GRAMMY.com. "It squeezes so many Black folks into this corner that doesn't allow space to recognize the queerness and womanness that’s among us. Black Lives Matter only seems to focus on the men who were so egregiously taken from us. There isn’t a strong enough cry about Sandra Bland or Breonna Taylor, in my opinion."
These ongoing deaths, whose numbers may be higher due to unconfirmed reports, lead to questions of how much Black trans people matter in comparison to cishet people within the same community. The conversation trickles into the music industry, as successful artists still deal with prejudice firsthand.
"I was biking home a few years ago at about three in the morning after leaving the bar. There were all these cops pulling over a guy on the side of the road," Kaycee Ortiz, a Black trans rapper recalls. "When I rode by I heard them yell something at me, but I had my headphones so I just kept going. The cop started following me and they were like, 'Yeah we know you a man like we know you’re a n***a.'"
She continues: "When I was telling my manager about this she was like, 'You should have said something back.' But as a white woman, she wouldn't understand what I was going through in that situation. As a Black trans girl, they could have beat the crap out of me and it would have been my word against two men."
Black trans artists have to protect both their musical aspirations and personal livelihood as they try to make waves in an industry that doesn’t serve them. They are often placed in a box that is meant to cater to non-mainstream audiences in order to lessen the initial "shock" of their identity.
"We can’t say, 'My woman parts are gonna stay here and my Blackness is gonna go in first. Then I’ll leave my trans parts at the door.' There’s no separating the two," Neverending Nina says of the white, male-dominated music industry. "Because you're heteronormative, you’re gonna always lead with that and no one questions it. I'm just trying to get in this space so I can amplify my voice because I know I’m dope as f**k. But I keep getting pushback from the gatekeepers where they say, 'You're talented but you’re trans. So I don't know how society is going to take that.'"
The death of Floyd resulted in a worldwide outcry, with the music industry itself also springing into action. June 2, better known as "Black Out Tuesday," saw a flood of record label executives, artists and others in the music space mobilizing to take a day to educate themselves on industry racism. While the cause (which was initially founded by Atlantic senior directors of marketing Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas) had solid intentions, there wasn’t much clarity on specific steps companies would take to achieve equality for all members of the Black music community.
"I feel like 'Black Out Tuesday' came from a good place but it wasn't executed well. What did it do exactly?" Ortiz ponders. "If I'm Nicki Minaj or Drake, of course I can afford to go a day without promoting my music. But for some of us [independent artists], we’re scraping every day for exposure. I've seen people where a black square was the only thing they posted through this whole ordeal. It gave people an easy way out."
"There’s the fear that someone being out and proud could affect their career. And I think it's definitely better now than it ever was, but we still have further to go," says Peppermint. "There’s a tradition of finding obscure artists and turning them into a product on the conveyor belt. If you can do that with a Britney Spears, for instance, you can do that with a Shea Diamond or Kim Petras [Editor’s note: both artists identify as transgender]. It's definitely high time to just go ahead and put us next to all these other mainstream artists. We don't have to be independent to have an appeal."
From being turned down in music executive boardrooms to combating injustice within their community, Black trans people's endurance has become ingrained into their very being. But that permanence may have been avoided if more allies were on the frontlines. "You have to deal with the racism from the white people and the homophobia and transphobia from the Black people," says Ortiz.
"A lot of times when you hate something about yourself, you prosecute other people because you can't kill it in yourself. So you try to kill it in them." Despite being booked for various LGBTQ-friendly showcases on Chicago’s South Side, she doesn’t feel as acknowledged compared to other, "safer" performers: "There’s a scene in [FX’s Pose series] where they say Black trans women are at the bottom of the hill. Everything rolls down on us."
To constantly have to watch your back both on and off the stage grows tiring, no matter how hard you try to keep pushing. With the pandemic and protests occurring simultaneously, anxiety and burnout are now felt tenfold. Thus, the importance of self-care is crucial.
"The trans community has always been in survival mode. I think what’s included in that is trying to find things that replenish and uplift you," says Nina. "I was making a joke earlier like, 'Oh I've always lived in quarantine' because most of the time Black trans women have to come to terms with walking this journey for themselves. But with this shutdown, I had to turn within myself to figure out what other ways to enhance what I normally do. So that’s taking a walk around my neighborhood, listening to music and calling upon my creativeness."
Music is also a natural healer for Peppermint, who has been working on a new album. She's partnered with GLAAD and NYC Pride to launch the inaugural "Black Queer Town Hall," which took place from June 19-21 and helped raise awareness for queer melanated voices.
"I know there can be some guilt from putting out [your art] in a time when a lot of people are still going through a grieving process," Peppermint, who jokes about unapologetically enjoying an extra slice of pizza or fried chicken during quarantine, explains. "But it is important that we have something to look forward to. We should have the option to easily indulge in Black art in a way that we never had before and should also invite others who aren't Black to engage with it. We can celebrate [Lady Gaga’s new album] Chromatica and also celebrate Black artists, you know?"
The current state of the world has forced society to amplify communities that were previously ignored, but Black trans people should not endure this fight alone. Fortunately, progress is steadily being made at the hands of allies. Two days after the Trump administration revoked nondiscrimination protections for transgenders seeking healthcare (which was announced on the four-year anniversary of Orlando’s Pulse nightclub shooting), thousands of protesters gathered in front of the Brooklyn Museum for a Black Trans Lives Matter rally.
Organized by NYC Anti-Violence Project director of communications Eliel Cruz, Brooklyn drag queen West Dakota and former Netflix queer content creator Fran Tirado had a simple request for attendees: wear all white. The dress code honored the NAACP's Silent Protest Parade in 1917, where approximately 10,000 demonstrators donned white as they rallied against Black violence.
The government also had a long-awaited call to action. On June 15, the Supreme Court ruled that sexual orientation and sexual identity are protected by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, forbidding discrimination in the workplace. The pledge for equality has also grown numerically: the Public Religion Research Institute cited that 62 percent of Americans support trans rights more now compared to their views five years ago.
While this increase should be applauded, the fight is far from over. Celebration cannot be fully embraced until all marginalized people are equal. "Now we know that the machine is actually dismantling," says Nina. "All of these things are going to get aired out. We have not been given chances for so long, and somebody still has to open that window."