Last week, two black transgender women, Dominique ‘Rem’Mie’ Fells and Riah Milton, were murdered in the US, just as protests against racism continued to spread throughout the country. The killings of Fells and Milton, however, went largely ignored by mainstream media outlets and had failed to inspire collective outrage—indicating that rampant transphobia remains a roadblock on the path to racial justice and equality.
Fells was murdered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. According to local authorities, Fells’ body was found on the banks of the Schuylkill River on 8 June, with both legs dismembered. The motive and circumstances behind her killing are still being investigated and no suspects were apprehended thus far.
On the following day, 9 June, Milton’s body was found in Liberty Township, Ohio. Local investigators reported that Milton was fatally shot during an attempt to rob her and steal her car. Two suspects were arrested in connection with her murder, one of them a 14-year-old girl, and a third suspect remains at large.
News coverage of the murders was sparse and conspicuously absent from mainstream media outlets. And while some prominent political figures, such as Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, did condemn the killings and call to escalate the fight against transphobia, acknowledgement of and outrage over the murders largely came from within queer circles and activist groups.
“Her name is Dominique ‘Rem’mie’ Fells and there shall be no peace until justice is had!… #SayHerName #blacktranslivesmattertoo,” read an Instagram post by Sisters PGH, a Philadelphia transgender advocacy group.
The deafening silence in the face of the brutal killings of Fells and Milton can’t be rationalised by the turmoil unfurling across the country and the world right now, or the dizzying pace of news cycles. Rather, it should be acknowledged as a pattern of public indifference and permissiveness around what has become a global pandemic of violence against trans and gender non-conforming people of colour.
“While we’re talking about racism, while we’re talking about the changes that need to be [done] in this country, we need to talk about the hate towards trans people… particularly towards Black trans women,” said Deja Lynn Alvarez, a trans activist and advocate, in an interview for TIME.
According to Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an LGBTQ rights advocacy organisation, at least 26 transgender and gender non-conforming people were killed in 2019, most of whom were black trans women. Since the beginning of 2020, at least 14 trans women have been killed, including Fells and Milton, HRC reports.
This pandemic of violence does not exist in a vacuum, and is a direct manifestation of a culture that actively erases, marginalises and abuses trans individuals in virtually every sphere of life—healthcare, housing, employment, and civil rights. The situation has markedly deteriorated since Trump took office, as his administration has launched an onslaught on trans rights.
Just last week, on the fourth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre and during a global pandemic which disproportionately affects LGBTQ people of colour, the Trump administration had announced the official erasure of protections for LGBTQ people in the healthcare system—a move that would open the door for insurance companies to refuse coverage to trans people. A plea by the Department of Justice to reverse a lower court ruling and permit employment discrimination against trans people is currently being deliberated on by the Supreme Court.
And then there is Besty DeVos, Trump’s Education Secretary, who took it upon herself to deprive trans students of every vestige of dignity and recognition by, for instance, forcing schools to discriminate against trans athletes as a requisite for federal funding.
Even within the queer community, trans people, and especially trans people of colour, continue to be discriminated against and abused, and although LGBTQ rights as we know them today exist largely thanks to the sacrifice and courage of trans women of colour, their monumental contribution to the movement is only now beginning to, gradually, be recognised.
Policy solutions that would protect trans people and secure their rights are critical—but would not be enough. It would take a complete transformation of the discourse around trans visibility, trans liberation, trans history, and trans rights, and a drastic shift in who gets to shape such narratives, in order to create real, long-lasting change in their status and circumstances.
A quick look at the social media and news landscapes reveals that the discourse the public is exposed to concerning trans rights is heavily dominated by cisgender heterosexuals, primarily white ones. This was most recently exhibited by Daniel Radcliffe’s letter condemning J.K. Rowling’s series of transphobic tweets, in which he, shrewdly, remarked that “transgender women are women.” The letter instantly went viral, had made numerous headlines and was extensively covered by a wide range of publications.
While Radcliffe’s allyship is certainly important, and although (some) media outlets’ attention to his letter was undoubtedly well-intentioned, they nonetheless highlight the ways in which we get it all wrong and, paradoxically, contribute to trans erasure while trying to eliminate it.
As opposed to placing the limelight on cis heterosexuals and waiting for them to grant their stamp of approval or make trans people more palatable to mainstream society, we should clear the way for trans people, particularly of colour, to dominate headlines and magazine covers, lead conversations, speak on news channels, host news programs and have a path to hold political offices both locally and nationally.
To uplift black trans women, as is the case with any marginalised group, means investing resources directly in their endeavours and giving them the platform to tell their own stories, voice their own experience and make their own demands.
“When it comes to serving and protecting trans people, the conventional way of doing things and thinking about these things will not work. It’s time to invest in actual trans leadership,” said Deja Lynn Alvarez to Insider.
The momentum being built against racism could never be fully ceased, and the movement for racial justice reform would never effectuate meaningful change as long as only some black lives matter.
As the global fight against racial injustice gains steam, meaningful change is beginning to materialise. From mayors pledging to defund police forces and racial justice organisations receiving an outpouring of support to a sharp rise in public discussions around issues of systemic racism—evidence of progress trails behind the swelling wave of protest and outrage. It is important to build on this historic momentum and keep the foot on the gas.
What can you do to support the movement for black rights and racial justice?
Taking to the streets to demonstrate remains one of the most effective ways to protest injustice and demand immediate change. Check the Black Lives Matter website, local community websites and social media for information about protests taking place in your area. If your circumstances don’t allow you to march in the streets, you may want to inquire about virtual protests happening, like the one recently arranged by Black Lives Matter London.
Protesters marching in the streets are in need of various supplies, including water, masks, food, and more. Visit the webpage of a protest happening near you to learn about its designated supply drop-off locations, or contact protest organisers for information on how to help.
As a growing number of protesters are being arrested by police forces, bail money is urgently needed for people who cannot afford to purchase their freedom. This Google Doc contains a list of bailout and legal funds categorised by city and state.
Systemic racism has robbed black communities of funds and resources and stilted progress among its residents. Contributing to initiatives designed to empower black communities is a crucial step in rectifying the ravages of centuries of racial discrimination. Black Visions Collective, National Bailout and Campaign Zero are three organisations that work in varying ways to achieve long term improvement for black communities, end their oppression and promote their rights and safety. You may want to research similar organisations operating in your city or state.
Make it a point to support black-owned businesses, restaurants and shops in your area. You should also research which companies are complicit in perpetuating systemic racism and refrain from supporting them—L’Oréal, Reformation and Zimmerman, I’m looking at you.
Immigrants of colour are disproportionately targeted, terrorised, and abused by the government—at the border, in detention facilities, and in black and brown communities repeatedly raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At the invitation of the NYPD, ICE agents have been infiltrating Black Lives Matter protests in New York City, and have already detained one immigrant. Research and donate to organisations working to protect and advocate on behalf of immigrants of colour.
Queer people of colour are at an increased risk of experiencing violence, exclusion, police brutality and oppression. They are also more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues as a result of what is commonly referred to as ‘compounded minority stress’—being both queer and black or brown. The LGBTQ Racial Justice Fund and the Black Trans Femmes in the Arts Collective are two out of numerous organisations working to protect and uplift black queer people in the US. If you’re based in the UK, you may want to check out UK Black Pride, IMAAN and NAZ Project.
While the focus tends to revolve around national politics—it is local authorities that are often hotbeds of racial injustice. Inquire about your mayor, comptroller, chief of police, and district attorney, demand accountability for their actions, and be sure to vote in local elections and get involved in your community.
Across the US, and around the world, more and more people are demanding to defund the police and invest their budget in community projects and infrastructure and locally-run emergency-response teams. Minneapolis may be the first US city to completely disband its police force, and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti had already pledged to slash the city’s police budget and invest the money in communities of colour. Join the growing demand to defund the police by supporting #8toAbolition, the Movement for Black Lives or other NGOs operating in your city or county.
Challenge yourself with daily and rigorous reflections on how the concept of Whiteness may affect your life; in what ways does it limit or impact your actions, your perceptions, your opinions, your circle of friends? Policies are important milestones in the fight against systemic racism, but they alone cannot herald real, long-lasting change on societal and institutional scales. Slavery had been abolished, Jim Crow laws had been eradicated, and yet here we are still battling the plague of racism. Ultimately, racial justice could only be achieved when we fundamentally change the ways we see ourselves and obliterate the institution and concept of Whiteness.