Raquel Willis , 27, Executive Editor of OUT Magazine
For me, as a Black trans woman, the most glaring erasure for me is Black trans folks throughout history. I think we kind of touched on the surface when we think about Marsha P. Johnson, of course, and Miss. Major but there were folks even before that who were really fighting for a better world and fighting for their own seat at the table.
I’m thinking, particularly, of three Black trans women; the first one being Frances Thompson, who was a Black trans woman who was a former slave. We often don’t talk about how about black queer and trans women throughout American history. She was a former slave who actually testified before a congressional committee after the Memphis slave riots in 1866. Her story is powerful because she and another woman, a cisgender woman, were attacked by a mob of white supremacists and raped during the riots. One of the ways that they tried to discredit the testimony was by saying, “Oh, well, she’s a man dressed in women’s clothing.” Obviously, that connects even till today. When Black trans women are attacked or murdered people try and come up with so many ways to justify it.
I’m a Black trans woman from Georgia and, you know, the Memphis riot was in Tennessee. And just thinking about Black southern trans and queer people who also get erased as well because we often think about only New York or only LA as places where our people are.
Also, in the 1800s there was Mary Jones who was a Black trans woman who was a black trans sex worker. She was arrested for stealing the wallets of her clients and she actually had to testify in court. She told them she was accepted in her community for who she was. There was the whole media frenzy. They called her the “man monster.”
So, just the way that we are discredited. It has historical roots. Then there’s Lucy Hicks Anderson. In 1920, she was tried for perjury because she had married a man. She had lived as a woman and she was like, “I’m a woman. I’m going to marry who I want to marry.” They charged her with committing perjury and part of it, you know, that I think what made it worse was that she was very popular in the town that she lived in. She was always doing like dinner parties and things like that so she was in the know with people and they kind of brought her down with those allegations but I think the conversation of marriage equality is so important to think about the people who are often so erased, black people, trans people and that’s just an example of someone who really was fighting for marriage equality before it was even called that.
I think about how when we say ancestors we often mean our biological ancestors. For me, as a queer and transgender person I have a whole bunch of ancestors out there who pave the way who I’m not necessarily biologically related to.
We never hear about queer and transgender people during enslavement and how important those narratives are because there’s the lie about us not having always existed alongside everyone else. We have always been here. I think people say that a lot but it’s not said lightly. Like, queer and trans people have always been here whether we’ve used those words or not. Whether we have had support or not or been able to transition or not. Researching that was important to me. We’re not just some new chic millennial group. Trans people have existed longer than anybody who tries to say that we don’t exist.
Knowing their stories has given me a sense of confidence to know that I’m standing on the shoulders of so many. It’s just different when you actually have names and for some of these people there are pictures of them to put to who they are. I am also a writer, so it also gives me a little bit more depth and creativity in the kind of stores that I want to see told one day.
I think it’s also really important for me because I didn’t have those possibility models growing up. It really was just finding bits and pieces of yourself in other people. So if you saw some Black person who was even slightly non-conforming like a Prince, that gave you life, but they weren’t necessarily openly queer people. The same thing with RuPaul. He is a drag queen and that is not my experience, even if he gave me life.
These aren’t just my ancestors and they aren’t just possibility models for me as a Black trans woman. They are possibilities for everyone, but particularly Black people. The same Black cis people who claim to not understand queer and trans people or who perpetuate violence or perpetuate ignorance about us, these are your ancestors too and it would do you well not to dishonor them.