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On this episode of Making Contact, we will look at transgender activism and the call for inclusion and intersectionality in the movement for Black lives. We’ll also meet Trans activists in Louisiana who have been organizing against a state law that has been used to unfairly target trans women for decades.
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Activism and The Fight for Black Trans Lives
Anita Johnson: I’m Anita Johnson, this week on Making Contact…
On June 14th thousands rallied outside the Brooklyn Museum in New York to demand that Black Trans Lives be included in the larger Black Lives Matter movement to end police brutality. The aim was to bring attention to Black trans people, who are killed and incarcerated at disproportionate rates. The rally came days after the murder of two Black trans women — Dominique Fells of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Riah Milton of Cincinnati, Ohio. It also followed a roll back of health care protections for transgender or gender non-binary persons.
On this episode of Making Contact, we will look at transgender activism and the call for inclusion and intersectionality in the movement for Black lives. We’ll also meet trans activists in Louisiana who have been organizing against a state law that has been used to unfairly target trans women for decades.
Two days after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, an officer in Tallahassee, Florida, killed Tony McDade, a 38 year-old Black trans man. Last month alone, it was reported that a total of eight trans women had been killed. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 28 transgender or gender non-binary persons have been murdered this year compared to 27 deaths last year. The violence is pronounced for Black and Latina trans women, a group that is especially vulnerable to police brutality and other forms of violence. And sadly, too often when we discuss the movement for Black Lives, all Black lives aren’t centered in the discussion. Blossom C. Brown, an activist and a Black trans woman based in Los Angeles, California, believes that’s typically true when it comes to Black trans people.
Blossom Brown: We cherry pick which black lives matter. You know, at the same time that George Floyd was being killed and we were out protesting in the streets for him, we also had a black trans man by the name of Tony McDade. That was also killed at the very same time. And yet we couldn’t get people to shout Tony’s name for nothing in the Black Lives Matter movement. You know, it was George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, which is which is, you know, important. But the reality of it is, if you’re not willing to shout for all black lives, all the black lives that have been affected, then, you know, what’s the point of the movement?
Anita Johnson: The global uprising for Black Lives has been largely centered around the murders of Black cisgender men like George Floyd by police. Black trans activists are attempting to widen the conversation to include Black transgender and gender-nonconforming folks, as well. Kae Goode, a Black trans woman based in Atlanta, Georgia, says the key to inclusion is understanding intersectionality within the movement.
Kae Goode: So when we think about why the folks don’t show up for Black queer and trans people, it’s because they don’t really one… feel like they have to. Because some folks feel like it’s a separate issue. Folks don’t really have an understanding of intersectionality. So, like, so some people just think like, oh, when we talk about blackness, it’s specifically cis-het straight Black folks.
Blackness is intersectional. Blackness isn’t a monolith. So folks need to understand that black people in general are under attack when we talk about the state are under attack when we talk about police brutality. So folks need to do some serious work around unpacking their socialization and understanding of what it is to show up when we talk about BLM. So it’s not just cis-het Black men, it’s all black people and all black lives matter.
Anita Johnson: Kae’s commitment to helping the movement evolve to include the realities of Black trans women is key to addressing the lack of equity and equality for all Black folks. How so, you might wonder? Well, just think about it. Black trans women are considered to be the most marginalized within the Black community. The combination of structural racism and transphobia leaves Black trans women most vulnerable. Atlanta based activist, Kae Goode says Black trans women exist on the peripheral of harm.
Kae Goode: Breaking it down, going more into detail about what harm looks like, it’s literally physical violence. So being murdered, being assaulted. Also talking about the systems. So talking about having resources, having access to health care, having resources to be able to transition safely, whatever that looks like to you. So that can be hormone replacement therapy. That could be surgeries, having enough money to even be able to fund the surgeries that affirm you and your gender and your body. Also talking about housing and talking about like the limited resources that trans folks have and the limited to no resources that trans folks have. The discrimination that folks may deal with who are homeless and going into a homeless shelter like a black trans woman may be turned away. Or there are countless numbers of trans women have been turned away because of their transness and then bring that into they will have to do survival sex work and how that puts their lives in danger as well and having to navigate that.
Anita: It’s this type of structural violence that many if not all Black trans women are forced to navigate. Take the case of Kayla Moore, a 41-year-old Black transgender woman who died in 2013 after six officers in Berkeley, California used excessive force to detain her. Or the in custody death of Laleen Polanco, an Afro-Latinx transgender woman imprisoned on Rikers Island, last year, after being held on $501 bail dating back to a 2017 prostitution charge. And in 2020, a week after the murder of George Floyd, a horrifying video of Ayanna Dior, a Black trans woman who was brutally attacked after in Minnesota, Minneapolis. According to the American Medical Association, transgender women are killed so often in the U.S. it has been declared an epidemic. And because of this harsh reality many queer and hetero activists are attempting to re-center LGBTQ voices in the movement for Black lives. Sean “Saifa” Wall, an Intersex activist based in Atlanta, Georgia believes we must remember the creation history of BLM.
Saifa Wall: I feel like out of the Black Lives Matter movement there were many. Black, queer and trans leaders who came out of this movement. And I think the main strength, again, like people are willing because now Black Lives Matter is tied to capitalism. It’s tied to incentive and revenue. I think people now are about Black Lives Matter, but they don’t get the point that it was black queer people fighting for all black lives. Right. And again, people want to embrace Black Lives Matter and still want to disrespect black trans women. It’s like if you’re trying to do that, then you’re not getting why this battle was fought. Because the organizers were very clear that this was a very inclusive movement that would center the leadership of black, queer and trans people.
Anita Johnson: This is a pivotal time – we are experiencing a global pandemic, an economic crisis that has disproportionately impacted people of color, and a nationwide uprising for racial justice. Many activists believe we must build on the urgency of this moment. In the midst of Black suffering and the fight for Black Lives, now is the time to leave personal biases behind and unify in shared struggles.
For Making Contact, I’m Anita Johnson reporting from Oakland, California.
Anita Johnson: You’re listening to Activism and The Fight for Black Trans Lives on Making Contact. This show is distributed for free to radio stations in the U.S. Canada and Australia. To find out how to support us, download shows or get our podcast, go to radio project dot org, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Our handle is making underscore contact. Now back to Activism and The Fight for Black Trans Lives on Making Contact.
Anita Johnson: On July 27, a Black trans woman named Queasha Hardy was shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her death was the 25th reported murder of a trans person or gender-nonconforming person in the U.S. this year. It happened just weeks after a march for Black Trans Lives was held in New Orleans. While the trans community has been marching to protest the senseless killing of their sisters, they have also been organizing against a state law used to target trans women for decades– the Crime Against Nature law, known shorthand as CANS.
Reporter Meg Shutzer takes us to New Orleans to find out why repealing this law is so important to Black trans women in Louisiana and what is being done about it.
Meg Shutzer: The city of New Orleans goes all out for Halloween. We’re not just talking trick-or-treating. Think Mardi Gras with a spooky twist. And it has been this way for a long time.
Wendi Cooper: You know in the 80s when I was a child, the City of New Orleans was very very busy. I mean you saw everybody. You know, that’s a holiday that I just really enjoy.
Meg Shutzer: That’s Wendi Cooper. She grew up in New Orleans loving Halloween. Any Halloween costumes you remember as a kid?
Wendi Cooper: Of course. Every year I was a ghost every year I used to just take my mother’s white sheets and put it over my head. We couldn’t afford any costumes.
Meg Shutzer: But when I first met Wendi it was only August—hot and humid– Halloween was still months away. I sat down with Wendi in her airconditioned living room – disturbed only by that beep you hear when a smoke alarm has low battery. You might hear that.
Wendi lives in the trendy Garden District of New Orleans.
Wendi Cooper: Actually, I’m from this neighborhood. Prior to this this subdivision being recreated, it used to be a housing development, a lot of poor black individuals living in it at one point of time.
Meg Shutzer: Wendi is the youngest of nine kids, and growing up she had big plans.
Wendi Cooper: When I was small, I wanted to be a teacher. But as I got older, you know that kind of shifted and I wanted to become a judge.
Meg Shutzer: Other things were shifting for Wendi as well. And eventually she came to understand something really big about herself.
Wendi Cooper: I am a woman of trans experience. I remember having a conversation with my family, which is my mother and my sister and I was telling them that I was ready to live my truth.
Meg Shuster: Wendi felt accepted by her mom and sister.
Wendi Cooper: But my sister was more of you know, if you transition, you know, it’s a lot of things that you’re going to have to face, you know, like with discrimination and it’s going to be hard for you to get a house. It’s going to help you to get employment. It’s going to be hard for you to access a lot of things or whatever.
Meg Shutzer: In spite of her sister’s fears, Wendi was optimistic.
Wendi Cooper: it’s like I heard her but it looks like the information that she was telling me was like going through one ear and going out the other
Meg Shutzer: And for a while things seemed ok. Until one night in 1999…
Wendi Cooper: I was on my way to go meet some friends at a club and I was stopped by an officer. Me and the officer began to engage in conversation. And when we was engaging in conversation, you know, the officer begin to you know, tell me things about he was interested in me and also using language like oral and anal.
Meg Shutzer: They discussed sex. And that conversation turned out to change Wendi’s life forever.
Wendi Cooper: After we had the conversation about five or ten minutes, that’s when he charged me with the crime against nature, the crime against nature law, and I still didn’t know what was the nature of it until after I was convicted of the charge.
Meg Shutzer: Wendi didn’t know about the crimes against nature solicitation act – a law implemented in Louisiana in 1805.
Nicholas Hite: So historically the CANS – or the crimes against nature solicitation laws — were written in such a way that if a person got picked up for solicitation of prostitution there was a specific subset of criminal charge that you could receive if you were performing or alleged to be engaging in what was considered a crime against nature that included same-sex interaction, sodomy and bestiality.
Meg Shutzer: That’s Nicholas Hite, he’s a lawyer in New Orleans whose firm specializes in working with LGBTQ people in Louisiana. Hite explained that unlike prostitution charges, which are considered a misdemeanor in the state, a crime against nature is a felony and it comes with the added penalty of having to register as a sex offender.
Nicholas Hite: So the way that that was written it disproportionately impacted LGBTQ folks who may or may not be engaging in sex work.
Meg Shutzer: Especially black trans women like Wendi Cooper and Kenisha Harris, who also lives in New Orleans and works with the queer community. This is Kenisha.
Kenisha Harris: the crime against nature law is being used to target LGBTQ folks, especially black trans woman who are forced to do commercial sex work, you know, cuz like at that time, that’s what I was doing. I was doing commercial sex work.
Meg Shutzer: Like Wendi, Kenisha didn’t know about the crimes against nature solicitation law until she was arrested and charged with it.
Kenisha Harris: I sat in jail for about.. 35, 45 days…. I was in jail when I looked up the law. They had a law book. They had a law book laying around and I just so happen to pick it up and I looked up the charge that I was on, crime against nature, and I just looked at it I find it and I was like wait what? Like I couldn’t believe it. I really couldn’t I really couldn’t believe it. The main thing that really got me was upon release from jail you have to register as a sex offender. Like a sex offender really?
Meg Shutzer: Having to register as a sex offender is one of the ways that transwomen convicted of a crime against nature are treated differently than heterosexual cis-gendered sex workers convicted on charges of prostitution. For Wendi Cooper, registering as a sex offender was the end of her dream of being a teacher and a judge, even though she now has a master’s in criminal justice.
Wendi Cooper: when you’re a sex offender, you know, your life is very limited. You’re not allowed to participate in like holidays that interact with children, Christmas and Halloween…
Since I had to register… that enjoyment kind of went away because I was so busy focusing on – I can’t be around children. I used to turn my lights off. I used to go inside, you know, if I had a job I’d work and just go home. Because I was afraid you know, being a woman of trans experience, you know, if someone will see me walking with a kid because they could stop me and ran my name through. It was like every time Halloween come it was like this this anniversary of stay inside. Don’t go nowhere don’t interact with kids. And this was like a repeated situation every year.
Meg Shutzer: Louisiana isn’t the only state that still has anti-sodomy laws on the books. In spite of a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that deemed these laws unconstitutional, more than a dozen states managed to hold onto them. Slowly but surely, citizens are challenging these laws in court. In Louisiana, Wendi wanted to be a part of that process. She was a plaintiff in the 2011 case, Doe v Jindal that led to the Crimes Against Nature law changing.
Nicholas Hite: that particular statute was deemed unconstitutional. The disproportionate discrimination of that law was recognized and so it was overturned.
Meg Shutzer: It was followed by a class action lawsuit, which meant that hundreds of folks were removed from the sex offender registry.
So you might be thinking, great. A victory. But that is not the end of the story.
Nicholas Hite: –folks who have that conviction on their record continue to have that conviction on their record despite the fact that they were convicted under an illegal law.
Meg Shutzer: Like Wendi, even though she is no longer a sex offender.
Nicholas Hite: Anytime someone goes in for a job – increasingly anytime somebody applies for housing, a background check is run and that’s going to show up on a background check and a person may not even have an opportunity to try and explain, what that conviction means, that that conviction is actually wrong, that that conviction was illegal. What will happen is someone will see that conviction, then Google what a CANS conviction is, they’ll see that it’s not only solicitation of prostitution but also crimes against nature, which means that folks who have those kinds of convictions are automatically going to be disqualified from meaningful employment. They’re going to be disqualified from our already really limited housing opportunities in New Orleans, and it could potentially impact their access to public benefits as well.
Meg Shutzer: Wendi has experienced this firsthand.
Wendi Cooper: Although it’s expunged, certain agencies can see it. I have a master’s degree, right? If I want to go apply if I want to go teach at a school, Board of Education have the right to see that conviction, right if I wanted to … take the bar exam right the bar association are allowed to see that expunged conviction. I’m unable to utilize my degrees to further my career.
Meg Shutzer: Wendi’s story raises a question that people are asking about the decriminalization of marijuana as well. How do we deal with all those people convicted of non-violent drug offenses who still have that on their records, or worse, are still sitting in prisons across the country? How do we address the people who are still paying for an old way of thinking?
And like the war on drugs, the crime against nature law has disproportionately affected black folks. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, at the time of Doe v. Jindal nearly ten years ago, 80% of people convicted on crime against nature charges were black.
Wendi is one of those people.
I recently got on the phone with Andrea Ritchie, who was one of the lead attorneys on the Doe vs. Jindal case and the class action lawsuit, and she told me why she can understand why the legal victory is not enough.
Andrea Ritchie: The name of this conviction is stigmatizing. There’s a reason to get rid of it for that reason, particularly because the police are still choosing to charge Black women, trans women and gay men with the crime against nature solicitation, and people who don’t fit into those categories with prostitution, and so the stigma is attaching to a particular group.
Meg Shutzer: And this, Andrea told me, does not happen by chance.
Andrea Richie: There’s a real desire to punish people for being who they are, and for suviving in an economy that excludes them. It’s an effort to brand people as inherently deviant and unworthy.
Meg Shutzer: Until the 2020 Supreme Court decision in Glostock vs. Clayton County, it was legal to discriminate against trans people in the workplace in more than 50% of states. And the unemployment rate for trans Americans is several times higher than the national average. For some trans folks, sex work is the only viable option. Black trans women, like Wendi and Kenisha, face both gender bias and structural racism. At the intersection of discrimination and oppression, black trans people are four times more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population.
But Wendi has a job. She works at an organization called Operation Restoration, created by and for formerly incarcerated women. There Wendi leads a campaign to repeal the crime against nature law altogether.
Last summer, Wendi and her team planned a rally for the Weekend of Southern Decadence, a New Orleans festival for the gay and lesbian community that culminates in a parade through the French Quarter. They chose that weekend for a specific reason.
Wendi Cooper: We felt like it was important to have it… around Southern Decadence and… show them the differences between, the disparities that… white, gay, CIS male, have to face and black trans women… for them… it was a time for partying… for us, it was a time for advocating and trying to get that same… justice as any other person.
Meg Shutzer: Their cause is serious, but Wendi and her crew weren’t going to let this be a boring affair. Their march would be as festive as the Southern Decadence parade.
Wendi Cooper: We were in Party City, as we was getting… decorations, we began to… come up with some type of themes, and we was like…it has to stand for something. So what we did was we came up on … how our system begins, like LGBTQ individuals, the system begins and it starts from the church. And so we have individuals who was dressed up as like a pastor… we had a person who was dressed up as a parent… And then me and Mullein and Jasmine was dressed as inmates.. we felt like it was very important for people to see… this is our system. This is what we go through every day.
Wendi Cooper: They are acting like we are animals. Instead of me being angry, instead of me being bitter, I decided to fight. I took all my experiences that I went through from when I was in jail and I’m going to fight for my sisters that are incarcerated. The girls that are not here to stand with us. I want you to be there for us. Stand for us. If you see a trans woman in trouble, be there for us. Don’t sit here and wait until the last minute, and the girl is gone. Don’t wait until the last minute, because you’ll never know who or what potential you will see in that person. Thank you.
Meg Shutzer : Dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and holding a megaphone, Wendi led a crowd of over a hundred protesters down North Rampart Street in New Orleans. The protest attracted local media and was attended by representatives from the Mayor’s office.
But not all of Louisiana’s leaders are on board. When the state House of Representatives last voted on whether or not to repeal the law in 2014, legislators voted in favor of keeping the law: 66-27. At the time, State Senator Valarie Hodges was the most outspoken defender of keeping the law, saying it was a vote of conscience to keep it in place. When I reached out to Hodges’ office recently to find out her stance on the law today, I was told she could not make a statement due to other pressing concerns related to Covid 19. Her staff told me, “It’s not on the radar right now.” A privileged position that those of us who are cis-gendered and white can afford to take, while the law’s existence has daily impact on Black trans women.
But nevertheless, there’s reason to be hopeful that things might finally change, even with the pressing concerns of Covid 19 demanding attention from state legislators. And that’s because there’s new momentum as Wendi’s efforts intersect with Black Lives Matter and movements to defund the police that have grown following the murder of George Floyd. Here’s Andrea Richie again:
Andrea Richie: As a society we’re having a conversation right now about why we’re putting money into policing instead of addressing issues by a different means, because policing is producing violence not preventing it. I think there’s definitely a moment when we’re saying we shouldn’t be is responding to people trading sex with criminal penalties. There’s more and more conversation about whether it makes more sense to put more money into policing people in that situation, or whether it makes more sense to put more money into what they need.
Meg Shutzer: An alternative to policing could have changed Wendi’s life, and Kenisha’s too. So today they are both creating those alternatives, working to support queer youth and to change the world that young people grow up in. And of course still marching for the repeal of the crimes against nature law and for black trans lives.
Reporting from New Orleans, I’m Meg Shutzer.
Anita Johnson: You’ve been listening to Activism and The Fight for Black Trans Lives on Making Contact.
We want to hear from you. What are your thoughts about trans activism and the demand that Black trans lives also be centered in the larger narrative of the policing of Black bodies? Join the conversation on Facebook and on Twitter. Our handle is making underscore contact. To get a podcast or download past shows log on to radioproject.org.
I’ve been your host this week, Anita Johnson. Thanks for listening.