Monica Roberts

Destruction Of The Black Transwoman Image

Filed By Monica Roberts | May 12, 2008 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: African-American, Hollywood, SGL community, transgender, transition

One of the things that I hottent venus2.gifand my transsisters have in common with our biosisters besides our shared cultural heritage is defending the images of Black women from constant assault inside and outside the community.

Ever since the advent of the slave trade, the Black female image has been subjected to a wide array of slights, outrageous comments, and bigoted or racist behavior.

Black women have dealt with everything from being sexually assaulted by slave masters who considered them less than human to being toured as carnival exhibits as Saartjie Baartman was in the early 19th century as the Hottentot Venus. We also have our wide-ranging skin tone palettes, full lips, curvaceous bodies and ample butts constantly derided as either 'exotic' or 'ugly' vis-a-vis the Eurocentric standard of beauty.

We African-American transwomen share like our biosisters the same problems in addition to others brought on by our transgender status. At least my biosisters don't have to contend with being disrespectfully called 'sir' or called a man.

Oops, check that. Any sistah who's 5'8" or taller, has short cropped hair, is an athlete, or full figured and tall with broad shoulders has had that shade thrown at them. I just remembered the Khadijah Farmer case now currently in litigation.

But I'm digressing. The transwomen division part of the Black female image destruction is in large part courtesy of the escort and porn worlds. We didn't start out with negative images. Over the latter half of the 20th century as coverage of transgender issues became more frequent on local, national, and international newscasts, there was a corresponding explosion in transgender themed adult material. One major irritant to me and many African-American transwomen (and the irritation is shared by our Latina and Asian transsisters as well) is that the images are predominately women of color.

While there are also white transwomen involved in those worlds, they have balance because John and Jane Q. Public have also seen news stories in which white transwomen are seen as businesspeople, politicians elected to office, et cetera. Since the stories are either ignored or aren't being told that transwomen of color are doing mainstream and remarkable things, the negatives get disproportionately shunted to and pile up for African-American transwomen.

Many of us take our transitions seriously. We are talented, intelligent, accomplished women in our own rights. But you wouldn't know that (and probably don't) know that based on the disproportionate attention focused on the subset of our transsistahs involved in the escort and adult entertainment world.

Unfortunately the tendency to judge African-Americans by the worst we produce, combined with our near invisibility in terms of the 55 year history of positive media coverage of transgender people vis-a-vis our white sisters have been devastating to our efforts to educate our fellow African-Americans on transgender issues. It's probably one of the factors in why we initially lost eight CBC votes in the ENDA debate last fall.

We also haven't been helped by Hollywood movie or television portrayals or fictional accounts that perpetuate the 'Black transwomen are hookers' myth. You only need look at two television characters to see what we African-American transwomen have to contend with.

On one hand, you have Rebeeca Romijn's Ugly Betty character Alexis Meade, who plays a major role in running a magazine empire. Jazzmun gets to play Dontrelle, who is guess what?

What is a prostitute, Alex?

I'm a big fan of actress Kerry Washington, but in the upcoming movie Life Is Hot In Cracktown based on the novel of the same name, she gets to play a transwoman. While I'm not thrilled that she's playing a character who once again feeds into that 'Black transwomen are hookers' stereotype, I know based on her past work that she's a stickler for authenticity.

She hired Valerie Spencer as her advisor and had Valerie on set to ensure that her character was on point in terms of the emotions and drama that we deal with. I'd just like to see Kerry Washington, any sistah actress or Jazzmun one day get to play an African-American transgender character like Alexis Meade or the Edith Stokes character Veronica Redd played back in the 70's.

Unfortunately, the stereotype is overpowering whatever positive things we try to do as African-American transwomen. When the members of TSTB were in the process of organizing the first Transsistahs-Transbrothas Conference in 2005, the white transgender community was fearful we'd take that moment to permanently separate ourselves from them. I took pains as one of the organizers to write an open letter in February 2005 explaining why we were doing it and posted it to a few transgender oriented lists.

One of the responses that came back on the tgusarights list was from a person calling herself Brenda Jean, who stated that our conference 'would make it easier for us to service our tricks'. That negative image was revealed during the wrongful death trial of Tyra Hunter to have partly played a role in her untimely death from an auto accident. She was not only disrespected at the accident scene by the EMT, but was ignored after she arrived at DC General Hospital and administered a drug that they give to emergency patients they presume to be drug addicts.

There was one night back home when I was watching my friend Sivi Ross do a drag show in a predominately white GLBT club called Cousins. I ended up reading a patron the riot act after he disrespectfully propositioned yours truly by saying the words "How much?" to me.

We also have to contend with as African-American transwomen when we enter relationships with us being lumped on the 'exotic' end of the scale. In some men's minds, what could be more 'exotic' than a beautiful African-American woman with (or who used to have) daddy's equipment? (And you know the stereotype about African-American men)

Just as our biosisters have to constantly fight a never ending battle to debunk these stereotypes, African-American transwomen will be in the same fight on a different flank to combat the stereotypes unique to us.

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There was one night back home when I was watching my friend Sivi Ross do a drag show in a predominately white GLBT club called Cousins. I ended up reading a patron the riot act after he disrespectfully propositioned yours truly by saying the words "How much?" to me.

That's horrible! It shouldn't happen, especially in a queer club!

There definitely need to be more positive and diverse images of transpeople of color in the media.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 12, 2008 1:18 PM

At the same time I was organizing the GLF chapter at Purdue I had a very supportive, straight, biological engineering prof. Anyone who had this prof loved him for his insight and manner of teaching. He taught about protecting the enviornment before it had a name.

Way back in 1972, when I expressed to him that the Gay movement only had to overcome it's "communication problem" with the greater society he wisely said to me: "No matter what you do there are going to be people who hate you. It is not simple, safe or easy, and it won't be fast."

Take strength sister, rent a copy of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and wear a cloak of dignity beyond assault. Always be calm cool and collected. If, I were you, and that SOB turned to me in a bar, and asked me a question that was none of his business there are several responses:

1. You must have mistaken me for someone who might like you.

2. I am here to see a show, not be one.

3. My mother taught me only to speak to men with good manners.

4. Only a million idiots in the world and one has to sit net to me.

Don't worry yourself with a fool, you are too good for that! Keep strong and never lose confidence. Luv at you my dear!

Another possible response:

"More than you've got, which is a lot less than I'm worth. And more than you can handle."

Keep tellin' it like it is.


Oh Alex, you really need to come up to speed on what trans women face. It is MORE likely to happen in a queer club than in a straight club, which is why so many trans women abandon gay clubs after transition. In a gay club, if someone thinks you are trans, you are automatically assumed to be a prostitute, and even more so for african-american women. I have seen what Monica is talking about and she is spot on.

Thanks for the very informative post, Monica. You're very correct, and it's particularly so here in the DC area, as you point out with Tyra Hunter.

One correction: "white trans women . . .politicians elected to office"

There have been none at a city (pop>15,000)/county/state/federal level.

But there will be. Soon.

It shouldn't happen in a GLBT club or any GLBT space Alex, but sadly, it does. We have a long tradition of Black women of self-help, and I started TransGriot two years ago as one way of adding more diversity and a new voice to the blogosphere.

But I definitely agree that much work still needs to be done in terms of adding people of color voices in GLBT media (and mainstream media as well).

The racism, ignorance and bigotry within the GLBT community is one of the factors as to why it has acquired the perception as a 'whites-only' movement and why you don't have many African-Americans involved in it.

Robert, I'm a Phenomenal Transwoman along with my sisters who were blessed to be in positions in which we didn't have to resort to streetwalking to make ends meet. But the self-confidence, class and pride I have in myself and carry myself with on a daily basis is mischaracterized by some people as 'rubbing my Blackness in their face'

I am cognizant of and concerned about my sisters who presume that the porn world is their 'only option' to make money. It's one major reason that I'm adamant about transgender inclusion in ENDA to break that cycle.

I'm aware of that. Monica Barros-Greene went to a runoff for a Dallas City Council seat before she lost to Pauline Medrano. Kim Coco Iwamoto has been elected statewide to a position on the Hawaii school board. You and Amanda Simpson have made runs for state legislatures. I'm thinking about it, Pam Bennett is making another run in Aurora, CO.

but the point still remains is that two white transwomen (Michelle Bruce in Riverdale, GA and Jessica Orsini in Centralia, MO) have or are currently serving as elected officials.

More times than I care to remember I've had my (fake) ass and (fake) boobs manhandled at gay clubs where I've been performing in drag. That hasn't happened when I've been out crossdressed -- i.e. looking like a "regular woman" -- in other spaces (although I've faced "hey pretty mama" kinds of comments in both spaces).

Admittedly, the dynamics are a bit different because I was perceived as a white drag queen not as a trans woman or color. But it is striking how in gay bars some guys -- and it's almost always guys --think that because of how I'm dressed, it's acceptable to grope a random stranger. I notion I try to disabuse them of... painfully if possible. ("I'm so sorry. Those self-defense reflexes just kicked in instinctively....")

And yes, I've seen trans woman, especially those of color, be presumed to be hookers.

That's interesting, a transwoman elected official in Centralia MO. Will have to squirrel info away - sounds like she'd be an asset as a citizen lobbyist in Jeff City re our inclusive ENDA bill. (pick up a legislator or two every session. Slow work.)

Robert: Other than RuPaul the only other positive black trans "icons" I know of on screen were from Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil and To Wong Foo.

Bil, that's a problem when the only people that come to mind as representations of Black transwomen are RuPaul (who's not and has made it clear he's a GAY man), The Lady Chabls (who I've met) and Wesley Snipes playing a one time drag role as Noxzeema Jackson.

No mention of Marisa Richmond, the founder of the Tennessee Vals support group, a college professor, the first AA transgender delegate to the Dem convention and the second AA Trinity Award winner. No mention of Dawn Wilson, the first AA transwoman to win the IFGE Trinity and a pioneer national leader for us. Miss Major is a Stonewall veteran working on transgender prison issues these days. The late Roberta Angela Dee inspired me to write and I loved her tell it like it is style.

There are others such as Valerie Spencer in LA, Earline Budd in DC, Kim Watson in NY and Cydne Kimbrough in Baltimore. Tona Brown is a young Virginia based transsister who is an accomplished classical musician. And that's just scratching the surface on the Black transwoman side of things.

I agree its sad that those are the only ones that other can name, but I want to name two that have been personally inspirational to me. One is one of my very best friends in the world, and one of the people who helped me become who I am now; she is Ina Tingherie.
The other is Vanessa Grandberry who runs the transgender outreach part of People of Color Against Aids Network in Seattle.

Ina's a friend. She lived with me for a few months in Houston before moving on to Seattle.

She constructively critiqued my first novel manuscript back in 2001 and I love her crazy sense of humor. She's a talented writer and poet in her own right and an inspiration to me as well. One of the highlights of that first Transsistahs-Transbrothas conference in 2005 for me was seeing her for the first time in four years.

I'm looking forward to one day meeting Vanessa and other people like her who haven't garnered the recognition they deserve for doing the community's work that they should.


Thank you for such an enlightening article. This is a highly invisible issue within today's LGBT discourse. Regarding Bil's response (RuPaul, etc.), I think it might be prudent to add (or link to) a short comparison between "Trans," "Drag," "GenderQueer," "Cross-dressing" and other terms.

Making these distinctions might bring the casual reader, straight or gay, closer to the truth.

You have a wonderful growing archive of commentary. I look forward to reading more.

Christopher de la Torre

Thank you. When you're done here perusing mine and the other contributors on The project, you can check out my blog TransGriot as well.

@Christopher: For definition of terms check out the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's "Stylebook Supplement on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Terminology" and GLAAD's "Transgender Glossary of Terms"

WIthin the trans community there's not always agreement on terms -- which is why it's preferable to ask someone how they'd like to be identified -- and terminology is evolving. But with that caveat -- and at the risk of starting a definitional war -- I'd say these are pretty widely used distinctions:

"Trans" or "Transgender" -- An umbrella term used to encompass people from across the trans spectrum, although lately some transsexuals have started using this a synonym for transsexual.

"Tranny" -- Usually consider a pejorative when used by non-trans people, although being reclaimed by some trans people. Akin to the difference when "fag" is used by heteros vs. gays.

"Transsexual" -- An individual who identifies himself or herself as a member of the opposite sex, and who typically ends up (or desires to) transitioning socially (i.e. living life as their desired gender), and potentially surgically.

"Crossdresser" -- Those who temporarily present themselves as the opposite gender, but don't feel a need to permanent transition. They are usually comfortable with the sex they were assigned at birth and do not wish to change it. Crossdressing is a form of gender expression and is not necessarily tied to erotic activity

"Transvestite" -- In the States it's generally considered a pejorative by crossdressers (for historical reasons that I won't bore you with), although in other countries it's the word usually used to describe crossdressers.

"Drag queens/drag kings" -- Those who crossdress for "performance," typically for the stage entertainment, but also to "perform" for a crowd at Pride, etc. Drag performers may also be crossdressers or transsexuals.

"Gender queer" -- A bit of a fuzzy term, but those who self-identify as gender queer often feel they are both genders, or neither gender, or some "other" gender.

"Gender f*ck" -- Similar to gender queer, but usually implies an additional "in your face" attitude. For example, someone might intentionally wear a cocktail dress, combat boots and a beard for the cognitive dissonance that creates.

Across all of these, sexual orientation may vary. In fact, "hetero" and "homo" break down when trying to describe the sexual orientations of trans people (since these definitions are dependent on one's gender), so it's often clearer to talk about whether someone is "attracted to men," attracted to women," etc.

Your mileage may vary, void where prohibited, etc.

FWIW, the LGB and T communities mean very different things by "out" but that's a whole other post I'm planning to write. LGB communities usually presume that being publicly out is a Good Thing. Most trans people would prefer to be seen as their desired gender -- which is NOT the same thing as being in the closet.