When Black trans activists Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham made history by winning seats on the Minneapolis City Council on November 8th it was not only a symbol of the power of the anti-Trump backlash but a victory for trans youth of color everywhere. Jenkins and Cunningham’s wins, (along with those of white trans Virginia state legislator Danica Roem and several other openly transgender candidates nationwide) were a collective bird flip to the Trump regime’s transphobia and misogynoir. Musing on the implications of her success for future generations, Jenkins said, “Wow, if a Black transgender woman can get elected to the Minneapolis City Council, [maybe] I can too.”
How many queer, trans or straight youth have seen positive, reinforcing portrayals of trans people of color in mainstream media? How many have been programmed to believe in the myth of cis/straight normalcy due to the dominant culture’s voyeuristic representations of trans folk as pathological, tragic, and hypersexual? Trans of color activists and actors have long fought against the film and TV industry’s fixation on one-dimensional caricatures of “sassy” trans sidekicks or sex workers who provide exotic backdrop to the plot lines of cis/straight protagonists. A recent video challenging Hollywood’s transphobic casting practices featured Black trans actors Jazzmun and Alexandra Grey. The actors noted that “For many young and closeted trans people, film and television are the only time they see themselves.” And while mainstream white LGBTQI organizations strongly advocate that queer youth come out for greater visibility, being out has graver consequences for queer, trans and non-binary folks of color. Writing in the journal “A New Queer Agenda”, homeless youth advocate Anjali Mukarji-Connolly argues that “The national LGBTQI organizations working on youth issues emphasize issues such as education and sexual health, but largely neglect the violence and isolation that young people face in homeless shelters and foster care agencies, or the challenges they face when confronting the police and negotiating with johns on the street. When substantial resources are directed toward college campuses in support of ‘coming out’ activities…The mainstream movement often fails to analyze the intersections of class and race within the broader LGBTQI community, and tends to ignore the experience of poor queer youth of color in particular.”
For many trans folk, sex work, survival sex, homelessness, and the constant threat of violence are cold realities precisely because of the lack of opportunities in America’s segregated workplaces. Because trans people of color are less likely to have access to living wage jobs with benefits and health care they have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ declaration that trans workers are not eligible for federal civil rights protections underscores how trans workers in all professions continue to be vulnerable to employment discrimination tacitly sanctioned by the federal government.
The victories of Jenkins and Cunningham are also significant with respect to the transphobic and homophobic policies of the U.S. Education Department under conservative Christian zealot Betsey De Vos. In June, De Vos released new guidelines that ran counter to Obama administration policy requiring that transgender students be allowed to use the restroom of their choice, as well as pronouns and other markers that correspond to their gender identity. Undermining the Obama administration’s stance on transgender equity, the new guidelines reinforce the Trump administration’s position that Title IX does not require “access to sex-segregated facilities like restrooms and locker rooms based on gender identity.” According to Catherine Lhamon, who wrote Obama’s transgender rules, the new letter “says [the Department of Education] has jurisdiction over sex discrimination and sex stereotyping, but here’s how you could dismiss it…They can’t have it both ways.” The murky guidelines are part of a “broader effort to scale back civil rights investigations of all kinds.”
While the DOJ and the Education Department are hellbent on stripping trans and non-binary students and workers of civil rights, the new crop of trans public figures can bolster efforts to make schools more culturally responsive to LGBTQI youth. The absence of openly trans politicians, teachers, and other public figures has a negative impact on the self esteem and psyches of trans youth. High rates of suicidal ideation and suicide among trans youth are directly related to toxic levels of violence in trans folks’ lives but are also reinforced by the invisibility of queer role models. Moreover, harassment of trans and non-binary youth often goes unaddressed at schools that are already inadequate if not openly hostile to providing culturally specific support resources for queer youth. For example, according to the Human Rights Campaign, bisexual, lesbian and trans youth are more likely than cis/straight youth to be raped or sexual assaulted. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, in K-12 school communities, “24 percent of transgender American Indians, 18 percent of transgender people who identified as multiracial, 17 percent of transgender Asians, and 15 percent of Black transgender respondents experienced sexual assault– much higher rates than students of other races.” And when trans or non-binary students attempt to defend themselves against bullying and abuse they may wind up being harshly disciplined and pushed out of school. These conditions, coupled with the lack of support from parents and caregivers, may lead to homelessness and incarceration. It’s estimated that between 20-40% of homeless youth are LGBTQI, while queer youth of color are overrepresented in juvenile jails.
While it remains to be seen how Jenkins, Cunningham, and other trans politicians will impact policy on LGBTQI communities and youth, Jenkins is clear on her charge: “I want that to be the outcome, I want people to step up and be willing to be a representative for our communities and be a voice standing up for progress, standing up to patriarchy, standing up to sexism, standing up to white supremacy.”