Eating cake on your birthday is hardly an act of resistance. That is, unless that cake shows the faces of 77 black transgender women who were murdered before they turned 35 years old.
Transgender advocate and television personality Ashlee Marie Preston had a lot to celebrate when she turned 34 on June 7. In the past year, she had made history as the first transgender woman to be named editor-in-chief at feminist magazine Wear Your Voice, and she became the first transgender person in California to run for the state Assembly.
But there was another reason to mark the occasion. One international human rights group claims the life expectancy for a trans woman in the Americas is just 35 years old ― just one year older than she is now. While the statistics around mortality rates for trans people require further study, other advocacy groups have found that trans women of color in the U.S. face a disproportionate risk of assault and even murder.
Preston launched the #ThriveOver35 hashtag to raise awareness of this ― and commissioned a cake in honor of the 77 women whose lives were cut short.
“What tends to happen in the LGBTQ community is that everything pertaining to the G part supersedes everything else,” Preston told HuffPost. “I decided to have a cake made with 77 photos of trans women under 35 who have lost their lives to transphobic hate because wedding cakes get more attention than black trans women in our community.”
Preston was referring to the recent U.S. Supreme Court case involving a Christian baker refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
“I figured if I put the message on a cake,” she added, “maybe it would be easier for society to digest ― no pun intended.”
Preston conducted “extensive research” on each person whose picture appeared on the cake, she said, and also consulted a Mic database of transgender homicides. Los Angeles bakery Cake and Art brought her vision to life.
“I have been on a diet since Feb. 25 and I haven’t been doing carbohydrates,” she said. “So I was like, if I’m going to break my diet ― not even a cheat day but break my diet ― and have cake, then I want it to be carbs for a cause.”
That cause, she wrote in an Instagram post announcing her #ThriveOver35 campaign, is to “help black trans women reimagine themselves somewhere other than an open casket.”
Advocacy groups paint a stark picture. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 28 trans individuals in the U.S. died as a result of violence in 2017.
“It is clear that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia conspire to deprive them of employment, housing, healthcare and other necessities,” the group said in its report.
TeeTee Dangerfield, the 16th transgender person murdered the U.S. in 2017, is one example. HRC wrote in a post mourning her death that “so far, almost every victim [this year] has been a woman of color ― and nearly all have been black women.”
Suicide is another major reason for the shockingly low life expectancy of black trans women. A 2014 transgender discrimination survey by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that 41 percent of respondents had attempted suicide. That compares to 4.6 percent for the overall U.S. population.
“Here’s the truth,” Preston told HuffPost. “There is a lot of bureaucratic hate that prevents us from accessing mental health services.”
She’s been open about her own experience with suicidal ideation, and explained some of the struggles she’s had finding care.
“Just a couple of years ago, when my name was already in the media, I had a nervous breakdown,” Preston said. “I had to navigate trying to get services through insurance, being put on a waiting list 1,000 miles long, being misgendered and asked inappropriate questions about my genitals ― things that had nothing to do with my case.”
Through her campaign, Preston hopes to remind other trans people that “every day they stay alive is triumphant, because our existence is resistance.”
“I would just tell a trans person who is struggling with depression that they aren’t alone, their feelings are valid,” she said. “There are people that care.”
Preston believes black trans women’s stories are so often left out of the mainstream conversation because they’re marginalized three times over.
“We have to deal with struggles women deal with, that African-Americans deal with, that transgender people deal with,” she said. That means there’s only a small pool of people in a position to elevate them.
The issues black trans women face tend to compound from there, she said, pointing to mental health struggles, a lack of housing and difficulty gaining employment.
“There are all these different layers we have to overcome,” Preston said. “I think there is a larger conversation within the LGBTQIA community about what intersectionality is, and there needs to be an understanding of cultural barriers, things that make us exponentially prone to discrimination and the inability to thrive.”
The Trump administration has been especially unkind to transgender Americans. In May 2018 it rolled back protections for transgender prison inmates. President Donald Trump’s Department of Education has refused to handle complaints of discrimination made by transgender students. The president continues advocate for a ban on transgender service members in the military, though federal courts have maintained that they can serve openly.
And while Preston never thought she would see any silver linings to the Trump presidency ― she famously confronted Caitlyn Jenner over the reality star’s support for Trump ― she noted the resurgence of activism in the election’s wake. She’s glad to finally see acknowledgement for those who have been on the front lines working for equality and praised the surge of unexpected allies.
“I was completely blown away by the allies in the U.S. military who came forward for refusing to follow Trump’s orders,” she said, adding: “It doesn’t get any more cis-hetero-normative than the military. ... We got to see what people were willing to fight for, and it’s those people who really give the trans community a little more hope than we had.”
Preston herself was inspired to run for a seat in the California Legislature. While she ultimately dropped out of the race, by February there were an estimated 40 transgender people seeking positions in government nationwide, according to Broadly.
Preston hopes that transgender women will use the #ThriveOver35 hashtag to celebrate their own milestone birthdays and that women of all ages will use it to inspire others to continue pushing forward.
“We are not a statistic, we can rise above it, and we have so much to offer society at large,” she said. “It’s just encouragement to keep pushing.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated a claim about the lifespan of trans women in the Americas was a statistic about the lifespan of black trans women in the region. This story has also been updated to clarify that the claim requires further study, and to include more details about research into the violence that trans women in the U.S. face.
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