Ianne Fields Stewart stood at a microphone at the Brooklyn Museum in front of a crowd of about 15,000 people on Sunday. Stewart, a black queer transfeminine activist and founder of the Okra Project, couldn’t see where a crowd dressed in white — a nod to a 1917 NAACP silent parade highlighting racist attacks — began or ended. All she knew was that, amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, these people had come to say that “Black Trans Lives Matter.”
The peaceful rally, dubbed Brooklyn Liberation and organized by the Okra Project, which provides free meals to black trans people, along with the Marsha P. Johnson Institute and other groups, followed three weeks of sustained protests following the murder of George Floyd in police custody on May 25. It also came a day before a historic moment for the LGBTQ community: In a landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, extends to transgender and gay employees. The ruling, in which conservative Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the court’s liberals, definitively protects gay and transgender employees in the workplace.
But the previous seven days had been a whirlwind of tragic news for the black transgender community.
On June 8, the body of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a black transgender woman, was found in Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River. Police are still investigating the “grisly” murder, but have ruled it a homicide.
Then, on Friday, the Trump administration reversed nondiscrimination protections for transgender people in health care, saying protections on the basis of sex apply only to “male or female as determined by biology.”
And over the weekend, a new video was released that showed footage outside Layleen Polanco’s solitary confinement cell at the Rikers Island jail. The 27-year-old black transgender woman died in her cell last year after an epileptic seizure, and the footage showed that corrections officers failed to check in on her at the required 15-minute intervals.
On Sunday, demonstrators chanted the names of Fells, Milton and Polanco. They also called for justice for Nina Pop, Tony McDade and other transgender or gender nonconforming people who have been fatally shot or killed violently this year: at least 14, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Advocates point out that transgender women of color face multiple forms of discrimination — transphobia, misogyny, racism — and that these factors, coupled with systemic and institutional barriers, make them disproportionately vulnerable to violence. In 2019, at least 26 transgender or gender nonconforming people were killed, and the majority were black transgender women. The American Medical Association has deemed the killings of transgender people “an epidemic.”
Now people were calling for justice, and not just in New York City. Tens of thousands of people around the United States have recently taken part in similar rallies — in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago.
For Stewart, the Brooklyn rally was about the general public not only recognizing that disproportionate violence and discrimination is happening, but actually doing something about it.
“It’s hard for us to every day have to prove to people that our suffering is real. I’d rather our suffering be understood as a fact because we’ve said it,” she says. “And I’d rather the general public be invested in fixing that problem.”
For activists like Stewart and others, Monday’s Supreme Court ruling felt even more like an inflection point, given the rallies. When Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, an advocacy organization for transgender rights, heard the news, one thing came to mind: “the trans leaders all across this country who for decades who have fought for our rights, many of them black and brown trans women, many of whom are not here with us today,” Hayashi says.
For Hayashi, the Supreme Court ruling, coupled with the rallies, have constituted “absolutely a significant moment.”
“The march that happened in Brooklyn yesterday was historic,” Hayashi continues. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Sarah Li, a 26-year-old flight attendant originally from the Caribbean, had been to several of the Black Lives Matter protests in New York City. But as a queer woman of color, she felt Brooklyn Liberation was particularly meaningful; it was “about us in the queer community standing up for the most affected subset, and that is without a doubt black trans individuals,” she says.
What struck Li about the protest was how “well-executed” it was. From free transportation for people with disabilities to American Sign Language and Spanish translations of the speeches — it was the most well-organized and “emotional” protest she’s ever been to, she says. She cried throughout, especially when the speakers — Stewart, along with transgender activist Raquel Willis and Polanco’s family members — gave their speeches.
Although the majority of the crowd was white, Li says, it was clear that the event was about elevating brown and black voices. “They gave transgender individuals the space to be in front and to be the ones that are visibly seen and heard,” she says.
According to Stewart, the event came together in just days. What she “admired” about the organizers behind the scenes was that they “offered to do the leg work,” while Stewart and other black women were at the helm.
This isn’t how the story has historically gone, according to Lourdes Ashley Hunter, founder and executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective. Transgender people of color, including Marsha P. Johnson, who was an integral organizer of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, have long been important figures in the gay rights movement. But for many years, Johnson, along with other black trans activists, were erased from the mainstream narrative, Hunter says.
Hunter founded the Trans Women of Color Collective “as a response to the brutal violence that was happening to black trans women,” she explains, “and not just the violence, but the lack of intentionality from the gay mainstream and how they told our stories.” The collective creates a space for transgender women of color to “heal from trauma” and work to develop policy as well as socioeconomic development opportunities.
Before the pandemic, Stewart’s organization, the Okra Project, provided free meals to black trans folks; it has since launched the Nina Pop and Tony McDade Mental Health Fund, named in honor of Pop and McDade, who were killed this year. Advocates say organizations led by black transgender folks themselves are crucial to addressing the unique systemic barriers they face.
Despite the weighty nature of the Sunday rally, it was also an event about “love and joy and connection,” Stewart says.
“What I felt yesterday was the closest to what Pride marches are supposed to be,” she says, harkening back to an era before Pride parades were corporatized, when they were meant to “disrupt the common norm.”
As Stewart puts it: