Several presidential candidates took to the stage on Thursday night at the CNN Equality Town Hall. However, no one shined brighter than the black trans folks in the audience who called attention to the violence against transgender people. They were the personification of democracy.
When California Sen. Kamala Harris graced the stage, an audience member asked, “How do we get those men to stop the killing of trans women of color? We are hunted.” During Beto O’Rourke’s segment, Los Angeles trans activist Blossom C. Brown grabbed the mic and demanded to be heard by saying, “Black trans women are dying, our lives matter! I am an extraordinary black trans woman, and I deserve to be here.” She also called out the lack of black trans women and men asking questions. (They appeared later in the program.)
Black transgender people, who are among the most vulnerable in the LGBTQ community, are often erased or ignored — even by others in the queer community. Despite being dismissed and used as punchlines for comedians, black trans folks are fighting for their right to exist.
Nineteen transgender women have been killed this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — the most recent being Itali Marlowe, a 29-year-old black trans woman who was reportedly shot and killed in Houston, Texas, this week. According to a report from HRC, at least 26 transgender people were killed in 2018, with black transgender women making up the majority. More than 100 transgender people were killed from 2013 to 2018, with people of color making up more than 80% of the victims, according to HRC.
The protesters at the town hall event exercised their freedom of speech at a crucial time when democracy itself is under threat. Their outrage is not a performance of so-called identity politics. It is more important than ever to call attention to marginalized groups who are under attack from this administration. From the ban on trans people in the military to the attempts to roll back protections against discrimination, the Trump administration is targeting this already vulnerable population.
That said, in 2019, the idea of an LGBTQ town hall on a major cable news network is still surprising. As someone who grew up during the height of the AIDS epidemic, I can recall that it took President Ronald Reagan until 1987 to deliver his first major speech on AIDS. By that time, more than 50,000 people — mainly gay and trans people of all backgrounds — had already died.
I remember the hypocrisy of President Bill Clinton giving historic amounts of funding to HIV/AIDS even though he proudly passed laws like the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell that inhibited the rights of taxpaying American citizens.
There was also George W. Bush, who peddled policies grounded in homophobia and theological hate to rouse his base for votes, specifically targeting African American churches.
We cannot forget that President Barack Obama once said that “marriage is between a man and a woman” and supported civil unions instead of same-sex marriage. While some people in the LGBTQ community were disappointed, he was a relief for many compared to Bush.
Obama went on to back the most impactful policies for LGBTQ folks: repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2010, signing the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, releasing the first-ever National HIV/AIDS Strategy, and issuing a 2014 executive order to ensure equality in the workplace. The Trump administration has since rolled back policies protecting the LGBTQ community, eroding the civil rights of millions of Americans.
Obama understood that LGBTQ issues go beyond same-sex marriage. What good is marriage if your job is threatened? What good is a wedding if you are a trans woman who is attacked and killed in public?
This week, the US Supreme Court struggled to decide whether a civil rights law would protect members of the LGBTQ community from job discrimination. Fifty years after Stonewall, it is embarrassing we are having the same arguments to convince people of our humanity. On top of all the issues the LGBTQ community endures under this administration, we have to worry about workplace discrimination in a slowing economy.
The Democratic candidates hit the right notes Thursday night. But platitudes will not save us — enforceable policy will. We need more candidates who understand that liberation for LGBTQ folks is not just about love, rainbows and taglines about being your authentic self.
I am still looking to see which candidate best addresses the intersections of race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity to construct radical policies for the most vulnerable. The Democratic nominee for president should build on Obama’s legacy to address the needs of the LGBTQ community and engage with those who are ignored.
Queer liberation is rooted in anti-establishment ideas, in words and ideologies politicians rarely use because they remind us that the system needs to be reinvented to make room for us. Black transgender women were our conscience Thursday night, reminding us they are here and will not be silenced. We have to honor these warriors because they have been at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement, despite the whitewashing of history.
As the trailblazing actress and LGBTQ advocate Laverne Cox once said, “It is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist.”