The Conclusion:There are young unamed young black trans women in pockets across the country who are doing serious work and quite literally putting their lives on the line and those women go unseen and unacknowledged and more importantly referring to Janet Mock and Laverne Cox as activists is dangerous; two women who now have class privilege that allots them the choice of staying silent or speaking up when it’s convenient while for their wallets or career advancements.
No one challenges or critiques these women because the visibility in the trans community is small and visibility is important, also because people are reasonably cautious to critique trans folks on their relationship with other black trans folks. In fact if we looked at the pro black and and antiracist movements in comparison we don’t refer to Kerry Washington or shonda Rhimes or Tracee Ellis Ross as activists at best we consider them advocates because these women do at least use their platforms to speak out for other black women.
I don’t want to demonize or turn against other black women, but I take their lack of action so personally because I am a black trans woman, they are black trans women and all three of us know there are black trans girls out there dying month after month, starving, impoverished, forced into sex work, homeless and forced to live on the streets, mistreated in the workplace or even worse not even welcomed into the workplace because in some places it’s legal to deny trans folks jobs, and even housing and other services. How are Laverne and Janet not outraged to the point of action, to the point of creating an actual physical space and community for trans women? Those thoughts ideas and the fiery fierce passion they has gets buried under their celebrity and the checks that role in from remaining silent. I take their lack of action so personally because they will not be the women harassed physically assault or arrested for enter bathrooms that do not align with their birth sex, because their class buys them out of those experiences. These women won’t likely be the one to feel unsafe walking through their own neighborhoods in the middle of the night to get home after working all day. And for so long as I looked for people to agree with me or give me permission to be outraged at their lack of action, but I realized I don’t need permission. I recognize my opinions of these women will likely be divisive, but also I feel like my words are tame in comparison to bell hooks (woman that I as well as Janet and Laverne admire) referring to Beyonce as a domestic terrorist. At what point do these women become complicit in the oppression of transgender women of color which is the exact thing bell hooks was askignof Beyonce as it relates to black women and black beauty standards?
The single major issue with both women is they both use the trans community and narratives of the trans community to advance their careers and finances. They want to list “activist” and or “advocate” of trans folks on their resume, but not put in the work to actually help trans people beyonding existing as themselves. Their celebrity was built off of the backs of trans folks. Trans people are the ones who watched them giving their shows ratings, purchased their books, subscribed to their social media and shared their stories and literally even protest and advocate for their rights and defend them through social media and other outlets when they are wronged. These are amongst some of the reasons Janet Mock and Laverne Cox owe the trans community so much more.
The Background: Janet Mock is a 30 something mixed trans woman from the island of Hawaii born and raised as a misunderstood child raised alongside her transgender best friend. After turn 18 and “transitioning” to her satisfaction she too moved to the land of opportunity, New York City where she met her now husband Aaron. Janet work a career as a writer and reporter before being out as transgender. After the article featuring Janet was released she decide to write her first book telling her own story becoming a New York Times bestseller.
The Problem: While I do find Janet Mock to be far less problematic than Laverne Cox (I want to emphasize FAR LESS), I still find her being referred to as an activist troubling though I think could comfortably refer to her as an advocate.
Honestly Janet Mock just confuses me a lot. She has said before she doesn’t want her life to be sensationalized and has even shaded media outlet for sensationalizing her story, but after years of following Janet Mock and her work I’ve come to the conclusion that’s exactly what her story is, sensational. The woman started hormones when she was what? between 8-14? Her best friend in youth was trans, something, I’ve never heard of, and she had all of these medically affirming surgeries by the time she hit 18 or 19? Though I read her book the details are kind of blurry to me because everytime I hear her speak the story and details seem to shift a bit (no shade just my experience and I genuinely could be misinterpreting). Her family accepts her, she now has a husband, a black man at that, a degree and a rapidly advancing career. I do appreciate her being vocal and saying Caitlyn Jenner does not represent her or her experience, but news flash I don’t think Janet’s experience is very reflective of 80% of the trans women I know. I don’t know many black trans women with degrees, accepting and affirming families, early access to medical care, “fully transitioned” before 21 and I maybe know of one other black trans woman with a husband. Like Caitlyn Doesn’t present her, Janet doesn’t present me.
Janet I’m sorry to say specifically your personal life as a transwoman seems to exactly sensational. It hits all the marks of a great story. The difficult child you navigated with you trans best friend and by your first legal birthday you blended into society being perceived as a cis woman in every way with all of the medical affirmations you desired. Then you moved away to the land of possibility New York City where you met the man who’d eventually become your husband dancing in a club and just as you were living your life you were outed in a very public way through a magazine sparking your celebrity that you so eloquently shifted right into by writing your first book.…….While your journey was obviously difficult as life is for everyone and especially trans women the reality is your story is indeed sensational no shade but let’s call a spade a spade. Even the sex work (which I’m sure the actual experience was traumatic as hell, I can’t imagine) served as an unexpected plot twist that had everyone who read your book rooting for your happiness in the end. Your life has been quite the experience.
The Trans List documentary she made seems to be far less foolish than Laverne Cox’s The T Word, but it’s inaccessible. An HBO documentary made for trans people, but the gag is you have to have access to HBO, HBO is not a standard television channel it isn’t even a standard cable channel. How do you make a documentary for folks who do not have the access to watch it? I literally just got access to watch the documentary the day this writing was published. Maybe I’m mistaken and the documentary wasn’t actually made for trans folks and perhaps it’s for cis people, but if this is the case the question is even more relevant……..What are you doing for trans people?
To Janet’s credit she sent did donate several (I believe over 100, but I cannot remember) copies of her first book to places that would be accessible to trans folks and when I asked for an autographed copy of her first book for a friend I received the autographed copy free of charge, I’m not sure if that was because we’ve met on multiple occasions and she knew who I was or if it were because she does that for anyone who has the nerve to ask.
Seeing Janet actually speak every time she speaks it does seem evident that she is continues to weigh and balance personal life with her advocacy which I can also attest to being a great challenge, but it’s also important to recognize that activism and advocacy comes when it comes and you are need when you are need and it’s not always at a convenient time or glamorous or comes with a red carpet, television time or a check. Black trans women need her to be the person she proclaims to be.
In essence the fact that her gateway into celebrity was being a black trans woman who wrote a book about her experience as a trans woman and now she is so quick to move run along and move on saying that she wants to be recognized for things other than being trans which is valid, but this is where she came from and being trans is how she (in many ways chose) to make her name in media. She needs to own and respect her claim to fame.
When we talk about the growing visibility of trans folks we often reference names like Chaz Bono or perhaps the most famous trans person on the planet the infamous Caitlyn Jenner, we also hear names like Isis King and Janet Mock and Laverne Cox who are often the faces of the black trans community.
For so many young brown trans folks these faces are important and arguably the faces of Janet Mock and Laverne Cox are crucial to the ideas, possibilities and self actualizations of young black and brown trans folks. (I will talk about self actualization and the problems modernization presents in another post).
The Background: Laverne Cox a 40 something black trans woman raised in Mobile Alabama relocated to Indiana for college then to the land of possibility in New York City where she majored in dance. Working as a waitress who happens to be a black trans woman I can imagine actually I know the struggle, from one black trans woman to another both living in New York City I get it. Eventually cast as the long loved Sophia in Orange is the New Black the stardom of Laverne Cox quickly began to rise as one of the only trans folks in media and from my memory one of very very few black trans women identified folks in media at the time she gained a following like no other, much of her fan base credited to other trans and queer folk many of them young and excited to see a queer person thriving and presenting the rest of us with possibility with the history making moves Laverne was able to accomplish.
The Problem: The question is what has Laverne done for trans folks? My answer is very little. She creates visibility, she educates some folks from time to time, she made a documentary (in my opinion a joke), she gives her hand me down gifts from Beyonce, other celebs and her free swag to a few “fortunate” (not sure if fortunae is the appropriate word) trans women and she has created possibility. BUT Laverne Cox is dangerously referred to as an activist or advocate. An advocate possibly with many faults, but an activist absolutely not. She is not active in anything she does for trans community. She often bandwagons her political stances and views based on what other people are saying and doing. Take a look at the things she stands for and if you do your research you’ll realized almost every single time she was not the first person to pilot the idea.
In June of this year I attended an anuall LGBTQ celebration at the New York City Mayor’s Mansion where she was also in attendance again referred to by the mayor as an activist. And went on to talk about policies saying something to the effect of I was lucky to have great interactions with the New York City police and they are great people and when I needed them they helped me, but I know sometimes trans people and trans women don’t feel that same support. They don’t feel like they will be helped. The issue with this statement is that she makes it seem like the negative connotation trans women have with police is all in our heads. That somehow trans people simply misunderstand or misinterpret policies trying to help us……really Laverne? What about Monica Jones who was the trans woman famous for being arrested for walking while trans? When I was treated aggressively and threatened by a white male police officer at NYC pride for being in the way until a white man came to my rescue and vouched for me? What about Cece McDonald who was incarcerated for killing a man in self defense (mind you he could’ve legally killed her and claimed trans panic and possibly gotten no jail time)? What about black people in general? Eric Garner killed by NYC police? Earlier this month I was arrested and held for 24 hours before the charges were dropped for failure to remove my high heels before walking through a metal detector in Washington D.C……….did I misinterpret the police? Would I have been arrested if I was a cis white woman in the exact same position?
Laverne says she doesn’t choose her roles as an actress politically after the media swirl around her role In the Rocky Horror Picture Show where she sang “sweet transvestite”, so she’ll bend herself to do anything if she’s getting a check for it? It would be easy for all of us to be activists n that case, if there was no sacrifice for what’s right. And mind you the creator of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Richard O’Brien, said he agreed with second wave feminist, Germaine Greer, that trans women cannot be real women. The only role I even found worth watching that Laverne was casted in was Doubt. In this role Her gender identity wasn’t a mockery or sideshow as it had been in her previous roles. Her gender identity as a trans woman was secondary, but normalized educational and necessary. Unfortunately Doubt was cancelled after just one season.
Another strike against Laverne for me is as an activist when asked about Caitlyn Jenner she continues to curb addressing the reality of the impact Caitlyn Jenner has on the trans community. She instead says I think she’s doing the best she can”, which is arguable and she also says “it’s not about positive or negative it’s about diverse representation”. I give her points for finding a way to spin a difficult question, but this is exactly why Laverne isn’t an activist because she’s afraid to take a stance. While I do agree diverse representation is important it’s also important to at least note the trans community is extremely rarely as diverse as Caitlyn’s bank account and Caitlyn Jenner is easily the richest trans woman in the world even after we combine the wealth of every notable trans woman we can name and multiply their networths by two. She doesn’t have to bash Caitlyn but she can address some of the difficulties Caitlyn’s visibility has on the trans community. Laverne could address that people may get the misconception many have about the ease of transitioning, it was easier for Caitlyn because she has the capital and access. She could say while she respects Caitlyn as a person and trans woman she doesn’t agree with or stand for Caitlyn’s political views, and it’s easier for Caitlyn to hold those political views because though she is a trans woman the money and access she has greatly protects her from the realities that lots of marginalized black and brown, queer and lower income folks experience and will experience under republican rule. Laverne stays away from anything controversial and continues time after time to choose money and fame over politic which is exactly why she is not an activist.
I also want to be clear that the intent is not to bash Caitlyn Jenner or for that matter Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, because I am not interested in bashing any woman, black person and or trans person, but I am however attempting to drive home a reality. Caitlyn’s experiences and day to day is far removed from the life of the average transgender person. And that should be noted and we should continue to remind cis people of that without tearing her down.
In recent times I’d reference Laverne as Lacoon Cox because I feel that’s what she’s become (or perhaps always been). And perhaps those feels are based on the way she lives and navigates being from a different generation where I feel she and folks of her generation often subscribe to the idea of respectability politics and in addition to being [the right kind of] trans it could definitely make you come off as a coon. To be honest I even considered naming this post “Lacoon Cox and Janet Mock”, which in my opinion is slightly clever and cheeky, ultimately while I score points for shade which is all the rave in our queer community it distracts from the purpose of this writing. And in addition it tears down and oppresses another trans women, and for what purpose? Oppressive behavior to other trans women is exactly the foul action I’m accusing Laverne of committing
Capitalism and maintaining her economic class seems to be what’s important her. In my opinion she has proven she will sell out in order to stay who she is, that’s the tough reality. This is where the name Lacoon derived from, the coonish, foolish and harmful behavior that perpetuates transmisognoir; the intersections of transphobia, sexism, and racism. She’s a transwoman whose behavior is by default oppressive to other transwomen.
“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” – Bell Hooks
This is for every womanthat cries herself to sleep
that lies alone in bed at night
that stays awake, unable to sleep
This is for every woman
that is scared of being hurt again
that has been left behind, heartbroken
that needs to be given something to believe in
This is for every woman
that needs to feel wanted
that wants to feel desirable
that feels like no one even cares
This is for every woman
that has loved another freely
that shows how much she cares
that accepts others for who they are
You are beautiful.
Everything will be okay
if you can believe in yourself.
But most of all, please love yourself.