Trans Issues
10 min

Why we have to make Black trans and gender nonconforming people a political priority

We spoke to Alicia Garza, founder of Black Futures Lab, about the organization’s eye-opening survey

Credit: Brad Barket/Invision/AP, File; Francesca Roh/Xtra

Alicia Garza and her team are making Black trans and gender non-binary people a political priority.

Black Futures Lab—founded by Garza, who is also the co-creator of Black Lives Matter—has released several reports detailing the lives and priorities of Black Americans through the Black Census, the largest survey of its kind conducted in the U.S. since the Reconstruction era. Black Futures Lab partnered with dozens of organizations around the country to survey more than 31,000 Black people to understand the values and pressing legislative and policy priorities within Black communities—which are underrepresented in conventional surveys — in the hopes of creating a guide for 2020 presidential candidates.

Last spring, the Black Census released When the Rainbow is Not Enough: LGB+ Voices in the 2019 Black Census, which surveyed more than 5,400 Black people who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, or who describe their sexual orientation as “other,” to understand how the intersecting factors of race, sexual orientation and homophobia affect Black people in the U.S. In December, the project released Beyond Kings and Queens: Gender and Politics in the 2019 Black Census, a report focusing specifically on the experiences of Black trans, gender nonconforming, non-binary and genderqueer Americans.

I spoke to Garza about the survey’s surprising findings regarding Black trans and gender nonconforming people, what societal myths the report dispels about Black Americans and how she thinks trans issues should actually be addressed in the 2020 presidential election.

Why do you think it’s taken 150 years to conduct an accurate, significant report of Black Americans like the Black Census?

One of the reasons we were so excited about doing the Black Census survey and releasing the subsequent reports [the LGB+ and trans surveys] is because we know that data gets used in a whole bunch of ways. Historically, as it relates to Black people—particularly in America—science and data have been used to prop up stories about us that help justify the mistreatment of our communities. So if you look at ‘scientific studies’ like the bell curve, which, using ‘science,’ argued that Black people deserved inferior status because of the shapes of our heads. There’s other studies that talk about Black communities in such a way that the mistreatment and the oppression of Black people ends up being justified by the data that comes out of those studies.

So for us, we felt it was really important to do the work of talking to Black people from many different walks of life, areas of the country, genders, identities—to be able to tell new stories of who Black people are, and to be able to tell stories about how disenfranchisement, discrimination and oppression of various sorts impacts our lives, our ability to live well. We also wanted to do the survey and release the subsequent reports because we felt like, in advance of what we think is one of the most important elections of our generation, it’s not only important to tell new stories about who Black people are in this country and what we experience every day, but also to tell different stories about what Black people want to see for our futures.

Last spring, when you released the LGB+ Voices in the 2019 Black Census, it didn’t include trans, gender non-binary or gender nonconforming people. However, you made a note in the preface to say that a separate survey was forthcoming later in the year. Why was it important to do a separate survey for trans and gender nonconforming identities?

It’s important to understand the way that we live our lives and not the ways they’ve been constructed for us. Who somebody is attracted to is very different to how that somebody walks through the world and how they see themselves. It was important for us, in the context of movements that tend to jumble everything together, to be very specific about the unique experiences that trans, gender nonconforming, non-binary and genderqueer people experience in their lives every single day. That’s why we wanted to make sure to separate those reports.

While conducting the Beyond Kings and Queens survey, did any findings about trans and gender nonconforming respondents surprise you?

For me, the most interesting finding was that our survey respondents were incredibly active politically. People joined organizations, participated in some form of protest over the past year and were paying attention to what was happening in politics. But they weren’t actually electorally engaged, meaning folks didn’t report in high numbers having participated in the last election and folks hadn’t reported in high numbers being registered to vote. Seeing that kind of data really inspired me: We’re in this moment in this country where, over the last decade, there have been ruptures in the ways in which the status quo operates. Whether you look at Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter or Black Trans Lives Matter, there have been all of these incredible disruptions amongst segments of our society and our communities who were being left out and left behind.

And so leading up to an election where we have a president who has actively worked to undermine the rights of many groups in our society—in particular trans communities, queer communities, Black communities and women—it’s so important for those who are being left out and left behind to make their voices heard. One of the things that occurred to us from seeing this kind of data is, well, if folks are really politically active, what would it mean if that political action translated into electoral action that could actually have an impact on the political decisions that are being made upon our lives every single day?

There was one issue on which Black Americans were unanimous—that economic hardship (low wages and lack of affordable housing, health care and childcare) was a major problem. This was the main priority for all respondents in all three surveys, regardless of gender identity. Were you surprised by this alignment across the reports?

I don’t know if it was a surprise. Maybe I would say that in some ways it was more of an inspiration. I’ve heard lots of people talk about how ‘polarized’ our society and country is. That word gives me an image of people being on completely opposite sides of an issue. But based on our data, people actually have a lot of alignment when it comes to the things that they care about and the things that they want. What’s actually polarizing is the way that we go about getting those things. And so, to me, the notion that we’re all concerned about child care, that we’re all concerned about low wages that are not enough to support a family and about health care that is unacceptable and unaffordable means that there is a lot of potential and opportunity for us to build the kinds of alliances needed to win the things that we want and deserve.

But it also points to the shortcomings of some of the alliances that we build: If we are building coalitions for wage equity that don’t include and uplift and centre experiences of trans folks or non-binary folks, then we’re not going to be able to achieve the success that we want. So it’s almost just a reminder that we need to do better, not just for the election’s sake, but for the sake of getting the things that we need and deserve.

The Beyond Kings and Queens report discusses the limitations of language when it came to choosing some standard terms to describe folks throughout the survey, because there were quite a few identities involved: From trans to non-binary to nonconforming and genderqueer. How was the decision made about what terms to use throughout to encompass other identities even though it may not have necessarily encompassed all those identities? 

I think the easiest way to talk about it is that we did our best. We tried to capture as much as we possibly could, knowing that we wouldn’t ever be able to capture everything. But when you collect data, one of the really important things for us to keep in mind is that there are always opportunities for us to keep improving on the ways in which we are capturing the experiences of the people that we love and care about. What was most important for us was making sure that people knew that Black folks are also Black people who are queer, trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming. And that, actually, language is always changing when it comes to the ways that we describe ourselves. And that is a reflection of the times that we live in.

Black Futures Lab did a lot of social and community outreach—texts, email blasts, social media, physically going into Black communities. Why was it important to do outreach for the survey in this particular way, as opposed to more traditional survey styles like collecting emails and sending them out? 

We really wanted to be able to capture people everywhere that they were. We also wanted to capture both the people for whom the internet and technology is their primary way of communicating, and those for whom it’s not an important way of connecting. We wanted to connect with people who don’t usually get reached out to because, again, we really wanted to nuance the way that we understand who Black people are in America. And by understanding that we are incredibly complex and that this complexity is a reflection of the various processes that have either brought us here or are shaping our lives.

So often when folks talk about Black folks in this country, people say ‘African-American.’ But that term really describes Black people who are born here. We know that Black communities are more complex than that. There are deep and rich communities all throughout the U.S. who were not born here, but are creating community and shaping politics, our society, our democracy and our economy. So for us, it was really an opportunity to model what it looks like to engage Black people in this country, and we hope that this is a model that people who are in charge of making decisions over our lives will actually adapt. For example, we were able to present some of these findings to a national body of elected officials who serve Black communities. Folks found it really important that we did the work that we did to engage the complexity of people that we engaged.

One of the myths the Black Census dispels is that Black heterosexual people are homophobic—in fact, a majority of Black Americans support same-sex marriage. What are some other societal misconceptions about Black Americans that you think the reports were able to dispel?

One of the things that we thought was really fascinating and important was that if you were to listen to any of the presidential candidates, you would think that the only thing Black people care about is criminal justice reform when, in fact, we found that the most important issue—the issue that keeps people up at night—is actually low wages that are not enough to support their families.

The other thing that we found really fascinating is that there’s this notion that Black women are the ones who vote the most and the most consistently, while Black men across the board don’t vote at all. What we found was that Black men vote at similar rates as Black women do. It’s a little bit lower, but not by much. Black men also tend to vote in the same ways that Black women do—but there are some differences in the ways that Black men vote in this country or the issues that they vote for. I feel that’s important because I do think that there’s this perception that Black men are just largely disengaged and our survey found that wasn’t fully true.

Trans issues were slated to play a major role in the upcoming election, considering a number of Trump policies against trans people. Where do you think trans issues stand in the presidential race?

I feel disappointed in the lack of rigour that is being taken up around the questions, not just of trans rights, but of trans safety and dignity. Over the last couple of years, we’ve become more aware of the ongoing high levels of violence that trans folks face in their everyday lives. We’ve gotten to a point where there are some candidates that are talking about paying attention to the epidemic of violence that trans women experience and the undue numbers of Black trans women who are murdered each year. Unfortunately, though, we haven’t actually gone any deeper than that.

Yes, we’ve gotten to the point where at least we’re doing this whole, “Say her name’” thing, which is fine and great. But after we say their names, what are we doing to change people’s lives? What we hope these reports can try and influence is better and more nuanced policy around how to make sure that every single person in our communities gets to live and live well.

When Black trans women have an average life expectancy of 35 years old, there is something wrong. And it’s not just the function of people being mean to each other—which is what I think a lot of people think is [the reason] why Black trans women are dying. We don’t actually get into these bigger questions of economic security and the choices that Black trans folks are having to make every single day to survive because they’re largely locked out of the formal life economy. I don’t think that we’re doing enough to talk about and ideate around what it means to ensure that Black trans people have access to adequate, quality, affordable health care, and that the lack of access to it is one of the primary reasons that folks are dying. So it’s not just a function of people being murdered on the basis of discrimination. It is also about the choices that people are forced to make because they don’t have access to the things that they need to live. And so when you bring those things together, there’s so much opportunity for policy-making. But I think there’s not enough courage around really doing the work to go deeper around how to improve the life outcomes of trans people, and Black trans people in particular.

What do you hope that these surveys accomplish, either socially or politically?

I hope these surveys inspire innovation around how we engage Black communities in the things that we care about. And I think for me, personally, I know that every election cycle I basically want to dig a hole in the ground and bury myself in it until the elections are over because there’s just a lot of posturing without principle and a lot of symbolism without substance. And so what I’m hoping is that this survey and the reports that we’ve released can be incentives for elected officials to do better as it relates to meeting the needs of everybody in their constituencies.

The other thing that I really hope for is that Black communities start to see the consequences of what happens when we are not building the kinds of alliances that will allow us to win the things that we want. There have been conversations happening in Black communities for generations about the need for Black unity, about the need for Black people to have an agenda that we all unite around and fight for together, about the need for Black people to come together and support each other so that each of us can rise. And I hope that some of the nuances of the survey really expose the places where we could be doing better, and incentivize us to do better.