In May, I journeyed to Dallas to spend a weekend of community building and love sharing with a group of black trans men, many of whom I call my chosen brothers, at the third annual Black Trans Advocacy Conference. As it is one of the few opportunities for black transgender people to collectively gather, each one of us traveled from different parts of the country with our significant others, with friends, or by ourselves to the annual gathering with the hopes of finding family.
Outside of panels that covered topics such as self-awareness and relationship building, our chats turned into late-night discussions in each other’s hotel rooms. We openly shared our fears and insecurities around the expectations of black masculinity, the ways in which we are learning to accept our bodies, our successes and failures at dating while trans, and other intimate issues related to transition. Through all of our talks, however, we kept returning to the topic of navigating our newfound privilege as men who carry with us the emotional, mental, and physical memory of being perceived as women—a peculiar type of privilege that is both liberating and restrictive.
One of the most obvious ways in which I benefit from male privilege is the reduction of public sexual assault from other men. When I walk down the street in this body, I can do so without the fear I once held as a victim of male harassment, such as the time a group of men hurled their fists and homophobic slurs at my friends and I at a bar in San Francisco. We were lucky to survive that and other similar situations, but I often think of black queer women who are not afforded the same. Women like Sakia Gunn whose masculinity causes men to kill them, and the ever- growing list of murdered black trans women whose femininity brings the same results.
Although I’m less likely to be sexually assaulted because of the ways in which I present my gender, this privilege is in exchange for becoming a visible target of racist practices designed to police young black manhood. Policies such as “stop and frisk” and the sanctioned citizen killings of young black men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have forced me to learn new ways to manage my body to attract the least amount of attention. I am constantly learning new social cues to present myself as less threatening, less aggressive, and less criminal, to challenge the irrational fear of black masculinity that can literally end my life.
I also experience male privilege in the economic realm. In employment situations I am more likely to earn a higher wage and to experience career advancements faster than black women, but this is only if my trans status does not become a point of contention. For black trans men who transition on the job or seek employment with a public trans status, the presence of both anti-trans and anti-black discriminatory practices are a primary reason why we make up a large portion of the 26% of black transgender people who are unemployed. Attorney Kylar Broadus, for example, has been very public about the discrimination he experienced at a successful corporate law firm that resulted in his being let go six months after he announced his medical transition.
Broadus’s story is not unique — the same risk applies to black trans men who are stealth or private about their gender status. There are numerous stories of being outed in the workplace, leading to harassment from co-workers in the form of intentional misgendering, rescinded promotions, and even firing. Furthermore, stealth black trans men are not immune to negative views that perceive black men as being dishonest or unskilled or having a poor work ethic, no matter their level of education or professional credentials.
Another way in which my passing privilege, or my ability to be seen as a cisgender person, functions is that in most social situations I am generally assumed to be heterosexual and am treated as such, at least up until the point where the disclosure of my gender calls this into question. At the same time, in many queer spaces, there is no lack of celebration of (white) trans men; their bodies fill the spaces of photography projects, popular online sites, and even queer porn. However, these images are rarely consumed outside of the queer community, leaving trans men on the margins of mainstream discussions of transgender identity and making black trans men, for the most part, culturally invisible.
These examples of black trans male privilege and the consequences of black masculinity are important to the larger LGBT community. They demonstrate the ways in which men of all genders benefit from the complicit oppression of black women, while revealing the similarities of gender discrimination experienced by black trans men and black trans and cis women. This intersectional awareness serves as a point of entry in which to insert black trans men into the dominant conversations of LGBT equality from which we are largely absent. Additionally, they help us to more fully understand the ways in which some black trans men resist racist expectations of black manhood as a process of survival. Such stories ultimately afford all black men a type of social humanity that is often denied as the result of a culture saturated with stereotypes and mischaracterizations of our identity.
Most importantly, exploring the ways in which black trans men navigate the privileges and disprivileges of masculinity, both inside and outside the LGBT community, only extends the possibilities of what transgender means. Surely, it is our diverse lived experiences that matter in this moment in which trans people across the globe are breaking ground in multiple fields.