In a recent speech for Keppler, Laverne Cox commented on the fact that trans women of colour experience much street harassment, and have the highest homicide rate of the LGBT community. However, she sympathized with the black men who have harassed her, theorizing that they see her as a disgraceful “embodiment” of the emasculation that black cis men suffered during the eras of slavery and Jim Crow. I would like to expand on her theory by suggesting that transmisogynoir (hatred of black transgender women) among black men also comes from the aspect of their oppression that holds them as less ‘masculine’ than white men. This essay will argue that popular portrayals of black cisgender men are what have caused some to lash out at black transgender women.
There are detectable patterns within cases of harassment and killing of trans women in North America. As suggested by Ms. Cox, it is often done by cis men, and soon after the realization that the woman is trans – to oppose outward previous sexual interest. I theorize that cis men use verbal and physical violence to regain the sense of masculinity ‘lost’ by expressing interest in trans women. In North American society, men are disciplined to display masculinity through heterosexuality, sexual prowess (e.g. catcalling), and violence (Fields). Many hold the incorrect notion that trans women are really men, and thus that attraction to them is ‘gay’; therefore, they may express embarrassment about this attraction, and a desire for redemption, with violence.
As suggested by Ms. Cox, the situation is very particular within the black community. Throughout history, colonialism and cultural imperialism has held men of colour as more effeminate and therefore somehow inferior to white men. Uchenna Offor describes the oppression of black men in particular during the eras of slavery and Jim Crow:
Black Men were not allowed to perform the duties of what is considered masculine because it would allot power to the Black Race. The controlling images of the Coon, Brute, Tom, and the Picaninny were all ways to degrade and hold Black men to a lower esteem. Although stereotypes of being lazy, ignorant, child-like, angry, overly strong, over sexed, crazed, animalistic were constructed out of the Jim Crow era, these stereotypes are still commonly used when depicting Black Men in media.
Moreover, the fetishization of black masculinity during slavery, as described by Ms. Cox in her speech, lives on, albeit less violently, in works of media such as “Django Unchained” (Cook). It is and has always been an attempt by white men to control black men. As Ms. Cox suggested, the trauma of such oppression, which continues to exist, may pressure black American males to have to prove their masculinity and make it their own. In a short documentary by Byron Hurt an interviewee stated, “We, unlike white males, had to earn our masculinity… because of the difficulties of being able to obtain a sense of masculinity, because of our past, it became the most important thing to us”. Avery Jonas spoke of many black men having to obtain this sense of ‘cool’ masculinity through gang activity, due to economic oppression preventing opportunity for advancement (Morss). Moreover, street harassment would be an easy way to associate oneself with hegemonic masculinity. I theorize that transmisogny may exist among black cis men for the same reasons as they do in all cis men, but that additional pressures may motivate additional aggression. Moreover, with masculinity defined as the absence of femininity (Fields), transmisogynoir is very particular within the black cis men who believe that black trans women give in to white supremacy by denying masculinity.
The media continues to contribute to this aggression by offering no solution. According to Charles Gause, “National broadcasts of African-American males being apprehended by law enforcement locally and regionally is a daily ritual”. However, I have noticed that in news reports of black-on-black violence, speech is usually used to demonize the aggressor rather than sympathize with the victim. This is not the case in situations where the aggressor is white, and/or the victim is white and cisgender. The priority does not seem to be to end transmisogyny, but rather to enforce racist stereotypes of black men. Moreover, there is never any contemplation on this black violence as the possible result of white supremacist patriarchy. Especially without this consideration, constantly representing black men as “studs, pimps, players and criminals” (Jackson, 87) in news and in fiction implies that their violence is somehow biological. This parallels the way that black American slaves who revolted were thought to be sick (Naragon). In result, all black masculine culture, even non-violent, is demonized – taken back ‘under control’ of white supremacy. It is implied that black masculinity, as a resistance of white supremacy, must be contained, and this has ‘justified’ the unfair number of incarcerated black men (Gao).
To summarize, white supremacy has historically branded black men as less ‘masculine’, and therefore inferior, to white men. The operation of this oppression has evolved but still demonstrates similarities to the eras of slavery and Jim Crow. In result, black men may feel additional pressure to meet the constructed standard of masculinity through sexual prowess and aggression. This aggression tends to be directed towards black trans women, who are accused of surrendering to white supremacist ideas. This poses questions about how transmisogyny might be operating among other races victimized by colonialism and cultural imperialism.
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