Thursday, December 4, 2008

Who Is Duanna Johnson and Why The Black Community Should Know Her Name?

The following is a piece I wrote for publication in a black magazine which of course was rejected.  I have decided to publish it on the blog because someone needs to say it.

Duanna Johnson was the most famous Trans woman in Memphis. She garnered national attention when she was assaulted by two Memphis PD. Officers. For the offense of refusing to respond to the derogatory terms of faggot and he/she, she was repeatedly struck by an officer who utilized his handcuffs like a set of brass knuckles.

Duanna did not allow this assault to turn her into a victim. Like many strong black women who have been abused by the white male patriarchy, she chose to stand up and demand that those that violated her be made to pay for their crime. She was in the middle of a 1.3 million dollar lawsuit against the Memphis P.D when she was found in an alley shot in the head.

Duanna had lead a very difficult life, and was undergoing some extreme financial problems when she died. For much of her daily needs she counted on the kindness of her neighbours. In her home she had neither, running water, or electricity, but each day she awoke determined to soldier on in the face of poverty and social marginalization.

Across the blogosphere many progressive bloggers have documented her story in an effort to raise awareness to the difficulties that trans women of color daily negotiate. One group has remained silent...the black community. Duanna was our daughter, and it seems as though her assault and subsequent death, has once again served as evidence of the ways in which the black community, has chosen to systematically ignore the violence and hate that are directed at our transgender members.

In the wake of the racism that has been revealed in the GLBTQI community since the passing of prop 8, it would seem that now should be the time for the black community to stand as a group and continue the struggle on behalf of one of our sisters. Not only would this stand as the impetus to building a more inclusive civil rights movement, it would usher in a new era; wherein the struggles of one black person constituted the struggles of us all.

Many people are reluctant to call out the community on its homophobic/transphobic tendencies, because to do so one risks being called a racist or a sell out, however is being called a racist any worse than contributing to the factors that maintain transphobia? This is very much an issue that affects our community. Upon visiting the website remembering our dead, what immediately becomes clear, is that people of color are over represented on the list of those that have lost their lives to ignorance and hatred.

What the black community as a whole must begin to acknowledge, is that despite our commitment to the church, when we choose to ignore the plight of the GLBTQI community, we are turning our back on our own people as well. Duanna’s transgender status, does not erase her blackness, if anything, Duanna’s blackness made her all the more vulnerable to police brutality, and the life of poverty that she led.

The “isms” interact with one another to create social stigmatizations. As a trans woman who was of colour, Duanna occupied the bottom of the race and class hierarchy. To pretend that racism did not affect her life and assume that her trans status was her only area of marginalization is to create a one dimensional understanding of blackness.

We socially exist with the idea, that the black identity is a monolith; and that is far from the truth. The color of one’s skin does not necessarily predispose anyone to think or act a certain way. Each of us has a separate and unique history that comes to bear on our decisions and actions. Though we share a common bond in terms of our cultural history as decedents of slaves, the ways in which race is an issue varies due to things like class, sexuality, gender, ability and even age.

In owning the identity of a black female Duanna gave up whatever patriarchal advantage she had as a black male. She chose to embrace her truest self, and it is more than likely that this is what brought about her untimely death. If we deny her part in our community, we are only reifying those that seek to reduce the multiplicity of blackness. We are confirming that we are all subjects of group think, by not having the courage to stand for the most marginalized members of our community.

A civil rights movement can only be strong when all members stand up and speak in the cause of justice. The ruling elite wants to see division in our community. It serves their needs and purposes each time we turn away from each other in disgust. Each time we turn away from someone because their sexuality or gender identity makes us uncomfortable, we are leaving them vulnerable to attack and undermining any possibility for us to progress as a people.

An employer cannot fire someone for being black and they cannot fire someone for being female, but a black trans woman can easily lose her job based on her trans status, because that is not covered under job discrimination laws in various states. Blacks already routinely make less than whites and when trans status is added, the struggle to avoid poverty can force some to make decisions that they might not otherwise have made. Equality in employment has been one of the cornerstones of black organizing and yet the disparity and clear injustice when it comes to our trans members is yet another shaming wall of silence.

Trans Women are subject to high levels of violence. Their deaths are often not properly investigated or ignored altogether. When the mainstream media bothers to give them any kind of coverage at all, often the report is filled with oppressive and demeaning language. Referring to a trans woman by her male name rather than her chosen name, using the term transvestite or steadfastly refusing to use the pronoun to which the victim identified, are common ways in which the media attempts to reduce the victim.

In the Duke Lacrosse rape case, where a young black prostitute accused a group of white males of rape, the same shame the victim tactic was applied by the media. The difference between this and what happens to trans women, is that the black community was there, loud and proud to speak in her defence. It was clear to all that no matter what this young woman chose to do for a living, that her body should not have been violated. Her blackness overrode the spoiled identity that often accompanies prostitution enough for the community to be able to speak in solidarity. Had she been a trans woman violated in the same way, the silence would once again have resumed.

In each aspect we look at, those negotiating a trans status must face additional inequities over and above the racial disparity that cisexual people of color must routinely negotiate. Our silence convicts. Our so-called black leaders have no problem allowing their megaphones to collect dust when a trans woman is murdered, even though we know that this also supports violence against cisgendered black women. Where is the NAACP? Where are the reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson? If it is their mission to speak on behalf of the black community then it should be about the community as a whole, and not members that are deemed acceptable by our homophobic, trans hating, sexist, patriarchal society.

Duanna Johnson mattered and not because she was a trans woman, or a twin victim of police brutality and a violent death, but because she was a human being. In our quest for civil rights what we must focus on is achieving a common humanity for all. Duanna has become yet another one of our sisters who has met an untimely end and if we do not speak for her, no one will.

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