Black and brown trans stories is an ongoing portrait and interview series with trans persons of color. A series in which they share with us what they themselves want to share.
Transphobia is an irrational fear or hatred of trans people, as well as cisnormativity (the expectation that all people are cissexual) and denies the existence of trans people in cultural knowledge and institutional infrastructure. This leads to the systemic discrimination against trans persons which is pervasive in society, including in housing, healthcare, employment, and education. Many trans people encounter barriers to accessing gender appropriate government issued identification. Trans people also experience high rates of physical as well as sexual violence.
Race and gender presentation influence trans people’s experiences of discrimination.
Trans women of color for instance are killed in epidemic numbers. Between October 2019 and September 2020 a staggering number of 350 murders of trans and gender-diverse people were registered worldwide.
Trans women of color live within intersections of discrimination based on race, being women, and being transgender. Current conceptions of transphobia, however, are largely based on the experiences of white trans people, whereas predominate conceptions of sexism privilege the experiences of white cisgendered women, and popular conceptions of racism center on the experiences of cisgendered men of color. The experience of discrimination based on race, being female, and being transgender is beyond additive. While trans women of color share experiences of transphobia and cisnormativity with other transgender people, experiences of sexism with other women, and experiences of racism with other people of color, these experiences interact and cannot be separated: trans women of color experience discrimination uniquely as trans women of color.
"50 years ago I was born in a house for unmarried mothers. My mother had recently come to the Netherlands from Papua New Guinea and is Moluccan. She was unintentionally pregnant. In her environment, her father was a minister, impossible. I spent a year in the children's home, after which I was adopted by a very warm family from the Bollenstreek/Bloemendaal area and Grachtengordel/Canals in Amsterdam. They had a number of living places. A privileged well to do family. My mother and her older sister had survived the war, they had been through a lot together. They both gave me motherly love. They raised me at puberty and young adolescent period together. A big family. I also have an adopted Moluccan brother, and two sister by my biological Moluccan mother, we have a very deep relationship.My mother(s) raised me anti-authoritarian, I had a safe and open childhood with my adoptive family. My whole life I am part of a ‘hippie-like artists' village in the South of France, Paris and the Netherlands. A very international group of people which learned me about freedom. After primary school in France I went to the Gymnasium. I saw only freedom, with little boundaries in my youth, so I was sexually active myself at an early age. My parents allowed me to do anything I wanted. I was always pushing the boundaries to show that I was different, but I didn't know how to open up, although there were a lot of gay men in my family circle and parents friends. I have been always very feminine and that was obviously visible, but I did not know yet that I was a true woman on the inside. In my own bed room I was a girl in my head, with a girls name. I wrote letters and diaries as that girl. In her art my mom’s older sister was very much concerned with masculine and feminine forms and mixed them up in sculptures of marble. I couldn't share my feelings because I didn't know what it was that I felt, even-though we shared everything. I thought I had a mental illness or something. I just wasn't ready yet. I was 13 then. I focused heavily on my school and was only happy with the highest grades. It was an excuse so I wouldn't have to think about sexual identity and what was going on in my head.
After the Gymnasium in the 90’s I went to law school and discovered the Amsterdam nightlife. It was Sex, drugs and Rock and Roll from then on, it’s as well the period when I started working in a boy’s club as sexworker and escort agency. When I was 22 I came back from New York where I had a relationship with Taylor Siluwé an African American erotic artist and studied for 1.5 years, I had contracted HIV, probably with street based out on the piers, which was a huge reality check. Back in Amsterdam the situation was terrible. Everyone died very quickly. You live in a community where everyone around you dies and you know that that sword is hanging over your own head too. We were dancing on the volcano. I realised that I had to keep going and tackled everything that came my way in terms of work. I built a huge business career. The internet was developing and I have been at the forefront of many new and exciting international companies. I was a hardcore marketing and communications bitch at one of the largest international advertising agencies. Very special because I was very androgynous, I could present myself how I wanted to. I was very good at my job and had a lot of people working under me. Because of that high position there was never any fuss about who I was, whether I was a man or a woman, etc. But at one point I was pitching in front of an important Japanese client when I saw someone, myself, in the reflection of the window. I saw someone there that I did not recognise. A man who spoke powerfully, who was very hip and sexy... .but that's not me at all, I thought. If the window had been open, I would have jumped out.
I was also brown in a white system, of course. Outside of work I was also part of a real community of gay people of color in Amsterdam, London, Paris and New York. In my work I was also an out gay man of color.
In 2002 I went on sick leave and in 2006 I came out with a vagina. I was unable to return to my job and ended up on welfare. As a trans woman, even with my fantastic resume and experience, I never got a job at the level of when I stopped my corporate career. That was hard. I was used to a high standard of living and to maintain what I was used to I decided to work full time in prostitution. I kept on looming for a job but they thought my resume was too heavy and that had to be watered down to have a chance. After a while I started studying to become a nurse. I have maintained jobs in healthcare from 2006 to 2018 in many different positions. I always noticed that my skin color played a role, but especially when I became a trans women. I was advised not to talk about me being trans at work. In the end truth always came out and I needed to explain myself all over again. People talked about me behind my back, also with patients, which lead to very dangerous situations. I was beaten up once on the way home by someone who had heard in the hospital that I am trans. I usually worked evening and night shifts because I had less to do with colleagues and their bullying and gossip. One evening after visiting hours the whole waiting room was full of men, I thought someone died or something, but then it turned out that they were there to have a look at the trans nurse starting the night shift.
I then went back on sick leave for a while and thought I would work in psychiatry and decided I would be open about myself from the start to avoid all that misery. But that turned out to be wishful thinking. A psychiatric patient attacked me in a psychosis after a psychiatrist had told him about me. The psychiatrist had called me "the rebuild". Shortly afterwards, I co-founded Trans United Nederland with Ana Paula Lima and Samira Hakim and started focusing on the community of trans sexworkers of color, living with HIV. I needed to do something.
Intersectional oppression and racism is not only my story but the story of many, many others. I am trans and brown and female. I have studied the issues, from a legal point of view but also from sociology. I followed Kimberlé Crenshaw and found out that what she described was my life. Where you come from and how much money you have doesn't matter, as soon as I stick my head out and people don't know me, they don't see all that. Society immediately gives a certain value to a certain profile or type or skin color. And the more boxes you tick, the faster you are out. At the current work at Trans United Europe, empowerment, coming together and getting to know each other's stories was very important, but I felt that politicians should know what it means to be a transperson of color, and that policy should change. It was about human rights and equal opportunities and access to health care. I set up that part at Trans United Europe, a BPOC trans sexworker led NGO, aiming at uniting more trans activist of color and their causes. Without good policy there will be no progress. I fought for a study on trans people of color that was also conducted by trans people of color. This ultimately resulted in policy at the municipality of Amsterdam. It was terribly difficult to do that because people weren't ready to think it was necessary. Because the systems are structured white. Now we also do this at European level with ILGA Europe and ICRSE and NSWP, among others, the European Commission and communicate with the LGBT department of the European Union.
When a trans person is killed who did sex work, the law frame is often that they say sex work or something related to it is prohibited so they can't do anything about it. But that person was killed because she was trans. And because she was trans she did sex work. It is extremely difficult for us to get a job. We are usually immediately out when a choice has to be made. Sex work is a good way to earn money. You can rent a house, buy clothes and food etc etc. The other side of sex work is also that it gives self-esteem. The world spits you out as soon as you cross the gender boundary, but in the sexual and erotic world you can meet people who do find you attractive because of your body and behaviour. That feeds you with a positive emotion. Because every person longs for sexual affection and recognition. You would be crazy if you didn't ask for money. Men love to hang out with us and have sex but they rarely will be out in the open in a relationship with us, as visible couple.
The municipality of Amsterdam has given us a great place where we can come together and do our work. We see that the capacity building we did helped others BPOC and BOPC queer to mobilise, which we applaud and support to the max. Our Amsterdam department is located in the Red Light District so we are close to the sex workers who we can help. With the Covid we have a very fast response, we can give money and food. We work well with the trans friendly police officers and a lawyer. We have our own clinic with a doctor. It is not easy to do sex work in many countries now. Many live below the poverty line, a huge problem because how are they going to earn some money now?"
Sherry Jae's story
"I was born in Biafra / Nigeria and came to the Netherlands when I was a baby to gain strength. Because the country was at war there and there was a terrible famine I lost everyone. The village I came from has been completely murdered, so I have been told. I ended up here via the Red Cross. Because I had Polio as a child, I have a disability and I could stay in the Netherlands and grew up with a foster family. I was in a rehabilitation center until I was five and was then able to go to a foster family. Because of the polio I have a limitation. My chances of survival in Nigeria were nil. A blessing in disguise actually.I have never been back and I don't really feel the need. Now that I am a trans woman, going back is not an option at all.
It wasn't until I was 46 that I realised that I am a trans woman. Before that I went through life as a heterosexual man. You are born with this of course, but the penny dropped quite late for me. There were signs in the eighties that this was the case, but you did not talk about it. Not that it was taboo, but it didn't cross my mind to talk about it. I was real man, very broad shoulders because I walked with crutches. That gave me had idea my build was not ideal for a woman. When I looked in the mirror at that time I thought “no way that I can ever look feminine”.
When I had processed the story of my origin, I went through a lot, and had processed my disability, there somehow was room for the transgender story. Due to the stress I got a completely different physique, I lost a lot of weight. By then I realised that I was no longer a heterosexual man but I didn't really have any idea what I was. I did live in a twilight world for a while. In 2014 I realised that I am a trans woman and that with my new build I would look good as a woman.That was important to me. I do want to have quality of life. I don't think I could stand being checked out all the time.
I turned over a new leaf two years ago, I had to do a lot of things on my own, but for the first time in my life I now know what it's like to be happy. Fortunately I have surrounded myself by open minded people, the people who do not accept I have banished from my life. That made my transition a lot easier.
My foster mother had Alzheimer's but thankfully got to see me as a woman when she was still doing reasonably well. She was so proud, she asked for a photo so she could show it to her friends. Just in time because 3 months later she no longer recognised me.
Against all odds, I am black, trans and have a disability, I am actually really happy now. For the first time in my life I experience that feeling. Life is extremely complicated for many black trans women. In particular, we are also seen by people from our own culture as less and weak and in this society we get far fewer opportunities than, for example, white trans people, who are more easily integrated into society. Black transgender people are often assaulted and murdered. Mostly by black cis men. My luck is actually, strangely enough, that I had a very white upbringing."