I recall a protest I recently went to during downtown Detroit’s annual Noel Night, a Christmas themed celebratory event hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts. It’s huge—most residents from across the Detroit metro area attend it. Unlike the hundreds that milled around outside the DIA however, I was one of a hundred or so others lying on the ground looking at the stars.
A “die in” is a silent act of protest wherein protesters imitate being dead. It serves to remind the public of the final resting position of many black youths as they breathe their final breaths due to police brutality and other acts of extrajudicial violence.
For many people that have never participated in a die in, the emotional impact of the event was staggering. I remember tears streaming down my face thinking about how the stars were the last things that so many men and women before me have seen.
We know some of their names, as well as their faces, when their cases have garnered much media coverage. Amadou Diallo, shot 19 times by a police officer who thought he was reaching for a gun—when he was actually reaching for his wallet. Sean Bell, age 25, was set to be married the day after he was shot and killed by police on November 5th, 2006. The list goes on and on, with Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice being just a few of the many names of Black men, women, and children executed unjustly in this country.
Stories of police assault upon black women—though not given as much attention to by mainstream media—are also prevalent. Detroit’s own Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a seven-year-old who was brutally shot in the head by a police officer, and Tanesha Anderson, a 37-year-old woman with severe bipolar disorder and schizophrenia who was recently choked to death by a police officer in Cleveland spread across news feeds like a wildfire.
In response to this widespread assault on black life, the Twitterverse started the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, a call for justice and recognition of the value of people of color across the United States. #BlackLivesMatter has made significant strides in both illuminating the insidiousness of police brutality committed against Black and brown bodies, as well as building a culture of solidarity and resistance. However, despite these strides, many of those involved with the movement seem conspicuously silent on pervasive issues relating to Black people who also identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, or queer—and in some cases openly malevolent. This is shocking, considering that two of the founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement identify as queer women.
The August 17th, 2013 death of Islan Nettles, a 21-year-old trans woman who was brutally pummeled directly in front of a police station, had virtually no media coverage. Additionally, as the story of Nettle’s mothers harrowing encounter with her killer on the street months later will attest, the case seems to have been forgotten by NYPD.
On September 24th, 2013 Eyricka Morgan, a well known LGBTQ activist and Rutgers University student, was stabbed to death in a boarding house. While a young man named Devonte Scott was arrested in suspicion of the killing, there has been little media coverage, and not much has been heard about the outcome of the case.
In 2014, there were also a number of Black transwomen murdered: Kandy Hall, Mia Henderson, Yaz’Min Shancez, Tiffany Edwards, Ashley Sherman, and DeShawnda Sanchez were just a few of the many victims of transphobic violence.
According to a 2013 report from the Anti-Violence Project, almost 90 percent of LGBTQ homicide victims in 2013 were people of color. Of these victims, almost 78 percent of these homicides were Black, and 67 percent were against transgender women of color. On these deaths, those that have no problem upholding the fact that Black lives matter have remained conspicuously silent. It would seem that this violence—and the silence surrounding it—stems from two sources: fundamentalism and misogyny.
A recent study showed that 80 percent of Black and Latino people consider themselves Christian. However, 61 percent of Black and Latino adherents of the faith feel that homosexuality and the existence of transgender individuals violate their religious principles. There is also an age-old divide between conservative blacks and the LGBTQ community. Some conservative black fundamentalists who have taken strides within the contexts of civil rights stop short of LGBTQ activism. The usual argument is that it isn’t the job of the federal government to infringe upon their sense of morality and undermine the Constitution by allowing same sex marriage, or making the process of sex change surgery or hormone therapy more accessible to trans youth. Furthermore, they feel that being black and being gay cannot be equated, since one can’t hide being black, but a person can “pass” as heterosexual if they must.
Misogyny is also problematic. In attempting to define masculinity and femininity, we fail to recognize that gender is fluid and a social construct. While we have gotten more accepting of the widening of gender roles—we embrace a woman’s right to be the breadwinner of her family; we celebrate men who take an active role in raising their children—we still haven’t come far enough. If one “deviates” too far from “the norm”—in this case, being cisgender is considered the norm—then that individual is punished. Thus, there is rampant gender policing inflicted on Black transwomen, who are harassed for “tricking men into being attracted to them.” This harassment can easily, and often does, escalate into transphobic violence. The same happens with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer folks—as our society still erroneously conflates sexual orientation with sexual and gender identity.
Both of these factors shun LGBTQ folks to the margins of a movement that could benefit greatly from their inclusion. How can we claim #BlackLivesMatter, while excluding and erasing a great number of Black lives? How can we acknowledge the oppression we face, and then oppress our own? We’ve been through enough struggle; we should not allow religious ideology or outdated views about sexuality and gender to separate us. No one should have to “pass” to gain acceptance—as you know, then that’s not really acceptance. And no one should be punished for how they show up in the world.
If the movement continues in the way it has, this exclusion will only serve to undermine its impact and legacy. #BlackLivesMatter needs to heal itself. Only by walking in true solidarity and inclusion, can we stand against the brutality waged against us all.