WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Sunday June 14, thousands of people gathered in front of the Brooklyn Museum. During Pride Month and amid an international wave of protests against police killings of Black people, the event stood out for uplifting a group that is sometimes passed over in both those spaces.
Protestors dressed mostly in white, evoking the NAACP’s Silent Protest Parade of 1917. The family of Layleen Polanco —a trans woman who was found dead in her cell at Riker’s Island last year— spoke, among other activists who demanded justice for Black trans people.
It’s a community that suffers violence at terrifyingly high rates. The average life expectancy for a Black trans woman in the US is 35 years. In 2019, at least 27 trans or gender non-conforming people were killed according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Fran Tirado and Eliel Cruz helped organize the march that may have “accidentally made history.” Cruz is the director of communications at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, and Tirado is a writer and producer. The two were part of a group of over 100 organizers who put together the event in just 10 days, after Brooklyn drag queens West Dakota and Merrie Cherry had the idea to gather in a protest for Black trans lives.
Latino Rebels spoke with Tirado and Cruz recently about the process of organizing the march, what comes next for the movement for trans Black lives, and the importance of allyship.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
LR: How are you both feeling now that it has been a few days since the action for Black trans lives?
Tirado: I’m feeling so grateful, overall. Eliel and I had a call with a bunch of our core organizers and I personally just had so many moments of, just, gratitude to hold the same space with the rest of the folks who worked on this action. I feel so grateful to learn from them. I feel grateful to be a part of this history. I feel grateful that they let me be a part. I’m feeling just swaths of gratitude, as I’m also trying to rest and restore and lay out in the sun.
Cruz: I echo that. I am feeling grateful to have contributed to this action in which we may have accidentally made history. It was kind of, for me as an organizer who has organized various amounts of vigils and rallies in New York, in response to homicides of LGBTQ people and violence. I’ve never helped organize something this large. It feels just really incredible to see what came of it.
LR: There’s so much happening in the world and in our country right now, and I was wondering if you have any concern about the fight for Black trans lives being lost in the shuffle? How do you prevent that?
Tirado: Part of the intention of the action last Sunday was to try our fucking darndest that it wouldn’t get lost in the movement for Black lives. We all set out with the intention to —especially with Eliel and Peyton Dix, who ran our comms— to make sure that everything was heard. To make this as loud of an action as possible, because so often Black trans folks are left out of LGBTQ and Black movements. And those are our sisters and our siblings. And I think that I, you know, our intention is to not produce that and then call it a day. Our intention is to ride this momentum as much as possible and release resources and release a call to action and advice and counsel to everyone who’s trying to replicate it.
I’m really grateful that people are already starting to replicate the action. We’re seeing one, two happening [last week] in London, actions for Black trans lives, that we chatted with them about.
There are so many people DM-ing us and saying, ‘Hey, we were inspired by your action. How can you help me do this? What can you offer?’ So we’re going to do that as a follow up, as part of the work.
LR: What do you try to keep in mind these past few weeks about being an ally who is not from this community, but who’s very involved in this struggle?
Tirado: From the jump, something that the core organizers were all really adamant about —aside from the fact that we knew that there could be no request for permit or police involvement in this protest— was that we said from the jump, is that our group is a lot of queer people of color. And we were like, non-Black organizers should do the legwork. We have to do the grunt work, do a lot of the organizing labor, so that Black trans folks can be at the front of this movement where they belong. And we made sure that we were very transparent about all the things that we were executing against, and involved everyone in every step of the process. It’s a very flat group that just kind of took teams and ran with them.
But we experienced violence during the planning of this action, which was about two weeks of work, maybe even 10 days. When we lost Dominique and then we lost Riah, and when we had that Trump mandate that limited protections for trans people, it was one thing after the other. And some of our core organizers were just tapped out. They really couldn’t work, much less answer an email, you know what I mean? And so that’s when Eliel and West Dakota and I and others were like, ‘Okay, time to step up. This is where we really do mean what we say when we say we’re going to do the work for them.’
LR: What do you think needs to happen next? And what do you hope happens coming out of this?
Cruz: I hope that people find intentional ways to make the movement for Black trans lives sustainable. It’s not a one time effort where you show up to the one action. What are the ways that you’re intentionally creating space for Black trans people to be safe and be well? A lot of times we talk about Black trans folks only in death if we do at all. And it’s important for us to really think about what are the ways that we are creating community, safety and equitable access to resources that create safety for Black trans people, which includes access to resources such as housing and healthcare, employment, education, all things that Black trans people, especially in New York City, through the work that I do that at the Anti-Violence Project, has told us, again, and again, these are the things that we need. Even though they seem like very basic resources, and they are. So just finding ways to make sure that this movement is sustainable, and that the pressure continues.
LR: Is there anything else I didn’t ask you that you would like to be asked?
Cruz: Since we’re both Puerto Rican sisters, I think it’s important for us to also say that the importance of non black Latinx people to show up in this moment, in this time and to have conversations in our community, in our families around anti-Blackness, which is really steeped in so many of our cultures. I really did not wrap my mind around the active anti-Blackness that even has come up in my family growing up —even just small comments— until the last few years. I think there’s a lot we could be doing as a community to really face that head on and not just see it as something that is happening only to white folks.
Tirado: I absolutely second what Eliel said. My first memories of racism came from my racist cop uncle and aunt. My dad’s side of the family is racist cops and it’s important for us to have intra-communal conversations that may be uncomfortable or may feel pointless with people who really just don’t understand how we are complicit in, benefit from, and perpetuate white supremacy every day. All the time. It’s up to us to show up in those spaces. Especially when you have things like Univision and Telemundo, you know, with riot porn all over their screens and conservatism and whiteness and Catholicism rattled throughout so much of what our community can be interested in. It’s important that we have those conversations and show up. That’s what allyship is.
On June 23, the In The Thick political podcast, co-hosted by Futuro Media founder Maria Hinojosa and Latino Rebels founder Julio Ricardo Varela (LR is part of Futuro Media as well as ITT) discussed the role of Black trans lives in the history of resistance and organizing with guests Elle Hearns and Nala Simone Toussaint.
Ana Lucía Murillo is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. and the 2020 summer correspondent for Latino Rebels. She tweets from @analuciamur.
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