Five things not to do when writing about trans women of color

TW: Transmisogyny

This weekend I got to see Laverne Cox speak, and it reminded me once again of how grateful I am for her, for Janet Mock, for our own Katherine Cross, for my girl Morgan Collado, and for all the trans women of color out there who are speaking their truths and generously using their words and time to shed light on their lived experience. I am so grateful for the work they’re doing, and for the increased spotlight on how we can improve the material conditions of the diverse communities of trans women. But when there is a sudden rise in mainstream attention to a set of issues that have long been marginalized, there are also people outside the affected communities who suddenly decide that they will charitably save the day. 

Such is the case of charitable Wall Street dude who quit his lucrative/probably evil job to do the much more fulfilling work of slumming it with documenting the trans Latina sex workers of Queens, NY. Homie is on some How the Other Half Lives shit. And much like his slumming predecessor, he probably has great intentions for his work — though in the end it just really serves as a side-show so that more privileged people can see just how truly terrible it is to be poor from the safe distance of their own homes.

But let’s use this as a learning moment. Let’s use this truly awful article as an example of what not to do, and to think about some things to remember if you decide to write about trans women of color and don’t come from that lived experience.

1. Don’t fetishize.

This is day one shit y’all, but clearly some folks aren’t here yet.

Woman shot from behind, with long hair and a long white fur coat that she is opening up in the direction of a car driving by.

Photo credit: Chris Arnade

I knew the second that I saw the picture accompanying this piece that it would piss me off. Something about the fact that the picture does not show this woman’s face, that she is opening her coat to a car in the completely canned and unoriginal “this is a sex worker” shot. The photo does nothing to illuminate anything about the life, the feelings, the struggles, the joys, the pain of this woman — it just confirms the prevailing stereotype that trans women of color are sex workers, and it does nothing to actually illuminate what that experience might be like.

The thing is, employment discrimination and a ton of other societal factors do mean that lots of trans women of color end up doing sex work, which exposes them to all sorts of violence. But instead of talking about any of that boring stuff that actually dominates the lives of queer and trans folks in the sex trade, this article focuses on sensational details instead. In fact, the author goes for the fetishization gold – the genitals:

At five in the morning I sat in a Jackson Heights corner coffee shop talking to a drunk man who was in the process of paying for sex. His pants pockets were turned out (making little rabbit ears) and empty, and Shakira sat on his lap, counting a stack of ten-dollar bills. She was wearing a red wig, faux-fur jacket, tight leggings, and gaudy high heals. The total money was $200, half of which was the up-front payment for services. The other half was to cover the cab and four hours in a motel room.

When she finished counting, Shakira got up, grabbed her tea, and went to the bathroom. “I need to adjust my dick,” she said.

Which brings my to the next thing to remember…

2. Don’t be so busy fetishizing that you forget to write about pressing issues.

While the article in question spends some time on what kinds of clothes the women were wearing and how their sex trades went down, remarkably few words are spent on systemic violence besides a passing reference to the fact that trans Latinas are disproportionately poor.

I actually don’t understand how one can write an article about trans women of color participating in a criminalized underground economy and not talk about violence. Violence at the hands of customers, yes, but also violence at the hand of the state. How are you gonna write about this and not write about the ways that trans women are targeted by police and immigration enforcement and funneled disproportionately into prisons and deportation proceedings? How are you not gonna talk about the fact that up until very recently, the New York City Police Department took carrying condoms as evidence of prostitution, effectively incentivizing sex workers against protecting themselves? Or about issues of immigration and asylum for immigrant trans women, or the violence trans women face in immigration detention?

I guess the author was too busy writing about tight leggings and “gaudy high heels.” Do not do that. Keep your fashion opinions to yourself and write about the pressing shit.

But also…

3. Don’t be so wrapped up in the struggle that you don’t see the resistance.

This is a very common mistake privileged folks make when writing about communities that face a lot of adversity. And you know what? Trans women of color face a fuck ton of adversity. But don’t get it twisted: in the face of discrimination, systemic violence, and endless bullshit, trans women of color resist. Trans women of color fight back, write poetry, experience joy, fall in love, organize. Failing to see these dimensions is to fail to see the basic humanity of trans women, and that is unacceptable.

4. Don’t assume that communities of color are extra homo/transphobic.

The author of the spends a lot of time talking about how Latinxs are extra homophobic off in their far-off poor neighborhoods away from the fancy Gay weddings. Don’t do that. It is not only wrong – Latinxs actually have shown a remarkable degree of support for LGB rights in polling – but also just tired and ignorant. Stop acting like people of color invented homophobia and gender essentialism and start thinking about the fact that much of that bullshit was a European import and is the remnant of colonization.

5. Think about whether YOU should really be writing about this.

Are you really the best person to be talking about this right now? What does it mean that you have decided to write on an experience you don’t share? This is maybe your most important question. A lot of times the answer is gonna be no. Sometimes, though, it makes sense.

Sometimes there is a shitty article that makes a lot of shitty mistakes, and trans women have already very generously explained one million gazillion times the ways that those mistakes are hurtful. Sometimes when you’re in solidarity with a community of folks you care about and love and respect and fight with, you can get time number one million gazillion and one.

1bfea3e7449eff65a94e2e55a8b7acda-bpfullVerónica is a cisgender woman who stands firmly in solidarity with her trans Latina sisters.

New York, NY

Verónica Bayetti Flores has spent the last years of her life living and breathing reproductive justice. She has led national policy and movement building work on the intersections of immigrants' rights, health care access, young parenthood, and LGBTQ liberation, and has worked to increase access to contraception and abortion, fought for paid sick leave, and demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color. In 2008 Verónica obtained her Master’s degree in the Sexuality and Health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She loves cooking, making art, listening to music, and thinking about the ways art forms traditionally seen as feminine are valued and devalued. In addition to writing for Feministing, she is currently spending most of her time doing policy work to reduce the harms of LGBTQ youth of color's interactions with the police and making sure abortion care is accessible to all regardless of their income.

Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and rabble-rouser.

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