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Why Transwomen Have Earned Their Seat at the Table

This is not the first time I have written about PoseFx, the most significant television series to make its way into the pop culture psyche in recent history. I doubt this will be the last time an episode compels me to head straight for my keyboard, either. Aside from its glorious costuming, perfect balance of melodrama and nuanced performances, AND Billy Porter, PoseFx does not make the mistake of simply presenting New York City ballroom culture and the trans community as the exotic other. PoseFx (and likely, its producer, Janet Mock) is clear on its mission: YOU. WILL. SEE. US. AS. HUMAN.

On a recent episode, Life’s A Beach, I found myself near tears again. (It’s happened to me more times than I care to mention while watching this show.) While on a weekend get away an hour out of the city, Elektra, Angel, Lulu and Blanca end their day at the beach with dinner and cocktails at a high class restaurant. It is one of those joints that prides itself on its white linen table cloths and matching white people. Both making it clear that four transwomen from The Bronx don’t belong there. When one of its regular clientele comes over to explicitly state what the table cloths and pale patrons have tried to subtly suggest, Elektra reads this monied, arrogant white woman for filth. A take down so full in its totality and depth that she has to pause in the middle and take a sip of wine in order to properly “read that bitch.”

While there were so many incredible sound bites in that read, the one that stuck with me was: “We fought for our place at this table.” Elektra’s point being that simply because this woman had been born with a uterus and the accouterments of a privileged white lady didn’t mean she was entitled to claim the descriptor of “woman” anymore than the four women who were minding their damn business when they were confronted with yet another person who demanded they prove their worth. Their right to exist.

When the white lady follows Elektra’s command and scurries back to her table, the scene continues and we are presented with the most damning evidence that Elektra is exactly right: She has earned the title of woman more than any of the cis women in that restaurant, the Bronx, the city, the world. Blanca shares with her friends that she has been offered a chance to go on an evening stroll along the beach with a handsome life guard who had, several scenes before, saved her from drowning. Elektra immediately warns her not to accept the date, asking, “You told him no, right?” Her friends’ excitement for her chance at love immediately turns into fear.

“You can’t trust him at night by yourself.”

It is unspoken because there’s no need to say it. He, a cis man who has not been told that Blanca is a transwoman, should not be given the benefit of the doubt. While Lulu, Elektra and Angel had been goading Blanca since season one to take her love life more seriously and teased her throughout the day about the connection she felt with the life guard after he’d saved her, the moment she said she would be spending more than five minutes alone with him at night, each of these women wanted her to pump the brakes on the courtship.

She could end up dead. He would most likely hurt her. IF she chose to disclose that she was not “a real woman,” instead of just bidding her adieu and leaving her on the beach, he could very likely strangle her for making him become attracted to her and her “unnatural femininity.” If Blanca did go through with the date, she could enjoy a romantic, moonlit walk on a pristine Long Island beach or she could end up brutally murdered and disposed of in the rolling tides, her body left to wash up on shore a few hours later.

Elektra and the women surrounding her at that table were constantly cognizant of male violence. It was the first thing they considered when an innocent proposition to take a walk was offered. “You can’t just have coffee with him tomorrow afternoon before we leave?,” Lulu asked Blanca with a forced chuckle and smile.

If there is no other signifier of womanhood, it is the acute awareness that you can be the victim of male rage for reasons unclear to you and in moments when you have little to no resources to protect yourself. If you ask women how often they consider the possibility of being the victim of a man who felt entitled to take out his rage on their body, many of us would have a handful of moments at the very least, a couple of tangible experiences that still haunt us at the most. There might be a small minority of us who claim no past memory of the sharp fear that takes hold of your body when you realize you are on an isolated beach with a man you just met who has been a perfect gentleman, but something about the way he just looked at you, the sound in his voice when he called you sexy makes you wonder if you were too naive, too trusting after only a few hours of pleasant conversation with this stranger.

The women of PoseFx are not only women. They are transwomen. They are black and brown transwomen. Every moment of their lives is curated to make it easy for male violence to find a place to rest comfortably. No questions asked. No accountability expected. Only a few episodes before, Candy, their house daughter and ballroom competitor, was beaten to death in a filthy motel room after a sexual encounter turned violent. Earlier in this season, a secondary character relayed a story of servicing a john in his car and having him turn violent, knocking her teeth out. When the police showed up, she was brought to jail and abused. He drove off and went home to his family.

The most telling moment in Life’s a Beach is when Blanca says she is tired of allowing her choices to be led by fear and will go for the walk with the handsome life guard. Elektra admonishes her to protect herself and pulls out a knife from her purse. “Take this with you.” Lulu and Angel follow suit, pulling out a taser and a set of brass knuckles. It is played as a funny moment. A light hearted way to show us “real men and women” just how often these transwomen have come close to death. Just how much of their brain power is used to ensure the next time it happens, they will escape it alive like the last.

When Elektra pulled out the knife, I recalled the times I’ve walked home from my subway station after midnight, gripping my key tightly in between my thumb and forefinger so I could use it to poke an attacker in the eye if I had to. The appearance of more serious weaponry from Lulu and Angel only confirmed the reality that these women knew a world even more terrifying than I ever would. The amount of effort that goes into avoiding male violence is bothersome, but for the most part, it remains in the periphery of my life. If I were Elektra, would I have such a luxury?

“They don’t kill us because they hate us,” she explains to Blanca. “They kill us because of what it means to love us.”

If you want to know how the world teaches you to expect to be the outlet for male rage, ask any woman. If you want to know what it feels like to expect that you will be the outlet for a rage that surfaces when a man must confront what his attraction to you reveals about him, ask a black transwoman. Ask her to take you through the fear of knowing that at any given moment you can become the victim of violent rage because a man who has perceived his attraction to you as pathology now must kill it by killing you.

I suggest you start your research soon because another another black transwoman will lose her life to male rage by the time you are done reading this sentence.

No Rest For The Weary

The day after New York City told the world that it was okay for a man of the law to choke to death a citizen he was supposed to protect and serve, I sat across from my colleagues at lunch stoic and silent. The British teachers teased me (as usual) about not properly making tea. The Canadian teacher, who had asked me earlier with the sincerest confusion how could an officer kill an innocent man ON TAPE and not lose his badge, looked knowingly at me when I ignored the Brits’ jabs. The other American teacher knew why my talkative, silly disposition had drastically changed. She was white. An ally in this centuries old war to dismantle white supremacy, she knew the color of her skin dictated she proceed with caution.

“Are you okay, Keturah? You look troubled.”

“Do I?”

I realized at that moment I was not only troubled. I was tired. Tired of having these conversations. Tired because I had moved to another continent – one where everyone looked like me – and I still could not escape these inquiries about how it felt as a Black American to know that the country’s laws didn’t really apply to me. That I was foolish to even expect them to.

“Should I be troubled that the country my ancestors built for free is STILL trying to kill me? Should I be bothered that it is getting more successful at it with each passing day?”

The American teacher burst into tears and tried to tell me that she felt the same way. She said something about having two black brothers and the fear she had always felt for them only increasing since the non-indictment. She started to say something about the system being designed to screw her brothers, but I walked away.

Because I was tired.

Not even a full month after America reminded me that my life had little value since I had served my purpose several centuries ago, I took my weary self to South Africa for holiday. I began my holiday in the breezy beauty of Capetown since it had been cited by many travel magazines as a top city to visit given its stellar wine and breathe taking beaches. It was my goal to take full advantage of both the wine and the beaches for the nine days I was going to be here.

At Clifton Beach, the only thing whiter than the sand were all the bodies laying on it, as black ones brought them water and chairs and towels. At the nearby Bungalow Restaurant, more white people drank, ate and laughed as people who looked like me brought them food and cleaned up after them in the bathroom.

In one of many cab rides I was to take, a Zimbabwean driver said to me: “I bet you came here expecting to see Africans, didn’t you?” I told him that while I did not naively expect complete African empowerment only 20 years after apartheid ended, it was still jarring to see what is called the best African city on the continent essentially devoid of Africans. “Who calls this an ‘African’ city,” the driver quipped. “Don’t bother answering that. People who aren’t African probably.”

A Congolese bartender told me how he had to quit his last job because after training a bunch of white people who were being paid significantly more than him, his boss shrugged and simply said: White people get paid more. Sorry.

During my tour of the townships, my Black South African guide explained to me how he advanced from being “just a driver” to a certified guide. “A really nice German lady paid for my course. When I had gone to my boss to suggest the company send me to the course, he said not to worry about it because the exam was so hard that not even white people could pass it.”

The weariness I thought I’d left behind in Rwanda followed me as another Black South African informed me that while the running of the country was in the hands of Africans, all of the wealth remained in the firm clutches of essentially two Dutch families.

I am not the only person in this city right now who feels almost comatose because when my life is devalued by my country, that same country then tries to convince me that I am over reacting to or simply dreaming up its suffocation of my humanity. Somewhere in Capetown a man named Yonela Diko is so damn tired of white supremacy and its insistence that it does not really exist that he wrote a letter to The Cape Times. It’s been 20 years since apartheid ended on paper. Where is this new South Africa, he asks. Citing the white minority’s refusal to sacrifice even the easiest privileges that were gained on the backs of the black majority, Diko goes on for paragraph after paragraph wondering why he even has to write the paper to speak the obvious such as:

“Were white people, who had largely benefitted and made wealth under the apartheid regime, willing to underwrite the rise of the black majority that had been locked outside and remained impoverished, by allowing a specific tax transfer for leveling the playing field? That idea was rejected as anti-reconcilitary. What we were then left with was a necessity to believe in magic and hope for the best.”

And…

“The saddest part, however, about what is really happening in our country is that there is today no one who claims any responsibility for apartheid; the same people who are obviously holding on to generational gains of the regime, have today shifted into an almost pathological obsession with 20 years of democracy and what they think could have happened in the past 20 years. What they seem to forget is that we have been watching them since the beginning of these 20 years, at every turn.”

Oh Yonela, what can I say to you at 20 years in? We have been watching for over 60 years. We have written some version of your letter to every paper in every state and every legislator in every branch. We have marched every sentence of your weariness across every street in the country. We have fought with our dollars, our ballots, our fists. And they are still killing us.

Yonela, you haven’t earned the privilege to feel fatigued. Neither have you earned the luxury of time. You have no idea how exhausting this shit will get.

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