Decolonizing the Trans Movement: Frantz Fanon, Manuel Arturo Abreu, and Securing the Futurity of Trans Women of Color
As of March 14, seven trans women have been killed in 2017: Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, Mesha Caldwell, Jojo Striker, Jaquarrius Holland, Tiara Lashaytheboss Richmond, Chyna Doll Dupree, and Ciara McElveen. With the exception of Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, all of the trans women murdered were black.
The state and its institutions, including the police and prison system, in the interest of maintaining a capitalist nation-state, continue an ongoing project of colonizing people of color in the United States, with the disproportionate burden of death and incarceration falling on the black national minority population. While various Civil Rights movements, anti-colonial movements like #NoDAPL, and the Black Lives Matter movement have staged pro-black racial justice movements and pro-indigenous resistance, state organizations and institutions continue to maintain a cisnormative heteropatriarchal colonial (and capitalist and white supremacist) state.
Most recently, the causes of LGBTQ organizations have been recruited into organizing for the state in the name of adding trans people to the military and to the police force. While resources pour into such organizations (as they did for marriage equality), LGBTQ organizations continue to support apartheid states such as Israel, whose IDF forces boast several out gay soldiers and a transgender officer, by funding causes which call for inclusion (really, recruitment) of LGBTQ people into the military and an ever-increasingly militarized police force. I argue that LGBTQ groups must move beyond merely organizing for state reform like calling for the state to investigate the homicides of LGBTQ people as hate crimes. If LGBTQ people are to stop the murder of trans women of color, the trans and queer movements must lead the charge in decolonizing the LGBTQ movement as a whole, with the support of LGB ‘allies.’
To examine decolonizing a movement, I turn to doctor and theorist of racism and colonialism Frantz Fanon, whose book Wretched of the Earth police seized from Paris bookshops on the day of his death. A member of the black middle class in Martinique, Fanon trained as a psychiatrist at a medical school in France, where he discovered the depth of European anti-black racism, then was stationed in Algeria where he worked with patients, often white soldiers with PTSD, who experienced or perpetrated colonial warfare. Diagnosing that the ‘treatment’ of these patients was the end of colonial power and authority, Fanon’s work called him to join the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) in the anti-colonial struggle of the Algerian War of Independence. His experiences with FLN inform his theories of racism and anti-colonial struggle in Wretched of the Earth, wherein Fanon tries to understand impoverished Africans who are not from his class background. He makes political choices to understand decolonization from the perspective of the colonized masses (the ‘wretched’), particularly those below the status of the working class, who Fanon calls the lumpenproletariat.
Fanon’s work led him to identification with a pan-African identity and pan-African anti-colonial struggle, through the shared identity of colonial occupation across the African continent. This led him to considering the black diaspora: black identities in the Americas in relation to pan-African identity. Drawing from “the First Congress of the African Society for Culture in Paris in 1956,” though Fanon observed that “whites in America had not behaved any differently with them [blacks who lived in the United States, Central, and Latin America] than the white colonizers had to the Africans” (153). Because of the institution of anti-blackness, though the black Americans at the summit assembly realized that their existential problems differed from those faced by the Africans, the common denominator between the blacks from Chicago and the Nigerians or the Tanzanians was that they defined themselves in relation to whites.
Despite his mistrust of the US, which he called a ‘country of lynchers,’ even Fanon could not predict the network of white supremacist-capitalist state institutions that systemically trap black Americans into a regime of mass incarceration and recidivism, cycles of poverty, voter disenfranchisement, employment discrimination, housing discrimination in the forms of redlining, eviction, ad infinitum from chattel slavery to Reconstruction to our contemporary moment of the new Jim Crow. The LGBTQ movements that have elevated white and cis LGBTQ people ‘above’ the discrimination that historically affected these communities did not actively work to include LGBTQ people of color, leading to the murder and continued dispossession of QTWOC (queer and trans women of color). LGBTQ leaders who have appropriated the language of the civil rights struggle to address homophobic or transphobic discrimination only serve to reinforce the growing divide between the white cis LGB petty bourgeoisie and the continuing struggles of queer and trans people of color. To take Fanon’s ‘advice’ to decolonize the LGBTQ movement, I turn to trans poet and artist Manuel Arturo Abreu, whose recent book transtrender presents the possibility of moving beyond colonial gender, away from both the neoconservative push to erase identity and the neoliberal recruitment of multicultural identity into the projects of capitalism, into a future decolonized trans movement.
Manuel takes their title from a derogatory word used against certain members of the trans community for adopting or appropriating a transgender label or identity without actually being trans. This labelling is often used to police trans identities, claiming that a person is not ‘truly’ trans unless they experience dysphoria, medically transition with hormones or surgery, and most problematically, that a person’s gender identity is for outsiders to decide. Abreu, a self-described Dominican nonbinary trans person of color, finds that gender is a racial construct. When considering that ‘medical’ transition requires capital and resources often inaccessible to nonbinary trans persons, low-income trans people, trans people with co-morbid health problems or disabilities, and how navigating this only further complicated for trans people of color, trans identity is currently limited by a racialized medical-industrial complex that prevents the trans movement from liberating us. In Manuel’s words, “black and brown gender-nonconforming people find themselves between a rock and a hard place: expected to bite our tongues and be grateful for inclusion in pinkwashed, nationalist trans discourses, but also forced to navigate white regimes of legibility to survive.”
With ‘Untitled (Gesture),’ transtrender opens entirely in gender: “self loathing is called feeling male/my younger sister always felt like my older sister,” communicating the violence of binary gendering and gendered family where the trans speaker presents a self-hating dis-identification with maleness and resistance to the hierarchy of patriarchal relations that value the older brother over the younger sister. The poem shifts from talking about gender or transness to colonialism, through a line that acts as a ‘border’ between these ideas: this tattoo says “i’ve been outside myself for so long/i’m not allowed back in,” evoking both the dissociation many trans people experience in relation to their bodies and the immigration border that polices (mostly non-white) people’s movements. The poem ends with the speaker embodying the affect of the colonized: “i feel sad and ancient for seeing a thousand years in/every gesture and i get anxious,” “i’m living in a place where the door is mostly a big/glass pane/not that you could erase a colonial gesture.” These lines are haunted by colonization in past and present, the speaker lives in a place of colonial gestures, supported by a world of colonial gendering. Studying slavery reveals where slavery persists. Studying colonization reveals where the settler-colonial state continues its work of racial capitalism.
Abreu elaborates on these themes in “Untitled App for Undoing Puberty,” a poem which conveys both the anxiety of the trans body wanting to ‘undo’ the desired changes wrought by adolescence and the anguish of the colonized in having to communicate in the language of the colonizer. The speaker says “there are only wrong words,” “every time i swallow it hurts,” “i keep repeating ‘no map without tongue.’” These lines impart the pain of a trans speaker disliking the sound of their own voice (a common feeling for trans people who experience dysphoria) and evoke the linguistic displacement of indigenous language and the indigenous speaker lost (‘no map’) and silenced (‘without tongue’) in the imperial demand to assimilate to the colonizer’s English language norms.
The book picks up a sense of urgency in subsequent sections, where the poems turn from the more conceptual or abstract to the deeply concrete in connecting race, capital, the body, gender. Abreu shares Fanon’s disdain for liberal societies which manage the poor through cultural or ideological strategies, with the most repressive apparatuses of the state coming out for the colonized poor and racialized poor. In “Race is the Money of the Real,” the speaker conveys their ‘panic’ in looking at the length of a ‘govt’ form (likely for naturalization, as the next line the speaker discloses that ‘the idea of being a citizen is depressing’) often using humor to make light of punishing realities: ‘real artists have hunger breath’ followed by ‘it’s been a slow give black ppl month,’ ‘also one of those mail-order dna tests sounds fun/let me google that for u (“tragic mulatto”),’ with a refreshing irreverence for useless white academia (‘i’m starting a new blog it’s about wittgenstein’s dick’). The poem ends spelling out the logical conclusion of these conditions for the trans of color body: ‘i can see ur body tighten like a noose around dark skin/you ask me to stretch you out but/suicide is expensive, gender is expensive/race is the money of the real/when the loud runs out i feel death’s chill.’
The consequences of the commodification of LGBTQ identities into whitewashed, pinkwashed Absolut™Pride parties are the trans women of color, again, most of them black, who continue to be killed by the state, explicitly in the case of police officers, or by their johns or intimate partners, in which case the state has still failed them by criminalizing sex work and criminalizing women instead of men in cases of domestic or sexual violence. And because I hear it so often, I will take a moment to counter a claim that often gets thrown around in the LGBTQIA+ community, that communities of color (i.e. black people or Muslims or those Catholic Mexicans) are inherently more homophobic or transphobic than white metropolitan communities. In her Pedagogies of Crossing, black transnational feminist M. Jacqui Alexander elegantly (and rightfully) takes this LGBTQ characterization of the Global South as ‘barbaric’ to task for its racist, anti-black assumptions: “I am simultaneously writing against hegemonic discourses produced within metropolitan countries, and even within oppositional lesbian, gay, and bisexual communities that position the so-called Third World as barbaric—in contrast to American civilized democracy—even in the midst of the daily escalation of racist and homophobic violence that the [US] state itself legitimates” (28). The assumption that Third World countries which do have anti-LGBTQ legislation developed these policies independent of US or Western influence, even when there is abundant evidence that shows rightwing evangelical political influence or involvement, point to how white and Westernized the LGBTQ movement has become despite LGBTQ people themselves being many many more identities than white.
All the gay hotels in Mexico, all the gay marriage licenses, all the rainbow sidewalks in the world could not pinkwash the LGBTQ movement’s willful ignorance of the contributions of women of color to the founding of intersectionality, or of the LGBTQ movement at Stonewall, or of Black Lives Matter, or of Idle No More, yet the movement cannot seem to lift a finger for the crisis of violence trans women of color face today. As Manuel says, “I know you see the blood of slaves and natives on the walls too/All the undocumented maids in the country couldn’t clean it.”
As I write this, the Trump era dawns in the United States. LGBTQ organizations largely led by white cis people squabble over what to do with funding now that the marriage equality fight is over, going so far as to build a white trans movement that centers cisnormative heterosexual binary trans people. In order to build a decolonized trans movement, LGBTQ groups must center the voices of those historically left out of the movement’s leadership: QTPOC particularly black queer and trans people and indigenous gender-diverse people who may or may not identify as trans, queer or trans people with disabilities, incarcerated LGBTQ people, low-income people, sex workers, homeless LGBTQ people, and others. This can and must begin with doing away with assumptions that state reform to call for the inclusion of queer and trans people into building the racial capitalist state will save them. As long as legislatures and courts in the United States continue to entertain homophobic and transphobic policies such as the much-debated ‘bathroom bills’ and the ‘gay panic defense’ or ‘trans panic defense,’ both legal defenses against charges of assault or murder in every state but California, the US state will continue to represent a colonial power that in its own exceptionalist discourse, will never acknowledge its position as anything but a benevolent empire, even as that empire falls.