The Brooklyn Museum has a sunken forecourt that makes it something of an amphitheater. I’d arrived there on this bright June afternoon to hear leading Black trans women step out of the queer chorus and assume their roles as leaders in the movement for Black lives, for the abolition of prisons and police, and for the revolution that just has to be made to make their — and our — lives livable.
I’d come for Brooklyn Liberation for Black Trans Lives.
We were asked to wear white. I blended in easily with the human snow of the crowd, wrapped all around the museum. Coming up Washington Avenue, so many white-clad bodies streaming, milling, chatting, buying ice cream from the truck, clapping and cheering on cue, although too far away to hear anything but the cadence of the oratory. Everyone kept a few feet apart. Everyone wore masks.
I was late. Checking the Signal app on my phone, I located some friends but saw no way to get near them without weaving through the crowd and I didn’t feel like doing that. Time to wander.
The parkway running east-west along the front of the museum looked like the languid back of some sleek animal, covered in brilliant fur. I changed direction. If my map app sent me east of the museum maybe a lot of other people’s did too, and the west side would be less crowded. It was a theory worth testing, at least. I circled around and ambled down Lincoln Place, which runs parallel, one street back.
Lincoln Place is narrow. I’m walking in the street to avoid contact with people. I see a white woman on her stoop, working her phone, and yelling at a mail van driver who is pumping the horn. The driver, a young Black woman, is mad at the young Black man who has parked a private delivery truck in the lane in front of her. He is wheeling a trolley into the building and telling her she has to wait. Three young Black women pass me going the other way, in black Black Lives Matter tees. A group of older Black men hang out on a stoop. One asks me about the flag tied to my handbag. It’s the transgender flag, I tell him. He nods.
It turns out to be a long block, but before long I’m looping back around towards the museum. There are fewer people on this side. There’s construction, and I pick my way around it. There’s people standing on the big orange plastic traffic barriers up against the chain-link fence. Young white women, who look cis and fairly straight to me. Brooklyn girls in white tees and cut-offs.
Kato said he was by the 2 and 3 train entrance, but I don’t see him. Maybe I drifted the wrong way around the construction. There are few people so I’m going in closer. I can almost hear the speakers. I’m looking around for a place to pee. Not that I need to right now but at my age, it’s good to have continence contingency plans.
There’s a catwalk or gantry over the top of the entrance to the museum. I see someone going up there, so I follow. It’s not roped off or guarded. Reaching the top I can see the whole western half of the crowd. It has a peculiar texture. There’s no tight knot at the front. Everyone is keeping their distance. I think of Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, with its evenly spaced array of shiny lightning rods. I feel the crowd crackle with electric energy, sparking and arcing with affirmation to the beat of the orator’s incantations.
Up on the catwalk, I can actually hear. I’m right behind the black nacelle of a speaker, sitting at my feet, blasting rhythmic air into the semicircular space of the forecourt. The sound bounces back at me, mixed with the roar of the crowd when the words from the mic pause for the response, with all the sonic, visceral intensity of a daytime rave.
Ianne Fields Stewart is a Black, queer, transfeminine theater artist, who started the Okra Project, which makes meals for Black trans people. I hear her take the mic. “Black people where y’all at?” The crowd roars back, like lions after slumber. “See that police helicopter? Let’s let the militarized police state know exactly how the fuck we feel about them!” Thousands of fingers rise and flip that bird, the bird. “For too long, Black trans people have fought for our humanity.” Roar! “And for too long, cis people been acting like they don’t know what the fuck we talking about.” Roar! “Today is the last day, when cis people use trans people as an encyclopedia, when Google is right there!”
“Today is the last day!” Stewart leans into her cadence, performing a series of promised futures, whose possibility appears to hinge on the actions of those here gathered. It isn’t really the last day. But it will become the first day that the possibility of these days ends with this witnessing. Our affirmations — roar! — bid us bind ourselves to it. There’s a little bit of church in this.
Stewart talks about the matter, the materiality, of Black trans lives mattering: incarceration, housing insecurity, food insecurity, unemployment, state violence. “Transphobia ends today.” Roar! “And it doesn’t end because your nonprofit got a grant off of it. It doesn’t end because you put a trans flag on a credit card. It doesn’t even end because you said to your white family that trans lives matter. It doesn’t end because you fuck us and still misgender us to your friends. Transphobia ends today because if you ain’t with us, you are gonna to learn what it means to be against us!” Roar!
I’m standing behind the speaker-unit, heart quivering with the charge in the air. The feeling is almost too much. Sensing that I’m surrounded up here by cis people, and I’m glad they’re here, but do they feel this the way I do? Can I feel it the way Black trans people do? Can a performance enacted together communicate the feeling of desires that go beyond even the political? That speaks the need for another world, for another life.
Ceyenne Doroshow takes the mic. I’ve met her, at the Body Hack night at Mood Ring. Río introduced us. I didn’t have anything to say other than that I was honored. “Black trans people send me some love! I love all of you!” Like the other orators, she addresses herself to Black and Black trans people, making white people extras in this production. As it should be.
“This is what trans lives look like.” Ceyenne gets emotional, her voice cracks. “For every girl that died. The police need to be ashamed of themselves. For every time we had to bury one of ours. They need to be ashamed of themselves. Everyone one of these babies you see behind me. And these babies down here — I want you bitches to live!” Roar!
“Babies, I love you. I love each and every one of my trans family members. I want you to live! I want you to breathe! To stand tall! And proud! And Black!” Roar. “We’re whorrrrrrrres!” Roar! “If you could smell me right now. I smell like good pussy.” We’re not in church anymore. This is the flipside of that language — and it’s about tail. “I gotta tell you, if I didn’t tell you, you’re looking at a Black international whore baby. It’s me. And I’m selling me, to save you.”
“I am now creating housing for Black trans women.” Roar! “For Black trans men.” Roar! “For the whole community. We have never had equity in the city of New York. Motherfuckers we do now.” Roar! “On Sunday, my white allies, and my Black allies, said they were going to raise money for me, and New York City I want y’all to know: we damn near sitting on a million dollars.” Roar! “We are fighting and winning. We need to own real estate. We need to buy up as much property as they bought from us. We need to own stuff. This is what Black power looks like.”
To Ceyenne, nothing changes unless Black trans people control their own organizations, raise their own money, and most important of all: own their own property. This is the mission of her organization, GLITS Inc. Trans sex workers might make enough money to pay rent, but still face the whims of landlords and neighborhood busybodies. She is in the tradition of Marcus Garvey, of investing in a material base for Black life. Part of my brain wants to read this as a petit-bourgeois idea, but then another part of my brain reminds me that part that I own property. That I have equity. That I am, in these terms, petit-bourgeois already.
I think about walking the length of the catwalk to see more of the crowd. Glancing over to the east, I see two people blocking the path. One looks like a tall, Black cis man and the other like a less tall, white cis woman. They have shades on and are blank-faced, as if they were acting as security. They are security. I’d not noticed that all the orators addressing the crowd are up here. Somehow, I thought they were down below, where the actors would be if this really was ancient theater. They’re up here, where the deus ex machina would elevate them if it was one of those plays where the Gods speak to the crowd. Or at least actors playing Gods.
Each of these Black trans women up here carries herself as a goddess. She has to. Everything conspires to minimize her, in every sense. So, she maximizes herself, becomes larger than life. It’s a femme survival strategy not every girl can pull off. It must be exhausting. Were racism and transphobia really to end today, would this style of performing the power of the self end too? Would we still have our queens?
In between me and the two security people is some hugely tall white cis guy in a ballcap with a camera who is pressing toward them. They keep asking him to step back. I make a mental note to not be that white guy, then remember that at least I’m not a man anymore, although as liable to feel just as entitled. I see Ceyenne as she steps back from the mic, resplendent in shining black gloves and black cape over a white dress, a bright scarf over her head, under a broad-brimmed black hat.
I see, past white ballcap guy’s head, Raquel Willis in a simple white tee and jeans. This is a different trans femme style. She takes the mic out of its stand, comes up close to the edge of the railing, looks down at the crowd, letting the crowd be the moment. We sip on the image of her drinking us in. Raquel is executive editor at Out Magazine. I’ve never met her, but I saw her speak at a rally back last summer, in 2019, just after Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco died in solitary at Rikers.
I’m thinking of the contrast between that event and this one. That one was downtown, a stone’s throw from City Hall. Not that any stones were thrown. The mood was slow-burning anger, grief, despair — rage. Trans rage echoing with Black rage. Raquel reminded us that day that the first Pride was a riot, that not much changes without the refusal to be governed. It was, like all good oratory, prophetic.
Raquel reminds us of the ancestors, the Black and brown trans women who are the uncompromising radical core of what used to be called gay liberation. “We know who Sylvia Rivera is, don’t we?” Roar! “We know who Marsha P. Johnson is don’t we?” Roar! “We know who Miss Major, our living legend, is don’t we?” Roar again. The agenda comes out of their lives, their actions: on mass incarceration, police violence, the violence of men, the dangers of illegal sex work, on homelessness, on healthcare. They were street queens. They couldn’t take cover in passing, in fitting in, so they went the other way, the goddess route. They became the stuff of legends.
Raquel takes aim closer to home, lambasting white-led and queer-led non-profits and organizations, who decorate themselves with Black trans people but shift the agenda and the resources off onto other things than these key material facts about Black trans lives. And worse, tell Black trans people “that you are not worthy to be a leader of these organizations that these white folks are gatekeeping, and these resources they still gatekeep.”
One of the event marshals asks to get by me. (What I take to be a) he holds a walkie-talkie in one hand and a phone in the other. His enormous backpack had a ski pole sticking out of it, with pink ribbon flying from it. (What I take to be a) cis woman, Black, with a big camera, asks to get by me as well. I think about the white guy in the ballcap taking up space and move away.
Wending down off the catwalk, back into the crowd, forming up for a silent march to Fort Greene Park. I see, or think I see, some people I know here or there, but I don’t make any special effort to get their attention. It’s hard with the mask on, to know if you are looking at a friend or a stranger. In any case, one body merging into the mass, into the being of this pride of amiable white-clad lions, is how I feel.
When was it? I’ve lost track of time. We all have since Covid-19 came. But when was it that we last met, at Stonewall, to march for Black Trans Lives? Maybe a week or two ago. We wore black. Back then, taking to the streets felt like it had an element of risk. Maybe the cops would get bored with this game of “Whose streets?” and arrest us. They’d probably wait ’til the curfew kicked in and then kick heads. I was too chickenshit for any of that. I came home early.
Today there’s a very discreet cop presence. Feels like they know they’ve lost the hearts-and-minds thing with us. The funny thing about repressive power is that it still requires consent from the repressed. Here in Brooklyn, these last few weeks, enough people just said — fuck that. The more the cops acted out, like the lawless bunch of stand-over men they are, the more people just refused to let them, so the more the cops tried it on, until the city gave in, and abolished the curfew. The city made some noises about “reform,” which will probably amount to nothing.
Today there seems so little need for cops.
Two more Black trans women died just last week. Riah Milton (age 25) murdered in Ohio. Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells (age 27), murdered in Philadelphia. In late May, police shot and killed Tony McDade, a Black trans man (age 38). Just yesterday, video recorded from outside Layleen Polanco’s cell at Rikers surfaced which showed correction officers waited an hour and a half before calling medical help. In one point, they are laughing. Layleen was 27.
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says: you can define racism as the state-sanctioned production of premature death.
It’s a tricky thing: to not lose sight of victims, to say their names, honor them, and yet not stop there. To not stop with the particular vulnerabilities of trans bodies, Black trans bodies, Black trans femme bodies. I think of that Netflix show Tiger King, and how a big cat took the arm of Saff Saffery, the non-white trans man keeper, and how Stoic he was about it, sitting in a plastic chair, gesturing with his one good hand. If we’re the cats in this metaphor, then don’t fuck with us. We might refuse to just be kept. We don’t just have pride, like it was a thing you could buy, we are a pride, a collective noun.
You could think about it in terms of intersectionality if you wanted. Multiply the lines of oppression by each other and in the square where they nearly all intersect is Black trans women. You could think about it in terms of an assemblage, where there are no lines at all, just groups with indefinable boundaries, one of which gathers loosely here, under these labels but not reducible to them. Or, you could think about it dialectically, that the experience of those whose oppression is most specific, most particular, are also those who lead back to the totality of racialized capitalism. Which is pretty much what Angela Davis was saying on a Facebook live stream for the Dream Defenders, this very day, cuts from which I saw on Twitter on my way home.
Mostly, I’m thinking about the wearing of white. Perhaps it refers back to the Silent Parade, against lynching, a hundred years ago. The children wore white for that. Something about Blackness mobilizing whiteness on its own behalf. That liberation will most likely pass through an inversion of a hierarchy of values, that it might abolish them along with the forms of coercion that are all that hold them in place.
We left the museum, this pride in white, to go walk to the park, in the sun, in the green. No statues were toppled that day. Some days maybe there’s no need to. There’s another time that connects past to present. The time that calls, and is heard calling, for the abolition of all that will not let us be.
McKenzie Wark (she/they) is professor of culture and media at The New School for Social Research; her most recent book is Capital is Dead (Verso, 2019).