By October 2020 had already become the most violent year for transgender women on record in the past five years. And since then, the Human Rights Campaign has reported that those murder statistics have climbed even higher. So, to draw attention to the many transgender women of color killed simply for being themselves, NMAC — formerly known as the National Minority AIDS Council — sponsored a music video called “But…I Survived.”
Watch the full video here:
Debuting today, on the National Transgender Day of Remembrance, the video features transgender performers Peppermint, Mila Jam and Deja “The Lady Deja Davenport” Smith, who came together to showcase the everyday experience of transgender women living their lives. Between The Lines reached out to Smith this week to talk further about the video’s intended message, explore how transgender people have always been a part of history and what to bear in mind on National Transgender Day of Remembrance as the LGBTQ community is physically separated due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
How did you get involved in this project?
It was actually very spur-of-the-moment. I’m very good friends with Mila Jam and Peppermint, and they called me, kind of out of the blue, and told me that they had been approached regarding a project being proposed by John Alix, who was the director and writer of the video. They thought I would be a good fit for the project and would I be interested. It literally all came to pass in maybe three days.
What’s the message that you hope this project will get out to people?
Let me preface this by saying that today I woke up to some terrible news regarding a trans woman of color by the name of Yuni Carey, who I knew from my time as a pageant queen, and I just had so much respect for not only her beauty but also her talent, her drive and her advocacy within her advocacy in Miami. I woke up to a group text message from my girlfriends informing all of us that she was murdered by her husband in Miami. I think that segues into the story of this video because this video really describes what it is to have the experience of being trans and of color today in the United States. It’s not just about being a trans woman or being a woman of color, it’s about existing in an atmosphere where you’re just always unsure about what will be inflicted upon you. Whether it’s inter-partner violence, whether it’s disparities in work opportunities, whether it’s our government deciding out of the blue that your rights are no longer important. I’m so appreciative that John Alix is not only aware of the issues that face us, but has such a clear vision for how to express in one way just the daily lived experiences of our community.
Speaking of sweeping governmental policy, you once mentioned that studies show that over 80% of Americans have never even met a trans person. Is there something you wish more people understood about the community as a whole?
I really do wish that more people understood that trans people have always been a part of society. And if we look historically at many texts from the entire world, we can see trans people in every cultural aspect having existed before. But, for some reason today, people seem to think that transness is this new kind of creation and that we are all making it up as we go along. Meanwhile, what has actually happened is the conversation around transness has been transformed through colonialism into a nonexistent community of people who are now taboo. Our lives have been made into fodder for political gain, and we’re not pieces to be moved around on a chessboard. Through historical colonialist separation and classism, we’ve been relegated to a point of having to beg for basic civil rights, basic human rights. I just wish more people understood that we have always been here, we will always be here and that we will not be erased.
It certainly does seem to be the case that as more transgender people feel empowered to be vocal about their circumstances, they are criticized by people who feel that the transgender identity is brand-new.
Even in our own country, we’ve had two-spirited people in the White House. But if we are even going to our Pacific Islander brethren and sistren and non-binary siblings, the Fa’afafine [exist], and if we go to the Hijra of India, we can find trans people everywhere historically. And even if we look in the Bible. I’ve said this before, too, and people have been kind of caught off-guard, but we had eunuchs in the Bible: eunuchs by choice, eunuchs who were created and eunuchs who were born — and this is specifically from Bible verse in Mark 19:12. That means that we’ve always been here if we can trace that history and perhaps we can create some context for having a fair and civil space, a safe space, for trans people in our society today.
What do you advise people to bear in mind on this National Transgender Day of Remembrance, where COVID-19 restrictions make seeing allies and friends more difficult?
I think making transness less uncomfortable in general conversation is something we should all be thinking about when we start having discussions about trans issues. It doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable conversation — although oftentimes it is because people are just not educated to the trans experience. And with this video being out and open to the world, I hope it’s something that will serve as a tool to help people understand more greatly about this not being about a group of people wanting to have special rights but that this is just about a group of human beings attempting to live their lives in the best way possible — just as any other person would want to live: with respect.
I agree. I think so many people don’t understand that the LGBTQ equality movement is not about “special rights.”
That’s my point (laughs). I wish I could see these extra rights. If there were special or extra rights, more people would probably jump on the bandwagon of the trans rights movement. But I think so many people are deterred from living in their truth because they realize how hard it is just to receive basic human rights once you name yourself and claim your truth and decide that no matter what, you’re going to live your truth. It gets harder, and it’s unfortunate. I just hope that it will be easier for the younger generations coming behind us, and, potentially, for ourselves.
The video is in loving memory of Muhlaysia Booker, Antash’a English, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, Queasha Quee Hardy, Felycya Harris, Tonya Harvey, Mia Henderson, Marsha P. Johnson, Chynal Lindsey, Riah Milton, Bee Love Slater, Zoe Spears, and Dejanay Stanton.