I moved to New York Cityafter college graduation to get out of rural America for good. BOOM! Health, a Bronx-based provider that integrates HIV, housing, legal, and advocacy services for disadvantaged communities, was the first place to give me a desperately needed reprieve from unemployment alley and the chance to wet my feet in social work as a peer mentor. As my grant-funded position was set to end, Eriká, a transgender colleague, approached me with another opportunity. She had developed a class to teach other trans women about health issues and wanted me to become her co-facilitator.
Not only was it a reprieve from my pending joblessness, I was honored to be wanted. I happily accepted the offer and on the subway ride home, I couldn’t get over the fact that I had garnered the respect of someone I’d never even worked with. I didn’t know Eriká well, but I respected her for her brash, outspoken attitude. I was thrilled that she was taking me on to assist in this endeavor.
Later that night, I started imagining all the good I could do in this new role. I could really teach these women something. Hell, maybe I could even save a life. My inner Wonder Woman bursting to the surface, I fell asleep with a smile. Only my roommates were happier than I was because this new position meant the rent would be on time.
I spent time studying a course outline Eriká provided. I read up on hepatitis c, silicon pumping, needle sharing, and other topics that might have been familiar to others but were quite new to me. I wanted to make sure I understood them all before the training began. I needed to impress Eriká and others at BOOM!, especially those making permanent hiring decisions. I wanted to hit a home run and use this as a springboard to a full-time position.
Sure, I was thinking about future paychecks, but I also had people to save. I planned to introduce a segment on intimate partner and sexual violence. I knew trans women were often victimized by such violence, especially since some of our students would be coming from sex work backgrounds. As a liberated young trans millennial with a college degree and tons of earnestness, I just knew I would be able to save women who hadn’t had the education and enlightenment I had.
My first day would show me just how wrong I was.
I came in early. I was decked out in black dress pants, a mint green blouse, and black Doc Martins. A long, black trench coat protected me on the way up from the subway. When I stepped into the office-space-turned-lounge, Eriká greeted me with a smile. She wore leggings, a red tracksuit top, and bright red sneakers. Her long and perfectly manicured nails clicked when she touched pretty much anything. The other girls were also dressed more casually than I.
As we waited for everyone to arrive and sorted out lunch, the girls chatted. Words flew back and forth, and I didn’t really pay attention, at least not until one sentence hit me like a freight train.
“She looks cunt!”
My mom would have backhanded me for saying the c-word at home.
Now these women were throwing it around like it was just another word. Yet it didn’t seem like they were using it to offend or cut each other down. This was a safe space, but shade was everywhere. Girls had no problem with calling each other a “man” or saying that somebody else “looked like a man” in jest, or to be shady, suggesting a trans woman didn’t pass. But their use of the c-word didn’t sound like shade.
Cunt couldn’t be a compliment, could it?
I had come to teach these women, but I was quickly getting an education. It turned out that cunt — like fish — was a hell of a compliment to these women. It implied that a girl was born female. It was sort of like the more politically correct term “passing,” only with a little more chutzpah.
I held my tongue and listened to how the girls talked that day. It was a gateway to a whole new world. The women I was here to “educate” exuded that infamous New Yorker attitude, and it was delightful, even if it seemed strange and unfamiliar to me. They seemed isolated from, and outside of the transgender community that I was familiar with, the one that had blossomed on the Internet and come of age in college gender studies classes.
Teaching these women actually turned into an education for me. I learned just how asinine my savior approach had been. These women may have lacked degrees — some hadn’t even graduated from high school — but they had the street smarts to make it through the tumultuous times before Laverne Cox was a TV star, before Janet Mock was Redefining Realness, before Jazz Jennings, Carmen Carrera, and legions of trans resources existed on the Internet.
Some of these women were engaged in sex work, but instead of the exploited and trafficked women I had imagined, they exuded power. They had survival skills. They didn’t need saving. You can’t save those who are already saving themselves. They were already being their true selves. These girls had let nothing stop their transition in an era where it was still dangerous to even be gay, much less trans, and yet they had survived.
There was something tangible about them. They seemed far more real to me than the trans women I encountered complaining on social media sites, or even the middle class activists who showed up at protests and Pride parades. To put it another way, these girls simply weren’t camera-friendly enough to even appear in a public service announcement and the only way they would be in the media spotlight was as some kind of cautionary tale — and yet they had a lot to teach me.
In the college educated, social justice world, black and brown trans women have become a little like unicorns, nearly mythical beasts that everyone wants to study — and to help save.
Rather, I was quickly learning that these women were totally real, and they weren’t about to be taught (or saved) by a light-skinned Puerto Rican girl who thought she was better than them. They wouldn’t be caught in a classroom discussing abstract gender studies, nor did they need to. They didn’t need lectures on why “cunt” was an offensive term. They wouldn’t have known what it meant if I’d called the c-word “a trigger.”
What I learned they did — and do — need are opportunities from a society too often closed to them. And they need their voices heard. Black and Latina transgender women have some of the highest rates of HIV, of death from AIDS complications, of death from violence. These women receive a lot of love and “rest in power” comments when they are dead, but it’s time we started paying these women attention while they are still alive. Black and brown trans women are real people. Not sacred idols, or people we should only evoke once a year on Transgender Day of Remembrance.
The wisdom and courage of those women at BOOM! has continued to inspire me more than any protest or radical activism I’ve witnessed since. Let’s stop talking about how “precious” or “important” the lives of black and Latina trans women are and start listening to them. Let them speak and you’ll discover that many already know what they need — we just have to get out of their way. Bring trans women of color to the front and let them lead for a while. Maybe then we can stop turning dead trans women of color into “rest in peace and in power” protest memes.
Editor’s Note: Erika’s name has been changed to protect her privacy