Verniss McFarland III

BY LAURA ONYENEHO

June is a symbolic month for Black people and LGBTQ+ members nationwide as Pride Month and the first anniversary of the George Floyd protests align. Outside of the rainbow gear, bold fashion designs, and corporate parade sponsorships, there is a renewed awakening of how communities nationwide are addressing racism and police brutality. 

Too often, the protests against anti-Black racism and discrimination are viewed as separate from the challenges of transphobic and homophobic violence. According to a report from the Human Rights Campaign, in 2020 there was a recorded 44 deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming people, the majority of which were Black and Latinx transgender women. In 2021, at least 28 victims were fatally shot or killed by other violent means. 

In the last five years, more transgender people have been killed in Texas than in any other state, and the numbers could be higher because of misgendering. Data collections most times are incomplete because deaths may go unreported. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD, trans women of color in the U.S. have a life expectancy of only 35 years.

One question still remains: Do Black lives matter fully if the dignity and safety of sexual and gender minorities are threatened? 

Brandon Mack

When Black Lives Matter started, it was always inclusive of LGBTQ+ Black people, that is the reason we why we have the phrase all Black lives matter,” said Brandon Mack, lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Houston. “You can never think that our lives are separate from our race. When the world sees me, they see me as a Black gay man.”

For the last 15 years, Mack has advocated in support of his multiple identities. Mack says being a Black gay man in America is tough, but he is in a unique position to fight issues that impact the Black and LGBTQ+ experience. He says the biggest problem related to the Houston Police Department is accountability and lack of authentic engagement with both communities. 

With Pride Month celebrations relaunching from its cancelation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mack says Pride Month will reveal a big difference between being an ally and an accomplice.

“Allyship is showy. An ally demonstrates support, goes to the protests, and goes to the pride parade and take selfies in the community,” he explains. “The accomplice is the one making sure HR policies are in line to allow LGBTQ+ people to breathe… They are the ones who are going to make sure that the environment fosters inclusion.”

Fellow Black LGBTQ+ advocates like The Mahogany Project (TMP) Founder, Verniss McFarland III, says her purpose is to create a safe space for Black trans people and to protect them from becoming another statistic. TMP was launched in 2017 after the death of Chyna, Gibson, a Black woman of trans experience who was shot and killed in New Orleans that same year.

Verniss McFarland III

McFarland is a gender-nonconforming trans-identifying person. She explains that if she tells an officer that her pronouns are “she, her, hers,” a police officer might see her as a “threatening male or acting in a way that made them fear for their lives.” She says oftentimes when you see the death of Black trans women, they are misgendered in the media because of how police label them in police reports.  

“If we’re looking for long-term change, it’s about basic civil liberties,” said McFarland. “We shouldn’t have to fight for proper medical care, or adequate housing, or just to go to the bathroom. We have to be in unison with the police to ensure our existence is upheld. Texas is the trans murder capital of the United States, the life expectancy drops when you hit Texas state lines.”

Mack and McFarland agree that the fight for justice doesn’t stop at Pride Month. Police relations and policies both federal and statewide need an overhaul and the solution starts with community efforts.

“Elected employees need to stop putting Black and LGBTQ+ communities in danger. We had Black legislatures who are willing to sacrifice transgender children, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act hasn’t passed federally, our ability to talk about the Black history in schools is threatened, and they (The elected officials) are elected to work for us,” said Mack. “We are going after those positions of power but at the same time, we are pushing over those seats at the table and rebuilding new ones. Sometimes that’s exactly what we have to do.”

Laura Onyeneho covers the city’s education system as it relates to Black children for the Defender Network as a Report For America corps member. Email her at laura@defendernetwork.com.