Ending Erasure: Trans Lives and Birth Justice

On November 20th, those of us who support movements to save black and trans lives, remember the black trans women and men whose lives and deaths testify to the intersections of transphobia and racism. But what happens when the mourning is over? Too often black trans faces are hyper-visible when we are memorializing those we have lost, but missing at other times. And trans people are almost completely absent from birth justice and maternal health conferences, working groups and task forces. It’s time to challenge the erasure of trans folks from conversations about birth justice.

Transgender day of remembrance is an important annual reminder of the endemic violence facing trans people in general and trans people of color (POC) in particular. According to HRC, this violence is supported by a spectrum of stigma and systemic discrimination against trans people, including family rejection, cultural erasure, a hostile political climate, and discrimination in education, criminal justice and health-care systems. It is shaped by race and class, and has a disproportionate impact on black transgender women. 14 out of the 20 trans women murdered during the first nine months of 2018 were black. Since 2013, the HRC has documented more than 128 cases of fatal violence against transgender people, and 80% of them were women of color.

This terrifying level of racialized anti-transgender violence indicates that violence against trans POC is an attempt to erase their very presence. Trans folks of color who choose not to pass challenge society’s gendered certainties, the ways we understand and categorize people, organize institutions and services, and how cisgender people think about our own identities. Trans POC additionally challenge the ways that communities of color survive and celebrate who we are, sometimes by replicating gender roles that police and limit how we imagine blackness (think about images of strong and caring black dads, or “natural” black women; these positive images typically deny the possibility of alternative black gender identities and expression). The murder of trans folks is in no small part an attempt to eradicate these disconcerting ambiguities. In black faith comms, queer and trans folks are sometimes labeled an abomination, an affront to the natural order. Trans lives scare people who live with a narrow view of human possibility. The Trump administration’s attempt to legislate transgender people out of existence, is one response by those who are so threatened by trans existence. In this context, the price of embodying this threat is attempted erasure, violence or death.

So what does all this have to do with birth justice? Is it possible that birth justice activists and maternal health care providers, despite caring deeply for the lives and wellbeing of pregnant women, could be complicit with anti-transgender erasure and violence? In his chapter in Birthing Justice, Syrus Ware shares his journey through getting pregnant, surviving preeclampsia and parenting as a black trans dad. Syrus found that he was “torn between wanting to proclaim my pregnancy to the world, inevitably rendering me female to even my friends and family, and wanting to remain seen as masculine, thus seeming inevitably not-pregnant.” Syrus could not just focus on self care during his pregnancy, he also had to be an educator, advocate and activist as he navigated maternal health systems, taught providers how not to misgender him, and dealt with medical staff who knew nothing about birthing while trans. Getting it right was a matter of life and death; preeclampsia can be fatal if not addressed during prenatal care.

How are those of us involved in maternal health and birth justice supporting individuals like Syrus? Are our systems, materials and communications trans friendly? Or do they assume that pregnancy and childbirth have nothing to do with transgender liberation, that pregnant=female, and a pregnant man is an oxymoron? Do we think that trans and gender non-conforming pregnant people are too few to count? That we haven’t (we think) encountered pregnant trans and gender variant individuals so they don’t exist? Are we forcing trans and gender variant people to pass as non-trans (if they can) in order receive services and support while pregnant?

These are not easy questions to answer, nor is it simple to up-end an entire system that is predicated on a gender binary that claims legitimacy through notions of medical science and biology. For myself, writing about the crisis in maternal health-care without erasing the possibility of trans pregnancy has been challenging. The terms “pregnant women” or “nursing mother” just flow from the pen (or keyboard), while “pregnant person”, “pregnant women and gender non-binary people” and “nursing individual” sound awkward and will sometimes be “corrected” by an editor. This awkwardness is a sign that we are onto something! It is only by disrupting our usual ways of speaking, writing and thinking that we can begin to open to transformation. That’s how we create a new normal.

So what is the role of cisgender black women in this work? As black women, living at the intersections of systems of dominance, we know what it means to experience gendered and racial violence, to have our lives on the line, and to resist attempted marginalization and silencing. Those of us involved in birth justice work are speaking out and finding a platform now more than ever. It is our responsibility to use that platform to challenge trans invisibility. In a recent social media post, Jin Haritaworn, trans activist and author of Marvelous Grounds, called on allies: “There’s a lot of spaces we have where you could do some basic things to include trans people and make sure we’re safe & supported and not doing all the work & taking all the risks. Figure out what they are. The outrage is great, but I don’t really see it materialize into anything concrete.”

Most cisgender black women who support trans liberation focus on trans women. As Kenrya Rankin says “Now is the moment when non-Black trans women, like myself, must recommit ourselves to lifting up the work of Black trans women and confronting all the ways our country, founded on anti-Blackness, is killing our Black trans sisters.” Remembering Syrus’ story, we also need to stand up for the trans brothers, particularly those who are navigating a broken maternal health-care system and systemic trans erasure at the same time.

We can all examine our practices, identify where we’ve fallen short and make changes. As an example, when Black Women Birthing Justice first wrote the widely used definition of birth justice, it failed to acknowledge gender fluidity. After much discussion and group learning, we were able to update the definition to foreground trans folks. Several years later, BWBJ has created a dialogue about trans pregnancy through our book Birthing Justice, and has begun to shift the conversation about gender and birthing through blogs like this.

So what can you do?

  1. Create a training for your community or organization on trans lives and reproductive health

  2. Review your materials and revise language that excludes the possibility of trans and gender variant pregnancies

  3. Partner with transgender organizations and reach out to trans and gender variant individuals who are pregnant or considering pregnancy

  4. Read Birthing Justice and have a community discussion about Syrus’ story

  5. If you are a healthcare provider, review your organizational practices, ensure that you use preferred gender pronouns and preferred names, and that you conduct regular training on the needs of trans clients.

What else? Share your actions and ideas with us and let’s end the erasure of trans lives in the birth justice movement!

Julia Chinyere Oparah is co-founder of BWBJ, Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Mills College, and co-author/editor of Battling Over Birth and Birthing Justice.


Got something to say? We publish blogs by black women and gender non-conforming folks on issues related to birth justice. Contact us if you would like to contribute.

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