Black transgender activist: My existence is resistance
07:28 - Source: CNN

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CNN  — 

As a teenage runaway in the foster care system and forced into homelessness, Vanessa Warri’s childhood was marked by trauma – but she’s overcoming her early circumstances despite the odds.

“Black transgender women rarely make it past 35,” she said. “Elders in my community fought and marched and sacrificed and advocated in the hopes that one day, a young trans person could be able to walk in spaces they couldn’t.” 

The 30-year-old is now a social welfare MSW/PhD candidate at UCLA. In many ways, Warri knows she’s an exception to an often cruel reality for many Black transgender youth and women.

Transgender and gender-nonconforming people face risks that make them particularly vulnerable to homicide. Some experience bias explicitly because of their gender identity. For others, their identity makes them more likely to experience other risk factors, such as unemployment or homelessness, experts say. The risks are compounded for trans women of color, especially Black women, who face the additional burden of racism.

Last year was the deadliest one on record for transgender Americans, with Black transgender women accounting for two-thirds of total recorded deaths since 2013, according the Human Rights Campaign.

Already in 2021, the organization has identified at least six violent deaths of transgender or gender non-conforming people — emphasizing the phrase “at least” because historically these crimes have gone misreported.

Earlier this month, the body of 45-year-old Black trans woman Alexus “Kimmy Icon” Braxton was found inside her condominium in Miami. Police are searching for the killer; describing her death as a “violent and vicious attack.”

Throughout the presidential election, Joe Biden made a commitment to directing federal resources toward preventing violence against transgender women of color, and promising to make the prosecution of their murderers a priority.

“Violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people, particularly Black and Brown transgender women, is an epidemic that needs national leadership,” Biden said.

On his first day in office, the President signed an executive action affirming that LGBTQ Americans would be protected against discrimination in education, employment, housing, and other fundamental aspects of life in America.

 But advocates for the trans community are counting on the current administration to go even further in harnessing the resources of the federal government – starting with tracking crimes against the transgender community, which have long been undercounted by both local and federal agencies. 

“One of the most important priorities for us is establishing an interagency working group to address anti-transgender violence,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “We need to identify solutions to the root causes of anti-transgender violence and develop a plan to implement policy changes.”

The pervasive stigma and a deep-seated indifference to transgender life perpetuates the widespread dehumanization of these women, David said.

“In this country we have these hierarchies of identity,” David said. “Black trans women are unfortunately at the bottom, because Black people are at the bottom, and if you’re trans you’re at the bottom within the LGBTQ community.”

"I'm bringing a perspective that has long been left out of these conversations," Vanessa Warri says.

As the only Black trans woman in her UCLA program, Warri is researching the ways in which social determinants like health care access, safe housing, and financial literacy impact the reality for people in her community. She explains that it’s crucial for the authors of academic publications to share lived experiences with the communities they are studying.  

“I’m bringing a perspective that has long been left out of these conversations,” Warri said. “I think it is the future in a lot of ways, to simultaneously be producing scholarship and innovative ways to approach social justice and social welfare, while at the same time creating opportunities for historically marginalized and excluded groups to take front and center stage.”

Remembering Layleen Polanco

Warri was one of thousands to attend a June 2020 protest called Brooklyn Liberation. A sea of masked faces stood together clad in all white – an homage to 1917’s historic NAACP Silent Protest Parade – calling attention to the epidemic of violence against the Black trans community. 

The rally featured several powerful speeches, including an emotional call to action from Melania Brown, the sister of Layleen Polanco, a Black and Latinx transgender woman who was found dead in her Rikers Island jail cell in 2019. 

“She was a great sister. She was my best friend, my person.” Brown told CNN. “There’s no one that will ever compare to her in my lifetime.” 

A person holds up a picture of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died at the Rikers Island prison, during a Black Trans Lives Matter rally in New York City last summer.

Polanco was taken into custody after missing court dates as part of an alternative to incarceration program stemming from prostitution charges, according to court records. 

Trans women of color often end up entangled in the criminal justice system after engaging in risky sex work, according to Warri, because it’s one of the only viable ways for them to earn money. 

“If I haven’t eaten in three days, you know, who cares about the risk if I have been walking these streets? The girls are doing what they have to do to live, because nobody is helping them with what they need,” Warri said. 

Polanco’s death sparked a larger conversation about the policies that have systemically failed to protect transgender women, including the prevalence of pre-trial detention and the use of solitary confinement.

“They 100% disregarded the fact that [my sister] was human, regardless of her gender identity,” Brown said. “When it comes down to transgender women or transgender men, solitary confinement is the prison go-to, because they don’t know how to house them.”

More than a dozen corrections officers were disciplined after an investigation into Polanco’s death was completed in June 2020, with New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio calling the tragedy “unacceptable.”

‘We should create and build by force’

Warri said she remains focused on creating a world where sisters aren’t forced to memorialize their siblings in speeches; a society where mothers don’t have to bury their children because they were born different. She launched a fundraiser on GoFundMe to ensure an uninterrupted path to obtaining her PhD at UCLA.

As an advisory board member for the organization Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society, GLITS, Warri is currently working alongside her mentor and surrogate “auntie” Ceyenne Doroshow to provide housing for transgender individuals in need of a safe space to call home.

Doroshow is the founder and executive director of GLITS. She opened New York City’s first-ever housing complex bought for and by members of the LGBTQ community in November. Consisting of 11 apartments over three floors in the Queens neighborhood of Woodhaven, it’s a dream she said she first had over 30 years ago, now fully realized.

“We should create and build by force. We’ve been held back by force, and we should damn well move in that same direction,” Doroshow told CNN. “And as a Black trans woman, I’m now able to do what my vision years ago actually was. And we are doing it with the help of Vanessa and a lot of young people. We are actually doing this.”