Unpacking the Harassment and Violence Against Trans Women of Color

Laverne Cox has recently become one of the media’s most talked about and popular members of the LGTQ community. Cox portrays a transgender woman in the series Orange is the New Black as a MTF (male-to-female) transgender person herself. She is consistently praised for both her performance and her activism against transphobia. Cox gave a public speech in which she described her own experiences of street harassment and violence and discusses her theories of why transphobia is perpetuated upon transgender women more severely, particularly among those women of colour (Cox). Cox’s argument is convincing and brings forth various systems of oppression that she, as a black trans woman, experiences on a regular basis. Her speech suggests to the audience that transphobic men feel trans women threaten their masculinity and therefore act in a way they believe will reassert their masculinity often through acts of violence and harassment. Among men of colour, this is often a result of the hypersexualization of men throughout early colonialism and globalization in order to emphasize white supremacy.

Cox begins her discussion in describing an encounter she had with two men, one black and one Latino, who had argued over her gender (Cox). One of Cox’s key observations is that the Latino man was attracted to her as a woman, however upon realizing she was trans, suddenly became disgusted (Cox). The idea of threatened masculinity is not exclusive to transphobia but is also present in homophobia and biphobia as well. Many men feel that they are not only unable to be attracted to anything remotely masculine, but doing so will force them into a more feminine position (Matani). The hegemony theory states that the media perpetuates a view that sticking to the status quo is not only necessary but is the only option (Aulette, Wittner, 431). In this context, the status quo is that of the sexual script of heterosexual relationships (Aulette, Wittner, 120). Men must follow this script, which states they must find women who are inherently feminine attractive (Aulette, Wittner, 122). In these relationships there is only room for one feminine partner, and one masculine partner. If they deviate from this script their masculinity will be subordinated and they will therefore become the feminine partner (Aulette, Wittner, 8). In finding a trans woman such as Cox attractive, these men were finding something masculine attractive and therefore taking on the feminine roles within the relationship. In cases such as this, many men feel they must reassert their masculinity. One of the many characteristics of socially constructed masculinity is the concept of being aggressive and finding power in physical control (Aulette, Wittner, 7). This is why transphobic men act out in violence towards trans women; they use it as a means to become the masculine partner.

Another one of Cox’s points focuses on the idea of trans women of colour who are assaulted and harassed by men of colour (Cox). She touches on the fascination with black male sexuality in our current society that has been perpetuated throughout history (Cox). During the period of white colonialism and globalization through the Trans Atlantic slave trade, the Europeans used black male sexuality as a means of oppression (Aulette, Wittner, 105.) Black men were described as hyper sexualized in that they were more aggressive and sexually powerful which as attributes of hyper masculinity (Aulette, Wittner, 105). This hyper sexualization was used to dehumanize the black male and as rationale for surveillance and severe punishment particularly of those stepping outside of sexual norms (Aulette, Wittner, 105). This was often done in the form of demasculinization and was used to emphasize white supremacy and increase the masculinity of the white male. Cox’s describes in her speech the lynching that took place in the United States in which black men’s genitals were mutilated, pickled, and sold in and effort to emasculate and therefore desexualize these men (Cox). These systems of oppression and the fear of male sexuality are still in effect today as the image of the black rapist is still seen in the media (Aulette, Wittner, 106). Cox suggests that many of these black men in present day are feeling the pain of those in the past who were emasculated and as a result, feel the urge to reassert their masculinity in even stronger ways (Cox). They see Cox, as a MTF transgender person, as an embodiment of emasculation of black men and feel aggression towards her, which they use to assert their own masculinity (Cox).

The speech Cox delivered was both powerful and informative to an audience who likely do not understand the oppression she faces not only as a trans woman, but a woman of colour. Her intersectional analysis of her own experiences allows students like myself to see how these societal groups such as the trans community, the LGBTQ community, the black community, and so on cannot only be considered as separate groups with their own unique problems. Rather each individual within those groups belongs to many of these groups each with issues that affect them in different ways and are linked and associated with the various groups they are apart of.

Works Cited

Aulette, Judy Root., and Judith G. Wittner. Gendered Worlds. Third ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

Laverne Cox on Bullying and Being a Trans Woman of Color. By Laverne Cox. Perf. Laverne Cox. Youtube. Keppler Speakers, 19 Dec. 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.

Matani, Maria-Teresa. “Transgendering Citizenship.” Kingston. 12 Mar. 2015. Lecture.

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3 comments

  1. thelazyriser · March 20, 2015

    This is very interesting to read! I think your analysis of the latino man finding Laverne Cox attractive until realizing she was transgender was very insightful. The notion the one person must take on the male role and one must take on the female role in a relationship is so so wrong. Why can’t two people just be in love, regardless of what gender they identify as? I liked your analysis of how the man thought that because Laverne was Transgender that she would take on the masculine role and it made the man nervous that he would be pressured into a more feminine role in the relationship. The man felt insecure in his masculinity that he found Laverne attractive and responded in violence and aggression as is common for men to do. These preconceived notions and ideas of what relationships are supposed to be like are destroying our society. If the man could recognize Laverne as the confident, beautiful woman that she is, regardless of her past, he has the potential for a great relationship with her. Instead, he is letting societies notions of what classic relationships are “supposed” to look like get in the way to his relationships. In the long run this is his problem, however it is an all to present issue growing within our society that I am very glad you brought attention to. Hopefully blogs like this can raise attention for issues such as these to continue in growing awareness, over all this was really well done and I really enjoyed reading it!
    -thelazyriser

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  2. lazybreakfast95 · March 21, 2015

    Popular culture provides a great spot for people to become aware about transgender people, the example with Orange is the New Black is a show that has many negative stereotypes around it and for someone to incorporate transgender people in it is a positive step in popular culture. It is unfortunate the our society is filed with gender norms that bring forward homophobia and biphobia. Does the media impact peoples thoughts on transgender positively or negatively in most of the cases? To me in the case of Orange is the new Black Cox does a good job at impacting the media positively through her show and outside!

    – Lazybreakfast95

    Like

  3. curlyfrypoutine · March 22, 2015

    I found it extremely interesting how you were able to point out how topics of transphobia, hypersexuality, and colonialism are interconnected. As a student in DEVS100, the first year global development course, I am always attempting to identify how colonialism and imperialism continues to have an influence on our lives in North America and around the world. In this case, people of colour continue to be oppressed based on race due to hegemonic ideas about who is civilized and more developed. On top of that, people of colour are often orientalized – they are romanticized and seen as both hypersexualized and dangerous. This is exemplified in today’s culture as “the image of the black rapist… seen in the media,” as you noted.

    These stereotypes of black men being overly sexual and violent are not at all accurate. However, due to a phenomenon called “stereotype threat” – the idea that when a group is told that they act in a certain way, they are more likely to follow that stereotype despite its validity – black males feel a need to assert their power and masculinity. This ties back to Cox’s speech. Racial and sexual stereotypes are a serious problem because they have a way of consolidating themselves.

    – curlyfrypoutine

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