Say “Black Lives Matter,” and images of fists raised in protest and graphics of slain black men immediately come to mind. Over the last three years, this movement has acted as a pillar of protest within the black community, but in this same vein it also struggles with ensuring support that encompasses all forms of blackness.
Since the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, a young Black teen walking home in Florida, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was created to emphasize with protest that brutality against the black community must end. It means just what its name implies: all black lives matter.
But perhaps it is also time to critique exactly how far that “all” goes. Some queer and trans black women have begun wondering if BLM has actively supported and advocated on their behalf as readily as it has for cisgender, or non-transgender, and straight black men. And if it hasn’t, then their erasure from the movement must be remedied.
As stated in the Black Lives Matter guiding principles, the movement focuses intently on being a safe place for all identities. And looking to its founders, it’s quite obvious why.
Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi founded the movement and hashtag in 2013. And not only are they female-identifying, but they are also all queer. With their leadership, BLM became not only a queer femme-founded movement, but a queer femme-led movement as well.
Although Trayvon Martin’s death was something of a catalyst, the movement was built to be more far-reaching. The deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown at the hands of police in 2014 solidified BLM as the leading voice in the fight against police brutality. And that’s what the founders intended. Citing figures such as Angela Davis, Assata Shakur and Audre Lorde as their inspiration, Garza, Cullors and Tometi aspired for BLM to become something of a reincarnation of the Black Liberation Movement.
In this reincarnation, BLM wasn’t a moment of happenstance, but instead a meticulously thought-out protest. But due to the current leadership structure, buffering out those who violate the safe-space creed is difficult. So theoretically, the movement encompasses and protects all sections of blackness, but, in reality, it is unable to do so on the ground level.
In an interview with Discover the Networks, Garza said BLM is particularly for “black queer and trans folks” who “bea[r] a unique burden in a hetero-patriarchal society that disposes of us like garbage and simultaneously fetishizes us and profits off of us.”
Taking this statement at face value, BLM is following its guidelines of “embracing and making space for trans brothers and sisters” while also being “a queer‐affirming network.” But the actual structure of the movement’s hierarchy works against this ideal. Black Lives Matter operates quite differently from the traditional leadership structure. Across the U.S. and Canada, there are 38 BLM chapters lead by 38 individuals. While the chapters, as well as any of their events, must be first approved by BLM, they are allowed a particular autonomy. Therefore, whatever these chapters or chapter leaders say can be taken as statements from Black Lives Matter as a whole. With this structure, it becomes easy to erase the voices of queer, bi, and trans women.
As the leader of Bisexual Women of Color Collaborative, a space specifically curated for bi, queer, trans and non-binary women of color, Eliot Sutler knows how to successfully support marginalized voices. Identifying as a bisexual black woman herself, she also believes that, on a chapter-by-chapter level, Black Lives Matter isn’t always the most affirming place for particular expressions of blackness.
“The larger Black Lives Matter movement has been essential to pushing forward the kind of substantive changes and the kind of actions that we desperately needed to see,” she says. “[But] there’s been a lot of erasure going on as it relates to black bisexual women.”
For her, an example of this erasure was the 2015 National Convening for the Movement or Black Lives in Cleveland. She remembers that, in the three days of the event, neither the contributions nor the struggles of bi women were mentioned. During a gathering toward the end of the conference, she and other bi women spoke out against the bi-phobic space surrounding the event. Instead of understanding, they were met with accusations that theirs was not the most important struggle. Specifically, the trans woman opposing them said that her identity deserved greater attention.
For Sutler, that moment sums up the infrastructural issues within some Black Lives Matter chapters.
“I feel like that particular instance was an example of a larger problem that we have where as a result of the white supremacist, hetero-patriarchy we live in, we as black people, we as black queer people are pitted against each other,” Sutler said. “And we are pitted against each other at our own expense.”
The movement began on Twitter and has since been a fixture in the media. Newsroom portrayals thus play a role in the erasure of queer and trans women in Black Lives Matter.
As expected, many activists have flocked to the Black Lives Matter cause in support. And the magnitude of Black Lives Matter has made some of these activists high-profile protesters. A couple of examples are Deray Mckesson and Shaun King. Over the last few years, they have risen to the front of the media lines as key members and pseudo-experts on Black Lives Matter. And while they have made important contributions (including Deray’s arrest during a Baton Rouge protest), their cis-male identities alter the weight of their influence.
In the last year and a half, Mckesson and King have repeatedly been consulted and labeled by media as the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement. This depiction of cisgender men as the main leaders of a queer femme-led movement actively erases the work of queer black women. And it is done rather blatantly.
Deray’s face is one of the first that pops up in an Internet search of Black Lives Matter leaders. The articles following consistently support this erasure. This year Reason.com, Vice News, and Refinery29 referred to Mckesson as the most prominent face in the Black Lives Matter movement – and they did so in the very first words of their articles. Placing his face over the actual founders and crafting his contributions as the most important negate the most basic of the official Black Lives Matter principles; that the movement is queer and female-led.
While Mckesson’s activism is important, the manner in which media places him before, and sometimes above, acknowledgement of the founders erases the presence of queer women. The constant image of a cis man at the front of the movement shifts perspective through undermining the original principles of BLM. In this light, the movement becomes another space dominated by heteronormative voices.
On Black Lives Matter’s “Herstory” page, Garza, a founder, openly acknowledges the issues of queer erasure in social movements.
“Perhaps if we were the charismatic Black men many are rallying around these days,” she said, “it would have been a different story, but being Black queer women in this society (and apparently within these movements) tends to equal invisibility and non-relevancy.”
This open challenging of the queer-phobia used to erase a specific expression of blackness is the beginning of turning theory to actuality. At this point, it is time for Black Lives Matter chapters to keep more closely to the path set by their founders.
Eliot Sutler sums up this notion well:
“I think it’s about time we stopped paying lip-service to intersectionality and really address it … in a way that allows us to be our full selves in all spaces.”
About the Author
Princess-India Alexander is a student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Learn more about her here.