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What It's Like to be a Young, Black, and Transgender Woman in Washington, D.C.

D.C.’s transgender women of color are carrying the heaviest of loads, but violence and terror and discrimination isn’t the sum total of people’s lives.

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This year was a bloody one for transgender women of color in Washington, D.C. In late July,  Lashai McLean was shot to death 10 blocks away from the office of Transgender Health Empowerment in Northeast D.C. Just 11 days later—and one block away from the scene of McLean’s slaying—Tonya Harrell was shot at but escaped. And in April, Chloe Alexander Moore was physically assaulted by an off-duty police officer.

McLean, Harrell and Moore were just the most recent victims in a  sustained pattern of anti-trans violence in the nation’s capitol. Coupled with the  acute racial disparities detailed in the landmark national survey  “Injustice at Every Turn,”, D.C.’s transgender women of color are carrying the heaviest of loads.

Because violence and terror and discrimination isn’t the sum total of people’s lives, I’ve asked a range of transgender women of color living in D.C. to tell their own stories. I wanted to know everything—the experiences they’ve had with employment, their families, men, housing, girlfriends, spirituality and dance floors. I wanted to hear about how they survive—and thrive. Below is the first in a series of as-told-tos. The first brave soul to answer my nosy questions and let me edit her responses into a narrative is Danielle King.

A longtime activist, King is the development manager of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality and the founder of the National Aurora Campaign (more on that below). Ms. King also serves as vice president of D.C. Black Pride, which was one of the first black LGBT pride festival and remains one of the nation’s best-known. She lives in the Chocolate City with her shih tzu’s, Mimi and Puccini.

Here is Danielle King’s story in her words:

Before I began to transition in 2003, no one was really talking about gender. Being transgender was still associated with drag queens on the “Jerry Springer” show or with prostitutes. That was it.

We certainly didn’t discuss it in my Catholic household in Camden, N.J. It took me until after I graduated from college at 22 to learn about and express my gender identity.

During the first five years of my transition, I had to educate my family. I would wage these personal wars with them, constantly telling them, “It is unacceptable to use inappropriate gender pronouns with me, to not refer to me as Danielle.” After all, my middle name has always been Danielle! (My father contended that it was misspelled, but my mother told the real truth—how she’d carried me with the hopes of having a girl. But upon learning that I was born male, she made it my middle name.)

Lost and Found

Eventually, I found a support system on the street, in gay clubs and in the ballroom scene. Folks I met there would say, “Yes, you can be who you are, but maybe you want to consider prosthetics or silicone injections to complete the look.” It was common knowledge that many of them would resort to stealing in order to finance the beauty they’d obtained.

I would also meet these very attractive black transgender women who were prostituting themselves. I didn’t engage in it myself, but I would hang out with them on the street corner to learn from them and to develop closer relationships with my peers.

I’m not trying to create a grim picture; this is just the way that they knew how to survive. Only out of fear did I not choose these options. It wasn’t because I had more self-worth than them.

Since then, I have seen many of my peers die because they lacked healthy, legal support systems that allowed them to grow into their womanhood. That’s the greatest motivator for me. It’s why I started the National Aurora Campaign, a nonprofit that links transgender people of color with one another so that we live longer, healthier lives. It’s been a slow process—definitely a labor of love. But one day it will create a network and sisterhood for black transgender women the way the Deltas or the Alpha Kappa Alphas do.

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