The Gatekeeper's Collective (TGC)


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A Dialogue with Sisters of Trans ExperienceCo-facilitated by Kiara St. James

During April’s Gatekeepers Collective forum participants continued their focus on demystifying Trans experience.  

The evening began with the Facilitator introducing The Gatekeepers Collective (TGC) as an Afri-centric same gender loving (SGL), gay, and bisexual Black men’s self-reclamation and community development center which grew out of and builds upon work begun in the early 2000s with the Black Men’s Xchange-New York.  Gatekeepers, he reminded the group, is a West African construct, describing people who live on the margins of society, and whose charge is to facilitate community members’ delivering their respective gifts to the community.

Then, the Co-facilitator shared that early on in her transitioning process in New York, she sought out support in Black gay organization spaces, discovering about most that,“They weren’t just transphobic, they were straight up homophobic…If you weren’t oozing masculinity, they didn’t see you…”  

This work, she continued, “is about building intersectional spaces…Before Christianity and Islam, third gender folk [as they were called] were considered the gatekeepers…I grew up feeling condemned…Though I never did drugs, I always felt like I was supposed to be with them [people with substance use disorders] because they were condemned, [treated as] abomination…My family was so homo and transphobic that [as a child] I had to be taken away from my family…I was put in foster care…I was burned [multiple times]… traumatized…and if you don’t recognize trauma, you think it’s normal…”

Amid a harrowing journey, including exploitation and abuse as a young trans woman in New York, messages coming from other trans women included, “You need to get a lot of surge [surgeries] if you want to be attractive to the boys…Bonnie White, my north star, is now at the NIH [National Institutes of Health]…We’ve been traumatized…Black women are primarily killed by Black men…‘Where else you gonna’ go?’…[people tell you when you’re being abused and exploited by men], ‘You’re a chick with a dick’ and other derogatory terms [many trans folk use to define themselves]…They’re constantly being preyed upon by men…[I tell them,] A man doesn’t validate you, you validate you…It’s really an uphill conversation I’m having with them…”

Facilitator says, “It’s terrifying to think how, we all need acknowledgement, affirmation, validation, affection, respect…All of us…Every single one of us…And I think about how many Cisgender women [women who identify with the gender to which they were born] go through their entire lives in abusive relationships because they’ve been trained to look for validation from men, and have no systems of support [from which they might receive validation and resources to deliver them from the abuse]…I think of how many Cisgender SGL brothers look for validation from other men…and for [Trans] people, many of whose entire existence is defined by rejection…It’s almost as if, how could they not be desperate for validation from men…Yes, an uphill conversation, indeed…”

He continues, “The reason The Gatekeepers Collective exists is to foster healing and balance…first among ourselves and each other, and then, in the entire Black community…Towards that end, it is imperative that we engage with each other to learn about one another and forge connections with each other, as you say, create intersectional spaces…Bearing this in mind, I’d like to start by asking everyone…” Are we present to femme phobia in our experience?

Beyond defining femme phobia as a fear of femininity, the conversation continues…

“[As a child] I had a partner…”  “A lover?”  “Yes…And, he and I used to dress up down in the basement…And, one day my father came down and caught us and said, ‘You must never do that!’…It’s how we were trained…We weren’t permitted to anything that was considered feminine…I couldn’t [even] wear red…[By the time I grew up] I remember hanging out at the Audre Lorde Center, and Transgenders seemed to be much more on target than any other organizations I ever hung out with, except for the Panthers…They had numbers and goals…What we need to do as Black people is having our own schools…”

“I used to hate white women…I thought, ‘Oh, they’re so entitled…And [then,] I had to check myself…[I thought] they were supposed to be nicer than their white male counterparts because [for having been oppressed by them,] they should have had more empathy…I remember being a kid and just going about my business, and people saying to me, ‘Stop switching!’…Switching? I was just walking…[But,] I stopped switching…I started watching the way I did everything I did…And, I became very femme phobic…Even now, I have a friend whose very our there with his feminine energy, and when I’m walking down the street with him, sometimes I catch myself [because] I feel afraid of what other people are going to think …”

Co-facilitator says, “A lot of that plays into gender policing that all of us grew up with…that we were indoctrinated with…”
Someone asks, “What does cisgender mean?”

“Cis is a Latin prefix meaning on this side of…or, on the other side of…it means the opposite of trans…so, anything that has not transitioned is cis…”

Facilitator says, “People who identify as the gender they were born with are called cisgender…”

Co-facilitator continues, “We’ve appropriated the term [cisgender] to change the dynamic about trans women…People ask, ‘Are you a biological woman?’…[And some will respond], ‘Yes, I am’…After I transitioned, I found it was the [cisgender Black] women who encouraged the men to be violent…Guys, especially Black men, because they’re more self conscious, become very careful…Women, we monitor each other…Cis women do it, Trans women do it…It’s just something women do…[They’ll say to a trans woman,] ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were that way’…I think it’s part of our collective Black experience of trauma…”

Facilitator says, “I think you’re spot on about the [expressions of] violence growing out of our collective Black experience of trauma…It’s striking how you say women are the ones who encourage Black men to be violent, and the men are more self conscious…It would seem clear that the Black men’s self consciousness might have to do with feeling threatened around the construct of manhood, and, how a woman, seeing his attraction to another woman who the community refuses to acknowledge as a woman, might call his [so-called] manliness into question…But, I wonder if the monitoring you ascribe to Black women is a function of nature, or if it might not be something else that you all have been indoctrinated to do?...”

“We have to start defining some of the language…Are we using the right terms?...As gatekeepers, if we’re going to be supportive [of Trans family], we need to use the right language…[During the last caucus] We heard a [Trans] Brother saying he identified as a man of trans experience…So, what should we say?...”

Co-Facilitator says, “I see the parallels between my Black identity and my trans identity…[It’s like] moving from colored, to Black, to African American…How people identify, it varies…Today I said I’m a woman of Trans experience, but if someone said Transgender, I don’t have a problem with it…[We should] assume good will…If they use the wrong terminology…Even if they use the wrong terminology a second time…By the third time, you might have to say…[But,] it’s a learning process for all of us…”

“I remember growing up in South America…I was being taught to love women…And men who were prostitutes…who dressed as women…We would be taught to hate that…[Once we were in the red light district together and] my mother said, ‘If I had a son like this, I would prefer to see him dead’…She was a good woman…She never hurt anyone [and yet, she could espouse this toxic idea]…As a young man, I moved to Rio…I had a job…I was hanging out with one of my co-workers and we passed by a group of Trans prostitutes and he said, ‘Don’t look at them. Don’t speak to them. Ever…ever…ever…That was the view I had of them…We are judging each other…We are taught to discriminate against each other…And, it’s wrong…”

Co-facilitator says, “Brazil has one of the highest rates of Trans women who are murdered…The national average is like four-times the [the next highest rate]…And Trans women are blamed for their own murders…[A common trope is] ‘That’s what she gets for tricking him into thinking she was a woman’…This [extends] to gay men too…There is also sometimes jealousy among gay men of others who are attracted to Trans women…Amanda Milan was a north star of mine…She was the first one to give me a place to stay [when I was emerging from being exploited]…She was out with this gay guy who liked her, and his friend [another gay guy] who liked him…And the friend was jealous that he was attracted to this trans woman, and he stabbed her in the neck and she bled to death in front of Port Authority…There are all these divisions we create…for instance, so-called Butch Queens are the mortal enemies of Fem Queens…when I came to New York, I never wanted to be a Trans woman, I always wanted to be a Fem Queen…[To me] Fem Queens were like goddesses coming down from heaven…There’s also a lot of Gender Non-Conforming folks…There are intersections between femininity and hyper-femininity…I don’t look down on any [of us]…[And, don’t be mistaken] In the trans community, there is homophobia…”

“I can’t accept or understand how someone [Trans] can say I am an actual biological female…That’s something that can never be true…”

Co-facilitator says, “Thank you for your honesty…Most of my [Trans] girlfriends, and my [Trans] man friends say, ‘I’m a man of Trans experience,’ or, ‘I’m a woman of Trans experience’…It all comes down to [the fact that] people have the right to self-identify [as they will]…We have to start respecting each others’ right to self-identify…How I identify, is how I identify, just as the way you identify is the way you identify…”

Facilitator says, “We can’t [reasonably] say we’re invested in self-determination...but only for some people…while standing in the path of others’ right to identify as they will…”

“So, I can say I’m white and, and people will have to just accept that?...I remember us watching the documentary on Blacks in Latin America, and your response to [people identifying as white] was quite different…I find that if that standard was applied to race it wouldn’t stand, and that your saying that its acceptable for some people to self-identify and not others is a double standard…To me, it’s a question of accepting reality…No matter how many hormones someone takes, that will never make them a biological woman, or a biological man…”

Facilitator says, “The point about the Blacks in Latin America who were identifying as white was that, they were doing so because of [their] colonization… They’re two different facets and aspects of experience…race, and sexual identity…internal and external…While both race and sexual identity might be said to be social constructs, race is a social construct that was created [from without] to stratify people, and to justify exploiting and dehumanizing people, whereas, sexual identity [is more of a reflection of an internal experience, that] involves one’s sense of one’s self in the world…My understanding of it is an experience wherein I was born male but know myself to be a woman in this male body in which I feel trapped…I am inside this body, which does not reflect who I am…Is that right?” he asks.  Co-facilitator nods agreement.

“I think we need to look at human kind’s need to claim and name…If we can’t put it in a box [then, we don’t know what to do with it]…The conquerors said, divide and conquer…When I first came out, I avoided flamboyant people because I was [afraid of guilt by association]…[But then] with me having to suppress [my natural impulses] began manifesting in self-hatred…There was a movie called Sankofa, which means you have to look back to go forward…I don’t really understand transsexualism, but my Christian self says love…[The question is] do I have the courage and knowledge of self to be able to love [people who are different from me]…”

“The more people who become in tune with who they are, the more laws and rights will be advanced…I agree that we have to respect people’s rights, but people have to accept themselves and their reality…”

“When I hear, I don’t understand homosexuality, my response is, ‘You don’t have to understand what it’s like [for a man] to kiss another man…Just understand that, that’s how I roll, and respect it…If you’re seeking to understand, there [should be] more questions than statements…There’s a huge false equivalency to equate race with sexual identity…A huge false equivalency…”

“It wouldn’t matter if it didn’t impact on anyone else…It does have an impact…on society…Society has to make room for placement of this new group…”

 Co-facilitator says, “It’s not for you to accept, it’s for you to respect…When your right to not accept [my differentness] interferes with my right to get a job, that’s a problem…How do we start tolerating each other on the way to accepting each other?...I’m not here to change your mind…In Senegal, all people have to do is accuse you, and the whole village can come down and stone you…I have the right to exist…I have the right to self determination…Enough of you putting a stigma on me…We live in a diverse world…A lot of times, as Black folk, we think we all have to assimilate and have to have the same thoughts…We don’t…”

Facilitator says, “TGC exists to facilitate healing so that we can learn to accept, respect, and love ourselves…When we know who we are, and respect and love ourselves, it’s easy to make room for people who are different than we are…We’re not threatened by other people’s differentness…Part of restoring balance and harmony to the collective, that is the gatekeepers’ charge, involves facilitating acceptance, respect, and empathy for all of us…We’ve got a lot of work to do…”


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The Gatekeeper

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