Last week, Kandace Montgomery stood before a crowd at the south Minneapolis intersection where police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Behind her, a huge banner read, “Defund the Police” and “Invest in Black Trans Lives.”
Montgomery explained to the crowd that the movement for George Floyd and the movement for Black transgender lives have converged in a familiar and aching chant: “Say his name!” The phrase, she told them, echoes a call from 2014. Back then, “Say her name!” fledged into the #SayHerName movement. It urged the public to acknowledge the disproportionate number of Black women who experience police violence, including Black trans women.
Montgomery has pushed for change for years. In 2014, she helped launch the Minneapolis chapter of Black Lives Matter, after an officer fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In 2017, she co-founded Black Visions Collective, a Black-, trans-, and queer-led organization based in Minnesota that works to build up Black leadership. Earlier this month, video of Montgomery asking Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey if he supported dismantling the police went viral.
When she spoke at the intersection, it was Juneteenth (June 19), a day to celebrate the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S. 155 years ago. Montgomery, who identifies as queer and uses the pronouns she and they, was also celebrating Pride month, marking the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion that led to the modern movement for LGBTQ rights.
“If Black trans women get free, we all get free,” Montgomery tells me later. “That’s who we need to be centering in our fight more.”
Demonstrators booed Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey out of a rally on Saturday after he declined to commit to defunding the police. Read more about the protests in the U.S. here. https://t.co/zHv8ocIPXj pic.twitter.com/8WPMnyFXjP
— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 7, 2020
Protecting the Black Trans Community
In addition to the names that Montgomery recited to the crowd—with “Say her name” intoned after each—the name of Iyanna Dior has found its way to Floyd’s memorial site: on protest signs. A group brutally attacked Dior, who is a Black trans woman, outside a Twin Cities gas station early this month. The assault was captured on video, and Dior managed to escape with her life.
Increased violence against trans people, especially trans people of color, constitutes what some call an epidemic. At least 27 trans or gender non-conforming people—most of them Black trans women—were victims of fatal violence in 2019, according to Human Rights Campaign (HRC) data. This year has seen at least 17 more deaths, with the HRC noting that these cases too often go unreported or misreported. Research from 2013 also shows that transgender people were 3.7 times more likely to experience police brutality.
Advocates describe the violence as intersectional: Racism, sexism, and transphobia create “insurmountable odds” for trans women of color, as Rev. Louis Mitchell, director of the Transfaith organization, put it for Time last year.
Historic Time for Pride
For Montgomery, Pride 2020 feels like a return to form. “I think that it’s coming back to its roots, of what Pride has always been about, which is addressing police brutality and police violence and exploitation,” she says, referring to Pride’s origin story: Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman, and Sylvia Rivera, a Latina trans woman, led an uprising against a police raid at New York City’s Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, in 1969.
A few days before Montgomery spoke at the intersection, organizers of Twin Cities Pride—the metro’s official Pride celebration—announced they were postponing a virtual version of the annual parade, originally set to air on WCCO. They explained, “We do not feel a celebratory Pride Parade is appropriate at this time.”
Organizers owned up to “complacency” and consistent failure to support trans and BIPOC community members. They also pledged “a significant financial investment” into anti-racism training for the board and staff, plus more-inclusive recruitment practices.
Twin Cities Pride lately incurred backlash when organizers maintained police presence at the parade even as the call to bar law enforcement grew louder in response to the police killing of Philando Castile in 2017. (Other Pride events this month include a march on June 28, organized by the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar and other groups for racial justice.)
Shortly after Montgomery’s speech, she spoke with me about the chant “Say her name,” what it means to celebrate Pride this year, and the work that needs doing within the LGBTQ community itself.
Could you tell me about the history of “Say her name”?
Kandace Montgomery: During the heat of the movement for Black Lives, it was clear that folks were willing to turn up in the streets for Black men—which is necessary, because anybody getting killed at the hands of the police is a travesty. What we weren’t talking about was the reality Black trans women, women, and femmes face every single day: the violence that we face in all aspects of our lives—at the hands of police; intercommunal violence; domestic violence; and the fact that we were dying.
So, it was important to also say the names of the women who were also dying at the hands of police at that time, and that included Sandra Bland, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and others. And so, that’s really where the history [of “Say her name”] came from. Of course it came from Black women and Black trans women, to lift up their names specifically.
“Say his name” has become a familiar chant for George Floyd. How does it feel for you to hear its echo of “Say her name”?
It’s always hard. It’s really interesting how in these moments, some of the history is lost, and some of the intersectionality of our issues is lost. So, it is hard, and it’s not my preference, and I would like to continue to move that conversation with our community until everybody gets just as angry when a Black trans woman dies, or is murdered, as they do when a Black man is killed.
Our fight doesn’t stop until we actually get there, right? Then we’ll have more work to do. So, it’s a long haul, but we don’t have time to waste. Folks need to be called to attention, need to be fighting for Black trans lives every single day, if they truly believe that all Black lives matter.
Are there ways you recommend people give back during Pride month?
They can be led by Black, queer, and trans people. We need to address the anti-Blackness within the LGBTQ community. Honestly, I’m thankful Pride isn’t happening in person, because that has never felt like it’s for me, for my community. Some corporate version of Pride that ignores the actual history and legacy of Pride is not a true Pride at all.
What I’ve experienced is some of the deepest racism within the queer community, and the most internalized hate, and folks defending the cops when they know that their LGBTQ family who are people of color are suffering. So, that’s my response: I think we have to really dig in.
As a white gay cisgender male, I’ve been thinking about how I benefit from the actions of Black trans women.
Yeah, absolutely. And LGBTQ people need to hear that. They need to know that [Black trans women] have always been at the forefront of these fights. Too often, we’re asked to leave our Blackness, our queerness, our trans-ness, our woman-ness—or whatever it is—on the table in order to be in these [LGBTQ] spaces. As a Black queer woman myself and a Black trans woman, we need to be allowed to be in those spaces as our full selves, for everybody to feel the agitation that we feel every single day in our bodies.
Something needs to change across the board, not just in one particular issue. This is an issue that impacts all of us, that we all have to be fighting around, and we need to be led by those folks, we need to be led by those queer and trans folks of color.
Liberation needs to be all of our movement. People have to understand the intersections of all these issues and move from that point. Audre Lorde said it best, right? “We don’t live single-issue lives.”
Are there ways you feel like celebrating this month?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I’m celebrating my two-year anniversary [with my partner] today, and I think that, as a queer person, you always have to find joy and celebration, because the world wants to cast you aside. So, of course I’m going to be celebrating—I’m celebrating the wins that we have made and celebrating the Black trans women in my life who are alive right now.
Any ideas for how others might approach celebrating Pride this year?
Celebrating this year might not look like turning up at the club—which we are very good at. It actually might look like getting in the streets, and digging in, and having conversations about visioning. That can be celebratory, too.