Her name is Paris.
I observed her as we walked out of Jackie Robinson Park. Even though the sun had long set past the clouds, she was noticeable.
Without seeing her face, I felt her presence. Nearly a foot ahead of me, she stormed down the stairs with determination, while simultaneously undoing the bun of hair on her head; whipping it from side to side like models and actresses do when they’re in front of a camera. As it fell into place, it almost seemed as if the ghost of Whitney Houston came down and styled it as she walked. Her white eyelet mini-dress revealed her strong legs which towered a good four inches over mine (more with her ankle boots), along with toned and delicate arms attached to broad shoulders which reveal her past life.
This woman was born a boy.
As she began to speak to her girlfriends, I scurried to keep their pace. It was unusual for me to physically “body” my way into a conversation — especially between people I don’t even know – but it happened. And I listened…
To back track a bit, we had all just come from the vigil for Islan Nettles; the transgendered woman whose violent assault on a Harlem street last week resulted in her death, and sent shock waves into the LGBT community. Although I’d missed several speeches, I managed to catch a couple of gospel songs, an angry vow for justice by Nettles’ mother who looked far older than myself despite being the same age at 37, a grandstanding family member who used the platform as her moment to shine, a poetic younger sister and a few words by people who repeatedly mispronounced her name (it’s “E-lan“, not “Ees-lan“). At the end of the vigil, a group of transgendered women began to angrily confront one of the organizers, screaming “Lesbians know nothing about what we go through!” after being told they could not take the stage.
What I had missed, which Paris and her friends — and later other transgendered women I encountered further on my walk home — alerted me to, was that Islan was constantly referred to as “he”. To most people and the media, it just seems like the natural way to address her, because there’s still such a lack of understanding with such a delicate, controversial, and perhaps unsavory topic. But to her community it was the greatest insult beyond her senseless death.
Yes, she may have been born with different parts, but Islan was a woman.
She dressed, spoke and loved as a woman. As one of her actual friends took the stage to speak of her, he was joined by a small crowd in the audience echoing his sentiment as he expressed how she would say “hello” to people she didn’t know. To those who knew her, she was kind and full of life… until it was taken away by someone filled with ignorance, fear and contempt for something and someone so special.
What do I, as a “straight girl”, know about this person or any in the LGBT community? Honestly, not one damn thing that makes me an expert. Despite going to fashion schools, working within the fashion industry for several years, having many gay friends, attending a few gay bars and being privy to some of the lingo – I’m still about as much of an expert as the douchebags who go into notoriously LGBT neighborhoods and pick fights. Okay, maybe I do know a little more than them, but I’m about as prepared to do a dissertation or panel discussion on being a member of their community as I am on “Catholic guilt” or what it’s like to be part of the one percent.
As a straight, single, African-American woman, I do know the struggles of relationships, and finding people who’ll accept me for who I am and love me in spite of or because of it. As a teenager, I walked into a store in rural Pennsylvania with my lighter-hued father and witnessed the entire store go quiet as the customers and cashiers watched my every move because of my skin tone. So I can only imagine Islan and others like her being discomforted on a much grander scale when the entire world is staring at you while you’re discovering an entirely new skin.
The timing of the news that Bradley “Chelsea” Manning requested to have hormone therapy while serving his sentence in military prison for serving up government secrets was unfortunate in a sense that it overshadowed news about Nettles’ death, but it raised awareness about the transgender community. While folks like Chaz Bono have brought the topic into the spotlight with appearances on “Dancing with the Stars” and having Cher as a mother, the popular consensus is that they’re confused or even… wait for it… gay. (Can be explained in one word: Convert. As the “gays” say: “Look it up.”)
Unbeknownst to a majority of the population, there are many wealthy, famous and powerful men who are happily (albeit secretly) attached to transgendered women. Some even trek to exotic Pan-Asian locales to pay for their attention.
Personally, from my own experiences, I’ve found transgendered women to be very much the way Islan was described. They have consistently been some of the sweetest people I’ve encountered, but also very outspoken and passionate. Possibly because it takes a great amount of courage to be a part of that community. To acknowledge your truth and take very drastic action to make it your reality takes — forgive me — a lot of balls. Clearly they have extra, and are happier in the long run for not living a lie.
And if anyone questions if it’s natural, consider this: Manning is going to prison for providing Wikileaks with hundreds of thousands of classified government documents. Now, really, who else but a woman would spill that many secrets?
While Paris, Christina (her somewhat shy friend) and their other sister in the struggle were hoping that tonight’s vigil would be the breakthrough they were looking for in gaining acceptance, I’m not entirely confident that it will succeed. In a society that has become more brazen with its intolerance and insensitivity, the possibility of them being treated as equals may still find resistance.
But at least the conversation has begun.
Sadly, the taking of another innocent life once again had to start it.
[Author's note: After the original publishing, I've since been educated that the use of the word "transgendered" is incorrect, and that Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley) should be addressed as such going forward. We're all learning something new!]