Black and white photo of a Chicago Transit Authority pink line train

“She’s …uh…Complicated”: Trans Black Latina Potentiality

Pride Home[1] is a small homeless shelter for young adults, located in a predominately Latinx neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. While open to all, it is known for being particularly welcoming to young adults of color and members of the LGBTQ community. According to their website, Pride Home “helps young adults in progressing from surviving the streets to independent adulthood,” and “provides housing for all, but is committed to providing inclusive, intersectional, and affirming housing for the most vulnerable, such as homeless LGBTQ.” Pride Home has sheltered many transgender Latinas, and was one of the main sites where I conducted ethnographic research about transgender Latina sexual economies of labor in 2015-2016. This piece draws from that research and focuses on one particular resident, and staff reactions to her.

I headed to Pride Home one morning, and the assistant director, Sam, a 45-year-old, cisgender, gay, white man, greeted me at the front desk. He knew me, a brown, queer, cisgender, Latina anthropologist interested in the experiences of transgender Latinas in the city. He sometimes connected me to trans Latinas he thought could be involved in my research. That day Sam shared that the newest resident was a trans woman, who was just 18 years old. After thinking for a few seconds, he said she “might be Latina,” but “wasn’t sure.” He warned me about doing an interview with her, because she was proving to be “very difficult.” At this point, a staff member, Janice, who is a middle-aged, non-Latinx, Black, cis woman, walked by. She overheard us and interjected, “Oh yeah. Mercury…she’s …uh…complicated.”

Suspicious of the narrative developing about Mercury, I asked her to do an interview a few weeks later. She agreed. We began the interview, and our friendship, and Mercury’s articulations of Blackness, Latinidad, and anti-Blackness within and outside of trans Latinx communities astounded me. Mercury is Afro-Puerto Rican,[2] disabled, and mostly identifies as a trans woman but sometimes identifies as non-binary. [3] I was struck by the ways in which she defied and pushed the boundaries around taken-for-granted understandings of “trans,” “Latina,” “Black,” and “disabled.”

Within the field of Latinx studies, the conversation around “LatinX” attempts to “trans” Latinx studies beyond the gender binary and call out entrenched cisgenderism (Galarte, 2021; Pelaez Lopez, 2019). As systemic transphobia and the experiences of trans Latinxs are still seldom addressed within Latinx studies, there is much work to be done. Similarly, scholars and activists are asking difficult questions about the centrality of anti-Blackness to the field (Amador and Delgadillo, 2021). Transgender studies, on the other hand, is committed to studying and eradicating structural cisgenderism. Yet it is only beginning to challenge white supremacist tendencies in the discipline, thanks to the important work of scholars of Black trans studies (Ellison et al, 2017). What can the critical analysis of trans latinidades add to the crucial endeavor to dethrone whiteness and center race, and Blackness in particular, in trans studies, as well as Latinx studies? What happens when we center Black trans latinidades, and sex working trans latinidades that do not adhere to respectability politics? By ethnographically focusing on the experiences of Black Latina sex workers, I heed Omaris Zamora’s important call for “a reconsideration of how Afro-Latinx feminism can illuminate corners darkened even within Latinx feminist work” and attempt to answer Dixa Ramírez’s astute question: “how do black Latinx subjects elide hardened racial and ethnic categories?” (both in Rivera Rideau et al 2017). I do so, ultimately, to show how anti-Blackness sustains both normative Latinidad and transnormativity, and to address anti-Blackness and racist respectability politics in Latinx studies and transgender studies. Inside such darkened corners, I ask, what other possibilities for trans Latinidad might exist?

Because of her gender, race, and occupation, Mercury was routinely threatened when in public. She was familiar with the rates at which trans women of color experience violence, and wanted to be prepared to protect herself. She said during our first interview, “I am Black and trans, I really wanna get pepper spray, for when I’m out. I’m gonna ask the staff if they can help me get some.” A few days later, I ran into Sam and Janice. Without any prompting on my behalf, or any mention of Mercury, they started complaining to me about how Mercury asked them for pepper spray. Sam gave me a look of disbelief, and Janice rolled her eyes. “Doesn’t she know that pepper spray is illegal in Illinois?…Imagine the scandal if we gave our residents pepper spray! I understand it is hard being trans, but really, you can’t always be on the offensive like that. Hurting people isn’t the answer.” They went on, also drawing attention to how “loud” Mercury was. I held my tongue at their interpretation of Mercury as unreasonable, violent, and “loud.”

To Mercury, having pepper spray was an attempt to secure protection against probable physical assault. To Sam and Janice, Mercury’s desire for pepper spray just confirmed that she was volatile. Janice also suggested that Mercury’s “hormones” made her unable “to control her emotions.” Sam once speculated that, “really, she is so difficult because she has bipolar disorder.” In fact, the staff regularly attributed Mercury’s “difficult attitude” and “loudness” to her psychiatric disability and transgender identity, and often slid between the two, pathologizing transgender, while curiously eliding her Blackness.

Mercury resists both cisnormativity and transnormativity, which requires trans people to have normative bodyminds and stable gender identities. Mercury often complained to me that the staff misgendered her, “I am a woman, but I don’t ‘pass,’ and sometimes I am nonbinary. They never get my pronouns right!” When she was “finally fed up with the micro-aggressions,” she tried to “teach” a staff member “about how there is gender assignment at birth, and sex organs aren’t gendered.” It escalated into an argument and the staff threatened to call the police. Mercury tweeted, “If I die tonight, it’s because the police were called on me.”

Mercury also defies normative disability, which sometimes marginalizes those with psychiatric disability. Mercury’s disability is neither immediately apparent nor predictable. She shared with me, “Because of my disability, sometimes I need to space out and say nothing, and sometimes I talk too much, too loud, too fast.” She expresses “negative” emotions, such as anger, in ways that make people uncomfortable, and in turn they label her “difficult.” Furthermore, both transnormativity and normative disability necessitate whiteness. When Sam and Janice chastise Mercury’s psychiatric disability and transgender identity, they distinguish between her loud, Black, remonstrant behaviors and normative disability and transgender identity. The latter is deserving of social services, while the former is not. Mercury can be viewed as engaging in “transloca drag of poverty,” which La Fountain-Stokes theorizes is “a tactic of resistance that embraces humor, anger, glamorous, parody, and political discourse to overcome social marginalization and impoverishment, frequently marked by anti-Black bias” (2021: 26).

While her Afro-Latinidad goes unmentioned in Janice and Sam’s complaints, that her gender and disability are intersected by Blackness no doubt made her seem even more unreasonable and aggressive. Their common complaint that she was “too loud” can be interpreted as code for “too Puerto Rican” (Ruiz, 2019) or more specifically, “too Black” (Troutman, 2021). Mercury regularly vented to me about people’s inability to see her as Latina because of her Blackness: “People don’t see me as Latina, like, I have Afro-Puerto Rican hair. I have an Afro. My hair is too Black. It’s too much…” Sam and Janice suggest that her very existence, as a Black, Puerto Rican, trans woman and sex worker, is excessive, and that because she fails to adhere to white, cis and transnormative, respectability politics, is deserving of violence. Therefore, as Mercury sought protection against real threats of danger, she herself becomes dangerous.  It is also important to point out that Sam and Janice encountered Mercury soon after the birth of the Black Lives Matter Movement, when Black rage was increasingly policed and Black critiques of white supremacy increasingly silenced (Thompson, 2017). Within this larger anti-Black context, the staff delegitimized Mercury’s vocal critiques of racist-cisgenderism, especially as embodied in the liberal LGBTQ service sector.

Careful analysis of Sam and Janice’s words, however, reveals more than just intersecting cisgenderism, ableism, and anti-Black racism. I argue that their slippery language also reflects how the staff at the Pride Home attempted to police normative trans-ness, disability, and Latinidad, and expunge Blackness from each, as Mercury challenged stereotypical “Latinidad.” While Sam and Janice attribute Mercury’s “difficultness” to her transgender identity and psychiatric disability, they do not explicitly mention her Blackness or Black Latinidad, except for when Sam said he thought Mercury “might” be Latina, but “wasn’t sure.” Sam’s statement simultaneously acknowledges and disavows potential Black Latinidad. Instead of completely failing to recognize Mercury’s Latinidad, which may seem like the easiest way to invisibilize Black Latinidad, he quickly articulates a racial border that is being threatened and must thus be policed.  Mercury frequently experienced this racial policing and tried to resist it. She once explained to the other residents, “People don’t think you can be Black and Latinx. That Latinxs all have tan skin and wavy here. But guess what? There are Black Latinxs. We exist. We are here.” It is likely that Mercury’s racial identity—and more specifically her Blackness and non-normative Latinidad—colored the staff’s problematization of her bipolar disorder and transgender identity and their perception of her as unreasonable, aggressive, and violent. Yet Sam and Janice strategically did not vocalize her Black Latinidad, for the most part, as they slide between castigating her disability and gender, evoking what is not spoken during this slippage.

I argue that Sam and Janice’s focus on Mercury’s bipolar disorder and transgender identity, and more tangible symbols of each, such as hormones and behaviors, is their attempt to stabilize, simplify, and ultimately silence Mercury, and her poignant critiques of normative Latinidad. Their silencing of Mercury also allows Sam and Janice to position themselves as good liberals. As she challenges anti-Blackness in Latinx Chicago, Mercury also questions simplistic deployments of intersectionality by the progressive social service sector that rest on binaries, normativities, and anti-Black suppositions. Mercury shows the movements and ruptures that can occur within and between different identity categories, and she highlights and questions how anti-Blackness undergirds transnormativity, normative Latinidad, and normative disability, and calls for more radical, intersecting possibilities for each. For these reasons, Mercury, her desire to protect herself, and to survive, is a model for trans Black Latina potentiality. Since conducting the research, Mercury continues to be her smart, loud, anti-respectable self.

Works Cited

Amador, Rosa and Theresa Delgadillo. 2021. “Latinx and Black Lives Matter: Latinx Talk Mini-Reader #1,” Latinx Talk. Accessed February 7th, 2022. https://latinxtalk.org/2021/08/04/__trashed/

Ellison, Treva, Kai M., Green, Matt, Richardson, and C. Riley, Snorton. 2017. “We Got Issues: Toward a Black Trans*/Studies.” Transgender Studies Quarterly 4 (2): 162-169.

Galarte, Francisco. 2021. Brown Trans Figurations: Rethinking Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Chicanx/Latinx Studies. Austin: University of Texas Press.

La Fountain-Stokes, Lawrence. 2021. Translocas: The Politics of Puerto Rican Drag and Trans Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Pelaez Lopez, Alan. 2018. “The X in Latinx Is a Wound, Not a Trend.” Color Bloq. Accessed September 24th, 2019. https://www.colorbloq.org/the-x-in-latinx-is-a-wound-not-a-trend.

Rivera-Rideau, Petra, Omaris Z. Zamora, Sandy Plácido and Dixa Ramírez. 2017. “Expanding the Dialogues: Afro-Latinx Feminisms,” Latinx Talk. Accessed February 7th, 2022. https://latinxtalk.org/2017/11/28/expanding-the-dialogues-afro-latinx-feminisms/

Ruiz, Sandra. 2019. Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anticolonial Performance. New York: New York University Press.

Thompson, Debra. 2017. “An Exoneration of Black Rage.” South Atlantic Quarterly 116 (3): 457–481.

Troutman, Denise. 2021. “Sassy Sasha?: The Intersectionality of (Im)politeness and Sociolinguistics.” Journal of Politeness Research Language Behaviour Culture 17(2): 1-29.

Footnotes:

[1] To protect the identities of interlocutors, all names of people and organizations are pseudonyms.

[2] Mercury interchangeably uses “Black,” “Black Latina,” “Afro-Latina,” and “Afro-Puerto Rican” to describe herself.

[3] While Mercury identifies both as a trans woman and as nonbinary, she prefers “she, her, hers” pronouns.

Image Credit:Pink Line” by In Memoriam: -Tripp- is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Author Bio:

Andrea Bolivar is an Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Faculty Associate of Latina/o Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is a cultural anthropologist whose research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of Transgender Studies, Latinx studies, and Feminist Studies. More information can be found here: https://lsa.umich.edu/content/michigan-lsa/wgs/en/people/core-faculty/abolivar.html.

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