“Visibility Doesn’t Equal Justice:” Ericka Hart on Black Queerness & Media

 

2021 is the going to be the deadliest year for trans and non-binary murders. And we’re probably very visible in the media and maybe the most visible in 2021 than any other year, but that didn’t keep us safe. -Ericka hart 

Ericka Hart (pronouns: she/they) is a black queer femme activist, writer, highly acclaimed speaker and award-winning sexuality educator with a Master’s of Education in Human Sexuality from Widener University. Ericka’s work broke ground when she went topless showing her double mastectomy scars in public in 2016. Since then, she has been in demand at colleges and universities across the country, featured in countless digital and print publications like Vogue, Washington Post, Allure, Harper’s Bazaar, VICE, PAPER Mag, BBC News, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, W Magazine, Glamour, Elle, and Essence. (Provided by Erika Hart) 

During Trans Awareness Week, Michigan Chronicle Digital Reporter Ashley Stevenson reached out to Ericka, to host a very real conversation on Black Queerness and representation in media to answer some much needed questions.

 

Ashley: Oh, hi. Is this Erica?

Ericka: This is Ericka, how’s it going?

Ashley: First of all, I just want to say thank you for accepting my interview request, I’m going to go into it with a little transparency because my introduction to you was through your transparency. And I was like, I’m slightly nervous to have this conversation with you. Only because I know that there are areas in which I’m ignorant, and I’m committed to learning. I would hope that going into this, you would please be patient with me and understanding. I would never go into anything wanting to offend you. Anything that you feel uncomfortable asking, or answering or talking about, you know, please feel free to say so or “that’s not appropriate”, or “that’s not correct.”

Ericka: Yeah, of course.

Ashley: So outside of that this is totally a safe space between us.

 Ashley: The reason for my conversation today is honestly, just a little bit of backstory is I was introduced to you and Ebony through skin deep. Two years ago, and it was my first time seeing a queer relationship that was healthy. And you guys were so transparent. And I realized I didn’t know anything about gender. And working in Black media, I know that there is a lapse.  I really wanted to talk to you about what can we do in Black media to help share these types of stories that promote true advocacy between Black and brown communities and the LGBTQIA+ Community? Do you have any advice on where we could start?

Ericka: Yeah, I think the first step is acknowledging that, Black queer people exist. Black trans people exist, I think so often, we are separating them and saying separating the identities and, you know, talking about queerness separate from blackness or talking about blackness separate from queerness. And truly, they are they one they inform each other, but also just that is a, an experience that many, many, many people have. So keeping in mind that not separated, I think we’re taught by society to constantly separate identity, and to only talk about things in sort of single issue ways. And I think it’s important to really, you know, talk about, you know, identity intersectionally, in also acknowledging that people sit at multiple margins of oppression. And that is also, you know, their joy, right? that is also expressed through living inside of their identity.

So, I think that is the first step. I would also say, that would probably be the step to take, right? is the acknowledgement that we exist. And so often, it’s kind of a, a denial that our existence is it is random, or it’s unusual. And black queer people have contributed so much to black culture, that that alone should be acknowledged not just for our contributions, but the fact that we are literally have held black culture together, right, like, have contributed so much in such dynamic ways that how could you deny the intersection of black and queer? You know, like, how could that ever be something that is forgotten or something that is overlooked? And I think sometimes what happens is that the way that we are, the ways that we love, the ways that you know, our humor, how we navigate, the dance of the gender binary and also heteronormativity gives us so much grace. And people overlook the fact that we are navigating so much that help us come into understanding the world and seeing the world differently. That contributes to the ways in which we go about life. So yeah, I think starting there, it’s just acknowledging that we are here.

Ashley: Yes, I love that. And in saying that, I think I’m just to give you like a little bit of a glimpse of what I walked into when I told our team that I was going to be pursuing this interview, the conversation came up asking “what does even mean to be trans?” And we are 100 year old.

Ericka: Oh my lord.

Ashley: Yeah. I was like, Oh my God. No. And I think there’s this idea of being an ally means to tolerate. And there’s this constant conversation between tolerance versus acceptance. And I wanted to ask you, what does it mean to truly be an ally?  Because there’s one thing to say, I just don’t have no problem with your lifestyle, but I feel like even that is kind of isolating and saying that it’s just a form of life, you know? This is who people are, they just don’t just wake up one day and choose this. What advice would you give people in media about what it means to actually be an ally? And not someone who’s just a tolerating something that has always been around. Like you just said, it’s like, this is not a new concept, the LGBTQIA community and Black and queerness are, like staples of Black people and of Black culture, so many things that we do are surrounded around queer people who have led the way and, and paved the way. So how, how do I champion being a true ally and advocate versus someone who just shares stories?

Ericka: Um, I think what you just said, you know, acknowledging the fact that we have not only contributed to culture, but also contributed to black liberation, right? like the likes of Angela Davis, and James Baldwin, and Marsha P. Johnson. These are queer, you know, heroes. They’re all their Black queer heroes, and to not acknowledge their sexual identity is a erasure of who they are. Right? And for, you know, 100 year old publication to not know or acknowledge trans people is such a missing. Somebody like Marsha P. Johnson should be talked about every day, just the ways in which she loves, she loved, and lived. And the fact that her murder, it’s still under investigation, if you will. I mean, they’ve closed the case, but it was never found who did that?

And, you know, what we’re seeing today is the, the, how unwilling our institutions are to acknowledge trans existence to the extent of when trans people are murdered, their murders are rarely investigated. And someone should brought some sort of accountability, right? I don’t believe in accountability by the state, but whatever sort any sort of accountability, it’s just not happening. So your publication not looking into trans and non-binary and a gender identities and so forth, is really just indicative of the world, like I’m surprised by it. But at the same time, I shouldn’t be. Because so many people, so many institutions are not doing that, even if they have rainbow flags on I don’t know, their website, or maybe they talk about trans and trans Awareness Week, they still are not actually putting in into their structures to make sure that we are seeing who actually fought it.

Ashley: Absolutely. I listened to a little bit of your podcast with you and Alan about Black erasure and Latinx culture. It started this this thought that I have about how publications in general, can contribute to anti-Blackness. I’m curious about how we can help combat Anti Blackness in media. Here at our office, we are appalled about what’s happening with this Kyle Rittenhouse situation, and how the media is even contributing to that. And I was wondering if you have any advice on what we could do differently to combat that?

Ericka: Really funny you mentioned Kyle Rittenhouse, I was thinking about that trial today; and how I’m a part of a little bit of a bubble on the internet, where people in my network are talking about that trial, and the ways in which gender and race is showing up. But I feel like that beyond my bubble, no one is having that conversation.

Ashley: Okay.

Ericka: I think when we’re talking about allies, and I don’t personally believe in allies, I don’t think that allies exist, I think you just do, what is necessary to do that is right. I don’t think you need a name. You know what I mean? You just do it.

Ericka:  It’s important that people are talking about this beyond the folks who are always impacted by it. You know what I mean? Like, it’s important for cisgender people to be talking about the fact of how gender operates in their worlds, right, the so how much generosity and innocence is given to Kyle Rittenhouse that wasn’t given to Trayvon Martin, that is a gender issue, as well as a race issue. Right? That’s a conversation about gender that doesn’t involve trans or non binary people. And oftentimes, people think that the only time we’re going to talk about gender is when we’re talking about trans and non binary people. But cisgender people also have a gender, right. And it also shows up in very sexist, it shows up in very misogynistic, misogynoir ways. There’s a lot of ways of being that impacts cisgender folks, that is rarely talked about.

Ashley: Yeah.

Ericka: As folks who identify whatever way that you do, getting interested in yourself, in your own identities, how white supremacy plays a role in your identities, right? And then from there, like, if everybody’s doing that work, media’s gonna start reflecting some sort of self reflection, rather than in trying to, you know, make way or make space for an identity that they don’t share. But rather, they actually investigate and interrogate their own identity. Like what actually opens up from doing that work.

Ashley: Yeah, no, I love that. That made perfect sense. And I am still kind of basking in this thought that there’s no such thing as an ally. And I’m glad you said that, Ericka, because in even using the word ally it does kinda feel like a just a blanket term, that really doesn’t mean anything, because we should all just be decent human beings. So, I agree with you.

Ashley: I was watching another interview that you did a couple years ago, or about a year ago, I think it was for Cosmo. And you were talking about after being diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer that you had asked to see pictures of the scars may only had one black person in two years. And you also mentioned in another interview that you just got tired of not seeing yourself. With the work that you have been doing, the Ebony has been doing, with the examples that you have been setting for the world? Do you feel like the world is progressing? Do you feel like you’re starting to see yourself more? And if not, what does that look like for you?

Ericka: No, I don’t. It’s more so us getting present to the visibility does not equal justice or freedom. And I think that we’ve been sold that lie by neoliberalism that if you see yourself in the media, then that somehow means that you’re free. And it just couldn’t be so it couldn’t be further from the truth, right? 2021 is the going to be the deadliest year for trans and non-binary murders. And we’re probably very visible in the media and maybe the most visible in 2021 than any other year, but that didn’t keep us safe.

 I don’t think that allies exist, I think you just do, what is necessary to do that is right. I don’t think you need a name. -Ericka Hart 

Ashley: I’m sorry, that is painful for me too.

Ashley: I saw a commercial and it was some dating site. It was a, I’m assuming a lesbian couple, because I don’t know how they identify.. And I was like, what does this do, though?  Because even though we’re seeing representation more, how are we contributing to the cause for their existence? Or are we just kind of showing like, we are just acknowledging that we know this exists, and we don’t want to do. I think it’s kind of sparked this idea in me that we still have no idea what is going on. We just know what we can’t say or can’t do anymore as the world. I don’t want to be one of those people that doesn’t know and I don’t want to be dismissive. And it brought me to this place where I wanted to learn, through asking questions and sharing stories, since that’s what I’m passionate about. So, as I’m approaching these issues, I want to know, is there any way that I don’t want to become because I don’t want it to be black trauma porn.

Ashley: I think that’s where I’m trying to get to, like, I’m trying to find the right words to say, but that’s basically like cutting all the bs. I just don’t want it to be black trauma porn. How can I go about sharing these stories, to where it’s not just “Oh, LGBTQIA+ community and/or the Black and Brown and Latinx people are just inherently always just suffering.” I want to share the cause, but without it being like, “have pity on us.”  How would you suggest that I go about that even approaching these types of situations to say “I want to share your story without it being traumatic, but acknowledging some of your hardships.”

Ericka: Yeah, I think finding the, you know, the avenue to talk about the other thing, you know, like suffering is a part of our experience. Oppression is a part of our experience. That’s very real. But the focus only being there does feel, you know, very single issue even right, like, I think it’s important, like what, what’s it like to date in Michigan as a queer, trans or non binary person? What’s it like to, you know, fall in love there? What are the laws around potentially getting married? If that’s something you want to do? What’s it like to get pregnant? As a queer, trans or non binary person? Yeah. What’s it like to work in engineering or law or etc.? Like so many things like, you know, we do so much. So there’s just so many different ways to approach it. That’s not just about, you know, the horrible experiences that we encounter, like, I think it’s important to just know, like, what are the various things that we do on a regular basis? And how can we tap into talking about that?

Ashley: Yes. And I also have a question to kind of regarding you, and Ebony and family planning, what has that experience been like with you as a queer family? How has that been family planning and preparing for this next level, motherhood?

Ericka: It’s been a roller coaster ride. For sure. It has been a lot of fun, but it also has been heartbreaking and just present to a lot of grief. And just navigating a lot, lots of emotions. Honestly, in trying to really stay present in my body and also in the moment of what’s going on and also navigating our feelings about if we’re ready to become parents and if this is something that the universe is calling for.

It’s not like we try and try and try and then that’s how we get pregnant. Like, so much of it has to be planned. So yeah, that’s, that’s, those are the feelings. It’s all of the feelings. To be honest.

Ashley: I can imagine that. First of all, I believe that you and Ebony are going to be amazing parents.

Ericka: Thank you.

Ashley: Even though in Michigan we have a very high number of members of the LGBTQIA + community, I do know that there are just some certain stigmas where I don’t think people feel free to just live. We are somewhat traditional and religious , like there’s churches on every corner here. Yeah, and some have a tendency to be very homophobic, and transphobic. If you could just give any advice on how to, I guess, achieve freedom? I don’t know if that’s the right word, just being okay, being black and queer.

Ericka: Yeah, I think it’s existing, just existing in your truth. Yeah. You know, like really just staying true to who you are. Regardless if the world agrees with it understands it, accepts it, puts it on television, you know, it doesn’t you get to be who you are, you get to exist. And in who you are, as you know, as a person of queer or trans or non binary identity, but also as somebody who is really walking in the footsteps of so many queer and trans ancestors, right? Queer and trans people have existed since the beginning of time.  It’s important to not relate to even our own existence. As if we are the trailblazers, right? There are so many people before us that really laid the groundwork for us to be able to exist in, in our truth. And even if you exist, in your truth in a questionable way, you’re not sure or you haven’t told anybody that’s still you existing in your truth, right? There is no blueprint to how this is supposed to look

Ashley: I will admit, there’s a sense of heaviness that I feel in knowing that this is the way that media is operating right now. And this is the way that the world is operating. And I’m interested to know, do you feel like the world has made any progress?

Ericka: No.

Ericka: No, I think there’s a lot of symbolism, but I don’t think that there’s progress.

Ashley: I can see that.

Ashley: Do you get tired of doing this?

Ericka: Yes.

Ashley: I feel like this is  not your cross to bear. I’m just wondering how you maintain your own sense of existence and being without feeling like this is yours to carry? I appreciate you for who you are. It must be exhausting to just have to go around telling people how to not be idiots.

Ericka: Yeah, and it’s definitely exhausting for sure. It’s definitely exhausting. I think what keeps me going though, I don’t want to say  hope but maybe it’s something like that. But it’s more so that I know that Black, queer and trans people folks who are chronically ill or disabled folks who are fat or small fats or super fats are seen by the work that I do, you know, and not seen and just visibility but like seen and held. Just the goofiness of somebody I don’t know walking around and latex leggings on their stories like being like what the fuck? you’re not me like, just the humaneness of it. Like really coming back to that, you just get to be whoever it is that you want to be, you don’t need to put on any sort of, you know, facade for anyone, not even if you have a lot of followers, you get to just be who you are, right in every moment all the time. And I think that’s what keeps me going is that people feel seen and they feel heard by somebody, perhaps even on their behalf, maybe they don’t have the words, or maybe they don’t have the privilege because there’s a level of privilege that I get to do this, and don’t really lose a job, if you will, like I’m a freelance. So, you know, I may lose jobs, people may not want to work with me, but at the grand scheme of things, it’s not as impactful as losing one job if I were to speak up. So being able to do that for folks, and really showing up for people feels really good to me. Like, it just I feel like it is my heart speak.

It makes a difference, to talk about the things that people don’t want to talk about. And that they resist or don’t have the language for. I feel empowered to do that, too. And I feel like even through this conversation, I feel more empowered. Because I’m a firm believer that freedom translates.

Ashley: Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to speak with me today, Ericka. I wish you guys all the best of luck and family planning.

Ericka:  Awesome. Thank you. This was really great was great speaking with you. I really appreciate it.

 

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