February 20 2019

Ebony Harper Trans Activist and Program Manager, The California Endowment

According to a survey by the Center for Transgender Equality, 40 percent of trans & gender non-conforming respondents said they attempted suicide in their lifetime, almost nine times the rate of the U.S. population, or 4.6 percent. In some respects, the disparity in suicidal ideation between trans & cis people can be traced back to social & cultural ignorance, the phenomenon of claiming an identity, a truth that many folx who don’t understand, and don’t feel inclined to learn, will tell you does not exist. For some, after the ignorance comes the hatred, and that is where many trans women find they face the most danger. Aside from murder, many deaths of trans women can be attributed to gross neglect, gender-based oppression and disparities in healthcare access & quality.

Years ago, I stood in the room of an old, decrepit hotel in the middle of downtown Oakland on the 12th floor staring out the window, ready to jump… I didn’t want to exist any more. It felt like life hurt more than it was worth. I no longer wanted to be laughed at, gawked at, made the “joke” or all the other things that came with existing in a black trans body. I was hopeless, despondent and ready to leave my painful reality behind! I laid down on my bed for a second, fell asleep, and woke up hoping things would change.The distance that nap created between me wanting to end my reality and the glimmer of hope when I awoke was the catalyst to me having the capacity to advocate and show up for my community today. I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to not only see the other side, but also help others find the light as well. Many black trans women don’t get that space because they’re met with constant bombardments of violence, rejection and health crises–yet they persevere in the midst of unfathomable pain.  

In terms of black history, the black trans woman and her steadfast resilience has been left out of the black history books. When I think of black trans women that have withstood trials and tribulations throughout history I think of Marsha P Johnson, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Valerie Spencer and Chyna Gibson.

While I may hold a job at a prestigious institution my reality is that of a black trans woman navigating a society that’s threatened by my existence. I’m still rejected in spaces that are supposed to be inclusive. I still have to walk with my chin up whilst facing unfathomable barriers. No doubt, I make it look easy. But, my smile, my life is direct resistance to all the messages in this world that tells me I’m less than, my resistance isn’t real or my creating employment opportunities for black trans women isn’t  revolutionary… Hiring and investing in our leadership development is activism. Developing folks from extremely underserved, under-resourced communities is direct action!

Yes, we may come to you a bit rough around the edges… but it is your duty to break out the chisel and support growth and empowerment. A lot of black trans women struggle just to walk out their door. What’s on the other side of the door can mean death or an experience unfathomable to most other humans.

Memorial Mural of Trans Activist Chyna Gibson and her Mother located in downtown Sacramento


Truthfully, the black trans experience is one akin to walking perpetually in a minefield. Any step could mean safety or death, and you don’t know which one until your foot has already touched the ground. On February 25th, 2017, 31 year old Chyna Gibson was brutally shot and killed in New Orleans. She was a black trans woman, a drag performer, and beloved by many. In 2018, a mural was erected in her honor to remind folks to sustain the fight for trans liberation. One of The California Endowment’s priorities is to give voice to the voiceless, that’s why it was important the we amplified the voices of black trans women by supporting the first mural of its kind in the nation. Our community partner Gender Health Center, artist Jessica Sabogal and Shanna Strauss,  erected a memorial mural of Chyna Gibson and her Mother. The mural is a call to action, a call to protect “Our Trans Daughter”. It is your duty to call out transphobia, your duty to center black trans women and give them tool to succeed. Chyna lives on through this mural and it has become a hub and a place of refuge for queer folxs all over Sacramento.


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