Social Justice, Art and Pride
Good art isn’t afraid to tell the truth, and as such, the stories it shares have the power to inspire as well as move people to action. And the story When They See Us shares is that kind of powerful. The miniseries dramatizes the real life story of the Central Park 5: a group of African-American and Latino boys who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for raping a White woman in 1989, despite having no involvement in the crime. Although there was no physical evidence linking the 14 and 16 year-olds to the attack, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office led illegal interrogations - bullying, starvation, and beatings - all to coerce them into giving false confessions.
As a person of color, it was difficult to watch. I kept seeing my loved ones in the faces of those young boys. It is a heartbreaking, yet moving, series that serves as a stark reminder of the physical and psychological violence that is inflicted on Black and Brown people at the hands of our criminal justice system.
Yet there is another storyline in the final episode that is equally profound. Episode four focuses on Korey Wise, the oldest of the five, who at 16 was sent to an adult prison, remaining incarcerated for more than 11 years. As the episode unfolds, we learn through flashbacks of Korey’s youth that he had a deep relationship with his transgender, older sister Marci Wise. She was tragically murdered during his confinement. Korey’s suffering upon hearing the news of his sister’s death was one of the most devastating moments to bear witness to. But through uplifting Marci and Korey’s story, the series shines a light on the underreported epidemic of violence that transgender women of color experience in our country.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, in 2018 26 transgender people were killed in the U.S., while already in 2019, seven murders of trans people have taken place with the majority of these individuals being trans women of color. While the murders of Chynal Lindsey and Muhlaysia Booker in Dallas earlier this year has generated awareness around this issue, national attention and action is long overdue. Trans women of color face much higher rates of violence than other populations and represent four out of five anti-trans homicides. This is a direct result of the multiple forms of oppression that trans women of color face, which include racism, sexism, and transphobia. These prejudices lead to discrimination in employment, healthcare, housing and other necessities, which forces many trans women of color into precarious situations that increase their risk of victimization.
A survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality revealed that 38% of trans women of color live in poverty, compared to 12% of the U.S. population and 29% of the overall transgender population. Responses also showed that 51% of trans women of color have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. The intersectional bigotries against trans women of color also breed hateful biases towards them that permeate society.
The Minneapolis case of CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman who served 19 months in a men’s prison for fatally injuring a man in self defense as he attacked her while shouting racist and transphobic slurs, illustrates how widespread such hatred is. CeCe’s experience exposes the ways our system treats trans people of color like criminals, even when they’re simply fighting for survival. This vitriol towards trans women of color, combined with the dire economic circumstances many are thrust into, make them some of the most vulnerable members of our society, giving them an average life expectancy of only 35 years old.
Throughout my time watching “When They See Us,” a heaviness clung to me. I kept thinking of the real men of the Central Park 5, who had their adolescence stolen from them while facing the trauma of incarceration. I thought about their friends and families who endured absence where their lives should have been . Then I found myself thinking about the real Marci Wise who couldn’t see her little brother through his prison time, and the real Korey Wise who lost a big sister. He never got to say goodbye.
This year Pride has special meaning as it falls on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprisings. As we celebrate and honor those who stood up against the cruelty at Stonewall, it is important to remember that it was two trans women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who helped lead the charge. We must also remember Marci Wise, Muhlaysia Booker, Chynal Lindsey, and all the trans women of color whose lives have been taken throughout history. And finally, for those like myself who carry cis-gender privilege and will never have to face the realities of transphobia, we have a responsibility to listen, follow, and answer the call when our trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary kin are in need of our efforts and love. We must stand with women like CeCe McDonald and other LGBTQIA activists as they continue to fight for their liberation, as well as the liberation of us all.