The LGBTQ community has lost a pioneer, but her impact lives on

Aubree Calvin | Special Contributor

As the queer community mourns the Oct. 5 passing of Monica Roberts, the much-celebrated Black trans journalist and activist behind the TransGriot blog, I keep coming back to the question of what did we learn from her work and life that we can carry forward?

When I first came out as a black trans woman, her site was one of the first I went to to learn a history not taught in schools. She made me feel like I wasn’t alone, and I felt comforted in seeing that there were others that looked like me.

As I spent this weekend examining her life, I have found four lessons that I want to share.

Say their names
First, she taught us to say their names. So far in 2020, there have been at least 32 trans people murdered in the United States including, just in October so far, black trans women Felycya Harris and Brooklyn Deshuna. We are on track now to document more murders this year than in 2019.

And it should be emphasized that because of continual under-reporting, we may never know the true numbers of violent incidents against trans persons. It is now a more common practice for media outlets and local governments to refer to trans people by our chosen name and pronouns. But before Monica, there was little to no coverage of violence against the trans community, and victims would be misgendered and dead named.

Now, with more coverage, we have seen that this type of violence is a systemic problem in society that needs to be addressed. We care now to the point that presidential candidates and other politicians are mentioning it in their speeches.

That is because of Monica. Thank you, Monica Roberts, for teaching us that our names and identities have value and that trans people are worthy of respect in life and in death.

Center trans narratives
Second, Monica taught us to center trans voices in the narrative. Yes, now there is a growing number of films, shows, books and other forms of popular culture that are either about trans lives, or at least feature trans characters. But queer representation in general, is still small and still in need of more diverse voices, especially those who are trans men, non-binary persons and bisexuals.

Mainstream news stories about trans individuals are still largely about trans celebrities or trans murders. Monica Roberts wrote about trans lives and the everyday struggles for equality. She wrote about us in the present, trying to go to school, raise families and navigate local legal and political systems that would try to deny our existence.

Thank you, Monica Roberts, for teaching us that everyday trans voices matter just as much as celebrities.

Do the small work
Third, she taught us to do the small work. After this summer of protests around the Black Lives Matter Movement and in response to the murder of George Floyd, most people have gone back to their everyday lives. Gone are the Facebook frames and Instagram posts about standing with Black voices. We’ve bought the books by Ibram X. Kendi and Michelle Alexander, but I haven’t seen any posts about people reading them.

Monica Roberts knew that the story doesn’t stop because the national news moves on to the next topic. So much of activism is out of the public eye. She tracked small trial court cases and spent her time meeting with local elected leaders and attending city council meetings.

She wrote about cities, big and small, grappling with non-discrimination ordinances. She highlighted the fact that so many of the proposed protective measures were quick to include gays and lesbians but would be voted down if trans lives were included.

This is small work, away from headline grabbing public speeches and rallies. But Monica Roberts knew that real change comes from personal engagement and a continual push to move progress forward.

Thank you, Monica, for reminding us that social movements are local, and that the hardest work may never make the news.

Learn from the youth and the elders
Fourth, Monica Roberts taught us you can learn just as much from those who came after us as you can from those who came before. One of my favorite posts by her was from May 2016, and it’s called, “Our Trans Kids At Times Are Leading Us Trans Elders.” In it, she celebrates the new generation of trans activists and heroes — like Gavin Grimm, Nicole Maines, Jazz Jennings and Zeam Porter.

We hear talk about generational culture wars between Baby Boomers and Millennials, and even within the LGBTQ community that can be evident. Older LGBTQ people sometimes struggle to understand the changes in language and labels that young people embrace. Younger people don’t know about the AIDS crisis that decimated our numbers in the 1980s and ’90s.

Monica cut through that and said there is value in all experiences, new and old. She celebrated young trans kids discovering themselves at an early age and some of us older ones who didn’t come out until a bit later.

Thank you, Monica, for telling us we’re never too old to hear a different perspective.

Gone too soon
Monica Roberts died of medically-related natural causes at the age of 58. That is much too young for any life, and well below the average life expectancy in the United States. But she obtained an age far older than most of the trans people murdered this year and older, like pioneer Marsha P. Johnson who lost her life at 46 under suspicious circumstances.

Is there solace or comfort to Roberts’ family and friends in knowing that she lived into her fifties? Probably not. And at this time, I won’t pretend to know how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking. I can imagine they want nothing more than to have her back and to have more decades with her.

From an outsider’s perspective, as an emotionally detached writer, I find a very small consolation in her age and cause of death. It seems almost every time the media reports about a black trans death, the cause is rooted in violence. I look forward to reading obituaries about Black trans people who passed in their 70s, 80s and 90s of the same medical causes as everyone else — people like trans singer Jackie Shane, who passed away in 2019 at age 78.

The LGBTQ community lost an icon with Monica Roberts’ death. She is irreplaceable, but hopefully, we can take her lessons and carry the movement forward.

Aubree Calvin is an assistant professor of government at Tarrant County College and the co-host of the new podcast, Southern Queeries.