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Insights into Freedom and Resilience from Black Trans and Non-binary People

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Last Thursday, we hosted a panel conversation on “Life at the Intersection of Juneteenth and Pride.” The moderator’s and panelists’ insights on freedom and resilience are so important that we’re sharing them here.

Moderator, HR professional and Transformation Journeys Worldwide Associate, Dionne Kettl, PHR, SHRM-CP (she/her, ella), kicked things off. “As a Black, Creole, trans woman with roots in Texas and Louisiana, Juneteenth, not the 4th of July, was and is celebrated as Independence Day by me and my ancestors – ancestors who were enslaved people just five generations ago.”

Toni-Michelle Williams (she/her, beautiful), performance artist, activist and co-founder and Executive Director of Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative, Inc. (SnapCo), also shared how she celebrates Juneteenth. “While I always go over to Atlanta’s West End celebration, more than observing just a specific day, I celebrate by being free in my body, and by creating systems to help my people govern and resource themselves—every day.”

In response to the question, “What is freedom to you?” Byron Salter (he/him), doctoral student, father, and Process Coordinator at Capital One replied, “Freedom is freedom to be myself and to exist; to be free from discrimination, prejudice, misrepresentation, myths and biases.”

Dalia Kinsey, RD (no pronouns), Registered Dietician and author of Decolonizing Wellness: A QTBIPOC-Centered Guide to Escape the Diet Trap, Heal Your Self-Image, and Achieve Body Liberation said, “Freedom is freedom to be yourself. But there are levels to that, because if being yourself in the workplace means jeopardizing your employment, then how free can you feel at work? If putting your true gender presentation forward causes issues in your family, how free can you be spending time with your blood relatives? To me, being self-directed, being able to love how I want, who I want, and feeling like my body is my own, that’s what freedom looks like to me.

So I claim my freedom, instead of waiting for people to give it to me, because, like Toni-Michelle mentioned, it is a tradition, among Black people in this country, to continuously celebrate and claim our freedom because if you wait for people to co-operate and acknowledge that you are free and self-directed and can do what you want—because you’re an autonomous human being—then you’ll be waiting a really long time.

There are very real pressures outside of us, that we experience in various environments, that compromise our sense of freedom. For example, as a Black person and a gender diverse person, among Black folks, you may assume, “Oh, here everybody recognizes that I’m a full human being, and they don’t just reduce me to the color of my skin.” However, sometimes in those environments you may find that you’re not given the room to express your gender identity and your sexual orientation, and that can feel like a weight, like a shackle.”

Toni-Michelle Williams: “Dalia’s right. There are levels to freedom. What is freedom when all you want to do is let your child walk to the store, wearing their hoodie, to get a bag of Skittles, but they can’t walk home and make it back safely? What is freedom, most recently in Texas, to be a Black trans woman, literally fighting for your life, and to be seen to be respected, and then have people—like police officers and paramedics—who are in a position to protect you, take you into custody and let you die?

We talk about the ‘environments of freedom,’ not just being free within yourself, but literally, not being in a cage. So when you talk about barriers that Black and LGBTQ people face you have to talk about the criminalization imposed on our communities, about the laws, before Stonewall, and even for decades after, that kept us from presenting in our fullness. When we talk about freedom, we have to acknowledge that there are systems that keep us from, not just connecting with our own bodies, but systems that keep us from connecting with our people.”

Dionne Kettl: “So what resiliencies do we have to build to thrive in spite of these barriers and challenges to freedom?”

Dalia Kinsey: “For me, it’s been crucial to learn to question everything, to ask of something that’s considered to be a universal standard, ‘Why is that so? Is it actually serving a purpose? And does that work for me?’ Questioning everything also makes me an exceptional employee, because I can problem solve in a way that someone who has been served by their environment cannot. People who are being validated at every turn—the way they love is socially approved and the way they present their gender is socially approved—they haven’t been trained by life to question whether or not the status quo actually serves a purpose, or if the status quo is just the way that society has been thinking for so long that it seems like a ‘rule’ when, in fact, it is not a rule; it’s something that’s totally optional. Learning that there are almost no rules—in the workplace, in love, in life in general—really opens you up creatively in a way that really serves whoever you work with.”

Toni-Michelle Williams: “Connecting with other people is a vital form of resilience – connecting even in the midst of a pandemic! Spiritual practices, and practices like working out, reading a book, traveling… these are ways I’ve seen Black people and Black trans and queer people, find more of themselves, find their paths of freedom, and their vision of what freedom is for them.

Byron Salter: Resilience involves embodying a level of self-confidence and self-awareness, having a level of courage that outweighs any adversity we may face, and also being conscious of our emotional response to that adversity. However, we must also understand that most people focus on individual resiliency, which creates an expectation of individual resilience and de-emphasizes the importance of large-scale change. The concept of community level resilience provides an important lens that allows us to move forward, beyond the individual level to understand the ecological context—a context that plays a vital role in promoting the well-being of the community and of LGBTQ+ people.

Many thanks to Dionne and our panelists for sharing their insights. In an upcoming blog, we’ll report on what they had to say about workplace resiliencies and about what co-workers can do to support their Black trans and non-binary colleagues. Stay tuned!


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