The Erasure of Black and Trans Lives

*This post is part of our online roundtable on C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides. The author discusses the fifth and final chapter: “DeVine’s Cut: Public Memory and the Politics of Martyrdom”

Participants in a rally for Black Trans Lives in Atlanta, Georgia, 2015 (Photo: Hotlanta Voyeur, Flickr).

Today, many people are familiar with the horrific story of twenty-one-year-old Brandon Teena, a transgender man whose murder and rape in Humboldt, Nebraska on New Year’s Eve of 1993 helped spark new discussions on hate crime legislation and anti-trans violence in the United States. The source of much of this knowledge has come from cinematic treatments of the story, including the 1999 critics’ hit Boys Don’t Cry. The film, and so much of the popularly-disseminated knowledge surrounding what we know about the case, erased the significance of anti-Blackness and the life and experiences of a Black, disabled twenty-two-year-old man named Phillip DeVine—who was one of two others killed alongside Brandon Teena that night—from this near-mythic episode in transgender and queer history.

The fifth chapter of C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity grapples with this horrific incident and attends to the theoretical and archival linkages between the constructions of Blackness and transness. “DeVine’s Cut: Public Memory and the Politics of Martyrdom” explores, reevaluates, and reconceptualizes the incomplete narrative about the events that night, restoring DeVine to what J. Jack Halberstam has referred to as the “Brandon archive.” This reiteration—or, in Snorton’s words, “DeVine’s Cut,” nodding to the supplemental materials that give shape to a narrative’s retelling, not unlike the “director’s cut” to a feature film—examines the erasure of Blackness from the archive of one of the best-known murder cases of a transgender person in recent decades. Snorton’s chapter offers a theoretical praxis in which to deconstruct a whitened trans archive, and, in so doing, helps us move beyond the trappings of martyrdom, liberalism, and identity politics.

Despite being the book’s shortest chapter (save the Introduction), “Devine’s Cut” is a nuanced treatment of the broader themes Snorton threads throughout the larger work: the interconnectedness of Blackness and transness in the making and unmaking of the archive, temporality, and space and place. It invokes Audre Lorde’s “biomythography” as a method to “create different discursive structures for human identification, ones that contravene colonial modes of cataloging difference in favor of the possibility of engendering ways of life and genres of being based on the specificities of lived experience” (184). This is one of the entry points for Snorton’s exploration of DeVine’s sociogeny and the conditions in which he traversed this world, despite his life being so inextricably enmeshed with death and death-like statuses (i.e., “social death”). Snorton seeks to create a rupture in the temporal archive to allow DeVine a livable space in the “Brandon archive.”

One of Snorton’s most formidable conjectures deals with the power of the archive and its ability to make subjects and aspects of their lives both seen and unseen. In particular, he poses: How can still life be represented in the shadows of certain death? This recalls arguments set forth by the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot who urged readers to make the distinction between history as a sociohistorical process—or, a “past”—and the narratives weaved about a past. More recently, in her study on enslaved women in Barbados, Marisa J. Fuentes further argued that, “A legible and linear narrative cannot sufficiently account for the palimpsest of material and meaning embedded in the lives of people shaped by the intimacies and ubiquity of violence.” Snorton’s work adds new texture to this conversation.

Incidentally, just a few months ago, Donna Minkowitz, the famed white lesbian writer for The Village Voice who played such a key role in reporting the Brandon Teena story, thoughtfully reflected on her 1994 article on the case and called it “the most insensitive and inaccurate piece of journalism” she had “ever written.” Minkowitz accepted responsibility for, among other things, the trans erasure of her reporting that interpreted Brandon Teena as a legible lesbian. Reading her apology alongside the original article is productive. Her 1994 piece, while omitting much about DeVine in its centering of Teena, is hardly representative of most reports on the case in that it at least acknowledged that “Phillip was a black man visiting an all-white town.” As Snorton argues and Minkowitz regretfully laments, the role that white supremacy played in this murderous rampage was left unexplored and ultimately positioned DeVine in a temporal praxis that never viewed him as fully alive or worthy of life itself (also see Snorton’s discussion of the impossibility of a Black Christine Jorgensen in chapter 4).

Indeed, how do we understand these forms of violence independent of the neoliberal restructuring of American (and global) politics? In thinking about the institutional structures that facilitated both Black and trans erasure, I revisited an early 1997 article published in the New Yorker that did, albeit briefly and with little depth, ponder the role that race and (dis)ability played in the Humboldt murders. The piece seems to lament what could be read as neoliberal reframing of the murders—in which the violence became occasion to embolden the state in the pursuit of individual rights in ways that yielded capital gain, privatization, and the creation of defensible and largely white and middle-class spaces—in observing: “The Brandons were available to the press, and to gay and transgender activists, who took an almost proprietary interest in them. One referred to Teena Brandon’s murder as ‘the gay O. J. Simpson case’; it was as if Lisa Lambert and Phillip DeVine were only supporting players.”1 In addition to the reified violence of trans erasure, the very positioning of these murders as “the gay O. J. Simpson case” all but subsumed the centrality of Blackness to multiple communities for whom that 1995 case represented something very different than it did to the individual on trial. If O. J. Simpson sought to be, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “post-racial in a world that was not,” one must not leave intact the coded racialized vernacular of the so-called colorblind politics in the backdrop. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has shown, when the promises of the “Black revolution” of the 1960s receded, “politicians no longer felt comfortable displaying their racist credentials upon their sleeves.” In its place, “‘colorblindness’ aided politicians in rolling back the welfare state, allowing Congress and the court to argue that the absence of racism in the law meant that African Americans could not claim racial harm.” In making these connections through Snorton’s puncturing of the “Brandon archive,” I also immediately recalled Black lesbian-feminist Barbara Smith’s critique of single-issue liberal politics when, in 1997, a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima was sodomized by a broomstick and further brutalized by police officers in Brooklyn. As Smith levied, white LGBT and feminist organizations only chimed in on the case when it became clear that the police officers’ legal defense planned to argue that Louima had sustained his rectal injuries not from the brutality of the state in the face of his Blackness and foreignness, but from perverse and rough—but consensual—homosexual sex.2

Snorton also incorporates thoughtful musings on the archival restrictions dealing with the spatiality of both Blackness and transness. For instance, Snorton’s analysis of the Humboldt murders may inspire readers to think beyond the dominant narrative surrounding the subsequent 1998 murder of a white gay man named Matthew Shepard near Laramie, Wyoming, which also helped usher in new support for hate crime legislation in the United States. The detachment of Blackness from queer rubrics is thus similarly palpable in what has become known as the “Matthew Shepard Act,” a shortened and whitened version of the 2009 “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act” that also memorialized the 1998 murder of Byrd, a Black man in Jasper, Texas at the hands of white supremacists. These stories helped formalize a long-established narrative of what Halberstam has called “metronormativity,” or the association of urban spaces with greater freedoms and mobility for LGBT people. In her new book, Emily Skidmore argued that in the first few decades of the twentieth century, trans white men did not view cities as an ideal locale to settle; rather, assimilation in smaller cities or rural towns proved more hospitable to both their survival and financial stability. Certainly, as Skidmore acknowledges, much work still needs to be done to understand how trans people of color navigated spaces across the rural and urban divide—itself a binary that leaves little room for spaces far and in between. Any serious critique of the reification of rural spaces as inhospitable to trans and queer folks—especially in the aftermath of the murders of Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard—must work to puncture the archival silences that do not tend to the politics of race for whom Phillip DeVine and James Byrd Jr., among thousands of others, there was no other recourse.

In Snorton’s final section in this chapter, he invokes the conditions in which #BlackLivesMatter, #TransLivesMatter, and #BlackTransLivesMatter are given meaning. Among many other things, it reminded me of how often Trayvon Martin, the Black seventeen-year-old murdered in the suburbs of Orlando in 2012 and whose killer’s acquittal helped launch the #BLM movement, was likened to Matthew Shepard. Even in the face of such anti-Black state and state-sanctioned violence—wherein a basic call to lay claim that Black lives matter—for some, Martin’s death could only accrue meaning or matter most when likened to an experience made legible exclusively outside of his Blackness. Snorton asks us, as readers, to imagine #BLM, #TLM, and #BTLM less as rhetorical calls to power and instead as “evinc[ing] a different conception of history and therefore necessarily a different rubric for valuation.” To this end, Snorton notes, “in the future imperfect, which is to say, in that commingling of temporalities wherein the past is brought forth to the future to give rise to the present, Black (Trans) Lives Matter provides a conceptual framework to understand the ongoing struggle in the present by way of a future (aspiration) in which black lives will have mattered to everyone” (197-198). Indeed, imagine the radical possibilities if we were to puncture new holes in the archives and decolonize the temporal limitations of established narratives. To that end, we must all recommit ourselves to this work.

  1.  For more on queers and neoliberal cultural politics, see Christina B. Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013); Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics and the Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003).
  2.  Also see Letta Neely, “Talking with Barbara Smith: Across Generations,” Gay Community News, June 1999, 20–29.
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Julio Capó, Jr.

Julio Capo, Jr. is Associate Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is a transnational historian whose research and teaching interests include modern U.S. history, especially the United States’s relationship to the Caribbean and Latin America. He is the author of the award-winning book 'Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940' (UNC Press, 2017). Follow him on twitter @JulioCapoJr.