As a young adult, Diamond Collier was fired from two different jobs.
“I was in a situation where I had custody of my [younger] brother, I was working, and I was fired from a job because I was trans,” Collier said. “Got another job. Fired from it because I was trans. Here in California, you have protections where you can sue or do other kinds of stuff. I lived in Indianapolis. We didn’t have those protections, so there was literally no legal recourse for me to be able to do anything about it.”
Black Trans Women Inc. Director Collier joined Clayman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Melissa Brown at a Clayman Conversations event in February. Collier and Brown discussed how capitalism and the state shape our gendered and racialized understandings of labor, race and sexuality.
View video of the event
Black trans people encounter some of the highest levels of discrimination in the U.S. In addition to experiencing unemployment rates that are four times higher than average, Black trans people are five times more likely to experience homelessness and eight times more likely to live in extreme poverty than the typical American adult, according to the National LGBTQ Task Force.
With limited access to safe and inclusive workplaces, housing and public accommodations, Black trans people often turn to sex work as one of the few – if not the only – viable sources of income. “I [became a sex worker] to survive,” Collier said.
Collier is now the executive director of Black Trans Women Inc, a national nonprofit that furthers social advocacy and positive visibility among Black trans advocates, activists and allies. Collier is also the producer and creator of Marsha’s Plate podcast. The podcast, which is hosted by three trans people of color, explores pop culture and current events from a black trans feminist lens.
“Being authentic and sharing [our] experiences really take somebody’s education about the trans experience to a new level, so that’s why we talk about it so openly and as much as we do,” Collier said.
“Being authentic and sharing [our] experiences really take somebody’s education about the trans experience to a new level, so that’s why we talk about it so openly and as much as we do.” -- Collier, about her Marsha's Plate podcast
The financial instability Collier experienced as a young adult, however, is never far from her mind.
“I don’t know when I’m gonna get fired again,” she said. “I’ve been fired three times in my life, and it changed the trajectory of my life each and every time. I like to think that because I have secured my spot in the business ventures that I have, that it might not be as impactful if it does happen, but I feel like I’m always going to be invested in uplifting [sex workers] because I never know when I’m going to go back.”
Collier also explained that one of the best ways to dismantle capitalism is by conceptualizing race, gender, class, sexuality and nationality as interlocking forms of inequality.
“It’s set up like a cycle. When we talk about immigrant youth, when we talk about trans women, when we talk about poor women, it’s a cycle we all are in… because we know – I hope we all know – that all oppression is connected,” Collier said. “It is important for us to be in collaboration with one another in order to dismantle these systems, so that we can all see what is going on in each other’s lives…For me, it’s super, super imperative that we come together and see what we can do to work together to dismantle the system.”
Clayman Institute Director Adrian Daub, Brown and Collier at event
Collier also challenged the taken-for-granted assumption that sex work is a uniformly degrading and dehumanizing experience. Too often, people will sympathize with sex workers only if they are trying to earn money for supposed legitimate expenses like college tuition.
“If I don’t have access to go to school, but I’m still a sex worker, now you don’t have empathy for me? You don’t have sympathy for my situation? If I chose to do this – I like to have sex, I like to get paid for it, I like to control my hours, I like to do all of these things – if I’m that person who has that kind of agency over my body, what’s wrong with that? Why do I need to be doing something else that you deem legitimate or respectable before you sympathize with my cause?”
It’s also important to recognize how other people – especially those who are white, straight and cisgender – systematically benefit from Black trans women’s oppression, event organizer Brown said during the conversation.
“In the 21st century, Black women strippers are extremely popular, except it’s not actually Black women strippers who are extremely popular,” Brown said. “So, what does that mean? It means that a white woman, Kim Kardashian, can adopt the features that are prized and valued through Black cultural practices, and then through her association with Black men, and with Black men in rap – which is another popular discourse about Black women’s sexuality – she can literally adopt the features for her own profit, having never lived the culture that leads her to do that.”
Brown also urged the audience to consider how traditional romantic partnerships are heavily dependent on financial transactions.
“The level of transaction that is embedded in cisgender, heterosexual relationship is something that we normalize by calling it romance,” Brown said. “When you look at the data, women partnered with men really struggle in the sphere of sexuality. There’s an orgasm gap for straight married women, there is the second shift for straight married women. You have to think about how if you weren’t here, it’s not like this man wouldn’t do these things. He would just pay a woman to do it. You can pay a woman to cook your food, you can pay a woman to clean your house, you can pay women to do all this feminized labor anyway, and yet you’re here in this partnership because you have the category ‘wife’ and accepting less than you’d probably get if you were a sex worker who’d name your terms.”
Brown graduated from the University of Maryland with a PhD in sociology in 2019. Her areas of expertise include intersectionality, digital sociology, social movements and sexual politics. Her current project researches how Black women exotic dancers use social media and smartphone applications for advertising and networking. You can learn more about her research by visiting her website and following her on Twitter.
photos by Cynthia Newberry, Clayman Institute