Recently, the child of controversial R&B star R. Kelly and ex-wife/reality star Drea Kelly self-identified as a transgender male on social media, changing his profile from Jaya (birth name) to Jay and as identifying as ‘he.’ Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), Jay’s announcement has led to both rampant speculation that his father’s actions have somehow led him to identify as male and the parroting of other falsehoods about transpeople.
There are many complex factors that have influenced the African American community’s relationship with the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning) community. Many of the concerns have been related to culture, stereotypes on Black masculinity/femininity and religion. In spite of significant progress in information and acceptance, our Black LGBTQ brothers and sisters remain largely marginalized. Due in part to the long American traditions of homophobia, misogyny and religiosity that pathologizes difference, there are members of our community who struggle—or refuse—to embrace that which challenges what we are taught to think of as ‘normal.’
In the early 1900’s, several noted psychological pioneers (Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis) identified homosexuality as a part of a normal continuum in human sexual expression. In the early editions of the American psychological Bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder that warranted intervention. This all changed in 1973 when it was declassified as such. A similar milestone has recently occurred with the publication of the most current edition of this manual, the DSM-V(5) where the diagnosis for trans gender people has been dismissed. But, as you well know like in 1973 for gays, this change doesn’t suddenly bring about clear understanding or equality for the Trans community.
If you look at some of the social media comments regarding the transition of the Kelly’s son, Jay, who was born genetically female, you will see first hand the lack of tolerance and understanding for this community. As African Americans we seem to quickly forget the discrimination and marginalization that we experienced not very long ago. Our behaviors were also once pathologized, placing us in the margins of society and the jaws of death.
There are many myths that exist regarding LGBTQ people in general, but specifically the trans community. Two out-spoken Black transgender celebrities, Janet Mock and Laverne Cox have both openly discussed their narrative and their transition…and best believe they are not the only Black people in the transgender community.
As a Black mental health professional, I find it critical to share knowledge that has no spin and is supported by mounds and mounds of empirical research. No matter your religious beliefs, your sexual orientation, your marital status or level of education, open your minds to the following truths behind common myths. It could be a matter of happiness or despair or even worse, life or death for a loved one.
MYTH #1: Your biological birth assignment is automatically who you are.
Gender roles are not directly associated with your genitalia (whether you have a penis or a vagina). Gender roles are societal norms that differ from culture to culture. A person who is transgender is not necessarily lesbian or gay (although they can be), they are however born with genitals that do not match their internal sense of self. There are documented cases where children attempt to cut off their genitals because the mind body discrepancy is so disconcerting. Laverne Cox indicated that it was “calming” to have her internal self match “with what the world is seeing”.
MYTH #2: If you were born a girl you will always be SHE, unless you get surgery.
There have been many to discount the identified pronoun for Jay Kelly. Some say that he was born a girl and should never be referred to as male, ascribing to the “his momma named him Cassius, I’m go call him Cassius” philosophy. This is unfair and a true violation to people in the trans community. I recently called a doctoral student of mine by the wrong pronoun. He graciously corrected me but appropriately pointed out that my own cisgender privilege (akin to White privilege and male privilege) makes the mistake more prevalent in the general public. Furthermore, surgery does not dictate the pronoun used. Some transgender people want upper and lower surgery, some choose one or the other, some choose no surgery and some want surgery but cannot afford it.
MYTH #3: A neglectful or abusive parent leads to being transgender
There are people who have indicated that R Kelly’s alleged neglect, pedophilia and urination practices have played a role in Jay’s identification as a transgender male. This is inappropriately aligned with the idea that being transgender is a disease that with treatment might be healed. In truth, many LGBTQ children are targeted and groomed by perpetrators who might recognize and take advantage of the youth’s struggles with identity and subsequent esteem issues. It’s easier for the public to blame this on abuse and trauma than it is to question historic divisive perspectives that speak to a biological explanation.
MYTH #4: Suicides in the LGBTQ community are just cries for help.
One of the largest growing populations among people who attempt and complete suicide are adolescents of the LGBTQ community. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth 10-24 and LGBTQ youth are three to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their same aged peers. Now take that information, place it in a hyper-masculine community and wrap that in a world of institutionalized racism and the Black LGBTQ youth is likely at an even higher risk of suicide.
MYTH #5: Transphobia/transmisogyny is an LGBT issue
It took more than Jews to stop the Holocaust, it took more than Blacks to abolish slavery, it took more than the Vietnamese to end internment camps and it will take more than LGBTQ people to increase awareness. A true champion for social justice wears that hat all the time for all people.
Dr. Donald E. Grant, Jr. is a mental health expert and socio-cultural analyst. Follow him on Twitter @DrGrantJr