A conversation with Bryanna Jenkins by Kimi Hanauer
Bryanna A. Jenkins, B.S., M.A. is a Transgender Activist and Advocate based out of Baltimore, MD. She is the Founding Member and Executive Director of The Baltimore Transgender Alliance. Under Ms. Jenkins’ direction, The Baltimore Transgender Alliance organized #BaltimoreTRANSUprising and The Baltimore Transgender March of Resilience in 2015. She will be relocating to Chicago, IL in Summer 2016 to attend DePaul University College of Law in order to obtain her J.D. degree.
For counterpart digital chapter check out www.ifiruledtheworld.info.
Kimi Hanauer: What are five things you say absolutely 100% yes to?
- Treating myself to heels.
- Eating delicious food.
- Encouraging other trans women in their successes.
- Binging on good television shows.
KH: In a video online, while speaking about following your dreams you said, “You have to fight for your right to dream. Fight for your right to be great.” What does it mean to fight for your right to dream? What is the power behind and the risk of dreaming for something?
BJ: Fighting for your right to dream to me looks like eliminating negativity and negative people from my inner circle. It means taking risks to advance myself even when I am unsure of how things will pan out or the lack of confidence that I experience in seeing my dream to its fruition. The greatest power behind following my dreams is that I am in control of the narrative that I put out to the world.
KH: What does it mean to be free? Is there a moment that you can share that you felt a strong sense of freedom?
BJ: Freedom for me is being in relationship with myself. Freedom for me is me reclaiming my spirituality. Freedom for me is owning my truth and telling my own narrative. My strongest sense of freedom occurred when I began the journey of my transition. I knew that I was on a path that would ultimately lead to me learning to love all the things I liked, loved, hated, or found questionable about my life and lived experiences.
KH: Being a public figure is also like being a target. How do you protect and take care of yourself in difficult situations while also navigating your position as a strong leader and role model for so many?
BJ: I surround myself with people that love and care for me and ones that have consistently demonstrated friendship and loyalty to me. I also give myself permission to step away from activism and focus on different passions that fulfill me as a person. I love listening to music and I love traveling to new places and enthralling myself in the culture of the location.
Proving people wrong brings me great joy.
KH: What is something that brings you joy?
BJ: Proving people wrong brings me great joy. I’m a Sagittarius so please excuse my sarcasm, but all of my life I have been used to people counting me out or trying to downplay my natural talent or abilities so I enjoy being successful to just remind people that they should be careful how they treat people because you never know the magnitude of the calling on someone’s life.
KH: What are some of the challenges that you are faced with as a trans woman of color living in Baltimore?
BJ: While I have been able to do so many things in Baltimore, I have so much trauma here. Navigating life as a young queer black boy who grew into an adult trans woman has not been the easiest road for me especially in Baltimore City. Safety is one of the things that is constantly on my mind. Access to employment and education is something I constantly worry about. I know that despite my achievements I am not exempt from being a statistic. That is one of the reasons why I advocate so fiercely.
I have been able to succeed but I am always aware that it is in spite of the systematic oppression that I was born into.
KH: What changes do we need to make in order to build more equitable and inclusive communities?
BJ: I know this is something that no one wants to address or they conveniently avoid but the communities of privilege have got to address and actively work to counteract the racism and poverty that directly impacts how a society could be more equitable and inclusive of other oppressed communities. Yes, my lived experience as a Black Trans Woman is the result of living in a society that has a history of racism towards black people like myself and a society that uses income inequality to uphold and enforce racist ideologies. I have been able to succeed but I am always aware that it is in spite of systematic oppression that I was born into.
KH: What if you ruled the world – what would ‘ruling’ mean and what is your most positive vision of our world and of Baltimore?
BJ: If I ruled the world I would erase people’s hatred of “gayness.” Now let me explain. I do not identify as gay. I do identify as a heterosexual trans woman. However, I know that it’s people’s hatred of gayness that it makes them almost impossible to accept trans people and uplift issues that impact my community. Gay is something that is “othering” and gay is perceived as weak. Femininity is also viewed as a weakness. If I were to erase the hatred of gayness then it would also make perfect sense for me to erase the hatred of women as well. It boggles me when I see or experience women discriminating or being hateful to the LGBT community because LGBT people are shunned because we are perceived to possess the same qualities that society signifies as weaknesses and problems with women and femininity.
KH: To quote another one of your videos, “Goals without challenges is unrealistic.” How do you stay brave in challenging moments?
BJ: I go through life knowing that I will be tested. Life will always present obstacles and challenges and you can’t erase them, avoid them, or neglect them. I always pray for endurance and I do a lot of self reflection where I intently try to understand what was I meant to learn from hard situations or what did this particular situation reveal about my character.
KH: What was your experience of the Baltimore Uprising last Spring?
BJ: I was gagging watching the TV. Just seeing Baltimore, my city, in disarray like that left me speechless. I work downtown near City Hall and I remember being terrified seeing the National Guard lined up across all of the major downtown streets and news crews overflowing out of War Memorial Plaza. As much as I was outraged about the Freddie Gray situation I was still hesitant to join any actions because I fear for my safety on many levels. Will I be targeted by police? Will I be targeted by other protesters for being trans? Then I thought about where was all this rage when Mya Hall was murdered by the NSA. I still have many mixed emotions but the youth of Baltimore have definitely been activated and been given the visibility they need to bring the important issues to the forefront.
KH: What is your experience of Baltimore post the Uprising?
BJ: I still feel it is too soon to assess my feelings post Uprising because I feel like in the past couple of months pieces are being put into place for something even bigger to happen in this city. I definitely can still feel that the spotlight is still on Baltimore. From the Trans Woman of Color perspective I feel that we are not united like a lot of the Black leaders whether they be radical, political, or religious try to make it seem. I feel that Black people have too much invested into the status quo and racial based systematic oppression to have unity where we are shunning Black LGBT people, upholding rape culture, and shaming those of us who have not made it out of poverty. Some leaders have reached out to me trying to engage the LGBT community but I truly feel we need more than secret alliances and private encouragement in order to get the reform that everyone is fighting for.
KH: In a video you posted the day of the Super Bowl you said, “It’s not about what they call you, it’s about what you answer to.” This video and that sentence really resonated with me and I wanted to ask if you would expand on what it means?
BJ: Being a 27 year old woman who is hitting 30 in a couple of years I think about things like love, relationships, and marriage. I would love to be in a healthy and thriving marriage with the man I am meant to share my life with. I am a loving woman and I would like to show that to the right man. However I will not disrespect or devalue myself to satisfy my desires. I am conscious to the fact that I am a Black, trans, and fat bodied woman. Men see these things about me and try to use them against me to take advantage of the insecurities that they perceive me to have. Also a lot of closeted trans attracted men want to project their insecurities with their attraction and manhood on to me. I have been mistreated and I have put myself into foolish situations when I didn’t have the clarity to value myself.
My awakening began when I took on the responsibility to do the work of loving myself unapologetically for who I am and I had to practice how to actively and directly dismiss those who did nothing to add value to the quality of my life by being in my presence. I cannot lie. It has been a hard and lonely road but the respect that I have gained for myself at 27 is something I would not trade for anything. So there is POWER in what you answer to and how you show up in life, love, and business. There is also power in telling someone exactly who you are and I know who I am because I have done the work on myself and I am still on the journey. It never ends.
There is POWER in what you answer to and how you show up in life, love and business.
KH: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from your activism work so far? Do you have any advice for young activists?
BJ: The first thing I have learned is that I am great, as I have always imagined I could be. Being on the front lines is more than just raising your fist or shouting chants. I have actualized so many skills and stepped into so many roles that I never thought I could do. I am a scholar, an orator, an entrepreneur, a crisis manager, an organizer, a producer, a public figure, and a shit starter if need be.
To the younger baby activist. EVERYTHING IS NOT A PROTEST. Part of being a good activist is being able to discern how to most effectively approach issues so the greatest impact can be made for change. A lot of these younger activists are in it only for the fight and anger and they have no vision of what they want the world to look like after they have accomplished all of their goals. Also they have no idea how to move past the disagreement and incorporate those on the opposing side into their vision. There is an old saying in the black community that “all skin folk ain’t your kin folk”. That also applies to activism. I have found that not all of us are putting ourselves on the frontlines for the same reasons or even the same goals but it is my responsibility to know what my passions are and where my integrity lies so I can serve my community in the most beneficial way.
About If I Ruled The World: Presented by Press Press with support from BmoreArt, If I Ruled The World is a publication that takes inspiration from the Nas classic, “If I Ruled The World” (It Was Written, 1996), in order to facilitate artistic collaborations and conversations between a range of Baltimore-based Creatives and activists. In their responses, contributors present their most positive visions of the world, and by doing so are able to thoughtfully analyze and investigate the nuances within the struggle for equity in our city and the active role of artist within the pursuit for social change. If I Ruled The World is curated by Kimi Hanauer with direction by contributors and the Press Press team.