In 2013, #BlackLivesMatter was picking up steam, igniting what would become a powerful movement of people organizing in pursuit of justice for Black people. The rallying cry provided an opportunity for collective action, but also collective grieving. At that time, Black people were still reeling from the devastating murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, but in August that same year, the Black trans community was also mourning Islan Nettles, the 21-year-old Black trans woman who was brutally beaten by a man on a street in Harlem. In response to Islan’s death, grassroots organizer Milan Nicole Sherry (she/her), created #BlackTransLivesMatter to mobilize people around the violent murders of Black trans women that often go under-reported.
It’s been eight years since Milan created the campaign. A lot has changed in terms of conversations about the value of Black lives becoming more mainstream. However, there’s still significant work to be done to ensure Black trans women are centered in those conversations consistently, and with intention. As co-director of House of Tulip, co-founder of BREAKOUT! and several other organizations and initiatives, including the Trans March of Resilience (TMOR), Milan has garnered the respect of her colleagues working in service to the TGNCI (Transgender, Gender Nonconforming, and Intersex) community, and others fighting to create a world where all Black people can live safely and with dignity.
The idea of a world where she could be her full self isn’t something Milan started dreaming of when her activism started at the age of 19, it’s a vision she’s had since childhood. Growing up on the west bank in New Orleans in a home with both of her parents and nine siblings, Milan, 29, navigated her family’s expectations of her, while trying to figure out how to create the life she wanted.
“I began my transition very early, about 13 or 14-years-old. As a child, I was always a feminine being, I just didn’t have the words to describe what it was that I was feeling or going through at the time,” Sherry said. “ So growing up in a predominantly male family, I faced challenges.”
Milan’s father, a Black man from Mississippi wasn’t equipped with the knowledge necessary to support Milan’s transition at that time. But on the flip side, her mother Romaine was her biggest supporter and her safe space. A native woman born in South Dakota, Romaine’s cultural grounding helped her understand Milan’s identity as something to be embraced. “She was very supportive of my transition and she didn’t look at it as an abomination or something bad,” Sherry said.” In our native culture I’m considered two-spirited so it’s something she embraced and nurtured from the beginning.”
Having that kind of love and support gave Milan the strength she needed to make it through high school and ultimately through all of the life experiences that would follow. After graduating school in 2009, Milan was excited to get a job and start her life as an adult. But after countless rejections from employers, who Milan believes were refusing to hire her because of her trans identity, she started engaging in survival sex work. Shortly after, staying at home became untenable due to the deteriorating relationship with her father, so Milan left home. Heartbroken, but determined to live her truth, Milan got on a bus, rode to downtown New Orleans, and just started walking. What she witnessed that first night changed her life and set her on the path to becoming the leader she is today.
“I remember I was walking and I made it to the corner of Bourbon and St. Louis, and then I stopped dead in my tracks. Because what I saw standing in the doorway at a bar captivated me so much, I couldn’t move, and that was another trans woman,” Sherry said.
Prior to that night, Milan had never seen another person of trans experience in real life. During that time, shows like Rikki Lake, Maury and Jerry Springer dominated day-time television. They brought trans people on their segments as entertainment, but the framing of the conversations was beyond derogatory, Milan recalls. “I remember as a young trans youth watching those shows and being captivated by the beautiful women, not even paying attention to how violent it was. I didn’t really know what was going on, but I still felt a connection to them. I felt that same way when I finally saw my first trans woman in person.”
Despite the pain of having to leave home, the love and support of other trans women in New Orleans is what saw Milan through that time. She found refuge with various people who also nurtured the spirit of leadership that was taking shape the more she learned about her community. “It was the elders in my community who took me under their wing and taught me how to survive. It’s always been our elders who have created an underground railroad of resources that helped us build toward liberation,” Sherry said.
From here, is where Milan jumped into the depths of the LGBTQ organizng space, quickly becoming a rising star and trusted leader in the community.
From her time organizing in New Orleans, where she resides currently, to the transformational work she did in Philadelphia, including co-organizing the Philly Trans March in 2017, Milan’s life exemplifies one of real purpose and commitment to making change that’s sustainable. In a moment where more attention is being paid to patriarchal violence, including toxic masculinity and the role it plays in violence and oppression of gender-oppressed people, Milan encourages young trans people and those desiring to be allies in the fight for trans liberation, to remember that the world we want is just beyond this moment we’re in now.
“When I think about the world I envision 20 years from now, I see one where there’s no need for a House of Tulip, a Transgender Law Center and other agencies that exist because of the disparites that impact us. I see a future where we’ve organized ourselves out of these jobs and into the world we deserve.”
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