The Holy Presence of Frances Thompson

Sultana Isham
5 min readJun 6, 2020

Being called upon to contribute my voice to the extensive discography of ignored Black trans women is not an easy task. Diving into that pain, that pain that White and Black people seem to enjoy and feed off is something I’ve worked so hard to conceal. I’m not speaking out to convince you that my life matters, I’m doing this because of my deep love and admiration for my sisters, siblings, and our ancestors.

We had a conference last year called Black Trans Circle, a retreat for Black trans women. Upon participating in an exercise to share and record our personal historical triumphs, it became clear to me; when I finally leave this wild world, my sisters and siblings will be the ones to preserve my legacy, not the White or Black subscribers of cissexist white supremacist patriarchy. Stories of freedom from sex trafficking, obtaining master degrees, and becoming mothers add to the fabric of our tapestry.

Last month was the 154th anniversary of the Memphis Riots of 1866. For three days, White men terrorized Memphis’ Black neighborhoods with looting, arson, murder, and the rape of Black women and children. One of those women was Frances Thompson. She was born enslaved and was one of the five Black women, along with her roommate Lucy Smith, who testified before a congressional committee investigating the Memphis riots. Her testimony and activism was monumental to the birth of the Reconstruction Era following the U.S. Civil War.

Frances Thompson was also a trans woman. A decade after her testimony, she was outed as trans in a newspaper, arrested, and her allegations presented to the congressional committee were then discredited. She died shortly after her release, and all direct information about Frances Thompson was destroyed by the state of Alabama. The discovery of her trans womanhood was used to discredit the Black women’s testimony of rape from White men, and fueled an even larger white supremacy campaign to repudiate white brutality against Black people.

I present this research mostly for Black people: Could this have been the moment when the trust between Black trans individuals and the greater Black community dissolved? Could this have sparked the multi-generational curse of violence against Black trans lives from White and Black people? Is this the event that made Black cis women distance themselves from us? I need Black people to understand — white supremacy used transphobia to divide Black people. White supremacy used Thompsons’ transness to delegitimize our experiences and collective struggle as Black people. I need us to witness the complexity of our beautiful history. We are not new, we have always been here. We are valid sources of our own experiences. You are not our allies, you are our family. Black trans history is your history.

I also would like Black cis women to recognize how Black women of all experiences have historically fought together for the collective freedom against white supremacist patriarchy. For anyone to equate a trans woman’s experience to that of a cisgender man because you don’t like her is obtuse and anti-intellectual. Bringing up these issues only serves to expand the narrative, not to derail us. We have to come together before we can make any demands against white supremacist patriarchy. Everything looks like progress for Black trans people if you think our history started in the 1980s. I’ll say it again, Frances Thompson was a Black trans woman who was born enslaved in the 1800’s and advocated for Black liberation with her Black cisgender sisters; the discovery of her transness 10 years after her testimony was used to discredit white violence on Black people.

I hold my ancestors’ stories close to my heart as motivation and confirmation that I am real, valid, and fundamental to the Black Liberation movement. For the people who understand our importance, please share this information with your family and loved ones. Teach your children how trans people are manifestations of the divine. Being trans is a gift. Educators, please include us into your curriculum and invest and advocate for Black trans leadership. After you have done the inner work of examining your transphobia and biases, cultivate real community and real friendships with Black trans people. Don’t just stand with us, speak up and fight with us, whether we are in the room or not. Trans women don’t identify as women, we are women. It is my belief that terms like white privilege and cis privilege have unintentionally done us a disservice. Our movement has used the good word “privilege,” synonymous to “birthright” and “liberty,” to describe perfidious, systemic behavior. Instead we should call it what it is, violence. So instead, say white violence, cis violence, American violence.

As a composer, educator, and violinist, I’m incredibly weary of being used as a mascot for people to show how “evolved” they are. Being used by these individuals and organizations made me realize that we, Black trans people, are the prize. It is challenging for us to trust individuals and institutions who have historically erased and degraded us. At my former place of employment, The Contemporary Arts Center, the story of Frances Thompson hit home for me as I was repeatedly sexually harassed by the male patrons, including a white man who flat out asked me to give him oral sex. After I drafted several reports — including one to the HR department — my colleagues who were 85% women, were silent. Only one person advocated for me and my request that we install security like every other major museum. I am not the first nor last to experience this. The recent attack of Iyanna Dior and the Black cisgender silence that accompanied it only affirms my hesitations with White and Black cis people. But because I know my history, I understand where that behavior comes from. With the support of chosen family — and our mayor amplifying our voices — it gives me the fuel to keep speaking up. We deserve to be integrated into the canon of Black history, women’s history, and American history.

  • ***This is the speech that I gave at a press conference at New Orleans City Hall on June 6th, 2020.