Solidarity Opinions

Reclaiming a movement: Tarana Burke’s ‘Me Too’

‘Me Too’. The movement aimed at exposing sexual violence. A movement that has been described as a ‘watershed’ moment for sexual assault survivors and their perpetrators, covered by Time in their ‘Time’s Up’ issue that has had a lasting global impact. A movement that went viral in 2017 when Alyssa Milano tweeted her followers to use the hashtag if they had ever been a victim of sexual assault. A movement that was actually founded by African-American activist Tarana Burke a whole decade before, in 2006.

The fact that, up until I attended a talk called ‘From Slavery to Me Too: Women’s Voices’ in 2018 and despite completing my BA dissertation on Black women in James Bond, I didn’t know that a Black woman founded the ‘Me Too’ movement a decade ago stumped me. I felt ashamed, and was also deeply concerned by the fact that nowhere in Milano’s tweet was there any accreditation to Burke. Taking to the internet and reading article after article, watching TED talks and going down Black feminist rabbit holes, what I found had greater racial implications than a mere lack of ‘credit’ could suggest.

Tarana Burke initially started the movement in 2006 after her own experience of sexual violence, incensed by the commonality of everyday sexual violence against women in the African-American community. In her words, Burke “launched the ‘Me Too’ movement because I wanted to find ways to bring healing into the lives of black women and girls” (TED talk, 2019), 60% of whom will be experiencing sexual violence before they turn 18. Burke reiterates that this movement was about those communities under the highest risk, who amongst Black women include

– The indigenous women who are 3 and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other group

– people with disabilities who are 7 times more likely to be sexually abused

– the 84% of transwomen who will be sexually assaulted this year.

Sexual violence faced by Black women reveals a disappointing and damaging truth about the society we live in. There are staggering amounts of racial stereotypes and destructive representations of Black women that create an environment where violence against them is naturalised and overlooked, something that civil rights activist and Black feminist critic Kimberle Crenshaw Williams has extensively talked about in her work with the legal system. Having been on the legal team for Anita Hill’s 1991 case against Clarence Thomas, Crenshaw has pointedly written on Burke’s work and inadvertently on ‘Me Too’ when writing of the “unique vulnerability” of Black women that continues to be ignored, and the struggle many Black women face in being

trapped between an antiracist movement that foregrounded black men, and a feminism that could not fully address how race shaped society’s perception of black victims”.

The #MeToo movement that exploded on Twitter however, featuring as part of everyday conversation on sexual assault within the media, doesn’t seem to encompass any of this. The ‘Me Too’ movement was founded by a Black woman boldly stating ‘I’ve experienced sexual violence too’; a response to decades of Black sexual assault survivors being structurally ignored and silenced, despite Black women being targeted at disproportionately higher rates. Yet the names most popularly associated with Me Too in recent media have been those of Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Taylor Swift, Megyn Kelly, and of course Alyssa Milano. White women have come to dictate the discourse surrounding the movement, with the very founder Tarana Burke being relocated to the inner pages of the ‘Silence Breakers’ issue – for apparently the front page was taken up by too much star power to leave room for the founding (Black) mother. The article that accompanied this cover, ironically highlighted the entirety of the problem that it inceptively perpetuated, stating that

“When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who’s been quietly enduring for years.”

Is this claim stating that highlighting white actresses’ stories and their stories alone is going to change the reality for the sexually abused cook? Or the maid? Or the single mother? All of these women who, by implicating their social rank, are therefore most likely politically, economically and socially disadvantaged women of colour? Unless the white movie stars are platforming women of colour voices, experiences and injustices, I struggle to see how they are making it easier for women from lower socio-economic backgrounds to receive protection or justice.

The movement itself arguably failed to consider even Black movie stars, for Lupita Nyong’o’s self-written testimony published in the New York Times (yet failed to be vehemently picked up by other news outlets?) was almost all but ignored, with Salma Hayek stating that Weinstein publicly rebutted their allegations because “[Women of Colour] are the easiest to get discredited”. Even more damagingly, when Aurora Perrineau’s rape allegations against Girls writer Murray Miller surfaced (in the form of her leaked police report), self-proclaimed feminist Lena Dunham publicly lied in a counter- statement aimed to discount Perrineau’s testimony. Dunham later came clean in a public apology. Using her industry name and privilege, the Me Too movement saw a white female actress lie to discredit the rape testimony of a lesser-known actress of colour; a situation so far removed from Tarana Burke’s original intentions for ‘Me Too’ that the ‘movement’ is almost unrecognisable, calling into question whether the two can or should remain synonymous at all.

Whereas Burke and other Black feminist activists’ intentions are to dismantle the structures of white privilege that benefit from the subjugation of women of colour, the co-opted ‘Me Too’ movement and the press surrounding it has done nothing but re-package those structures under the catch-all title of ‘exposing’ sexual misconduct. But against who?

Since the start of the transatlantic slave trade, Black women have been systematically abused and assaulted by men of all races – with these perpetrators going largely and historically unpunished. The law has long been racially prejudiced against Black women, and this can be seen as soon as one starts looking into their rape cases (a sad truth that one must go looking, for consumerist news media have decided they are not headline-worthy). One case recently unearthed by Black historians, activists and writers is that of Recy Taylor. In 1944 Alabama, 24 year-old Recy Taylor was walking home from Church when she was abducted and gang-raped at gunpoint by six white men. Following the horrific incident, she took her case to court, where it was tried by an all-white, all-male jury, who dismissed the charges after all but five minutes of deliberation. The physical evidence and multiple witnesses were not enough to permeate through the multiply sexist, racist walls of the jury box; a sad truth that continues to shape the climate of silencing around Black women’s experiences today.

Russel Simmons, with 18 accusations of rape, sexual assault and sexual misconduct from mostly Black women, has not been held accountable by either the legal system or the media. And only now, after 25 years of sexual abuse and paedophilia charges against him, after the release of documentary series Surviving R. Kelly was there an, albeit too brief, moment of media outcry against the R. Kelly, that at present seems to have died down just as quickly as it started. As of March 2021, Kelly is in jail still awaiting trial.

With these cases in mind, as well as the thousands of non-celebrity crimes of sexual abuse against Black women, it is clear that the #MeToo movement has been propagated by white feminism, and by the neoliberal emphasis on individual voices rather than collective communities, and so continues to fail Black women. Journalist, poet and activist Asha Bandele summed up anxieties that have been building by Black civil rights activists, saying

Afropunk: “I have my concerns about the ownership of that movement publicly being in the hands of white women. I don’t know that white women have ever led a movement that secured people outside of their own.”

Bandele is referencing some of the feminist movements of the early 70s and 80s in the US, which saw a predominantly white brand of feminism supposedly calling for the liberation of all ‘women’, but not advocating for the rights of Black women at a pivotal time in US history when Black women were at the intersection of two movements (the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist movement) but saw the intersecting gender and racial oppressions unique to them largely ignored by both. Unless more pressure is placed on media outlets and white activists to do justice to the most marginalised groups, the groups whose voices have been historically stifled, then a ‘movement’ such as Me Too, rather than highlighting real structural problems and pushing for change, will stagnate into a ‘moment’, passing and not progressing, and inevitably leading to the repetition of the same cycle of violent silencing for generations to come.

Solidarity Opinions

LOST IN TRANS-LATION: Harmful (Mis)Representations and Perceptions of the Trans* Community due to ‘Transface’

‘It’s an interesting question, a kind of thought experiment, to go back and think what I would feel today as an out trans* person, if I had never seen any representation of myself in the media. On the one hand, I might not have ever internalised that sense of being monstrous, of having fears around disclosure, of seeing myself as something abhorrent and as a punchline and as a joke. I might be able to go on a date with a man without having the image of men vomiting. On the flip side, would I even know I’m trans*? If I had never seen any kind’ve depiction of transness and gender variance on screen.’

Jen Richards

I was speaking to a friend today, about our first experiences with transness (as cis-women). She told me that when she was at school, her Physics teacher had transitioned from male to female, and although my friend was never taught anything about the trans* community or trans* history at this school, all students were advised that it might take them some time to adjust to said Physics teacher after her transition. Apparently, they were even offered counselling in case people were confused or upset by it. Upon hearing this, I was the one who felt confused, and disgusted, and it got me thinking…

Imagine how it would feel, if teachers were to warn students that they might need counselling as a result of your existence? How would I feel, for example, if someone else labelled my cisgendered body as so abnormal in comparison to everyone else, that it might trigger a psychologically damaging reaction? I quickly realised, however, that I could never imagine this, because it would never happen. My cis-women’s body is entirely normalised within society and is not perceived as something which poses a threat to anyone. I also thought about how I would react if I was a child at this school, and if it had been my teacher that had transitioned and preferred to identify as female now rather than male. I thought, although it might have felt a little awkward and might have taken a little getting used to, referring to my teacher as ‘her’ now, instead of ‘him’, wouldn’t have affected me at all…and it certainly would not have caused me to need counselling. This idea was placed there by someone else, this person stigmatised by other adults, and these kids taught in that moment that transness was strange. Did anyone stop and think – what does it do to trans* individuals to tell them that their very existence warrants counselling for cis-people?

‘Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege’.

Bell Hooks

When I think about my first experience with transness, it was the news that Bruce Jenner had transitioned to become Caitlyn in 2015 (when I was 18 years old). Even then, I don’t think I really knew what this meant. I had never learnt about gender non-conformity or trans* studies at school and I hadn’t met anyone who identified as anything other than cis-gender. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but I resided in a position of extreme privilege. I occupied a space where I had never been exposed to transness…it didn’t affect me, so I didn’t know about it.

These examples of initial trans* exposure speak to the harmful representations of transness as abnormal, shameful and taboo. They also exemplify how little trans* existence is actually acknowledged until it is experienced in everyday life. It seems that trans* identity is only spoken about when it needs to be, when cis-people are forced to be confronted with it. But we need to ask – why? Why isn’t it spoken about or deemed as something worth knowing/learning, and what does it mean when people in positions of extreme privilege and power get to choose whose bodies satisfy normality and whose cause confusion?

‘Being trans is seen as a stigma — you should be ashamed of being trans, you should be ashamed of being queer, you should be ashamed of loving a person of the same gender. You should be ashamed of contracting HIV/AIDS and living with that. We’re told constantly to just be quiet, to go live in the dark, to be secretive about who we are. And if we step forward, we’ll only be punished.’

Janet Mock

One of the reasons why cis people seem so sceptical about transness and generally misunderstand trans* existence is due to the problematic ways it has been continuously represented, and often misrepresented, on screen. A major issue within trans* representation is ‘transface’ – when cis-actors are cast to play trans* characters in films and TV shows. You’re probably familiar with Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of ‘Lili Elbe’ in The Danish Girl, for example, or Jared Leto as ‘Rayon’ in Dallas Buyers Club. ‘Transface’ has been a prevalent practice within Hollywood and the media for decades now, and seems, only recently, to be actually acknowledged as problematic.

‘Transface’ is extremely damaging to the trans* community for a number of reasons. Firstly, it strips trans* actors of the opportunities to portray trans* life and to be the authors of their own stories. The consistent use of ‘transface’ has meant that there has been an absence of trans* actors in the media, which has led to the lack of trans* visibility in the media and the erasure of transness altogether. As well as this, when trans* individuals are not at the centre of trans* storytelling, it leads to inaccurate and messy representations, which, more often than not, lack nuance and complexity and often creates offensive stereotypes. Unlike cis actors, trans* actors have the ability to depict transness in a way that is authentic to their lived experiences, and struggles, and – believe it or not – triumphs. It takes a trans* actor to be able to implement this in their portrayal in a way that does them justice. As Jen Richards claims, ‘if I am playing a trans* character, I don’t have to play the transness of it’. And if cis people take on trans* roles as a way to challenge themselves as actors, then why is this opportunity not given to trans* people? Why have trans* people historically been excluded from any consideration of playing cis roles?

‘It lends itself to this idea that we are just comedy, we are just some kind of freaks, that we are just playing dress-up in order to make other people laugh.’

       Tiq Milan

The trans* community are disproportionately abused, violated and murdered every year, with more than one in four trans people having faced a bias-driven assault[1]. When cis-men play trans* women and when cis-women play trans* men in roles, it perpetuates the idea that trans* people are just men and women in dress-up, and you can take the clothes and the costume off at any time and the game is up. But trans* people can’t take their transness off, because it isn’t a costume or play. It is real life, and they are the ones who face the real-life consequences when, at the end of the day, they come face-to-face with hatred in the street, at a bar, or at a bus stop.

In the US, the ‘Trans-Panic Defense’ is a space in the law which allows people to be ‘partially or completely excused from crimes such as murder and assault on the grounds that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction’. When allowances for hatred, abuse, violence and murder are literally written into the law against trans* individuals simply because they are trans*, then surely it seems vital that we get the representation of transness right? When people watch TV shows and films where cis-actors are playing trans* roles and there is a clumsy representation, it reinforces the idea that a trans* woman is just a man in dress-up. This makes it more likely that when people or violent men are confronted with a trans* woman in real-life, the reaction will be a mocking, abusive one… rather than one of neutrality and understanding.

Jen Richards, a trans* actress and activist, suggests that ‘part of the reason that [cisgender] men end up killing trans* women…is [because] their friends, the men whose judgement they are fearing, only know trans* women from media, and the people who are playing trans* women are the [cis] men that they know’. She maintains that, ‘this doesn’t happen when trans* women play trans* women…because it deflates this idea that [trans* women] are somehow men in disguise’.

Nick Adams, the director of transgender media and representation for GLAAD, suggests, ‘for decades Hollywood has taught audiences how to react to trans* people, and sometimes they are being taught to react to us in fear, [and] that we are dangerous, that we are psychopaths, that we are serial killers, that we must be deviants or perverse, why else would you wear a dress if you’re a man?’. Laverne Cox has also said that ‘for a very long time, the ways in which trans* people have been presented to us on screen has suggested that we are not real, have suggested that we are mentally ill, that we don’t exist…yet here I am, yet here we are, and we’ve always been here’. According to a survey carried out by GLAAD, ‘80% of Americans do not actually personally know someone who is transgender, so most of the information that Americans get about who transgender people are, what [trans*] lives are about, comes from the media’. I believe that this fundamentally proves that there is a strong correlation between the representations of trans* people that we are shown through the media, and the subsequent treatment of trans* people on the ground.

‘Seeing trans people loved, uplifted and well regarded in film and television can endear you to step in when you see a trans* person being harassed on the street, and to make sure the trans people in your life are supported in ways that affirm their humanity. But when all you see reinforced is violence, we are put further in harms way.’

Laverne Cox

We must identify the media, now perhaps more than ever before, as a vital tool of communication with a monumental amount of influence, and the ability to educate people on transness and the intricacies of trans* life. When the media talks about transgender issues – it is imperative they get it right. A positive change in the ways trans* people are represented across all forms of media would directly impact the treatment of trans* people and their bodies on the ground. It is vital if we are ever to relieve the plight of trans* individuals living in a society that has been constructed to exclude and punish them. In order to be good allies to the trans* community, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and invest our support by watching films and TV shows like Pose, where trans* actors are at the forefront of telling their own stories, and question cis actors who take on trans* roles. If we all think back to our initial experiences with transness, to those often flawed points of reference we hold, and challenge them – we are taking little steps to reduce stigma. Those little steps eventually amount to a lot, and hopefully will build greater allyship for a community bursting with life, love, and stories to tell.

‘How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take people to see that? We’re all in this rat race together!’

Marsha P. Johnson


  • Disclosure
  • Paris is Burning
  • Pose
  • The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson


  • Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, dir. by Sam Feder.
  • ‘When a heterosexual man is charged with murdering a transgender woman with whom he has been sexually intimate, one defense strategy is to assert what has been called the trans panic defense. The defendant claiming this defense will say that the discovery that the victim was biologically male provoked him into a heat of passion causing him to lose self-control. If the jury finds that the defendant was actually and reasonably provoked, it can acquit him of murder and find him guilty of the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter. The trans panic defense strategy is troubling because it appeals to stereotypes about transgender individuals as sexually deviant and abnormal’. Referenced in, Cynthia Lee and Peter Kwan, ‘The Trans Panic Defense: Masculinity, Heteronormativity, and the Murder of Transgender Women’, Hastings Law Journal, 66.77, (2014), 77-132 (p. 77).

[1] National Centre for Transgender Equality, Anti-Violence (2020) <; [accessed 6 August 2020].