A Trans Woman's Powerful Message: "I Earned This Life"

Photo: Courtesy of Pearl Love.
In early June, as LGBT Pride Month commenced, the New York City Commission on Human Rights launched the Be You campaign. This ad campaign is the first of its kind: a government-led citywide campaign to affirm every resident’s right to use the bathroom they choose based on their gender identity, not their gender assigned at birth.

“Look past the pink and blue. Use the bathroom consistent with who you are,” read the ads that can be found on subway cars, phone booths, and buses.

Yet, just a month earlier, a filmed physical and verbal attack on a NYC subway train painted a very different reality for trans people in the city.

Trans activist Pearl Love recorded her attack and posted the video to Facebook. Her recording quickly went viral and gained vast local and national media attention.

Love spoke to Refinery29 about that specific incident and violence against the trans community, in general.

I’ve had beautiful girls who are 13 years old be like, 'That's a man! This a joke! Why is he doing that?' I’ve trained myself to learn how to walk away.

Pearl Love, trans activist
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What are your main activist goals?
"I want to be part of the solution to help trans people move forward. People think that once we passed gay marriage, everything was better. They’re like, 'Yay, everyone can get married now!' But, in the transgender community, we’re still struggling so much.

"The trans community is just starting to gain more visibility. Now people are really starting to talk about the trans community, where nobody used to care. So, my main goals are to increase our visibility and to get people to treat us just like normal people. That’s all trans people are, normal people.

"People don't understand that 'trans community' is a big umbrella term, and there are all kinds of trans people. Most people think they are the same. They think, A trans person is someone who wants to be a woman, so they just cut their penis off and become a woman. But that's not what this is all about; there is so much more than that."

I’ve asked people, 'Does that make you feel better about yourself to be laughing at me?'

Pearl Love, trans activist
How often do you experience harassment or assault?
"I am harassed weekly. Most of the people just laugh, but they don’t go as far as the woman in the video.

"In my case, most of the people who abuse me are women. I’ve had beautiful girls who are 13 years old be like, 'That's a man! This a joke! Why is he doing that?' I’ve trained myself to learn how to walk away. When people say mean things, I think to myself, That's your problem, not my problem. Sometimes, if I feel safe, I try to educate them. I ask, 'So, what’s wrong with that?'

"What I hear from people is so terrible. I have so many other videos of incidents. I’ve asked people, 'Does that make you feel better about yourself to be laughing at me?' When I do things like that, everybody denies they were laughing at me. They’re like, 'Oh, I wasn't talking about you.' Then they threaten to call cops on me because I am videotaping.

"Trans men are also terribly harassed. I go to a trans group where trans men say they can’t even safely walk around their own neighborhood.

"Sometimes I feel uncomfortable with all the media attention I have gotten, because I have trans friends who have worse situations than me. People are beat up, and people are killed all the time. This wasn’t even the worst situation that ever happened to me. I’ve been stabbed and really beat up. Whether it’s happening to me or to my trans friends, violence is happening all time."
Photo: Courtesy of Pearl Love.
Love speaks out for LGBTQ rights.
Do you think somebody else stepping in to defend you would make the situation better?
"I don't know if it would make it better. There are always a lot of people who I can tell [feel] really uncomfortable when I’m being harassed, but no one ever comes up and says anything to help.

"If you want to be an ally, just treat us like normal people. A lot of people can’t even do that. We are not special. We are just like you. The worst thing is people laughing at us. It hurts that they think that’s okay.

"Maybe you don't get someone’s sense of fashion or whatever, but you don't have to laugh at other people. Everybody has their own situation, and everybody has something to worry about themselves. If you don't want to go out the door and be judged, then don't go out the door and judge others."
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If you want to be an ally, just treat us like normal people. A lot of people can’t even do that.

Pearl Love, trans activist
You said you have other videos of people harassing you. What motivated you to share the footage of this particular incident?
"I pretty much wanted the whole world to see what trans people go through. The whole trans community is angrier than I am. It is sad, but for me, it was kind of okay, because it happens all the time. All of my friends are trans, and it happens to them all the time, too. It’s nothing new. Everybody has gotten stabbed or beaten up.

"There is so much shit that happens. I know I can handle it. I’m a strong girl and I try my best to turn…[a] negative into a positive.

"But I know a lot of people can't. We have a trans support page where we help each other. There are high school students on the page, and they are unsure and new and have no experience. They always talk about people picking on them and making fun of them. We tell them, 'Unfortunately, you cannot do anything. They have a problem, not you, and if you think that way, then you will feel much better.'

"The only thing I can do is educate them to take care of themselves and to not be depressed, but it is really difficult. It has taken me 10 years to cross over that bridge. For ‘normal’ people, you have to understand how lucky your life is. I never thought I would live past 40. Once I passed 40, I was like, I thought I would be dead. I earned this life. I fought for it. I have no regrets. I am going to keep going out and having fun and helping others."

I never thought I would live past 40. Once I passed 40, I was like, 'I thought I would be dead.' I earned this life.

Pearl Love, trans activist
How do you feel about the way your attacker has responded publicly?
"She went to the court and still has a really bad attitude, and that's something that I really hate. Why is it so difficult for her to apologize? I need her to apologize on principle, because the way she speaks about [the] transgender community is full of hate. She’s just going to pass that hate on to her children and her family. This type of a person is going to educate other people, and that is terrible.

"I don’t know what is wrong with someone when the whole world says you did the wrong thing, but you still think you are right. I’m not a doctor, but to me, that's more of a mental situation than a bad attitude. It’s so hard to understand.

"I would feel embarrassed if so many people said I did the wrong thing. I don't know what kind of life she had or how she grew up, but if you watch the video and what she says, it is just so full of hate against so many people."


Photo: Courtesy of Pearl Love.
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How does the treatment of trans people in New York City compare to the treatment in other places?
"A lot of trans people in other places have it worse, but there are still a lot of terrible things that happen here. The Stonewall [Inn] is a very famous gay symbol, but it seems like every month someone gets beat up or 'hate-crimed' or whatever coming out of there.

"Trans people get beat up by groups of men all the time. After my incident, I went to the NYPD Hate Crimes Unit, and they said they have 30 or 40 cases a month. The media made people know about my case, but there are a lot of people who get beat unconscious, or their faces get cut, and no one even hears about it, especially if they don't have video. We still have a lot of work to do."

There is so much shit that happens. I know I can handle it. I’m a strong girl and I try my best to turn…[a] negative into a positive.

Pearl Love, trans activist
Would you encourage other people to record verbal or physical assaults?
"People need to be smart and think on their feet. I usually teach people not to say anything and to walk away. If you think you safely can take video, then do it. But if you get in argument, you might wind up going to jail because they are [a] group of people and it’s their word against yours. You have to be careful so you don't wind up going to jail.

"I know how to block, so I didn't get hurt, but not everyone knows how to protect themselves. Even when I have videotaped, people still deny. That's why I think the best thing to do is run away. You have to be really strong.

"On the subway, I didn't argue too much with the lady. I stayed low and calm and videotaped. In my case, the detective told me, 'You did an incredible job, because if you were yelling back or saying some hate words in anger, then you wouldn’t even have a case.'

"So, a lot of the situations are very difficult and really unfair. Even though she got caught on camera she still comes on the news saying that I was aggressive and wrong."

Do you have a message for people who harass or assault trans people?
"I don't know you, and you don't know me, so why are you saying things about me? What you see in other people is a reflection of [yourself]. If you see people as beautiful, then you are a beautiful person. If you go out the door and pick on everybody and think they’re ugly, then you’re an ugly person. If you’re an ugly person on the inside, then whatever you see is ugly, too."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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