In a world where the trans experience is too often denied, discriminated against, and criminalized, it’s more important than ever to intentionally highlight the voices of trans people — that’s why filmmaker and music industry veteran D. Smith made Kokomo City. The black and white documentary, which was initially released in June 2023, details the highs and lows of a group of Black trans women making their living as sex workers. Their stories are as painful as they are beautiful; for every high moment, the stars of Kokomo City have also experienced a host of devastating (and, in some cases, dangerous) lows. This week, we watched our timelines honor Trans Day Of Remembrance, and the stories of trans people like those shared in Kokomo City remind us how high the stakes are every day.
With notable Black trans women like Laverne Cox and Angelica Ross making waves in the mainstream entertainment space, one might be incorrectly tempted to think that the Black trans experience is well on its way to become more normalized and even accepted on a wide scale, but the sad reality is that the double-edged sword of misogynoir and transphobia is unfortunately still sharp and ever present. Beyond the screen, Black trans women are among the most vulnerable populations in what many are calling an “epidemic of violence against the transgender community.” But how do we create space and safety for trans people in light of these dire circumstances? Paying close attention to a film like Kokomo City might be the first step. In the project, D. Smith, who is also transgender, provides four Black women (Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell, and Dominique Silver) with a platform to tell their own stories in their own words. The women of Kokomo City are raw in the frank discussion of their experiences, never mincing words about the struggles that they’ve faced as Black trans women; they talk openly about the near-death experiences that they’ve had with clients, and the feelings of loneliness and frustration that have accompanied their journeys.
“We’re not trying to convert people to the rainbow,” clarifies D. Smith of her intentions with Kokomo City in a sitdown conversation with Dominique Silver for Refinery29 Unbothered. “We’re just trying to have an understanding. And I thought, for me as a filmmaker, the best I could do is create a space for these protagonists to speak in such an honorable way. I think everybody needs a glimpse of reality.”
“[Trans women] just want rights. We want to feel humanized and treated with respect,” she continues. “How do we convey that to people without them feeling like we’re attacking them? Or like we think we’re above them?”
The reality that she and her stars are trying to assert is simple: Black trans women should be loved and protected by their fellow Black folks. For many of the women, their lives have been marked by people invalidating their identities and telling them that they’re not “real” women. It’s all too common for the LGBTQIA+ community to be isolated from the culture, but the cast of Kokomo City wants to finally be accepted for who they are — for everything they are.
“I feel that the Black community uses every opportunity to strip down my womanhood and invalidate me as a person…I get the most combative response from the Black community,” Silver admits candidly. “We are a threat to people who are not living their truth, and that threat can turn to violence. A lot of us lose our lives because of that.”
The rates of brutal violence that Black trans women face daily should concern all of us. Statistics gathered from the recently released global Trans Murder Monitoring report reveal that 320 trans-identifying or gender nonbinary people were murdered in 2023 (and those are only the reported numbers). Of those victims, most of them were trans women (94%), and 80 percent of those killed were Black. A number of them also worked as sex workers. The report, which first began tracking the fatalities in 2008, has gathered information from different countries, and the continued uptick of violence shows that transphobia is still on the rise internationally. It hits close to home for those involved in the documentary, too; Koko da Doll was found dead of a gunshot wound in Atlanta mere months before the release of the project. In almost every corner of the world, trans people are at risk of violence, and in some cases, death. It’s not an exaggeration by any means: transphobia can be fatal.
Understanding that Black trans women are a key part of the Black community can only happen when we realize that transphobia and homophobia are just as evil as sexism and racism — and that by internalizing and propagating them, we’re playing right into the hands of white supremacy. There shouldn’t be an us vs them mentality, Smith and Silver insist; staunch solidarity across the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality (among other aspects of our respective identities) is the only way to make sure that we can all be free.
“At the end of the day, we have the same issues,” Silver stresses. “We feel the same emotions, we’re experiencing the same oppression and marginalization. But trans people need to be protected more than ever because of the constant struggle that we’ve had to deal with just to be who we want to be and live how we want to live. If we were protected more, then we’d be comfortable being ourselves, and we could even educate people. We wouldn’t have so much animosity in our community if we were protected to begin with.”
Kokomo City may be a story created and told by Black trans women, but Smith intended for it to be a film for everyone to watch and connect deeply with — particularly the cis Black women who have historically distanced themselves from the Black trans woman experience. “It’s very important that [cis] Black women know that there’s a lot of trans women that just want to be side by side, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder taking this battle on full force,” Smith says solemnly. “We have to talk. There are things that trans women have to get off their high horse and listen to Black women about, and Black women are gonna have to stop being so defensive and thinking that they know everything about us.”
“Thanks to Black women, we’re here, so I love them and want to protect them,” she continues. “I don’t want any animosity or any competition between us. The love I have for Black women is more than the love I have for anyone else, and even though it’s not always reciprocated, it doesn’t make me love them any less.”
Trans people, especially Black trans women, should never feel alone in our community. When their basic human rights are up for debate in Congress, and their very existence is being threatened daily, trans people are in dire need of our loud and unapologetic solidarity, and are owed the same fervent protections that we afford to so many others. Trans Day of Remembrance may have passed, but the trans community’s fight for emotional and physical safety is a battle that we can’t afford to ignore.