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COVER STORY: The Transgriot

Trailblazing journalist and advocate Monica Roberts stood at the intersection of transgender history’s past, present, and future.

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Monica Roberts delivering a speech at the Educate Out Loud research symposium hosted by the University of Texas (Facebook).

Monica Katrice Roberts, 58, an unapologetically Black transgender journalist and advocate, died of natural causes at her West Houston apartment complex on October 6. She is survived by her mother, brother, two sisters, and her extended family of choice.   

The November 2020 issue of OutSmart magazine.

Roberts was the founder and editor of Transgriot, an award-winning blog launched in 2006 to tell the stories of Black trans people, whose issues were often ignored by the media. She was also a founding member of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition and a leader of both the Transgender People of Color Coalition and the Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit. She became a fixture at the State Capitol in Austin as she lobbied Texas lawmakers to pass pro-LGBTQ legislation.   

When Roberts’ close friend and fellow trans activist Dee Dee Watters announced the news of Roberts’ death via Facebook on October 8, hundreds of folks took to social media to offer their condolences and describe how Roberts’ legacy of civil-rights activism had personally impacted their lives.

“I would not be where I am without her,” tweeted Janet Mock, a Black transgender writer and director. “She was a big sister who told it like it was, who centered the Black trans [community’s] brilliance and history unapologetically.”

Roberts had often worked alongside local media outlets to help them accurately cover trans stories, and they reported on her death and her legacy with generously detailed stories. Nationally, her passing was covered by CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Out magazine, and others. 

“One of the major reasons I spend so much time trying to tell the stories of our fallen trans siblings and give them the respect they are due.”

—Monica Roberts

On October 24, Roberts was laid to rest after a homegoing service at the University of Houston’s Cullen Performance Hall. Organized by Watters and funded by Black Transwomen Inc., the service was officiated by Rev. Marvetta Walker and directed by trans activists Trenton Johnson and Jessica Zyrie.

In addition to the dozens of friends and family members at the service, there were also several elected officials in attendance. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner spoke, and declared October 24 to be Monica Katrice Roberts Day in Houston. He also mentioned his goal of enacting citywide protections for LGBTQ people.

In 2014, City Council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which prohibited discrimination based on gender identity and expression (in addition to more than a dozen other characteristics). However, anti-LGBTQ groups used misleading anti-trans attack ads to convince voters to repeal the ordinance in 2015. And while several advocates have called for a HERO 2.0, that legislation has yet to be created.

“Let’s finish our work [to end discrimination],” Turner said during Roberts’ memorial service. “Monica’s work is not finished, but we are here—at least while I’m mayor—to make sure we carry on her legacy.”

On October 25, social-justice organizations Black Lives Matter Houston and Houston Rising hosted a Get Out The Vote rally at City Hall in honor of Roberts. Rally speakers noted that Roberts’ final social-media posts urged her followers to participate in the November 3 election. Several political leaders and LGBTQ activists spoke at the event, including organizer Brandon Mack, who vowed that Houston’s next nondiscrimination ordinance would be named after Roberts.

“One of the things Monica wanted to see was HERO,” Mack said. “She fought for that ordinance with the same vigor that she fought against discrimination for everyone. It passed, only to be repealed because of the transphobia that the opposition used. Now I’m calling for the Houston City Council to pass what we used to call HERO 2.0, [but will] now forever be known as the Monica Roberts Ordinance.”

Roberts protesting a bathroom bill at the Texas Capitol in 2017 (Twitter).

Roberts’ Journey to Activism

Roberts was born in Houston on May 4, 1962. Her mother, Mable, was a school teacher, and her father, Rick, was a well-known radio host. Roberts graduated from Jesse H. Jones High School in 1980, and from the University of Houston in 1984.

In the ’90s, Roberts was working as a gate agent for Continental Airlines when she began her gender transition. She dealt with discrimination from coworkers who tried to get her banned from the women’s employee restroom. The group failed, and two other employees came out as trans after Roberts led the way.

In a 2019 interview, Roberts told OutSmart that she originally had no intention of becoming an activist. But in 1997, when a local organization published Transgender Tapestry, a series of articles profiling 100 out trans people, she noticed that none of them looked like her. The only Black people even mentioned in the articles were RuPaul and Dennis Rodman.

Frustrated, she began to get involved in local and national trans organizations. Trans activists Phyllis Frye and Sarah de Palma mentored her. In 1999, she began lobbying Austin legislators to include trans people as a protected class in the James Byrd Hate Crimes Act.

For most of the 2000s, Roberts lived in Louisville, Kentucky, and worked for an activist organization. During that time, she also served on the board of Southern Comfort, the largest trans conference in the country. She wrote a regular trans-focused column for The Letter, a Louisville-based LGBTQ newspaper. That column was eventually canceled due to a conflict with an advertiser who opposed her viewpoints.

Roberts speaking at the GLAAD Media Awards in 2016 (Kimberly White/Getty Images).

On January 1, 2006, Roberts published her first Transgriot blog post. The term “griot” (pronounced gree-ow) is a West African term that refers to a storyteller and historian. Roberts used her blog to tell the stories and chronicle the history of Black trans people, but also to report on trans homicide victims who are often misgendered in police reports and media coverage.

Horrified by the rate of violence against trans people—which disproportionately impacts trans women of color—Roberts began to compile statistics on Transgriot. Whenever a murder occurred, she wrote a tribute to the victim. Her blog became a vital source of information for both local and national media whenever they reported on trans murders.

Because of her vast number of contacts and connections, Roberts was often able to assist law-enforcement officials as they worked on anti-trans murder cases. She also made it a point to attend as many of the victims’ funerals as possible.

“Far too often, trans people who have been murdered are then misgendered and deadnamed by law enforcement and the media,” Roberts told Out magazine 2018. “That’s one of the major reasons I spend so much time trying to tell the stories of our fallen trans siblings and give them the respect they are due.”

Roberts the Committee Hearing Room in the State Capitol building (Twitter)

A Lasting Legacy

Roberts returned to Houston in 2010, and within a week she was attending the Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit at Rice University.

While living in Space City, Roberts regularly traveled to Austin to testify against anti-trans bills and take part in “trans lobby days” with other trans activists. She was a popular and sought-after speaker for political rallies. “She was greatly respected,” says Dee Dee Watters.

Roberts told OutSmart that her proudest moment was helping pass HERO in 2014 after she had participated in public hearings for the nondiscrimination ordinance. During a right-wing rally to rescind the ordinance, Baptist preachers were yelling scripture quotes at attendees who supported HERO. “Monica started reciting Bible verses right back to them,” Watters remembers.

Roberts’ work was acknowledged through numerous local and national human-rights awards. Transgriot received the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Blog in 2018, and she was nominated four other times. In 2019, she was selected as a Pride Houston Honorary Grand Marshal. In January 2020, she was given the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Susan J. Hyde Award for Longevity in the Movement. In May, she was included as one of The Advocate’s Women of the Year. Just weeks before her death, she received the Houston GLBT Political Caucus Lifetime Achievement Award.   

Roberts also wrote a regular column for OutSmart magazine. In her November 2019 column, she shared the key reason for her activism work: to empower generations of trans folks who would come after her.

“We do all of this not for ourselves, but for the trans kids,” Roberts wrote.

Landon Richie, a 19-year-old trans activist, remembers the first time he met Roberts in 2014, just two months after he came out. “In that moment, I knew I was home and safe,” Richie says. “For me and so many others, Monica was a testament to the beauty, power, and resilience of trans people. She made it possible for me as a trans kid to imagine a world where trans people could not only survive, but thrive as our authentic and unapologetic selves.”

Roberts was well aware of the impact she had on others. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into some trans millennial who tells me that my blog inspired them to do this or inspired them to do that,” she said. “At least five times, people have told me that reading my blog posts is what kept them from committing suicide. So every time I sit down and write a post, I keep that in mind—that what I’m writing may inspire someone who does not want to persevere.”

To read Monica Roberts’ blog Transgriot, visit transgriot.blogspot.com.

This article appears in the November 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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