Model Aaron Philip On How Black Trans People Are Integral To Black Lives Matter

"They need to know, damn well, that trans people are powerful."

If you go to Aaron Philip's Instagram profile right now, you'll be greeted by a sea of posts that are all, in some way, dedicated to supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. From flyers about protests and informative graphics about the NYPD's exorbitant budget, to notes boosting the Venmo and CashApp accounts of Black trans women, Philip has been using her account to combat racism by spreading her Black liberation message to upwards of 164,000 followers. The Elite Management-signed model clarified this decision in a pinned tweet on her Twitter page, noting, "Hey loves, want to let you know that I've mobilized my Instagram as an extensive continuous resource to help Black people, Black trans people/women & allies/protestors."

As a model, Philip has fronted campaigns for the likes of Dove, Sephora, and Outdoor Voices; has been featured in publications like Teen Vogue, them., PAPER, and Glamour; and has made appearances on the Dazed 100 list, as well as on Beyoncé’s official website. It’s a list of accolades that would make any new model blush, but while other people in her industry are using Instagram as a place to repost their magazine editorials and runway shots,19-year-old Philip is more concerned with using her platform to fight white supremacy. Being Black, trans, and disabled, Philip has seen firsthand what people from marginalized backgrounds are forced to deal with on a daily basis, and as Black people nationwide continue to be murdered at the hands of the police, she refuses to stay silent.

Photography by Wikkie Hermkens

Philip's dedication to the BLM cause is only compounded by the fact that she's seen how easy it is for queer and trans people to be written out of the narrative, despite the fact that the movement was started by queer women. Last week, a video began circulating that showed Iyanna Dior, a Black trans woman, being violently attacked by a group of at least a dozen men, most whom were cisgender and Black. Dior's assault came just as many people — mostly LGBTQ-identified — were pushing to raise awareness of the story of Tony McDade, a Black trans man who was shot and killed by police officers just two days after George Floyd. While George Floyd's name became synonymous with the protests happening around the world, Tony's seemed to fly under the radar — no doubt influenced by his transgender identity.

So where are Black trans people left in the wider Black Lives Matter movement? As protests continued around the world, NYLON hopped on the phone with Philip to talk about what she has to offer as a Black, trans, disabled model, how she can acknowledge the transphobia that exists within the Black community without singling it out as something endemic to the Black race, and why she decided to mobilize her social media platforms to provide resources and speak out against white supremacy.

I’d like to start by asking how you, personally, feel you fit into the larger Black Lives Matter conversation — specifically as a Black, disabled, transgender woman.

Well, even outside of the Black Lives Matter movement, I'm not an “activist.” I never was. Lowkey, when I was younger, I would call myself a disability advocate because I had a bit of a public presence and was doing stuff within the disability community to uplift our voices. I had a Tumblr blog and I posted about my experiences as a young, disabled, Black child in the Bronx. Then, I came out as trans when I was either 12 or 13, and that changed my entire view.

But when it comes to my presence in Black Lives Matter, I think that I'm only really seeing myself in it now because I'm not advocating for myself — I’m advocating for other people. And that's what I want, in terms of everything. If there's going to be bitches like me out there who just kind of vibe and who are Black, trans, and disabled, I don't want us to be known for that. I want us to be known for the fact that we are women — and we're women who are doing the damn thing. It's crazy when people can't see people that way. It's not to erase transness. They need to know, damn well, that trans people are powerful. My fear is, as a trans woman, people are always telling me what I am, but when I define myself, they can never keep up. I think that's something a lot of Black trans women go through, especially within big movements. We're erased. People still forget that Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were at the forefront of Pride and Stonewall. I feel that people erase us without giving us the proper credit.

Which brings me to my next question. Black Lives Matter was founded by queer women but so much of what we see is centered around Black men, even as Black women, trans people, and gender-nonconforming people are murdered at the same rate.

But ain't it something, how that works, though? You're so right. When people talk about Black lives, there's always a certain attention and drive when it comes to Black cis men. They'll go so hard and so down and dirty for Black cis men. But when it's a Black cis woman, or a Black trans woman, or a nonbinary person that's being killed by the police, they don't show up like that. I've seen it with my own two eyes. And I think that's something to do with our society. I don't say that to downplay the fact that Black cis men are being done bad by 12 because...duh. But how can you not have that same energy for anyone else who is Black? [Cops] don't care if you're a man, a woman, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming — you're Black. So where's the energy for people who are Black versus just Black cis men?

On the other hand, we did just have a protest at Stonewall in memory of murdered trans people, like Nina Pop and Tony McDade, who also died at the hands of the police. Does it feel good to know there are at least some people that want to have these conversations?

To truly uplift those voices as much as George Floyd is uplifted right now is of utmost importance.

Photography by Wikkie Hermkens

There is also the story of Iyanna Dior, who was attacked by a group of men, who were mostly Black. What I found disheartening was the fact that, even in this moment of civil unrest, these men found time in their day to attack another Black person when they should be focusing on the greater cause and expressing solidarity with all Black people.

I was going to say that. It was mind-boggling. Just the fact that cis Black people have the time. This is no surprise, but transphobia within the Black community is very bad. It's bad in every community, so I hate that argument, but I feel like there’s a real violence within Black people when it comes to Black trans people. I'm not sure why, but there's a lot of misogynoir and just a lot of hatred towards the LGBT folks in the Black community at large. But, at the end of the day, we’re all Black and we all are victims. So I was real gagged when I saw on my timeline that they were jumping Miss Iyanna. For what? For why? That whole situation is ignorant. I bet she didn't even do anything. If shorty is minding her business at the function, and she's fighting, and she's out there riding with y'all for y'all life, why would you want to jump her because she's different?

Agreed. But when we talk about transphobia and queerphobia in the Black community, I think we risk playing into this right-wing talking point about Black-on-Black violence. So many white people want to believe that Black people have a unique issue with LGBTQ+ people. How do you reckon with the idea that there’s an issue, without feeding into that?

Because, as a concept, Black-on-Black violence is not racist. White-on-white violence exists. It exists everywhere. There are problems in every race that cause people to fight. I hate when people try to say that because it's just like, "You're so wrong. Everyone has their own crimes within their own communities." Gays have their own crimes! I can't mention any group of people [that don’t have violence and crime], because there will always be conflict within a group of people.

These Black Lives Matter protests happen to be falling right in line with the start of Pride Month, which I think makes the conversation about “protesting” vs. “rioting” particularly interesting. As you mentioned earlier, Pride started because Black trans women like Marsha P. Johnson were willing to fight for days on end against the cops that had been terrorizing them for years. What would you say to those people that seem to have forgotten about that crucial detail in the history Pride?

How could you though? Really. How could you forget? Know your roots. Know your history. Honor your history. Do better. It’s always white people that're so locked up in their whiteness that they can't think for a second that what they have around them was made possible and put into action by people who have to fight for themselves. Within the queer community, you do have “Black” and “white,” lowkey. Black people have had to fight their whole life. White people have had privilege, and now they're being confronted to think harder and do better. But a lot of them don't want to. It's almost like cultural appropriation: People love to jack style and then try to shit on the people who made the styles. How are you going to do that?

Let’s talk about your identity as a disabled person. As people take to the streets to protest, I know that can pose a much greater challenge for you, being in a wheelchair. How have you been able to make your voice heard in spite of these barriers?

Thank you so much for talking about this because I don't really ever get asked about disability at all [even though] it’s literally my life as much as anything else. It would be really difficult for me to go to a protest now, with corona and the fact that I’m in a wheelchair. These protests get rowdy. They get crazy. People have been telling me that they’re prioritizing disabled people, but I don't know how that would work, per se. That could still be dangerous with them cops. So I'm taking my chances and playing it safe from home. But I have completely mobilized my platforms on social media to be of aid to the public. My page is completely for anyone and anybody who is interested in dismantling white supremacy, and I don't know when that's going to stop.

Photography by Wikkie Hermkens
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What prompted your decision to use your social media platforms in this manner?

I just kind of melted into it. Indya Moore was on my timeline [doing the same thing] and I just went into it. I felt that when these things happen, you have to do something. I saw that my Black people are in need of as many resources that are as helpful as possible, so I literally thought, if I can post selfies, I can post information. People get so wrapped up in trying to convey a fantasy [on Instagram]. But this is real life. The Black Lives Matter movement, white supremacy, police brutality — these are real things that require real treatment and real perspectives. So you got to push that out there no matter what. I don't care how much of a model I am. People get so confused because they see that I'm active and use my voice. But they don't understand that I'm not an activist just because I use my voice. I'm a person who speaks.

I never really asked to be thrust into a public light in terms of advocacy and activism. I never even identified with it. If you're a person that’s in a community, it's your choice if you want to speak up — and it's completely fine if you don't want to because some of us are exhausted. I'm exhausted too! But I have this platform, and if I can speak, I'm going to talk. My role as a person is to aid others. That doesn't make me an “activist.” That makes me a good Black person.

Right now, protests are the best way to get involved, but I think one of the main things activists want from this particular moment is long-lasting change. And not just in terms of the police, but in terms of how Black people are treated in general, because they are fighting and struggling for their livelihoods all the time. What are some things you think people can do to help support and uplift Black people in general?

I'm from the Bronx. You know...from the hood. So I say, put people on! Put them on. That's it. Put people on. Put heads on. It doesn't matter who you are or what you're about. If you have something that can benefit somebody, put them on. It's that easy. Put Black trans people on. Put Black trans women on. Black cis women, Black men, Black kids, Black babies — put them all onto things that could help and benefit them. Let people know. Share information. Share resources. Eat together, not separately. Come up together. Put people on!

Before we wrap-up, what are some things you would suggest to people who are looking for ways to get involved with the movement or just looking for ways to help?

Let me share a resource with you. I'm sure you've seen it because it's kind of circulating. [Black-owned meme account] @PatiasFantasyWorld, those are my sisters. I love them so much. They made a master document of how white people, allies, and even Black people can dismantle the system of white supremacy. Honestly, if anyone wants any information, it's right there. If you're going to protest, be safe, and be conscious of the coronavirus too. Know your resources, look for resources, share your resources, and love on each other in this fight. It is a fight but we're going to have to love each other in order to win it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photographer: Wikkie Hermkens

Stylist: Sonny Groo

Hair: Jerome Cultrera

Makeup: Soo Park