The INTO Interview

Elle Moxley Is Ensuring That Black Trans Women Are Seen, Heard, and Uplifted Through Her Work at The Marsha P. Johnson Institute

· Updated on March 13, 2023

*Photo credit: Irvin Rivera (@graphicsmetropolis)

The transgender community is under attack. Full stop. With each bit of legislation, with every transphobic message, and with every moment of senseless violence, trans people continue to be told that they do not deserve to exist. And when you factor in the intersectionality of identities, Black trans women’s lives continue to tell tales of suffering.

As we leave Black History Month and enter Women’s History Month, this narrative is still quite salient. But that’s not the entire story and Elle Moxley, founder and CEO of The Marsha P. Johnson Institute (MPJI), is ready to rewrite it. 

Named after the activist and prominent figure within the 1969 Stonewall uprising, MPJI “protects and defends the human rights of Black transgender people”. Through organizing, advocacy, community development, and transformative leadership, MPJI has been utilizing their efforts to uplift, protect, and provide healing for Black trans people since 2015. 

Founded by Moxley, a Black trans woman, the organization is providing resources and rewriting the narrative around the lives of Black trans people. Whether that’s through her work at MPJI or recounting her own story growing up as a Black trans woman in the Midwest in her short film Black Beauty, Moxley is ensuring that this world is place for Black trans people to not just exist, but to flourish.

INTO spoke with Moxely about her activism work, her vision and hopes for her organization, and how others can support the work of MPJI.

How did you get into organizing work and how did The Marsha P. Johnson Institute come to be?

Having to advocate for myself from the time that I was a little girl, until now, is really what led me into the work. There was so much opposition that I experienced in school, in my home, and in my community that it led me to create a space for myself. But more than anything, it made me want to create a space for others so that others didn’t have to experience what I did, which was a lot of hardship and, to be very honest, a lot of suffering. I knew that I didn’t want to continue to live my life that way, having to fight, scrape, and get myself up from my bootstrap. So, I chose to do something about it and organizing and advocacy is how I did something about it.

My work as an organizer has been highly documented and archived over the years because of its early influences with Black Lives Matter, but also with the LGBT organization GetEQUAL and the right to take direct action is something that was heavily a part of how I got here and created enough power to be able to leverage that. A nonprofit organization, such as The Marsha P. Johnson Institute, needed to exist and it needed to exist at a time like this, not just to support all of the advocacy and the organizing that was happening, but to support the future sustainability of Black trans lives. 

We’re tired of talking about our demise. We want to actually see ourselves as beautiful. We want to see ourselves as we know we are.

Elle Moxley

So, that was the reason why I created the organization. There were too many Black trans people being killed, murdered, and pushed out of opportunity in our movements and in the world. It felt very important to make sure that we weren’t just organizing independently of each other. That there was some coordinated collaboration across Black transgender people in the United States and all of those that support Black transgender people to really find solutions, as opposed to just reporting on what Black trans people already knew about our existence.

There are multiple initiatives that MPJI has going on, whether that be with the Community Organizing Fellowship or the Coalition to End Violence Against Black Trans Women. Could you talk about these two?

We understood that the duality of life exists and the reality is that life and death is something that we all will face at a point in time. The goal of humanity is to experience some joy in between the birthday and the ending of our lives. So, we understood that we had a responsibility to do both, to advocate for our people to be able to be alive and to be alive in their communities. Protecting women is something that we completely value and understand as women. That’s why we have that [Coalition to End Violence Against Black Trans Women] really working to find policy solutions. And to be very frank, where’s the money? Where are the resources that actually sustain community? And how do we get those community resources in the hands of people in the community? 

But the other side of this is that we know the Black trans community is not just a community that’s dying. It’s a community that is living, thriving, and birthing. So, one of the things that was really clear is that it’s an artistic community. Why would we not support the birthing of art that reflects the desire for the societies we want to have versus the ones that we know we’re already living in?

So, that was kind of the thing around those programs. We are tired of talking about our deaths. We’re tired of talking about our demise. We want to actually see ourselves as beautiful. We want to see ourselves as we know we are. And that’s part of why those programs are what’s anchoring the future of The Marsha P. Johnson Institute, our mission, and our purpose.

Photo credit: Getty Images

I love hearing how MJPI is creating opportunities for Black trans folks to thrive, because that’s ultimately what everyone wants to do, and Black trans folks are no different. One of our contributors had a conversation with Black trans poet Bay Davis and she mentioned “I want to not lift heavy things. I want to not build stuff. I want enough space that I get to be a little docile – a little softer. I want to feel safe enough and cared for enough that I don’t have to be so here all the time.” What comes to mind when you hear that?

Nobody wants to do this as work, to be quite honest. That’s certainly been what I’ve been experiencing. If I could do other things, I would. But this is what my life taught me to be great at. Not to say that this is the only thing that I’m great at, but this is the most fulfilling thing that I’m great at right now. For me, I truly believe in doing God’s work. And that’s work that not only God will be proud of, that I’ve done, but work that I can share in being proud of with God. I really ground myself in that. I would love to do other things, and I will someday. But right now, this is mine. This is my work and I own it completely.

The MPJI resource map allows for trans folks to gain access to resources from the state they live in within the U.S. and informs folks who aren’t trans in order to educate themselves further on how to support trans folks. How did this resource map come to be?

The resource map, there are so many dreams and visions around the organization that I’ve always had, and one of those dreams was certainly to bring more resources. I grew up in a time where there were some resources that you could find on the internet about what it meant to be trans, or transgender affirming places where you can have certain trans-specific healthcare needs met. But it was always informed from the experience of a white trans person or a white trans lens. These resources exist, but are they going to be supportive of my Black trans ass? Probably not, because there’s this barrier around race that convolutes the opportunities. 

I started my journey organizing young Black trans women at my mother’s kitchen table as a homeless woman living out of my car. So to me, there’s no limit to what can be done.

Elle Moxley

We wanted to really do our due diligence as a national organization to just level set with our community who we know have great needs. We found that out because of our covert recovery program and the reasons why people needed the support. It just became clear, why don’t we have a resource map that people can access when they need it?

A lot of my experience has been just moving around to try to really figure out what city will affirm all the things that I need to have a bigger, better, and beautiful life. That’s been really hard. So our hope is that the resource map is another element of support that our community is able to access for themselves, so they can continue to pursue the lives that they want versus the lives that society, the government, family, and religion tell us that we have to have.

What do you hope for the future of The Marsha P. Johnson Institute?

Well, I hope that The Marsha P. Johnson Institute continues to grow and that it has an opportunity to support itself, growing to a space that creates access to Black trans people near and far. I think one of the things about Black led organizations is that expectations get placed upon those organizations fast because there is such a gap in need. So, I do hope that we are able to stabilize our foundation so that we can continue to do the work that we know must be done as we continue to prepare and balance with the attacks that are constant. 

We’ve seen [it] in the political legislative season over the last ten years, whether it was bathroom bills or, now, targeting trans youth and their parents’ ability and right to choose the best health care measures for their children. We anticipate that we’ll continue to see attacks that interrupt our community from really being able to be supportive of the things that have been created. 

I hope The Marsha P. Johnson Institute is able to stay tapped into its bigger picture and that many more Black transgender people get tapped into that with us.

In what ways can our readers be able to provide and offer their support and services to The Marsha P. Johnson Institute?

Money is a change maker in today’s world and in today’s society. We’re seeing inflation really impact people in ways that interrupt the ability to fight and to resist state violence, state government control, and essentially fascism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness. I will always encourage, if you have it, to please give. If you’re somebody who really believes in the fight, if you believe in Black trans people, if you believe in Black trans women and our leadership, please continue to support us. Volunteer for Black trans led organizations and really do your just due with what offerings you have versus the critiques or the assumptions or what you would do if you were in power, because that’s something that certainly does permeate, whether it is direct or not. 

Everyone thinks that they know the right thing that they would do and none of them have the actual experience of building something. So, less critique, more action, more resources, volunteer, make a donation, say a prayer, and offer whatever space you can. I started my journey organizing young Black trans women at my mother’s kitchen table as a homeless woman living out of my car. So to me, there’s no limit to what can be done.

Photo credit: Rob Loud (Elle Moxley in conversation with actress and model Dominique Jackson)

The possibilities are endless when you tap into the bigger picture and you think about your life beyond just yourself. There are lots of ways that people can support and I think people ultimately have to find the best way that’s most meaningful to them on how they can offer that to others.

Don’t just talk about it. Be about that action and practice what you preach. If you’re the baddest b*tch, then be the baddest b*tch, but just make sure that you being the baddest b*tch is not because your actions are destructive to others or yourself.♦

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