By Erin McCalla
It has been a year since Cherno Biko came out as trans* on their 22nd birthday and quit their job at a bank to be a trans* activist for people in Columbus, in Ohio and around the nation.
“I like trans* with an asterisk. To me the asterisk stands for the umbrella,” Biko said. “So there’s transvestite, transsexual, transgender. I like the asterisk because for me it creates space for people who define themselves after that.”
Biko also prefers the gender-neutral pronouns they, them, their and they’re.
“Really, identity is political for me,” Biko said. “Because to me, gender is a social construct just like race. It’s completely made up. It’s false. But it has very real implications in our society. So I do employ the use of gender-neutral pronouns, politically.”
Biko decided to come out as trans* after experiencing loss in their family and community. They had met CeCe Dove, a 20-year-old who was among three transgender women killed last year in Northeast Ohio.
“When I came out … it was in response to my brother being murdered and CeCe Dove being murdered,” Biko said. “And so when I wrote that blog post [for Outlook, in July 2013] … it was from feeling like I was the next one. Feeling like my time was being limited, like my time was running out.”
Since then, Biko has traveled all over the country to speak about issues facing transgender people. Last month, they presented a workshop in Philadelphia called, May We Share Your Umbrella?: How to Create Space for Folks Like Us and ended up rooming with writer and fellow transgender activist Janet Mock for the weekend.
Biko also attended a recent Salvation Army conference in Columbus that focused on the issue of human trafficking. Gov. John Kasich made an appearance to sign a bill that increases penalties in Ohio for those who pay for sex with minors.
But Biko wasn’t interested in speaking with Kasich. They were more interested in sharing the struggle of transgender people with social workers at the conference. One current concern is a law in Arizona that gives police the power to arrest people simply because they look like they might be sex workers.
“There’s a trans* woman in Arizona named Monica Jones who was arrested for ‘manifestation of prostitution.’ She didn’t actually do anything. She just accepted a ride,” Biko said. “But manifestation of prostitution leaves intent up for the state’s discretion. It just depends on how you look. So basically, she was walking while trans* and walking while black, and she was found guilty of manifestation of prostitution.
“And that’s because social workers are working with the police who are working with the Catholic Church on a project where they raid hotels and escort sites and streets and pick up these women and put them into the system. But it’s not really helping them.”
Because of those teaching moments, Biko was selected as a part of the 2014 Trans100, a collective “glimpse of greatness” in the transgender community. They shared the honor with, among others, Mock and Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox.
Biko is on the board of TransOhio. They’re also interning with Equality Ohio and Why Marriage Matters, working on marriage equality and equal housing and employment.
But life isn’t all about activism. Biko is single and wants to find love and be in a relationship.
“I’m really attracted to trans* men right now. I identify as pansexual. For me, bisexual doesn’t create space for people who exist outside of that binary. I am falling in love with all my black trans* men.”
While making a living as a speaker is their goal, Biko is willing to pay their own way to put in the work to get their name out there, to build their brand. The majority of Biko’s support comes from their mother and from the community.
“The community has taken me under their wing … and I prefer it that way because I’m accountable to them.”
According to Biko, the most pressing issue in the trans* community right now is not criminalization, access to healthcare or violence, but self-hate.
“I internalized racism, transphobia, misogyny, and I enacted those things on myself and the people in my community,” they said. “It made me hate myself and the people most like me. And unlearning those things was the hardest and most beneficial thing I could have done.”
With all their ambition and dedication, you might think there’s a grand five-year plan for Biko.
But when they see themselves in the future, Biko says: “I simply want to be alive. The life expectancy of a trans* woman of color is 35 years old.”
“I can see myself aging. That alone is enough for me.”