I Found Black Trans Liberation in the Faith of My Ancestors
Ancient African religious practice showed me I was ready to stand in my truth
A Prayer: A Libation to Our Sisters
“Ori is coming from Heaven to Earth
If my head is behind me,
I will be successful in this world.”
Before you were born, your spirit lived at home with us. We were close—a bond that could never break. Played patty cakes and breathed in stardust. Traveled on comets and surrendered to freedom. Unfortunately, you had to go to that big house to receive your placement on Earth. We never knew why an individual was chosen, where they were going, or when they would return, but we trusted that it was your time. Every piece built up to your big moment. After you did the necessary readings and rituals, we had a big party to celebrate your new flesh. On the day of your departure, the Lord of Heaven assigned you the Orisa, who would walk with and support you. You would not remember their name, but you would remember the sensation of their love. Ifá blessed your destiny as you were cut open from your mother’s womb and thrust into the light.
Life is really about those isolated moments that explode. Big as microelements that created the universe. Small, like when you’re dreaming, lost in your subconscious, and you have a life-changing epiphany. One night three years ago, I woke up from a dream, my heart racing. Before I opened my eyes, my subconscious shouted, I want to be on estrogen!
I was sleeping in my nephews’ room at my sister’s condo. To my left, her boys together were sleeping in the adjacent bed, wrapped around their plushies and blankets—quiet enough that I heard their gentle snoring and the ceiling fan, but it couldn’t stop the heat trapped in my body.
Before that estrogen dream, I had no urge to transition physically and was comfortable not using gender-affirming treatment. My male-presenting performance was familiar; embodying femininity was dangerous. I’ll look stupid in a dress, my legs are too hairy for that, my skin’s terrible; I’ll never look like a woman. My internalized transphobia was steadfast like a fortress, and I masked it, claiming I didn’t care how I presented. It turns out my fortress was made of sand; before I realized it, rushing water surrounded me and pulled me into the current. Naked, I saw my body for who she wanted to be.
It’s true that I didn’t know I wanted to be a trans woman until that dream, but it’s also true that she was always inside of me.
The reality for my Black trans sisters is fucked up and will continue to be so. The consistent violence leaves too many wounds. Not all of us can remain resilient and brush off the critics. Sometimes the critiques puncture our strengths. I feared the potential bruises from visibly transitioning: family members looking at me with confusion or disgust, the shame they would express, and the loneliness of standing in my truth. It takes so much to live freely. On a good day, I know how I need to take care of myself, but on the days when my depression, anxiety, and anger smother me? Shit.
The ancestors created a tradition that helped them feel connected to God; their descendants adapted it and brought in new elements, especially to live through the atrocities of enslavement. We can access those same tools to thrive. One is Isese (Ee-shay-shay), the Yoruba tradition, philosophy, religion, and way of being that God sent various Orisa to help us. I’ve experienced immense healing as a devotee during my gender transition. My spiritual work has transformed my emotional well-being, allowing me to take a leap of faith.
It’s true that I recently became an Orisa devotee, but it’s also true to say that the Orisa was always inside me.
In the spring of 2020, I developed a long-distance relationship with my partner, Johnny, who lived over 700 miles away in Atlanta. We met on Instagram when he saw me on a mutual friend’s story. We joked that if it wasn’t for the quarantine, we wouldn’t have given each other the time. The spark that ignited our love was my comment on the colorful beads he wore in one of their photos. Johnny later revealed himself to be an Orisa practitioner. I had questions.
I came into the tradition because I love hearing stories about Black deities. My family didn’t tell me the fables of our Dominican heritage. More concerned with making and saving money, my elders wanted me to be the best student possible and very macho—the markers of masculine success. Our folklore began with our uprooting, moving to the US, hoping to escape Island poverty. They sacrificed their home so that, God willing, I would build a prosperous one here. I relied on my Catholic upbringing to teach me about good and evil. I knew I was queer when the priest denounced queerness as a sin, and I felt doomed. I flogged myself with shame to discipline my desires. But my flesh couldn’t contain what bubbled underneath; punishing myself did not bring me closer to God. I left the church when I went to college and wandered into New Age spirituality, studying astrology, Tarot cards, and chakras.
Those New Age practices grounded me, but listening to Johnny waxing poetics about Orisa brought me deep-rooted joy. Above all, he emphasized that Isese stood on Iwa Pele, the ethics of developing a gentle character, and connecting to your bespoke destiny. I felt aligned—like drinking water after being thirsty for so long—and my spirit felt compelled to learn more. Talking about our spiritual beliefs opened our hearts to feel safe with each other. Our daily acts of care brought us closer together: facetiming late at night, sending affirmations, and processing our past relationships—the good, the bad, and the ugly. We made it work because we chose to love. I am grateful Johnny supported me during a rocky post-grad transition. I fought for my life to live out my authentic self.
I share my journey to encourage my sisters to include African-based traditions in their healing practices. The three years since practicing Isese, I’ve moved to the South, landed my first job, and started transitioning, including gender-affirming hormone therapy! Let me be clear: I am not advocating we stop visiting our mental and physical professionals. But why can’t we get consultations from a (credible and trustworthy) Orisa priest? It can help us mend our weary souls and balance our health, mind, and soul.
The summer of 2020. I had just graduated from Williams College but was surviving off unemployment. I lived between my sister’s in Newburgh and my mother’s apartment in West Harlem. While applying for jobs, I wrote, read, babysat my nephews, and practiced my divination skills with my Tarot cards. I preferred my sister’s because I loved the quiet of Newburgh, where I heard my intuition. I regularly walked to the waterfront and talked with the Hudson River. She listened as I cried about feeling lost, wanting to fly outside my flesh. Seeing the river traveling between the Hudson Valley, I wondered when I would flow to a new destination.
That estrogen dream proved I still had some growing to do, but I didn’t feel safe doing it in New York. The city held too much of my past. My mother’s eyes struck me, and her words wounded me. She prayed for my salvation, believing I hung out with “demons.” In a way, she saw the darkness around me.
When the pandemic began, I asked myself a few question: How much more time do I have left? Am I wasting the little time I have? On top of that, my critical self-talk convinced me I was not enough and paralyzed me from taking action. Estrogen will make me crazier and more emotional—why do I want to take it when I’m already a mess?
The obvious choice, for my peace, was to stay with my sister. But she didn’t have much space for me. Sharing a room with the boys had adorable moments, but I sacrificed my privacy. I remember doing yoga in the room; the boys took it as an invitation to jump on me. They were joyful, but I was irritable. Another time, I tried to put an ancestor shrine in the kids’ room—just a white sheet, a glass of water, and a white candle—but my sister wanted me to take it down. She was worried for the boys’ safety. She asserted that they could break the glass and hurt themselves, but under her statement, I knew she was uncomfortable. We compromised that I would put it inside a dusty cabinet in the living room. Only when everyone was asleep could I pray in front of the shrine.
That fall, I visited Johnny in Atlanta. By then, we had been dating for five months, and I’d taken two trips to Atlanta. They took me to a local Ile to get my first Orisa reading. My future godmother said: be ready for a change, be kind to women, and be careful with whom I share my light and, to observe these messages, pray to my Ori, my spiritual essence from Heaven.
I talked with Johnny about my frustrations at home, and they offered refuge at their place until I figured my shit out. Leave New York, my homeland? With no job and living off the money from my unemployment benefits? To live with a person who had known for less than a year? The decision weighed on me until I imagined what I might gain. A place to wear whatever I want, go wherever I want, eat whatever I want. I would miss my family, but a new life in a new city was exciting. I decided to take that leap of faith.
Johnny and I drove to New York (it was their idea) to pick up my things, planning to spend Christmas with my family. The plan was working great—my sister supported my decision and felt comfortable with Johnny, the boys loved him (I was jealous when they gave him more attention than me), we cooked dinner for them, and when we needed a break, we took drives to the waterfront and prayed to the river—until it was almost Christmas time. My mom had never come to Newburgh, and she didn’t want to meet Johnny; her choice reeked of prejudice. I never told her my moving-out plans, knowing she would disapprove, so instead, I said that my “friend” and I were staying for Christmas and then going to Atlanta for New Year’s. Still, she disapproved of me not celebrating the new year with the family.
We were supposed to celebrate Christmas at my mom’s, but when my sister told me at the last minute that Johnny wasn’t welcome, it was a blow to the chest. When will Mami accept us? Accept me? But I felt obligated to greet her. Johnny somberly understood and offered to stay in the car. Assuming it would be a quick hi-and-bye, I left them in their car and promised to bring a plate of food.
I entered a chaotic scene: my sister cleaning the whole apartment, removing the plates from cupboards to wipe the shelves, clearing out cabinets filled with old memories and broken electronics we no longer used (but never threw away), mopping the floors, the kids were screeching over their new gifts. I assumed my sister’s cleaning was a distraction because our mom was stressing her out—maybe about Johnny and me. She urged me to stay and help clean. I was pissed. It wasn’t right to leave Johnny alone, but I obliged, thinking the faster I did this, the quicker I could go.
My mom lay on the couch talking with my tía Gladys. She gave me the phone to say Merry Christmas to her. My tía had been sick for the last year, in and out of the hospital for a kidney infection. She asked me, “You remember my promise?”
“Yes, tía,” I said, remembering when I told her I wanted to be a writer, she made me vow that I would write her memoir, an honor I didn’t appreciate at the moment. She was the first person in my family who supported my writing. I told her I loved her and returned the phone to my mom; that would be the last time I talked with my tía.
Two hours later, I returned to the car with a cold plate of food. Johnny looked broken, upset to spend Christmas in cold isolation. They started the car and drove away. I wished I could’ve cried, but instead, I shut down.
Johnny and their Morehouse brethren lived in an apartment complex in Marietta, a 35-minute drive from Atlanta. I was not used to living around forests and disgustedly-excessive mansions. The state hung onto its chattel slavery legacy: a residentíal community named Plantations Place, another apartment complex called Power Ferry Plantation, and more. The buildings near us housed many South Asian families; the kids would frolic in the parking lot every day after school, to the drivers’ frustration, and their parents flocked up and down in small groups. Black families lived in tiny clusters, like the middle-aged gay couple who put up colorful holiday decorations.
Freed from engaging with my family, I focused on self-care: journaling, meditating, divining, doing yoga, working out with Johnny at a nearby gym, and praying in front of their Orisa shrine. I went to thrift stores and brought dresses for the first time; I started using she/they pronouns. Johnny and I built an ancestral shrine proudly displayed in our room. I hoped that committing to small daily acts would lead to peace.
The chaos inside you is louder in a place of stillness. My critical voice believed I was an imposter: I made a mistake leaving New York. I ain’t doing shit here. I don’t belong here. I’m using Johnny to run away from my problems. Can I be feminine? Can estrogen change my body? I don’t have the income or insurance to cover the costs; put myself in debt for what? I saw myself naked in the mirror and saw my beard, broad shoulders, and tall body and was disappointed.
Johnny and I had bad fights based on small misunderstandings, but we projected old anger and insecurities into the argument. I voiced the doubt I was feeling inside, and that triggered Johnny. “Do you want to go back to New York?” Johnny asked me one night; in his tender eyes, I saw panic.
I assured them I did not: “This is my home.”
I prayed to my Ori, as my godmother instructed me. I expressed gratitude for waking up another day. Invisible hands caressed me, letting me know I was not alone. I changed how I spoke to myself, shifting my perspective from “I” to “We/You.” I dug deep into the shadows of my soul to find affirmation. In my journal, I wrote: You’re writing this as a reparation for your inner child. She deserves a space to feel and be, and that’s beautiful. We are proud and love you so much.
The biggest charm of Marietta was its nature trails. The Chattahoochee River (coyly called ChattaCoochie) snakes through the land, and my enclave was near many of her streams. One day, walking through the forest, I needed to clear my head. After doing my self-care routines, I felt so small and in the dark. I ain’t worth shit; people younger than me are living my dream and making hella money and I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere. That’s when I came upon the Chattahoochee’s main tributary, Sope Creek. Hearing the water rushing over stones spurred me to sob. I kneeled on the sandy bank and prayed for the water to hold the emotions I couldn’t anymore. I cried like never before, and I surrendered.
You will be ok—we’re here, the water confirmed.
When the weather warmed, I regularly hiked to find peace. I sat on top of rocks that resembled prehistoric eggs and journaled to God. During times of uncertainty—like when I received rejections from jobs, literary magazines, and creative fellowships—I sat by the creek to remind myself that I am a storyteller. I witnessed my soul’s sensations as I listened to the water, teaching me how to mother myself. To show gratitude, I gave her offerings of fruits, honey, and songs of praise.
Johnny suggested I communicate with my mom, reminding me that a tenet in Isese was honoring your mother. My sister and I talked on and off but rarely mentioned our mom. “You know how she is,” she persisted, not wanting to get in the middle of our feud. I don’t wanna hear her talk shit. But she’s your mother–don’t let her anger stop us from giving her love.
Begrudgingly, I called her. She picked me up while working in her taxi; I said, “Hi, Ma,” and she replied, “I am? I didn’t know I had a son.” She never asked about Johnny; when she did, she ranted about how I took advantage of their generosity. She asked when I would return to the City; I gave vague responses. I stopped the conversation before we both got heated and tried the next week again.
What brought us together was God. “God is with me,” I reasoned after she said that I was going against God’s wishes. She and I had different definitions of God—my God is queer, and hers is conservative—but our God was compassionate. One Sunday morning, she talked about her favorite Bible passage, “Before you leave to go anywhere, say Pslams 91.” She credits that verse for protecting her in her 20-plus years of taxi driving. I read the first lines: “…I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”
“Aha—that’s it, son,” she laughed. From there, reaching out to her on Sundays morphed into our ritual. She would ask me if I went to church, and, knowing that I attended an Orisa service, I said yes. Is it worth improving my relationship with my mom if she always sees me as her son? Have faith that the work you’re putting in will heal.
Later that April, I serendipitously got a remote job at an NYC-based non-profit. The Executive Director, who remembered when I was a student of the program, offered me a remote position to assist in writing communications and grants. I had a salary and health insurance; I could afford gender-affirming hormone therapy and take the essential steps to be myself!
But the blessing of the new opportunity tormented me. At night, it was difficult to go to sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about the rookie mistakes I made during the day. I misspelled a student’s name in a press release and, devastated, earnestly wanted to kill myself. Remember, you’re still new and have a lot to learn. It’s ok to make mistakes. But damn, why am I fucking up so much!
In the morning, I woke up irritable. I gotta work, so I can have a place to live, shit to eat, and not be an absolute failure. I can’t do the shit I want. Praying to my Ori momentarily centered me until I fell into despair again. On the weekends, I recharged as much as possible, rarely communicating with my friends; two days were never enough. More cracks appeared, and I was overwhelmed with simply caring for myself. Improve my health, maintain a job, plan for my future, grieve the violence we endure, and more. Had done my self-care routine, done the readings and rituals. Ended the feud with my mom. Got a damn job and health insurance. What else can I do?
Later that week, I returned to the Ile to get another reading to clarify what I needed to do. I was prepared for the reading to reveal a hidden enemy preventing me from succeeding. I was surprised when Orisa said they wanted me to take it easy. My godmother advised me to focus on rest and joy because I lacked them most. They were right; I wasn’t sleeping well and shunned myself from the world to manage my imposter syndrome and perfectionism. Immediately, I thought, Am I taking my life too seriously?
The autumn leaves changing color reminded me to be mindful of how my life changed. Johnny and I moved from Marietta; our new apartment building bordered Bankhead and Buckhead, with gentrification demolishing the landscape. No more strolls to the creek. In its stead, Marietta Boulevard sprawled for miles, new constructions on either side. Black and Brown men in hard hats hammered away while their white bosses lollygagged to the side. There was a small creek nearby, but it smelled like sewage. Detached from nature, my roots needed more nourishment to survive.
Johnny recommended that I see a therapist. We had just had another fight, and Johnny pointed out the repetition of my patterns that had fueled the fire: not communicating my emotions, shutting down, and becoming passive-aggressive. I finally understood I might be a part of the problem. I started the arduous process of finding a new therapist and reviewed dozens of websites and reviews.
I found an available therapist who did virtual sessions. In our session, I cried, “The pressure to succeed is killing me.” On the screen, the room’s darkness engulfed me; a small light shined through the shades. She was adamant that I take a medical leave from work to start antidepressants: “Your serotonin levels are imbalanced, and the best way to address it is to begin an SSRI treatment.” Take pills? I don’t need to be medicated. That’ll fuck with my head. Then: What else have you got to lose? Do you want to continue feeling shitty? I took her advice, took off from work, and scheduled an appointment with a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The nurse diagnosed me with PTSD and put me on Prozac and Quetiapine. I was worried about the stigma of taking them, but my therapist advised me not to attach too much to the label and instead focus on healing. No more shame, no more shame, no more shame, I said as I ingested the pills.
The medication helped immensely. My mood swings lessened, and the critical thoughts didn’t feel so powerful. I could see myself clearer now that the dark clouds were gone. You see, don’t you feel better? Things were looking up; my concentration during work improved, the foundation between Johnny and me strengthened, and I planned to visit my mom and tía Gladys during the Holidays (I would go alone to avoid what happened last Christmas).
Johnny and I were heading to a gathering with their friends when my sister called me. I heard my mom wailing in the background. My sister managed to say that tía Gladys had passed away. The night she transitioned, she told the family around her to ensure I kept my promise. We later learned that a bullet from a past shooting—a jealous lover—caused her illness.
Before leaving, I told my therapist that I feared going to New York while transitioning. She said, “You are going to say goodbye to your aunt. Prioritize caring for yourself and avoid anyone shaming you for who you are.” To say goodbye, I decided to write my tía a letter to express what I wished I said.
I arrived at my mom’s apartment, but she wasn’t there. Knowing she couldn’t handle seeing the sibling she saw as another daughter in a casket, she stayed with the kids upstate. My sister was drunk and watching television on the couch at my mom’s. We talked briefly about nothing; the elephants in the room couldn’t be named. She wants to be alone, and you need rest for tomorrow. I headed to bed early and spent the rest of the night writing the letter and praying for peace.
For the wake, I wore an outfit I bought from the women’s section and put on my heeled boots. My sister also put a lot of time into her look, even dying her hair this gorgeous brown color. We both agreed to look our best for our tía, who always complimented us on how good we looked at family functions.
A quiet trip except for the sound of our heels, my sister and I entered the funeral home and greeted people separately. Ok, we’re on our own, but we’ll be fine. I didn’t recognize most of the people there. Male cousins I hadn’t seen in years tried to dap me up, but I went in for a hug instead. Some relatives complimented my looks and were glad to see me. But I dissociated to withstand heaviness; I couldn’t share my emotions, so I hid them. Wanting to give her the letter, I asked my sister to go with me and support me, but she wouldn’t go. She had fear in her eyes. A very sweet cousin offered to be by my side. I kneeled on the rail and took in what I saw: puffy, yellow skin, eyes closed, deep red lipstick, and arms crossed. It was my tía for sure, but her spiritual essence was gone. I placed the letter by her hands. Head down, I forgot where I was for a moment until my cousin helped me to stand. The rest of the service moved on, but I wasn’t there. My sister and I took the train back to Harlem with nothing to say to each other. The next day, we went to the burial and watched the casket be lowered. I held my sister’s shoulder as we walked to the gaping hole and threw our roses.
Afterward, she drove us to Newburgh, where my mom lay on the couch in her pajamas, watching television; she hadn’t showered in days. I kissed her on the cheek. She looked at me: “Hi, son.” For the first time in a long time, I saw myself in her. I got on the couch with her and watched television while she and my sister gossiped about who was and wasn’t at the burial.
The rest of the time in New York, I processed all that had happened. I returned to the Hudson waterfront and meditated on the misery and traumas my family had endured: extreme poverty, racism, domestic violence, unjustified arrests, alcoholism, exploitative and oppressive governments, etc. We had managed to survive, but to thrive? We carried too many wounds.
I tried to envision how tía Gladys survived the worst moment of her life. If the bullet had been an inch closer, she could have died. After the shooting, she became paraplegic and had to change everything she had known. I imagined she wanted to give up, but she continued to conjure joy. She was always there for me, even when I wasn’t aware of it. When my mom talked bullshit about me moving to Atlanta, my tía defended my need for space, I would later learn. The love she showed me grew into the love I later gave myself. I wish I could’ve told her about my transition; she would have supported me.
My tía transitioned into Heaven, where she was embraced and welcomed home, while I got back on a plane to Atlanta. Looking out of the window at the pearly-white clouds, I felt stable. You’re transitioning into the person you’re meant to be.
A year later, I was naked on the table as the wax specialist ripped off my old hair and dead cells. I realized it was time to start hormones, to have a new beginning. My faith showed me that I could stand in my truth. I researched and talked around to find the best way to start. Thanks to the people at FOLX Health, I spoke with a knowledgeable clinician and received my estrogen and testosterone blockers within two weeks.
It is wild to think of how my body will change, but I know I am not alone. I have my ancestors, the cleansing water, the community of my chosen family who has my back, my John, my Ori, and more. We are here with you, don’t forget us.
We will lead you home
Before you arrive, we will sing your name
When you come home, we embrace you
Before you left Earth
We knew where you would go
This essay, by Leo D. Martinez, is the fifth in Electric Literature’s new series, Both/And, centering the voices of transgender and gender nonconforming writers of color. These essays publish every Thursday all the way through June for Pride Month. To learn more about the series and to read previous installments, click here.
—Denne Michele Norris