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A look inside Detroit's black transgender community

Being trans is tough – even in today’s more tolerant climate. But being black and trans is even tougher. But instead of hiding, a wave of local black trans advocates are waging their own civil rights fight – standing tall and pushing back.

Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

Across the country, the transgender community has been experiencing an unprecedented level of visibility. Openly transgender celebrities like actress Laverne Cox and model Isis King are proudly gracing television screens and newsstands. Gender dysphoria – the medical term describing those whose identities differ from their birth gender – is now widely recognized in the medical community, and many major health care providers cover gender reassignment surgery for those who are diagnosed with it. Here at home, the Detroit Police Department recently hired its first transgender officer, who will be graduating from the academy in June.

But despite all of this visibility and perceived progress, Detroit’s black transgender community continues to be impacted by racial and gender prejudice – from microaggressions in their daily dealings to outright emotional and physical abuse. In fact, today, when public opinion polls show the highest level of support of transgender people, the rate of violence against this population is also at an all-time high – and the question of which restroom a transgender person should be “allowed” to use is still being debated.

Some see it as the natural order, akin to what we experienced during the civil rights movement: The more we were seen and the more progress we made, the more vulnerable we were. But what the trans community has gained, and is pursuing full-force, is a refusal to no longer be pushed to the side – despite the initial cost.

Looking for safety

“Some people are afraid (they won’t pass) and they only come out at night,” says Cierra Burks, a transgender entertainer and co-founder of a management and consulting firm. “Or, if they come out during the day, they’re trying to blend in.”

Burks doesn’t try to blend in. She prefers to stand out – trans and proud – even if the risks of discrimination, abuse and even death are greater and on the rise.

Last year was the deadliest year on record for trans people, with a total of 27 trans murders in the United States in 2016, according to GLAAD. Within the first four months of 2017, there have been nine transgender women murdered in the U.S. – all of them women of color. At this rate, 2017 is on target to being the deadliest year on record for trans women of color.

“The murders are rising because we’re more visible,” says Alexandria Gibson, executive assistant at the Detroit-based Trans Sistas of Color Project, or TSOCP. “We say visibility is resistance, but at the same time visibility does not mean safety. It means you’re exposed more.”

Officer Dani Woods, the LGBT liaison for the Detroit Police Department, is working to reduce that risk. In her role, she is notified and involved with every incident or report involving anyone LGBT.

Violence against transgender people is a major issue on her radar. Right now, her plan to decrease violence against the trans community is to increase the rate that crimes are reported, which rarely is done, Woods says.

“They will call me and tell me about (an incident), but they don’t officially report it, which I can understand,” Woods says. “Sometimes a lot of the crimes take place in conjunction with certain activities, so a lot of the girls are scared to come forward.”

The low rate of reported violent crimes can be tied, in part, to two factors: genuine mistrust of the police by the black and trans communities, and many acts take place in conjunction with illegal activities like sex work.

While the trans community has support at the very top of the DPD, including Chief James Craig, at the end of the day, the police acknowledge that they still have to enforce the laws and cannot turn a blind eye to sex work, even if the person is at-risk.

Woods has been working to train officers how to interact with the LGBT community, but TSOCP assistant Tamisha Rembert says she still doesn’t feel respected by officers.

“Coming from somebody that’s been there before, the way (the police) treat the girls is very disrespectful,” Rembert says. “There’s a lot of loud-speaker, ‘he, boy, sir, get out of here before I take you to jail.’ Instead of protecting, they’re doing a lot of bullying and picking.”

Rembert says she was issued a ticket while walking to the store in her pajamas because an officer assumed she was prostituting.

“They just judge you off impulse.”

While trans women are most at risk for being victims of violence, trans men and women are also affected by high numbers of suicide. A 2014 study published by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute at UCLA found trans men attempt suicide at a rate of 46 percent and trans women at 42 percent.

Looking for resources

Mykell Price started his gender transition in Detroit more than seven years ago. In order to begin this medical transition, he was required by law to connect with a mental health provider. His insurance company only gave him a list of two possible therapists he could reach out to.

“I called one person and she said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Then when I actually started meeting with her, I realized she had never provided treatment for a trans individual,” Price says. “Because we’re grouped together, LGBT, a lot of people feel since they’ve provided services for a lesbian or a gay male before, it’s all the same. And it’s definitely not.”

“When it comes to the LGB community, they have the tendency of leaving the T off,” says Burks, who identifies as a transgender woman. “You can find a lot of organizations for gay men and lesbian women, but you won’t find too many for the trans community.”

For Price, he had to venture outside of the city limits to suburbs like Ferndale and Southgate in order to find qualified health professionals.

“And even that’s risky because even myself, as someone who was born and raised in Detroit, who just happened to have connections other places, when I enter spaces outside of Detroit, these places that offer resources to trans men, I try to offer a different side, a different voice. The Detroit, poverty voice.”

When he’s in trans spaces outside of Detroit, Price says he tries to open conversations around the lack of resources that many in Detroit’s trans community are affected by.

“Honestly, it’s easier for a lot of places to stick to what they’re most comfortable with or what’s easiest to maintain,” Price says. “I’ve even been rejected in other trans spaces because I’ve been told that my presentation makes people feel unsafe because I’m a black man.”

“You have a couple of white trans organizations, but they’re just that: They’re white,” Burks adds. “Then you have the black trans community that’s basically out here on these streets surviving, doing sex work, doing fraud and stuff like that. Trying to maintain. That’s what these girls will do because they feel like if you get a real job, how are people going to take it?”

While Price says his employer was supportive of his transition, that’s not necessarily the norm. It’s still legal in Michigan for an employer to fire someone based on his or her gender or sexual orientation.

“There’s a lot of times people start their jobs with their birth name and their birth gender and they take a safe approach. Not necessarily safe for them, but just the easiest way to make a living – just to keep everything as low key as possible. And then they start to develop into their actual identity and start the name change process, start their medical treatment, then sometimes employers will fire them because they notice,” Price says.

Price says other coworkers often will begin to create an unsafe environment for the transitioning person, and it’s easier for an employer to fire one person than the other people that they have to be accountable for. Trans people are often denied interviews and jobs after a background check.

Looking for leadership

Trans communities have typically served as their own support systems. Price has helped build a community among Detroit’s black men of trans experience because he couldn’t find it anywhere. Trans Sistas of Color Project was founded with the support of a diverse board of founding mothers from the transgender community.

“I think we’ve become accustomed to that,” says Bré Campbell, executive director of TSOCP. “The people who support me when I’m in trauma are trans women of color. They’re the ones who send me money, they’re the ones who call and check on me, they’re the ones who send me flowers and candy and make sure that I’m good.”

Adds Jeynice Poindexter, TSOCP founding board member, “For years I’ve seen agencies say, ‘We service this community or we service that community.’ But they’re not at any rallies, they’re not at any meetings, they’re not giving anything to the community and they’re not doing anything to try to really meet needs of people.”

The lack of transgender leadership in the nonprofit sector is one of the root causes that’s created a disconnect and has bred distrust. Many organizations are tasked with trying to figure out how to gain trust from the trans community. But TSOCP leaders say gaining the trust of the trans community is just as simple as having trans  leadership that can relate to the community they’re trying to serve.

“If you tell someone that you’re going to do something for them, after so long of getting let down, girls lose faith. I almost lost mine,” says Rembert of TSOCP. “With them telling us ‘I’m going to help you, I’m going to help you,’ and it never happens, you’re not going to get anybody.”

Rembert is referring to organizations that use things like gift cards and free pizza to try to get these women to come into their offices to fill out surveys to build statistical data and to prove that their organization has interacted with the trans community.

“You can’t really entice people who are living in the margins of the margin with a gift card or a bus ticket or a piece of pizza. You can’t keep asking me to come to these sessions and getting all my information and all my data and think that a $25 gift card is going to appease me when I don’t know, when I leave here, where I’m sleeping,” says John Trimble, deputy director and co-founder of TSOCP. “You’ve pimped the community for their information for, at the very least, 10 years. And the only thing they’ve gotten out of it is pizza and a movie and a gift card.”

“To be a trans woman of color is to live, eat, breathe and sleep trauma for a lot of us,” Gibson says. “Nonprofits are part of the trauma that trans women of color face.”

Looking ahead

This month, TSOCP is hosting the National Gathering for Trans Women of Color right here in Detroit. Women from across the country will convene to have inter-community conversations around policy, anti-trans bias and anti-LGBT laws.

“One of the things that will come out of the gathering is a proclamation for trans lives of color,” Trimble says. “Trans women will get to come together and create a model for how they want to be treated in this country.”

TSOCP is also working on a documentary film and book project that will tell the stories of 35 transgender women of color that they plan to show in film festivals nationwide.

“We’re heading on the path where we have to be recognized,” Burks says. “We’re at a point where we cannot just keep being pushed to the back. We have to be seen and we have to be heard.”

ALANA WALKER IS BLAC'S WEB EDITOR. REACH HER AT ALANA@BLACDETROIT.COM.

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