'We keep us safe': Black trans women on the frontlines of the pandemic

Tina Vasquez  |  Updated Apr 17, 2020 12:58pm EST
This was supposed to be a story about the Trans Agenda for Liberation, an unprecedented and historical community-led guide developed over years of gatherings and conversations among trans leaders, comprised of Black and brown trans women, people who are incarcerated, disabled trans people, people living with HIV, elders, youth, low-income trans people, and other members of the community. Their collective wisdom and experiences were compiled by the Transgender Law Center and a national coalition of trans leaders, with a staggered release of the Trans Agenda’s five pillars planned for the coming months.
However, when Prism connected with some of the leaders behind the Trans Agenda to talk more about the guide and the world it envisioned for trans and gender nonconforming people, it became clear the story had to widen its focus to include the current pandemic and its effects.
By March 24 when the Transgender Law Center released the first pillar—Black Trans Women and Black Trans Femmes Leading and Living Fiercely⁠—the COVID-19 pandemic had taken hold in the U.S. and was unfurling across New York, devastating already vulnerable communities. This was especially true in Queens, which emerged as the nation’s coronavirus epicenter. The seven-square-mile patch of immigrant enclaves is where Lorena Borjas helped trans women get tested for HIV, bailed out sex workers, and ran her nonprofit that helped provide legal representation to immigrants facing deportation. It is also where she died on March 30 of COVID-19. As a trans immigrant activist, Borjas was a beloved community member and an inspiration to many. Her death was like losing a family member, but through the grief, there was still work to do. Trans leaders nationwide told Prism that the pandemic has exacerbated conditions that already threatened the lives and safety of trans communities—like lack of housing, resources, and gender-affirming care. 
“I don’t want to talk about what that world [envisioned in the Trans Agenda] would look like right now because it doesn’t exist. I want to talk about now,” said Mariah Moore, the New Orleans, Louisiana-based organizing program associate for Transgender Law Center. “I want to talk about the things we’re doing to make people feel safe, like the mutual aid funds making sure people’s phone bills get paid, making sure that sex workers have hotel rooms paid for and education around how to stay safe during the coronavirus. The way we’re making sure people know their rights if they’re being forced out of their homes and how we’re making people aware of advance directives because the scariest thing and the realest thing that can happen right now is our ultimate passing.”
One of the central tenants of the Trans Agenda’s first pillar is that Black trans women and femmes must be trusted to lead movements the way they live their lives: fiercely. The recent weeks have shown that while we are very far from living in a world that honors trans women and femmes, the leaders behind the agenda are exemplifying leadership, as they have always done.
‘Go to the end fighting’
Moore said that as an organizer and community leader, part of what makes her feel affirmed is the fact that she’s going to go out every day, no matter how great the risk, and make sure her community members eat and have a roof over their heads.
“I’m going to go to the end fighting for them. We don’t have a world where we thrive; we have a world where people need to survive and right now our reality is shifting to something we couldn’t have imagined. Me, keeping my people safe, is what the world looks like right now. We keep us safe,” Moore said.
The organizing program associate told Prism that being a Black trans woman has required that she develop a level of strength and resilience that is “unbreakable,” but she and other trans leaders are being tested. The response to the pandemic at the state and federal levels and the lack of care and concern for hard-hit communities of color is state violence, Moore said, and community leaders across the U.S. have been left to help pick up the pieces.
“There is just an astounding lack of resources and we have to show up for our community by any means necessary, even if it means risking our own well-being,” Moore said, noting that some of the biggest needs are also some of the most basic, like food and shelter. “Trans leaders are showing how valuable and necessary we truly are. We are the heartbeat of our communities.”
In New Orleans where Moore is based, trans women report being unable to access gender-affirming care, which has been deemed “medically unnecessary.” Hormone replacement therapy is necessary for trans women, Moore said. Without it, trans women experience gender dysphoria, which can lead to depression and suicidal ideation. The Trump administration has made minimal efforts to provide help during the pandemic, and entire communities are falling through the cracks. As is often the case, the most vulnerable communities are bearing the brunt.  
“There are whole groups of folks—green card holders, sex workers, undocumented folks—who work under the table and aren’t going to get any help whatsoever,” Moore said. “The question becomes: How do we get resources to the people being left behind?”
‘It all falls down on you’
​Janetta Louise Johnson told Prism there are no easy answers. As executive director of the Transgender Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), she was already fighting an uphill battle, building strategies and interventions to reduce the recidivism rate of the transgender community in San Francisco by providing leadership development and job opportunities to those released from custody. As a formerly incarcerated trans woman, she has a deep understanding of how to support the women in her community, but finding the resources to do it is another matter—especially during a pandemic.
As Marketplace reported, there is an overall lack of funding for transgender organizations. Based on the latest public financial information, only five U.S. trans-focused and trans-led nonprofits have budgets over $1 million. This is a problem because many foundations only fund organizations with budgets of that size or even larger, according to Marketplace. Many small nonprofits that already operated on a shoestring budget have been “upended” by the coronavirus outbreak, and are laying off workers and seeking help from stretched donors who are “preoccupied with their own problems, and much less flush than they were two months ago.”
As a small organization, funding was already an issue for TGIJP, which Johnson said receives a “tiny percentage” of the funding that nontrans-led LGBTQ+ organizations receive. Since California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order March 19, TGIJP has been overwhelmed with requests from housing insecure trans women who need help getting off the streets. TGIJP’s meager resources are being used on hotel rooms for members of the community. But it’s not been a seamless process.
“It’s hard because of the discrimination a lot of ladies face,” Johnson said, noting that a portion of the women she organizes with are sex workers who are already “disparaged” by “unsympathetic” hotel staff. “If their [identification] doesn’t match their presentation, they come back and tell us their [hotel] reservations were cancelled.”
Complicating matters further, many hotels have a policy in which stays can only last a certain number of days because they don’t want people to establish residency at the hotel. In essence, there is no long-term housing solution for the women that Johnson works with and as of right now, California’s stay-at-home order is indefinite. Johnson is also working to get elderly trans women and trans women with health issues released from prison after outbreaks of COVID-19 were confirmed at two crowded California prisons.
“This is really hard stuff. I always use this analogy, but this is how this moment feels: Imagine you open the closet and you put everything you have on the shelf, but then you add this one more thing and it all falls down on you. This pandemic is that one thing, that’s how this feels,” Johnson said. “But I’m staying strong and I come from a community of people who aren’t afraid to work. I look to other women like LaSaia [Wade]. I see the work that’s being done and it gives me strength.”
Dreaming big
LaSaia Wade is the founder and executive director of Chicago’s Brave Space Alliance, the first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ+ center located on the South Side of Chicago. Her days are now spent fundraising to meet the needs of her community during the pandemic and organizing volunteers for the organization’s fledgling Trans Relief Fund, in which members of the organization deliver food, toiletries, and other supplies to those in need.
This is a bittersweet time for Wade, whose partner is pregnant with their first child. While it can seem that death and destruction are all around them, the couple is actively dreaming of the world they want to create for their child.
“There is a lot going on, but I want to uplift the Trans Agenda for Liberation because I believe in dreaming big, or what’s the point?” Wade said. “For now, people can just take the time to digest what we are asking for and work on imagining a world where we are all liberated and have equity. After we get through this, let’s come back to it and think about what it would be like to work toward this world together, in person, more organized, more strategized, and with face masks on.”
In the coming weeks, The Transgender Law Center will release the remaining four pillars of the Trans Agenda for Liberation. In the meantime, the organization is holding virtual community gatherings each Thursday.
Tina Vasquez is Prism’s gender justice reporter. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.
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