Black people. Poor people. Sick people. Women. LGBTQ people. Immigrants. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that all of us must stand firmly in our truths and support each other. Because right now it seems like we live in a world that would rather ignore our humanity than treat us with fairness and integrity.
No group of humans understands this more than the transgender community.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, at least 33 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been violently killed in the United States this year, the highest number since the organization began tracking data in 2013. Most of the victims are Black and Latina trans women.
Two transgender women were killed in Philadelphia this year. In September, 29-year-old Mia Green was found dead in a Jeep. And in June, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, 27, was stabbed to death; her body was found in the Schuylkill.
“We are currently in the midst of an extremely vitriolic period, where hate is fueled even from our nation’s highest office,” wrote Tori Cooper, the HRC’s director of community engagement for the transgender justice initiative, in an email. "At times like these, we need allies to speak out on behalf of the entire community more than ever.”
So what can you do to better support trans people in Philadelphia? We asked four trans activists what they want you to know about their experiences and what true support means to them.
The answers have been edited for clarity.
Understand that this has been a lifelong struggle:
Janis Stacy (she, her), 60-something, activist: I realized that I was a person who needed to hide who I was when I was about 4 or 5. The first time I was picked up by the police [for dressing in women’s clothes] I was 8 or 9. Right? I was so young. When I grew up [in the ’60s and ’70s] we didn’t have a word for it, but I knew I had an issue with gender presentation.
Christian Lovehall (he, him), 35, facilitator at Trans Masculine Advocacy Network and founder of the Philly Trans March. I was assigned female at birth. But I was born me. I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, I want to be a boy.’ I just knew that I didn’t identify with anything that was associated with being a girl. It just felt wrong.
Kendall Stephens (she, her), 34, on the board of directors at the William Way Community Center: When I was about 5 or 6 I realized I preferred women’s clothing and Barbies. I remember feeling most complete when I was at my girl cousin’s home. She had an Easy-Bake Oven. One time I stole a couple of her Barbies. My mom found them, hid them from me, and bought me Ken dolls. I cut the heads off them and buried them in our garden.
Naiymah Sanchez (she, her), 37, trans justice coordinator of ACLU Pennsylvania. For some reason, when people find out you are trans, they sometimes go the extra mile to dead name (calling a trans person by the name they used before they transitioned) or misgender you. They think being trans is a laughing matter versus a struggle.
This is a time I really needed support:
Naiymah: Definitely when I was in school. Back when I wanted to assert my gender identity, I didn’t have the language for it. I remember going to school and playing dress up and an advisory teacher pulled me aside and took me to a counselor’s office who told me they were going to call my father. First of all, I lived with my mother. But how did they know I would be safe if they called my father? This was the first time I knew I needed support.
Christian: Growing up, I was considered an abomination. I didn’t have a healthy relationship with my mother. She tried to beat “it” out of me all of the time. I lived on a small block in South Philly. During the summer the kids would be outside playing, and my mom, she would make me stay in the house until people went inside because she didn’t want them talking about her because she was so ashamed of the way I looked. I was so frustrated. I wanted to leave. It caused me to internalize ... shame.
Janis: In 2008, I lost my job and my career. I was an electronic engineer and I made semiconductor chips. And I did it well. I’ve struggled to make money ever since. There was no support, no lifelines.
Kendall: When I was a child. My mother was very abusive. She really tried to beat the gay out of me. I ended up in foster care because of the abuse. I presented very feminine. That was when my nightmare began. I was raped when I was 12 years old. And from that moment, I became a target.
What kind of support I really needed then:
Kendall: I would have liked someone to have really seen me so I could live out loud. All the portrayals of people who identified as transgender were very negative. They were always lying about the transgender experience. They showed us as murderers, deviants and pedophiles. I had to listen to harmful, transphobic and homophobic rhetoric a lot. I could have used an ally to help shield me from that.
Christian: To tell me that I was beautiful, you know. I think that’s probably one of the main things that I probably needed to hear as a youth. That my life mattered. That I was still beautiful despite what I wore. That my gender expression did not warrant people being violent or abusive toward me in any way.
Naiymah: I would have needed the same thing cisgendered people needed at that time. Trans people who have experienced violence, assault, and abuse need folks to take their feelings seriously. I needed a listening ear. I needed care. I didn’t need to be made to feel different, but I needed help overcoming my trauma.
Janis: I needed an ally who could use his or her privilege or position to help me find work. I needed someone to use their platform to change hearts and minds. And when I was a child, I needed someone to help me with the story of who I was and tell me that I was OK.
You can be more than an ally:
Christian: We need accomplices as opposed to allies. An ally might attend a protest. An ally might share a Black Lives Matter hashtag on social media. But accomplices... Accomplices are committed to dismantling the systems that oppress us. An accomplice will come to a protest and they might get arrested. An accomplice would risk their job for the liberation of trans people. Being an ally doesn’t require sacrifice. It doesn’t require hardship. It doesn’t require giving up privilege. It’s just, “I support you.” That’s nice. But we really need more than that.
Kendall: Allies validate and uplift. Allies affirm the spirit. When allies affirm us, it shows us that they are in our corner. An ally takes every opportunity to spread messages of inclusion. Allies don’t let negative narratives about trans people to flourish in their spaces.
Janis: If you have a fight [that is] right in front of you — you want a piece of legislation passed, you need help with a hate crime ordinance, or some religious group is persecuting you — an ally will go with you, but allies don’t tend to stick around after the fight is over. A true ally fights with you beyond the individual efforts. They are there with you over decades. An ally uses their privilege to get you through life.
Naiymah: I look at allies as coconspirators. A coconspirator doesn’t concern yourself with who you are sleeping with, but they will put themselves on the line to protect the bodies that are oppressed.
Other ways you can help the trans community now:
Janis: I’m not asking anybody to walk through the fire for me. I don’t need it. I don’t need a savior. I don’t need people to come in and tell me how to do things, either. We need people to use their privilege to make sure trans people are heard: to make sure we have jobs and that we have equal access to housing. I keep going back to it, but it’s about changing hearts and minds
Naiymah: We understand you can put yourself in harm’s way by always correcting someone for misgendering or dead naming. But when you can stand up for us, please do. If you see someone being disrespected in a store, call the manager. You can take video. When you advocate for marginalized people in the world, you are showing the world our stories matter.
Christian: As the founder of the Philly Trans March, I would say we need to see allies or accomplices march with us. Marches are great platforms to spread awareness and to protest against injustice. And there are so many people watching us. But when they watch us they only see trans and queer people, so it seems like we’re the only ones in our feelings and no one else is affected by the struggle.
Kendall: We need allies to help us dispel negative stereotypes and replace them with affirmations of truth.
Understand that being trans connects with other issues:
Christian: Part of my advocacy is letting people know that trans men aren’t any safer because we are male now. My transition happened really quickly. And I learned that I’m not safe: My life [might be in more danger] now that I’m a Black man. Police officers, other Black men, they see us as Black men, so all the violence that’s associated with that is now a part of my life.
Naiymah: I’m someone who has experienced incarceration. I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I’m a Latina. I’m a woman. I’m all of these things. It’s important that our allies understand the whole of our historical trauma.
Kendall: All of my personal identity factors put me at risk. I’m a woman. I live below the poverty line. I’m Black. I’m a trans woman. And all of these truths intersect. These identifiers are hard enough to live with on their own, but mixed up, it can be a disaster for us. I live in a very dangerous world. Allies need to understand that.