Growing up in Detroit, the black community was always a place of refuge, resistance, and restoration for me. I was raised by a single mother along with my three brothers on the east side. My mom worked tirelessly at Chrysler Motors over 18 years to make sure we were cared for as she went to night school to earn a Ph.D. My mom was very active in the United Auto Workers union. My youth was filled with organizing camps and rallies. I can remember attending union meetings with placards and noise-makers for marches down Woodward Avenue to protest the mass exodus of thousands of jobs that sustained the black middle class for decades.
I recently called my mom, who is my strongest supporter and confidant, to talk about our family’s response to the impact of HIV and AIDS on our lives. During our call we talked about my aunt Goddess L, who was also a transgender woman. My aunt was the life of every party. Her smile and energy would make you feel like nothing was wrong in the world. I never had the chance to glean in her eyes the endless possibilities the future held for me. I was only 5 years old when she succumbed to complications of HIV. My family would talk of her memory but never of why she went away or that she died. I often imagined that she was just like my mom, my grandma, my aunts. I imagine she was just like me: brave, strong, confident, fragile, unapologetically black femme, and fierce. I can her voice and spirit guiding me in my work, telling me that I am enough just as I am.
I lost my brother Brian to AIDS in May of 2011. I am haunted by the gripping shame and silence that kept his (and so many other cis heterosexual black men) mouth sealed shut as HIV ravaged his body. I miss my brother. I wish I talked to him more, encouraged him. I wish I had told him that stigma and shame were tools of the oppressor. I wish I could've helped him realize his life was worth living, that there was community, support, and treatment waiting for him. I wish he knew that I would fight with him and that when he couldn’t fight anymore, I would be there to fight for him. By the time he found his voice it was too late. I wish he knew that I loved him more than the silence and shame that he held so close. Now is the time for the black community to make a resounding noise that shatters the veil of shame silencing the voices of black cis heterosexual men in conversations that could save their/our lives.
I currently live in Washington, D.C. — the District ranks fifth nationally in the number of new HIV infections and has the largest per capita number of adults diagnosed with HIV in the United States. In D.C., trans people experience rates of HIV and AIDS at a rate seven times higher than the general population. What is terrifying for me is that 75 percent of trans people of color in D.C. are living with HIV or AIDS.
The rate of HIV among the black trans community in D.C. is inextricably linked to state-sanctioned violence that black trans people face every day.
According to the DC Trans Coalition report Access Denied, released in November, 55 percent of black trans Washingtonians report being unemployed. Trans women of color face the greatest economic hardships with 57 percent making below $10,000. Thirty-nine percent of black trans people are currently homeless and 43 percent of those experiencing homelessness are living with HIV. Now is the time for #BlackTransLivesMatter to be more than a trending hashtag.
The black trans community can no longer accept broken promises from LGBT/social justice gatekeepers. We are building our own community centers, shelters, programming, and delivering vital services, thus creating the change we seek. Casa Ruby is a direct response to the state-sanctioned violence our communities face every day in Washington, D.C. We work to create affirming environments that embrace homeless LGBT youth impacted by HIV who are navigating harsh realities. We are showing the world that there is a place where we belong, that our community members have a home, that we are loved by our chosen family and that our lives have tremendous purpose. We believe that everyone deserves to exist in a world where they are celebrated in their truth!
At the Trans Women of Color Collective, our work centers healing and restorative justice by elevating the narratives, lived experiences, and leadership of trans and gender-nonconforming people of color in the trenches and at the forefront of creating healing spaces, building socio-economic growth, development, and power, but most importantly, leading with love. As we build economic growth and development for our community, we are enhancing the capacity of future leaders by equipping them with the tools to navigate systems designed to kill them. Pouring into the lives of black trans youth is a revolutionary act.
What is phenomenal about Trans Women of Color Collective and Casa Ruby is that both amazing organizations were created as a direct response to the violence we face every day in our communities. Led by and for trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, we work in tandem to create safer, braver spaces so we can have the opportunity to come together, leverage resources, be affirmed, empowered, loved, and supported by people who look and experience life just as we do. We are answering our own call to action to shift the narrative of HIV and AIDS, poverty, discrimination, and state-sanctioned violence and how it impacts all of our lives. We are the keepers of our future, and it will take all of us to end AIDS in the black community.
February is Black History/Future Month and this piece is a part of Trans Women of Color Collective Healing and Restorative Justice Institute’s Black History Month Project, sponsored in part by Casa Ruby LGBT Center and the Elton John AIDS Foundation.