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These Trans Women of Color Will No Longer Accept the Status Quo


Merrique Jenson is bringing together trans women of the Midwest to first commiserate, then conquer.

In 2014, Kansas City became one of the epicenters of violence towards transgender and gender-expansive people of color in the United States. Between October 2014-August 2015, at least four reported hate-motivated homicides of transgender women of color and gender-expansive queer men of color were reported. Our Black and Latinx queer and trans communities faced ongoing residual trauma even after the victims were killed and buried.

As a community homicide advocate working on these four cases, I learned that the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Jr. Act national hate crime act is most often useless in prosecuting hate crimes. People who murder trans and nonbinary people of color are most often convicted on lesser charges, or often not caught or convicted at all. Agencies and programs continue to fail addressing the intersections of systemic racism and violence towards trans women. And anti-Blackness in the advocacy field continues to be rampant and many white-led agencies and organizers become paralytic or inactive to address these issues within their work.

For over a decade, Kansas City lacked any transgender women of color-led organizations or safer spaces that had understood and addressed the intersectional impact of racism, misogyny, sexism and transphobia. In the summer of 2016, a group of transgender and nonbinary community organizers and activists worked together to organize a three-day leadership summit to unpack communal trauma and focus on resiliency-based healing for transgender women of color and transgender and nobinary youth. After the success of the summit, Transformations, a Kansas City-based organization was begun for transgender and gender-expansive young people.

Since 2016, there has been an increase in violence towards transgender women of color in Kansas City, most directly targeting Black transgender women. Just this year, we had at least four reported murders of transgender and gender-expansive Black people and new community led-initiatives, such as Collective Force KC, formed to provide community-led intiatives and culturally sensitive responses.

Transgender and nonbinary people of color are speaking up and sharing their stories more than ever. Our national political climate reflects how many of our statewide, regional, and national queer and transgender organizations reflect a lack of self-examination from white leaders on how to value and create intersectional anti-racist movement work. The most recent annual Creating Change Conferences, organized through The National LGBTQ Task Force, have become a hotbed of activist and political tensions through workshops, demonstrations, and protests on plenary stages surrounding a growing demand for more focus, inclusion, and leadership of transgender and nonbinary people and people of color. The Human Rights Campaign has reshifted its focus and made a public promise to center transgender people of color with their new presidency. And the recent turmoil at the National Center for Transgender Equality is a glowing example of how queer and trans nonprofit organizations will fail when transgender and nonbinary people of color refuse to be complacent and support white fragility in leadership and organizational culture rooted in white supremacy.

We are at a crossroads in Kansas City that parallels these national trends and frictions on what type of queer and trans leadership, accountability, and values do we support. Kansas City, like many Midwestern places, has a social conversational and etiquette culture that is called, "KC nice." For many of us as leaders and community organizers of color, this translates into us facing difficulty to collaborate with others who can embrace radical candor and real talk about our needs. I am thankful for the few transgender white women who have been appointed as the leaders of our local LGBTQ community center and LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce. We have seen an increase in some trans-owned and operated spaces, such as The Union, a Midwest Trans Guy Coterie. We also have a trans co-owned and operated salon, Him.Her.Them, that provides an affirming space to everyone, including nonbinary people in our community. We even have a few transgender women of color run pop-up nightlife events and community programs. I hope that our new wave of community nonprofit and foundation leaders that have made promises to be active, addressing racism within our queer and trans communities, can build resources and support for transgender women of color.

I also recognize as a light-skinned, multiracial, non-Black transgender woman of color, my own journey has been privileged when it comes to the communal trauma and violence that occurs to many of my darker sisters. There's been increased media attention nationwide focusing on transgender women of color murders, but Kansas City is often overlooked and our local trans and nonbinary communities often still lack a community response to the violence itself.

Recently, Transformations received funding to be able to start a new empowerment and support group for transgender young women, ages 16-24 years old, that meets on the third Wednesday of the month at the Center for Spiritual Living, and is led by a team of local transgender women of color community activists and leaders. We strive to be an organization committed to trans leadership and empowerment, so we pay all of our transgender annd nobinary folks stipends for their time and are currently the largest trans-led organization in Kansas City.

In honor of National Transgender Day of Remembrance, Transformations recently produced a video series focused on conversations between nine transgender women of color from the Midwest. We recognize that many transgender women of color are increasingly gathering together to address the violence directed at us and we must also face a complexity of issues surrounding anti-Blackness, family support, employment opportunities and educational access, immigration and documentation status, as well as navigating organizations, resources and media that are accessible in languages other than English. This half-hour conversation is the first topic area to to debut within our ongoing series. In Conversations among Black transgender women, these women (Nyla Foster [National Director, Trans Women of Color Collective], Fynelle Fristoe [Lead Advisor, Transformations Young Women's Group], Gia Bleu, and ballroom icons, Essence Mazzaritie and Lila Star Escada [Overall Mother of the House of Escada]) move beyond the violence and trauma, showcasing sisterhood, beauty, personal strength and resiliency. In the closing words of this episode from Lila, self love is vital: "You can not let people's opinions determine what prize you want for yourself. Trust what you see in the mirror. That's what matters."

Merrique Jenson is the Director of SocialScope Productions and Program Director of Transformations.

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