While the broader society still stumbles in grasping what it means to be transgender, and the lesbians, gays, and bisexuals who make up the LG and B wonder if the T really has a place in the gay community, the Transgender community themselves faces challenges reconciling the different types of people that fall under the umbrella term.
That’s why the Michigan Transgender Empowerment Task Force was formed last April. The group presented their one-year results as part of the Transgender Day of Empowerment on April 14 at Affirmations Community Center in Ferndale.
Representatives from Horizons Project, AIDS Partnership Michigan, Transgender Detroit and the Ruth Ellis Center have taken the lead on this project, which seeks to discover the most pressing needs in the transgender community.
Two concerns were the most dominant. Steph Turner of Transgender Detroit presented information relating to the employment needs of transgender people, and Ryan Oliver of AIDS Partnership Michigan spoke on the importance of having a more diverse presence in the transgender rights movement.
“At the April event last year, when we met back up we found a significant under representation of color, youth and FTMs in the transgender organizations,” Oliver said. “We decided we needed to build relationships with people of color and we started the Transgender People of Color Task Force, which has been building relationships and planning focus groups.”
Oliver said they first identified approximately 50 people of color who gave insight into their experiences. Most of the participants were from Oakland and Wastenaw counties. “They tended to be people who knew people at Affirmations already,” he said. This fact illuminated another problem, how to reach the inner-city transgender population, especially the youth?
“Historically it’s a lot easier for white people to come out,” Oliver said. “They have more resources, access to the internet, or connections to other transgender people. Often they feel like they are the only one.” A common story is that when young transgender people, particularly feminine-identified, come out they are forced from their homes and end up in the protection of seasoned transgender women who take on the role, and even the title, of mothers, sisters or aunties. Unfortunately many of these young women, with no clear path to support, turn to sex work to survive.
This is not true of all transgender people, but it is a reality that anyone seeking to unite the transgender community must acknowledge. Recognizing this trend, Oliver teamed up with workers at Ruth Ellis Center, KICK and AIDS Partnership Michigan, to reach out to this population of transgender people. The result has been a renewed interest in activism and a spirit of cooperation that wasn’t there before.
“What we hear over and over is that people come along with these big ideas to help, they ask a bunch of questions, and then nothing else gets done. …The women finally felt like things were happening when we started bringing in organizations in Detroit. But we can’t just ask questions, we need to show them results.”
In an economy and environment where resources are scare, demonstrating results can be a challenge. But Oliver and his team have found a way. AIDS Partnership Michigan is now hosting retreats for transgender women where they can come in and get to know each other in a safe, comfortable environment.
There have been two retreats so far, and the women seem to be warming up to the idea of bringing their voice to the table. “We’re hoping to bring everyone together for the Transgender Health Fair in September,” he said. Oliver said task force members are also working hard to connect with the Latino and Middle Eastern transgender communities.
The issue of viable employment is also one that The Transgender Empowerment Task Force has learned is a concern. From the people who are ingrained in a lifetime at a job they risk losing if they transition, to those that are young and have limited career paths, the barriers to employment are great.
Turner is just wrapping up her BFA, and intends to start a business that will provide steady work for transgender people. Over the past year she has explored ways that employers might be incentivized to hire transgender workers. One option might be to get a consumer group together that promotes and supports businesses that hire transgender people. Another is to create a list of companies that are transgender friendly, such as Goodwill Industries. Working with agencies that do training might also be helpful for transgender workers.
Transgender Day of Empowerment was a day-long series of workshops with resources for the transgender community and allies. Find out more about Transgender Detroit at http://www.transgenderdetroit.org.