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To Transgender Movement Leaders, Activism Is an Antidote to Violence

By Amy Lynn Smith

"All trans lives have to matter," she says. "When we start to devalue people based on their moral beliefs, we start to dehumanize people. Only when our lives are valuable will one murder spark mass chaos and people will say 'No more.'"
– Lilianna Angel Reyes

This is part one of a two-part series on transgender activists in Michigan.

In the wake of the devastating attack in Orlando, the LGBTQ community is seeking comfort, strength and hope. Violence is, sadly, nothing new to the community, but the violence at Pulse, a gay nightclub, has brought the world's attention to a problem with which LGBTQ people are all too familiar.
Transgender people are at higher risk of violence than the rest of the community, which is why activists have been working for decades to create safe spaces for them — and stand up to defend the rights of trans men and women. It's a reassuring thought in these perilous times.
Bre Anne Campbell, co-founder and executive director of the Trans Sistas of Color Project, is an outspoken leader in this regard.
"We're going to build sisterhood with trans women in Detroit by mobilizing the community to start training for activism," she says. "Everyone's activism is important, from the front of the line to the back. I want to be intentional about framing the conversation that everyone is an activist."
Campbell is no stranger to activism. Over the last 12 years, she's worked on HIV advocacy with several organizations, and was diagnosed with HIV herself in 2010, just two months before she began transitioning.
"My HIV activism was the beginning of my work on transgender advocacy, although I didn't realize it at the time," Campbell says.
Intersectionality is important to Campbell, just as it is to Lilianna Angel Reyes. As a transgender woman of Mexican heritage, she wants all aspects of herself to be embraced and celebrated — and she wants the same for everyone else.
Just a couple of weeks before the Pulse shooting, Reyes spoke about the sobering problem of violence against transgender people.

"All trans lives have to matter," she says. "When we start to devalue people based on their moral beliefs, we start to dehumanize people. Only when our lives are valuable will one murder spark mass chaos and people will say 'No more.' But that's not where we are. Hundreds have to die before we talk about this. We have to see the value within everyone. Every person has value."
Reyes — who is a founding mother of the Trans Sistas of Color Project — is doing her part to help shape the future, in her work as youth program manager at Affirmations in Ferndale.
She describes her role as sustaining, creating and evaluating new programs working with youth. Reyes has created two curriculum-based, evaluation-driven youth programs that teach professional and leadership skills, including advocacy.
Reyes says society has always made life challenging for LGBTQ youth, but it's harder than ever today.
"With all the new movements that are pushing toward equality, it's starting to make visible the invisible hatred that's always been there," she says. "But now we're paying more attention. We have more support now. Youth are having a space to be vocal and we're seeing organizations being allies to youth more than ever."
The Trans Sistas of Color Project is also building future leaders for the movement, and has long-range plans to open a 24-hour community center for transgender women in Detroit. After the community center is established, the next initiative is to establish a transitional living program for trans women, Campbell says.

"All trans lives have to matter. When we start to devalue people based on their moral beliefs, we start to dehumanize people. Only when our lives are valuable will one murder spark mass chaos and people will say 'no more.'" – Lilianna Angel Reyes, youth program manager at Affirmations in Ferndale.

Another movement leader, Jay Maddock, executive director at the Kalamazoo Gay Lesbian Resource Center, is quick to acknowledge the place of privilege he has as a white transgender man — and he uses it to advocate for others who are marginalized by society.
"The root of all the anti-transgender bills and hate rhetoric is the fact that we live in a sexist, racist, misogynist society, and the way in which racism and sexism play together with transphobia is this dangerous, hate-filled rhetoric we're hearing," he says.
It's not that Maddock hasn't been threatened or harassed. But because he says he's more likely to be accepted as male — putting him at lower risk — he feels a responsibility to advocate for others.
"During my transition, I gained power and privilege," he says, "so I'm using that privilege to stand up and give some visibility to those who aren't given the opportunity to use their voice."

The interviews for this story were originally conducted for an ongoing series on the lives of transgender people at Eclectablog.com



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