Julisa Abad, director of transgender outreach with the Fair Michigan Justice Project.
During various local LGBTQ community meetings over the last few months, someone always raises their hand to ask how they can be a better ally for the transgender community. Many people are looking for ways to help as the number of threats targeting transgender people increases – particularly for transgender women of color. Eight murders have been reported in the U.S. in the last three months, but this type of violence is not new. Twenty-seven transgender women were killed in 2016 — a record high — and almost all of the victims were women of color, according to GLAAD research. Of the 16 transgender and gender non-conforming people killed in 2015, 13 were transgender women of color.
So when the only answer from some meeting organizers is to “love and accept” transgender people, that is puzzling for those who want clear direction about what to do to actually make a difference.
Because while loving and accepting each other can sustain the LGBTQ community in its journey for liberation, it is not a cure-all for the high rates of sexual violence, poverty and homelessness, police brutality, employment discrimination and other social injustices that continue to hinder the advancement of transgender people as equal members of society.
Just ask Julisa Abad, a 32-year-old transgender woman of color from Detroit who is offering up a different answer.
“There is a lack of attention to the very real issues that are placing trans women of color in danger to begin with,” she said. “We need to increase the service options available to support us as we are some of the area’s most vulnerable people.”
Abad is one of a few local activists trying to educate the community about real transgender lives and what women like her need. She agrees, “yes, love and accept us, but that’s not enough to help us with housing, employment, hormones, medical and dental care from inclusive providers, clothing vouchers, Bridge cards, bus passes, name changes, gender marker and ID changes, food, access to education, mental health services, HIV prevention and treatment, and then some.”
Abad further explains that, “Our struggle cannot be understood through a textbook. I don’t expect people to understand without having more conversations.”
In collaboration with other transgender women of color in the community like Bre Anne Campbell of the Trans Sistas of Color Project, Jeynce Poindexter of Equality Michigan’s Department of Victims Services, and Lilianna Reyes at Affirmations, Abad has been channeling her experience into action.
She has established a rapport with transgender women of color in her role as director of transgender outreach with the Fair Michigan Justice Project, a partnership between Fair Michigan and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, which investigates and prosecutes crimes against the LGBTQ community. This allows Abad to speak out on behalf of people who aren’t in a position to rise up and demand their rights and respect.
She said she considers herself one of the “luckier trans women with a job and an apartment,” which she attributes in part to her effeminate qualities. This makes her passable based on society’s sexist view of how women should look and act.
“Otherwise, you don’t always get the same respect or opportunity,” she said, pointing to privileged groups of people that have a tendency to ignore the voices of transgender women of color who don’t present themselves similar to the way Abad does.
She is fully aware of the inequality that exists within the LGBTQ equality movement. “It’s a struggle,” said Abad, to overcome the overlapping and intertwining barriers within her own community caused by disparities – gender identity, race, class and criminalization – that exist at the intersection of an already marginalized group.
But Abad said, “At the end of the day, we are all fighting for the same thing,” which is something she is communicating not just to her peers, but to local organizations, members of the community, and support groups that are focused on improving the lives of transgender individuals such as the Detroit-based Community Health Awareness Group and Adult Well-Being Services.
“Julisa has helped Affirmations reach more trans women of color in Detroit. Her tireless advocacy continues to revolve around direct needs for this community,” said Reyes, program services director at the Ferndale community center. “We partnered with her to provide 20 winter coats in addition to gloves, scarves, and hats during her annual Christmas party for trans women of color in Detroit…We encourage and support Julisa in all her endeavors to make Detroit a better place for women like us.”
This includes reaching out to shelters and progressive churches, for example, that strive to be affirming of LGBTQ people.
“We don’t always feel welcome though in these spaces that are supposed to be safe for us. If we fear being ridiculed or judged, we will not seek out the necessities that we need,” said Abad, adding that she is committed to helping these social institutions to create more approachable settings, and to be more realistic when giving to transgender women of color living in poverty.
“If you’re handing out food boxes, we are grateful for the donations we receive, but as a community, I think we need to have more conversations about what will actually help us like pull-top cans for those of us who don’t walk around with a can opener, items that can easily fit into a grocery bag or backpack and don’t need much preparation because most trans women I know are sleeping in abandoned buildings with no place to heat up or store items,” she said. “Ask us what we need rather than assume. People don’t always think about non-food items like soap, toilet paper, toothbrushes and razors. These are things that cannot be purchased with food stamps.”
One Issue Leads to Another
Beyond helping transgender women of color with their basic needs, Abad is advocating for more educational opportunities, which can lead to meaningful employment. A study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force proves that discrimination against transgender people in the workplace starts long before the hiring process begins.
When it comes to education, 71 percent of transgender students of color reported being harassed at school. School dropouts because of bullying, paired with countless and expensive barriers to receive identification documents that match a transgender person’s gender expression, prevent finding gainful employment.
Abad understands the key to finding a job is education. Without one, the unemployment rate for transgender women of color will continue to rise. It’s four times higher than the general population, according to a 2015 report by the Human Rights Commission.
“Again, one issue leads to another. With no education we can’t find a job. Without a job, we cannot afford hormones, unless we find a place that distributes them for free. With no hormones, we will not look the way we authentically feel and cannot comfortably present ourselves to the world,” said Abad, noting that a proper ID and a higher education doesn’t necessarily matter to employers if you aren’t passable.
This lack of employment opportunity leaves many transgender women of color no choice but to engage in survival sex work, particularly in the 6 Mile and Woodward area.
“Many trans women of color are literally dependent on this to get their next meal, pay for a hotel room, or offer someone money to crash at their house for a little while,” she said. “And they don’t like doing this. It’s not an ideal job. They don’t dream as a little kid about growing up to be a prostitute.”
Abad said the pyschological distress of surviving this way can lead to substance abuse, yet another barrier to overcome.
“There are certain things trans women mentally go through to prepare themselves to be sexual when they really don’t feel like it. They manage life in this way under the influence of drugs and alcohol to do what they have to do. So not only are they prostituting now to survive, they are prostituting to feed an addiction.”
It’s when they take these risks that most transgender women of color face devastating amounts of violence, and the criminalization of sex work leaves them even more vulnerable. Research shows that transgender women of color are often victimized by the people whose job it is to protect them: police officers. They are six times more likely to experience physical violence than white cisgender people, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. It’s with this in mind that Abad accepted the position of parliamentarian on the Detroit Police Department’s LGBT Advisory Board. DPD Chief James Craig created this board – made up of community members and advocates – in September 2015 in response to a sharp increase in reported crimes against LGBTQ citizens in Detroit.
“From an officer standpoint, I believe this relationship holds a special yet significant place in both law enforcement and LGBTQ community relations. This ensures that LGBTQ people’s concerns are heard by the police department and helps us better support each other moving forward,” said the DPD’s LGBT Liaison Officer Dani Woods.
“We are having conversations and seeing movements in the past couple of years that were once unheard of. For all of us out here trying to make a difference, when potential allies are asking how they can help, it shows that people are paying attention and want to help.”
But in order to make a difference, Woods said we need to work better together.
“All differences aside – the past is exactly what it is, the past. We definitely cannot ignore injustices or misfortunes, but we can learn from them and build a better community focused on equality, respect, well-being, and education. These are the things that Julisa participates in, advocates for, and exemplifies, but it takes more than just her. We need more involvement from the community as a whole. The community has to become more hands on.”
DPD’s LGBT Liaison Officer Dani Woods
A Step Toward Justice
Abad’s relationship with local law enforcement and within the transgender community made her the ideal candidate for employment with the FMJP.
“Sometimes reporting a crime buys you a whole lot more trouble. When people are victimized and have no choice but to return to the same place where they were, it’s dangerous for them,” said FMJP Special Prosecutor Jaimie Powell Horowitz. “Julisa’s ability to help victims find placement or a safe space to get back on their feet while a case is ongoing has been extremely helpful.”
On behalf of the FMJP, a non-profit organization, Abad ensures that transgender people are supported throughout the process of seeking justice.
“Victims are extremely concerned about public denigration in a courtroom setting,” said Powell Horowitz, who stresses the importance of being respectful during investigations and prosecutions.
By way of the Transgender Interaction Policy, employees in the Wayne County prosecutor’s office are required to treat transgender, intersex and gender-nonconforming individuals in a manner appropriate to the individual’s gender identity, which may be different from the sex the individual was assigned at birth or listed on official identification documents. The policy – the first of its kind in the state of Michigan – was implemented by the prosecutor’s office, in association with the FMJP, in November 2016 to enhance productive interactions between prosecutors, crime victims and witnesses who are transgender.
“It is impossible to overstate the importance of this action. A person’s gender identity involves one’s innermost concept of how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. This policy requires that each person’s gender identity be recognized and respected,” said Abad, who has proven herself to be an asset to the FMJP.
“She’s really energetic. She’s an extraordinary person and is one of the kindest people I’ve met,” said Powell Horowitz. “She shows empathy for everyone that she comes across and has really been a positive influence on me.”
When asked if it feels like things are changing since she began advocating for herself six years ago, and now for her community, Abad said things have been slightly better.
“I know things won’t change overnight, but I do believe there has been a little bit of growth,” she said. “When you’re not working with us on an everyday basis and you’re not hearing about the work we’re doing at the grassroots level, it might feel like there is no progression, but there has been. Some organizations are now creating spaces for trans women to have a voice, to sit down and talk about what we need and what will help us.”
It’s through these conversations and cultural competency trainings that Abad believes she can help members of the community learn how to be better allies for transgender women of color. She said, “Start by really listening, educate yourself, support legal protections, and step our of your comfort zone to confront the way society talks about and treats us. There is a lot of work to do and we can’t reach solidarity alone.”