Lilianna Reyes: Familiar Face in New Role at Affirmations

She's not a new face to the LGBTQ community locally or nationally, and certainly not to Affirmations where she has been working as the Program Services Director and as a volunteer. However, Lilianna Reyes is a new face in her current position as interim executive director at Affirmations.
For those who know Reyes, they probably aren't the least bit surprised to find her taking up the challenge. She was raised to believe one can do anything they want in life provided they work for it even when the road is hard. It's more than her determination that will be necessary for her success, but that will make her uniquely capable of sitting in this catbird seat of metro-Detroit's LGBTQ community. She truly stands boldly in the cross-hairs of her intersectionality and continues to create change.
A proud Trans-Latina woman, Reyes was born in Saginaw, which she credits with having a profound impact on her, and said it's responsible for shaping her into the woman she is today.
"The whole town was full of people who were working class people. Most of them were black and brown people – African-American and Mexican," Reyes said in an interview for "Collections." "It gave me exposure to, and an understanding of, strong women of color. So, my identity was shaped by very strong, very beautiful, very intelligent, often college-educated black women and women of color.
"I was shaped with the understanding of racial justice. We talked about Black History all year, not just in February, but we also talked about Mexican history," she said. "And so, when I graduated and went into the world, I felt really privileged to have this background."
She was born into a tight-knit, Catholic family. Her father was a Delphi worker and is now retired from GM. Shortly after her 18th birthday, her mother found all her girl clothes and makeup.
"My parents were pretty open, but having a gay child is a lot different from having gay friends," Reyes said. "I think that sometimes when we talk about parents' acceptance, it gets really polar and in reality, for many, especially for people of color, that's just not how it works. Sometimes there's these steps that people have to take to find your way back to each other."
In her time at Affirmations, Reyes has worked with many LGBTQ youth who are estranged from, or those who, with their families, are in the process of finding their way back to each other. She said that this mirrored her own experience in her youth.
"I would never say that I was homeless, but I chose to leave the house. It was a really bad environment and I chose to leave but I was never kicked out," Reyes said. "My family always loved me. I knew if I got into any issue, I could have called my parents and they would have definitely supported me. For them (being Transgender) was a piece of me that they couldn't support then, but they still wanted me to be OK."
It wasn't until college that she began to find her footing, and began speaking out about social justice issues and LGBTQ rights.
"When I initially went to college, I had no clue what I wanted to be. It ended up becoming a safe haven for me, a place where I could be authentically me and learn about who I was," she said. "I wasn't this anomaly. I got caught up in this evolving world and it allowed me to be able to understand the world and where I fit in."
She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in anthropology, sociology and history with minor in international and global studies and women's and gender studies. Eventually, it became clear that she wanted to help other people in her life.
"When I found out it was possible to live as a trans person, then I was like, that's who I am. There wasn't a whole lot of thought," Reyes said. "It was like, 'That's who I am.' I knew this was going to be hard. And I had to think like, 'What am I going to do for a job? I don't think anyone's going to hire me.' And then I'm like, 'Oh, social justice, that should work.'"
Reyes also earned a master's degree in public administration, focused on non-profit leadership and was certified as a substance abuse prevention specialist. She gained real-world experience when she worked with several nonprofits including Planned Parenthood, National Organization for Women and the NAACP.
When asked if she ever felt that she was tokenized in her work, she responded directly.
"To be completely honest with you, yes. Some did use me as a token," Reyes said. "The thing is, is that sometimes being used as a token allowed me to get in the door. Once I was in, then I pushed for my agenda to promote diversity and inclusion of the LGBTQ community. The good thing is all those organizations supported me. I also definitely think that a lot of the people that I worked with didn't really know what or how much they supported LGBTQ people."
Reyes said that the trick to building bridges with those colleagues who didn't understand the LGBTQ community was working inside-out, and building mutual respect between herself and them.
"If you can find common ground with people, then it can be really easy to build bridges. So, sometimes, you just got to like work with people even if you think that nothing's going to happen, but really amazing things can happen," Reyes said. "I've always been an analytical person where I've thought about pros and cons, but I've never been that analytical person that believes that because there are too many cons, you shouldn't do it."
And beyond her work as an employee for certain organizations, she has travelled across the Metro Detroit providing LGBTQ sensitivity training to police departments and other organizations. She said she feels like it is her duty to speak up and speak boldly about who she is and what she believes.
Reyes is also a founding mother and sitting board member of the Trans Sisters of Color Project – Detroit and her work has gotten national acclaim. She was featured in USA Today's "Faces of Pride Project" that featured members of the LGBTQ community and their allies from all 50 states.
Eventually, the work she was doing even reached back home, and started to patch up the relationships that were damaged when she came out.
"We had a lot of long talks, a lot of real hard talks that I never thought we would have. And one day my mother said, 'You know, you're just like me standing up for what you believe in, no matter what anyone says,'" Reyes said. "And she was like, 'I've never been more proud of you.' My mom ended up getting to a point where she became a social activist for LGBTQ people."
Her life experience mirrors that of many in the LGBTQ community who turn to Affirmations for support, programs and leadership and from all outside accounts, it seems that she is stepping into this interim position with the skills and history to make a difference.
The archived interview with Reyes Interin Executive Director of Affirmations is available on the Collections by Michelle Brown podcast on Blog Talk Radio, ITunes, Stitcher or SoundCloud. 


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