Meet the Black Trans Women Advocating for the Community
These champions and changemakers are doing grassroots work to enrich and protect lives
This story is part of Know Their Names, a collection of articles illuminating and celebrating the lives of Black Trans women.
When Dee Dee Watters began trying to address the violence against Black Trans women several years ago, the efforts in some ways felt futile.
“Another Trans woman was murdered, and then another one was murdered and then another one. And it’s like, well, damn, are we ending anything?” says Dee Dee, 34, chairwoman of the Dallas-based advocacy group Black Transwomen.
Dee Dee has now chosen instead to focus on helping Black Trans women live.
Her advocacy is centered on community. She will show up after attacks to make sure women have everything they need, pushing the police department to investigate, making sure pets are fed, even just sitting in a hospital room. She is also concerned with nurturing Black Trans women’s souls. She is planning a camping trip, and a ceremony in Houston, Texas, where she is based, where women will release their burdens into the water. Dee Dee cannot change the perpetrators of anti-Trans violence, but she can let Trans women know they are loved.
“If you close your eyes tonight and don’t open them up in the morning, you know that there was someone who encouraged you. You know that there was someone there to feed you, to refuel you, to replenish you, and that you mattered.”
“If we were to take away the guns from the men that are murdering us, they would use knives. And if we take away the guns and knives, they would use rope to lynch us. And if we took the guns, the knives, and the rope, they would just pick up rocks and they would stone us or they would beat us,” Dee Dee says. “My goal is to pour into the individual. If you close your eyes tonight and don’t open them up in the morning, you know that there was someone who encouraged you. You know that there was someone that empowered you. You know that there was someone there to feed you, to refuel you, to replenish you, and that you mattered.”
While there are well-known national organizations tallying the murders of Black Trans women and raising awareness of anti-Trans violence, the women doing on-the-ground work to stop the violence and address the needs of the community are Black Trans women like Dee Dee.
“A lot of these organizations don’t operate with Black Trans women in mind,” says Mariah Moore, New Orleans-based program associate for the Transgender Law Center. “They see you as the headline, as a platform for attention, but they don’t truly center Black Trans women or Black Trans issues.”
Mariah, 31, is on New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s LGBTQ Task Force, which issues recommendations pertaining to ordinances, including those that allow shelters to discriminate against Trans women, and police policies for engaging with the LGBTQ community.
Mariah has also organized Black Trans Circles — gatherings of about 20 women.
“We discuss what we need to survive and what our world fully liberated will look like and how do we get there,” Mariah says. “And if we’re beginning to talk about safety, we have to first talk about the barriers we face that make us unsafe.”
Women in the circles have discussed employment discrimination, and how that forces many into survival sex work, increasing their exposure to violence. Given that Mariah says they cannot rely on police — “The police are not protecting us, they’re harming us,” she says — the focus is on how women can stay safe by letting each other know where they’re going, and developing plans for what to do in case of an attack.
Much of this grassroots advocacy work centers on providing basic services, like housing and health care, and addressing anti-Trans policies within police departments and the criminal justice system.
LaSaia Wade, executive director of Brave Space Alliance (BSA), an LGBTQ center on the South Side of Chicago. BSA assists Trans people in finding housing, getting food stamps, and obtaining state IDs. It helps run a pop-up pantry with free produce, and also does community organizing around LGBTQ issues.
Three things prompted LaSaia, 32, to become an advocate. While in college in Tennessee, where she was born and raised, a college friend, the first out Trans woman LaSaia had met, was murdered. Her family buried her under her birth name. When LaSaia was 24, a co-worker outed her as being Trans, and she was fired because her boss said she had lied about her identity. Then, after a young Trans woman, Gizzy Fowler, was killed in Tennessee in 2014, LaSaia founded the Tennessee Trans Journey Project.
LaSaia and other activists put up flyers and shared information on social media. They put pressure on the police to investigate, and in a few weeks, the person who’d committed the murder was caught.
At BSA, LaSaia also wants to create spaces where Trans and gender-nonconforming people can simply be themselves.
“Trans people are just trying to be people,” she says. “But the community is still uneducated, the police are still uneducated, people are still entrenched in what the Bible has said or what religion has deemed us. I don’t think people see us as human.”
Trans women, queer people, queer bodies, Trans bodies are constantly under attack because we embody self-determination and self-expression.
Toni-Michelle Williams, executive director of the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative (SNaP Co), a Black Trans-led organization in Atlanta, feels that a lot of the violence directed at Trans people comes from those who wish they could achieve that level of freedom to be themselves.
“Trans women, queer people, queer bodies, Trans bodies are constantly under attack because we embody self-determination and self-expression,” she says.
Toni-Michelle does a lot of work centered on changing police department policies toward Trans people. In 2016, she released a report that included recommendations for addressing police harassment and abuse of Trans people and decriminalizing sex work. She founded ATL, Atlanta Trans Leadership, the SNaP Co program that trains marginalized Trans people — sex workers, fomerly incarcerated people — who want to lead their own advocacy efforts.
In May 2019, the Atlanta City Council passed a resolution to close the city jail, based in part on work done by SNaP Co and social justice organizations including Women on the Rise and the Racial Justice Action Center. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms appointed Toni-Michelle to be on a task force to develop ideas for how to use the space once the detention center is closed.
While the high visibility of Black Trans advocates can make things better for the community as a whole, it has its risks. This is dangerous work.
LaSaia gets death threats, and says that the older she gets, the more afraid she is that she won’t live to see her next birthday.
Mariah’s friends worry about her safety: “They say, ‘You’re not a Laverne Cox,’” she says. “You’re Mariah, working in your community, and anybody can do anything to you at any time.”
Mariah says that having faced death, she’s now fearless. A few years ago, she was forced to jump from a third-floor balcony, breaking both her legs, after a man with a shotgun burst into an apartment where she was staying. She says that at a time when Trans women are being tied up, burned, tortured, she cannot remain silent.
“We’re the most afraid we’ve ever been, but we’re also the strongest that we’ve ever been,” says Mariah. “This political climate has a lot of people afraid because a lot of other people are really feeling free to express their hatred and racism and their transphobia openly because they have a president that is obviously okay with that.”
The Trump Administration has been systematically stripping away the rights of Trans Americans. In 2017, it withdrew federal guidance on allowing students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity, which opened the door for individual states to discriminate against Transgender students. In March 2019, the Department of Defense issued a directive that all Transgender service members must use the gender assigned to them at birth. In May, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed regulation to replace a 2016 Obama administration rule that included gender identity in its definition of discrimination “on the basis of sex,” which would allow health care workers to deny services to Trans people.
For decades, Monica Roberts, media chair of Black Transwomen, has been addressing legislation that affects Trans women on a state and national level. Through her blog, TransGriot, she records the stories and history of Black Trans women.
In 1998, Monica, 57, went to Washington D.C. to participate in the National Gender Lobby Day held by GenderPAC, one of the first national nonprofit organizations devoted to LGBTQ issues. GenderPAC’s goals at the time included getting Transgender people included in a hate crime bill — what eventually became the Hate Crimes Prevention Act that passed in 2009 — as well as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
On her blog, Roberts has written about racism within LGBTQ spaces and called out the NAACP for not doing more to address the murders of Black Trans women, though she did also note that in June, the NAACP passed a resolution supporting the Trans community.
“If there were 18 cis Black women getting killed this way in a year, there would be rallies, demands to have congressional investigations. Ministers would be standing up,” says Monica. “But in our case? Silence.”
Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker, co-founder of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG), has also been working on legislation for several years. Tanya and Kiara St. James decided to start their own organization in 2012, after years of doing advocacy work with well-established LGBTQ organizations in New York City.
“They wouldn’t hire us,” Tanya, 66, says of the organizations. “They would not let us on their boards. All they would do was steal our ideas and give us a MetroCard and a meal and send us home. And they would use photographs of us to raise money, so we said, you know what? We need to get our own.”
Tanya’s advocacy work began with the fight for the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, (SONDA), which was signed into law in 2002, and prohibits employers, landlords, schools, and others from discriminating against someone based on sexual orientation. Since founding NYTAG, Tanya and Kiara have worked on getting bills like the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) passed. Tanya was there in January 2019 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill, which provides legal protection for Trans and gender-nonconforming people by adding gender identity and expression to existing civil rights laws.
“He shook my hand, and then gave me the pen,” she says.
Now, NYTAG is lobbying to get the Enhancing Data & Understanding for LGBTQI New Yorkers bill passed. The bill would require state agencies to collect sexual orientation and gender identity information to understand the diversity and better address the needs of the LGBTQ community.
Many women begin advocacy work using their own money to address violence and other issues that have impacted them directly. When Iya Dammons saw young Trans women following in her footsteps, doing survival sex work and engaging in risky behavior, she used the money she had made as a sex worker to help because no one else would.
“We decided, we’ll get it how we live it,” Iya, 26, says. “We’re learning how to work with nothing and make it something.”
Iya began by distributing condoms and Naloxone to be used in the event of a heroin overdose.
Earlier this year, she received a grant from the city, and in September opened Baltimore Safe Haven, a space for LGBTQ Baltimoreans to address their most basic needs.
“The first step of getting a person off the ground from survival mode is helping them get up,” says Iya.
Inside the row house with the rainbow-colored steps, she offers food, a place to shower, clothes, a mailbox where people can get their mail, and a computer where they can create and print resumes. She also has three bunk beds on the second floor of her office, where she can offer temporary housing. An unfortunate reality of her work is holding vigils, including one for 17-year-old Bailey Reeves, who was murdered on September 2 in Northeast Baltimore.
“I want them to be free from stigma and oppression.”
Iya and her team still do outreach, distributing condoms and lubrication to the Trans women who walk the stroll on the blocks surrounding her office and telling them about the resources her center offers.
“I want them to be free from stigma and oppression. We achieve this by engaging people that’s in survival mode in the community, and challenging structures and barriers to health, safety, and prosperity,” she says.
Like Iya, Dee Dee became an advocate based on experiences she’d had as a sex worker, and because of a life she could not save.
When Dee Dee came out at 16, her mother kicked her out, and she began doing sex work in order to support herself. One evening, Dee Dee noticed a young Trans woman who’d been assaulted and left in a ditch. Dee Dee put the woman in her car, took her to the hospital, and called her parents.
She asked the parents if they would like to see or speak with their daughter, as doctors said she likely wouldn’t live.
“The father said, ‘My son died the day he put a wig on his head,’” says Dee Dee.
The woman died a few days later.
Dee Dee felt she hadn’t done enough for the young woman, and the guilt propelled her into advocacy work. She distributed condoms to sex workers, gave food to the homeless, using money she’d earned from working as an escort. The fact that she went from being a sex worker to a well-known advocate who today has a direct line to the mayor of Houston makes her wonder about the potential lost with the murders of Muhlaysia Booker, Chynal Lindsey, and Itali Marlowe.
When women are killed, Dee Dee has a moment of silence and a candle lighting at 9 p.m. She is planning an elaborate Trans Day of Remembrance ceremony, as she has for several years, with dancers, musicians, and poets.
“We’re mourning the loss, but we’re celebrating the life,” she says. “I want us to leave with allowing the mourning that we’re doing to be stepping stones, to be tools to get across these things that are hard.”
Below, is a brief list of resources for Black Trans Women. Consider supporting these organizations.
House of GG: “Founded and led by Trans and gender-nonconforming people and our allies, we create safe and transformative spaces where members of our community can heal — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually — from the trauma arising from generations of transphobia, racism, sexism, poverty, ableism and violence, and nurture them into tomorrow’s leaders. We currently primarily focus on supporting and nurturing the leadership of Transgender women of color living in the U.S. South.”
Sisters PGH: “As a black, Trans-led organization, SisTersPGH is uniquely situated to help Trans and non-binary people in Allegheny County find the resources they need to thrive.”
TransWomen of Color Collective: “We are deeply invested in developing and advancing the organizing capacity of our leadership team and community members so that we can create opportunities to obtain . everything that they need to thrive in a world designed to erase us off the face of the earth.”
The Okra Project: “The Okra Project is a partnership facilitated by Ianne Fields Stewart funded by Black Trans Solidarity Fund and a group of Black Trans chefs that aims to bring home cooked, healthy, and culturally specific meals to Black Trans People in New York City.”
Transgender Advocates Knowledgable Empowering “Led by trans women of color in Alabama, Transgender Advocates Knowledgeable Empowering provides life-saving direct services to those in need of them including: name and document changes, health care access, an LCSW therapist, crisis intervention, baseline needs like food and clothing, as well as public education, social gatherings, educational/healing retreats and policy advocacy.”
Black Trans Travel Fund: This project is: “a mutual-aid project created to help provide Black Transgender women with resources to make sure they are able to travel to and from their destinations safely and free from verbal harassment or physical harm.”
My Sistah’s House: “We are a Trans lead nonprofit providing first hand experience as well as field research to create a one-stop shop for finding doctors, social groups and safe spaces for the Trans community.”
TRANScending Barriers Atlanta “Our mission is to empower the Transgender and gender non-conforming community in Georgia through community organizing with leadership building, advocacy, and direct services so that lives can be changed and a community uplifted.