Due to concerns about their safety and well-being, no pictures were taken of the women who recently sat down with the AFRO to share their experiences living in Baltimore. Their real names will not be given.
These women, Black and transgender (born biologically male, but live and identify as women), face an array of obstacles and prejudices that inform almost every aspect of their lives. Their race often functions to exclude them from mainstream gay rights discourses, leaving them with few resources; while societal attitudes about women and persons who identify as LGBT leave them vulnerable to violence.
“The only time they want to talk about transsexuals or call the girls out is when something bad happens,” said Melissa, a transgender woman who helps facilitate a program, Project TEA Time, that provides support and information on everything from jobs, to housing, to healthcare for trans persons in Baltimore City.
She says it is only one of two programs that specifically serve transgender women in Baltimore, a lack of resources and attention that only permits light to be cast on the experience of transgender women when acts of violence against them are too outrageous to ignore.
“Although we hear about these transgender women being murdered, we don’t hear about the countless others who’ve been assaulted, who’ve been harassed by the police, people found in abandoned homes, we don’t hear about it,” said the Rev. Meredith Moise, a community organizer who advocates on issues affecting LGBT persons of color.
The six transgender Black women who shared their stories with the AFRO spoke of discrimination in employment, housing and health care. They spoke of the various ways in which they make ends meet, the violence they are regularly subjected to, the slights and humiliations, the lack of police protection, and their walks with God.
“You have to do what you have to do,” said Melissa of the myriad income sources many transgender women are forced to seek out. “A lot of girls I know wear several different hats in order to make it, because one job isn’t going to do anything for you.”
The employment issue is a familiar one for many African-Americans in Baltimore City. There are not many jobs that will hire you and those that do rarely pay enough to serve as stable employment, especially for a population generally receiving hormone treatment, and often going under the knife as they transition into their female identity, all of which is costly.
Finding adequate housing can pose a challenge for transgender women. Not only do they face discrimination, both as transgender and as Black persons, but safety concerns work to curtail their options.
“I can’t live in certain neighborhoods,” said April, a young transgender woman who spoke about the harassment she could face walking down the street, whether verbal or physical, an experience universally shared among those who spoke with the AFRO for this story.
Race also plays a factor. According to Laura, a 67 year old who works with HIV patients, “The White people don’t have that problem. The White transgenders can get apartments and things faster than they would give it to us.”
Violence is an ever present reality for the women.
“It’s been a little while since there was actual violence, but I’m constantly vigilant,” said Gwen, who is in her early 60s. “I don’t stay out beyond 8:30 in the summer time, because it starts getting dark. . . . My mind is always thinking, and you always have to be thinking. The thing is it gets tiresome, not only does it get tiresome, I’m getting older and I always get worried that one day I’m just not going to have the energy.”
Though often subjected to violence, the women shared that police are rarely helpful, treating violence against them as nothing more than a fight between men if they are not seriously injured. Further, many police officers have relationships with transgender sex workers, relationships that themselves often result in violence.
“It’s not a secret that there’s a lot of cops that like the girls,” said Gwen, “and so a whole lot of misconduct, a whole lot of violence is police against the girls. Either because they don’t get their way or just because they like the control.”
Phillip Lovett, a behavioral intervention specialist with AIDS Action Baltimore, says his organization works with about 42 transgendered clients, mostly women, and that those engaged in serial sex work often have some sort of relationship with a police officer.
“That goes hand in hand,” said Lovett.
Baltimore is a deeply religious city, and its religiosity often finds expression in anti-LGBT rhetoric or attacks. Nonetheless, a number of the women identified as Christians, sharing about the ways in which their spirituality gives them strength, and quoting scripture in an effort to push back against the idea that being Christian requires adopting homophobic attitudes.
“No, I didn’t ‘dress as a woman to deceive a man,’ because I know that scripture, because I needed to know all of that and I needed to go back and question myself because it says ‘Search the scriptures daily, to see whether these things are so,’” said Gwen, paraphrasing Paul.
For Rev. Moise, the issues Black LGBT people face in Baltimore are simply human rights issues: housing, employment, health care, safety. She stresses that LGBT people do not live gay lives or trans lives, but whole lives, and that it is this wholeness of life that is being ignored, not just from some pulpits, but from the LGBT advocacy community in general.
“If Baltimore is majority Black, but the entities serving these communities—the Black LGBT community—are not, what assurances do Black LGBT people have, or Latino LGBT people have, that what’s actually going on in their lives is being represented?”