“Look out for people missing from this room,” Kevi Smith-Joyner, an activist with the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, said at the Transgender March of Resilience on Nov. 20. “I see no one in the community I work with every day,” they said in a tone that was at once critical and encouraging. The attendees applauded.
Smith-Joyner was drawing attention to a clear tension. The event was organized by the Baltimore Transgender Alliance (BTA), a group started by trans women of color. But as Smith-Joyner pointed out, a majority of the event’s attendees were white.
As Smith-Joyner spoke, BTA Executive Director Ava Pipitone and BTA Communications Organizer Jamie Grace Alexander nodded and snapped, welcoming the constructive criticism. The two had marshalled the march into the 2640 Space on St. Paul. The march made its way from North Avenue up “the stroll” on Charles Street, where many trans sex workers—mostly Black—work every night.
Smith-Joyner said there’s work to be done to ensure that sex workers are included in the event, and suggested paying sex workers to forego a night of work to participate in the event. “If they’re working ‘the stroll’ right now, that’s when they’re making their money,” they said. “I think it’s really important to [hear] the voices of those who are most affected and marginalized the most.”
Jamie Grace Alexander, an event organizer, also addressed these tensions.
“We want to empower all trans people to do what’s best for them,” she said. “If someone’s like, ‘I don’t want to get a job at like Costco or whatever, I want to trick on the street,’ I’m like, ‘bitch, do it.’”
Taylor (who did not want to use her real name), a sex worker and an organizer with the Sex Workers Outreach Project, also noted that sex workers face issues of stigma—but that for many people, especially Black trans people, “it’s not a choice, it’s survival.”
The International Transgender Day of Remembrance was started 18 years ago to honor the lost life of a transgender sex worker named Rita Hester. It is meant to highlight and give respect to the trans lives lost each year to violence. Each year, it’s observed globally by millions. This is Baltimore’s third year recognizing the event.
The Trans Murder Monitoring Project has recorded over 17,000 murders of trans people between 2017 and 2014. And in the states,this has been a particularly horrific year for trans people. Last year, a record-breaking 27 trans people were killed in the US and a new report from the Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition shows that 2017 will not be better: At least 25 transgender people have been murdered in the U.S. so far this year. Most of those were people of color. In March, a transgender woman named Alphonza Watson was murdered just a few blocks away from 2640 Space.
The event also came during high profile national conversations about sexual assault and harassment. “It’s always [cisgendered] white women whose stories are heard, especially when they’re beautiful,” said Taylor.
Studies show that roughly half of all transgender people will experience sexual violence in their lives. Still, the BTA is trying “subvert” the focus on grieving and hardships, instead centering resilience.
“The idea is to try and create this sanctuary that’s like, metaphorically and structurally resilient,” Pipitone said as people lined up for free cupcakes and hot meals.
Like Smith-Joyner, Pipitone spoke about the racial and class divides in the room and in Baltimore’s queer and trans communities.
“It’s really class segregated. It’s kind of, are you coming from an academic intellectual feminist identity politic that’s very exclusive, or are you coming from a, ‘shit sucks for everybody, here are we all together in this mess of like, LGBT or whatever, let’s dance?’” she said.
Pipitone says the “let’s dance!” crowd is usually more welcoming than the academic feminist one. There was some dancing later in the night.
As the dancing died down, Diane, a homeless trans person who has been presenting as a woman for about a year, spoke about how at home and safe she’d felt at the event. She felt the sense of sanctuary Pipitone had hoped for. But on the streets, she still faces what she called “terrorism” for being trans – from being picked on to “being sexually assaulted in a shelter.”
There’s still work to be done to ensure that she’s safe. “It makes me angry, and I find it disappointing,” she said.
Photo: Jocelyn Dombroski