I’ve reached a point in my life when some activities have become difficult. This situation is by no means restricted to me. I’m part of a small, and getting smaller, group of trans women who were here living our lives and fighting for equality since the 1950s and to this day carry the physical and emotional scars from what we went through. Many of us are still involved. Names that come to mind are Elizabeth Coffey Williams, who starred in some of John Waters’ movies; Andrea Harrington; Tina Montgomery, the doyenne of dance; Sheila Colson-Pope with RAGE; June Martinez-Bailey aka Pebbles, a longtime activist for the HIV/AIDS community; and many others.
Since I first came to Philadelphia, I’ve watched in awe as my community has grown and evolved. Things that were hard to imagine 25 years ago have slowly come to pass through the dedication, commitment and persistence of many members of my community and their allies, who refused to take no for an answer. Our city has become a haven for trans people because we have a raft of legislation that protects us and our rights. We have the Fair Practices Ordinance (FPO), which outlaws discrimination based on our gender presentation, the LGBT Equality Bill and a requirement for gender-neutral bathrooms.
One of the critical issues has always been housing but, thanks to the dreams of Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal, we are beginning to see the ideas of low-income LGBT-senior housing become a reality. Mark’s dream came to fruition with the creation of the John C. Anderson LGBT-Friendly Senior Apartments, which opened their doors in 2014 and where I currently live.
Trans people age earlier. They have lost jobs and families, have been unable to develop much in the way of resources to fund retirement and they become increasingly affected by the events of the past, with many suffering from illnesses that went untreated for years due to the unavailability of competent heath care. A major concern faced by many is what will happen to them when they are no longer able to take care of themselves in their own apartments. The brutal truth is that as far as I know, there are no long-term/nursing care facilities that will treat trans patients with the care and dignity that they deserve. This is a nightmare for many of my brothers and sisters that must be addressed with urgency. Recently, the board of the LGBT Elder Initiative, headed by Sandra Thompson, began the work to create a Trans Advisory Committee to expand its outreach to the marginalized older trans community and prepare aging-services providers to become more trans-competent.
Philadelphia is unique in having an Office of LGBT Affairs, which is now, thanks to a ballot initiative, written into the city charter. This post, originally held by Gloria Casarez, then Nellie Fitzpatrick and now by Amber Hikes, works with the Mayor’s Commission of LGBT Affairs to ensure that Philly’s diverse LGBT community has a strong voice in local politics.
We are so fortunate to have so many individuals advocating for us, most of whom are down in the trenches working on our behalf: Deja Alvarez, director of the Home for Hope, providing accommodation for homeless LGBT people; Ariana Sanchez, now with the ACLU; Laura Sorenson, director of the Morris Home; Nikki López, executive director of GALAEI; Erika Almirón Niz, executive director of Juntos; Celena Morrison from Mazzoni Center who runs Sisterly Love through the Trans Wellness Project; Lisa Pozzi and Yoshiaki Yamasaki, providing support and therapy from the Philadelphia Aids Consortium (TPAC) and the John F. Kennedy Behavioral Health Center; and the aforementioned Coffey Williams and Kendall Stephens, running Transway, a social group for mostly young trans and gender-nonconforming people out of the William Way LGBT Community Center. They, together with the trans kids going through PFLAG and the Gender Clinic at Children’s Hospital, will be the trans elders of the future. One other name that must be included here is that of Asa Khalif, a longtime true civil-rights warrior in a community far removed from the primped-up world of pearl-clutching selfies, awards and the constant round of expensive dinners and cocktail parties.
Many trans people will tell you about the uneasy relationship they have had, historically, with the Philadelphia Police Department. Now we have a Police LGBT Liaison Committee headed up by the indomitable Franny Price, and attended by senior officers, which provides us with a mechanism to voice our concerns to them directly. It was from this that Directive 152 was born, a mandatory policy that must be put into practice by officers any time they interact with trans people. Hopefully, this liaison work will lead to greater efforts to apprehend those who beat and kill so many of my sisters.
In PGN, through its skilled staff, we have our own community newspaper that regularly publishes articles relevant to the trans community. This is an essential prerequisite to maintain a healthy and vibrant community.
One of the issues that weighs heavily on us is the current situation in the Gayborhood with allegations of racism, real and well-founded. This affects us deeply, as our sense of family and community is being eroded. The issue of systemic racism in the neighborhood is not new. I quickly became aware of it when I moved here and had occasion to raise it. Sometimes it was allied to transphobia, which was also common but just seemed to be accepted. At one time, some action was taken against the offenders following complaints but that never really lasted. Maybe with the report and mandating training by the Human Relations Commission and newly passed legislation that will penalize discriminatory behavior by businesses, as well as the ongoing work of the Black & Brown Workers Collective, we will see real and substantial change.
Recently, I was talking to a young trans girl who was worried sick about her future under the new White House administration. I explained that almost all of the rights we currently enjoy in Philly will not change and finished the conversation with a quote from “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”
Dawn Munro is a community activist and a member of the board of the LGBT Elder Initiative.