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Saving Their Sisters

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Houston groups offer much-needed support to black trans women. 

By Lourdes Zavaleta

When Dee Dee Watters came out as transgender as a teenager, her mother threw her belongings into the street and kicked her out of her family’s north-Houston home.

Watters was turned away from some homeless shelters, while others would not let her shower or told her that if she wanted to stay, she would have to remove her nail polish and put on jeans and a T-shirt. “While on the streets, I was robbed, beaten up, and attacked by cops,” says Watters, now 32.

According to a 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 30 percent of trans people have been homeless at some point in their lives, compared to 17 percent of the general population. Meanwhile, 48 percent of trans people reported being denied equal treatment, verbally harassed, and/or physically abused because of their gender identity.

For trans women of color, like Watters, the stakes are higher. As The Advocate put it in 2016, “Trans women of color suffer from the effects of compounded institutional barriers, including not only transphobia and racism but also xenophobia, poverty, and homelessness.”

The threat of violence that trans people face—and particularly trans women of color—is not new. Since the first anniversary of Rita Hester’s murder in 1998, the LGBTQ community has gathered annually on November 20 to mourn trans victims of violence on the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR).

Since 2010, the number of trans murder victims in the U.S. has increased each year. In 2015, 21 trans murders were reported. In 2016, the number rose to 27. As of early November, 25 transgender people had been killed this year—including 19  people of color, 16 of whom were black women.

Three of these 2017 murders occurred in Texas. The body of Kenne McFadden, a 27-year-old trans woman, was found in the San Antonio River on April 9. On August 13, 26-year-old Gwenevere River Song was fatally shot in Waxahachie. And on October 21, 47-year-old Elizabeth Stephanie Montez was found shot to death near Corpus Christi. Although no trans people are known to have been murdered locally this year, 34-year-old Shante Thompson was beaten and fatally shot in Houston on April 11, 2016.

In October 2000, Watters founded Transgender Woman of Color United for Change (TWCUC). Until last year, TWCUC was the only Houston organization that provided safe spaces specifically for trans women of color. In February 2016, Atlantis Narcisse founded Save Our Sisters (SOS), another support group for trans women of color.

The 45-year-old Narcisse, who received the Houston GLBT Political Caucus’ President’s Award in October, has been involved in the community for several years, serving on advisory boards and participating in panel discussions for the Montrose Center, Legacy Community Health, and the City of Houston. She says people would often ask for her phone number or email address so they could follow up with questions about hormone therapy and transitioning.

Though she enjoys assisting people one-on-one, Narcisse was frustrated that so many of them did not already have access to this information, or a place to meet other transgender women of color. “Every time someone pulled me to the side, I would think, ‘Why haven’t these women been taught about themselves yet?’” Narcisse says. “’And why isn’t there a space for them to congregate?’”

Narcisse says being openly trans in the black community is full of stigma because of the emphasis on religion and masculinity. She wants black trans women to know that SOS will give them a safe space where they can be open, and equip them with any answers that they need.

SOS, which was recently mentioned in the New York Times, meets at M Society (a branch of Legacy Community Health) and at the Montrose Center. The group is open to both trans and cisgender women of color. Narcisse says she wants to bridge gaps among all women. “In the African-American community, there’s a stereotype that black cis women and black trans women can’t be in the same room together,” Narcisse says. “That is just not the case.”

The group meets in a circle. Conversations are organic, and there are no established group leaders. Narcisse says SOS members are very diverse. “Young trans women come in. So do homeless women, women who work, women who can’t work, women who are HIV-positive, women with mental-health issues, and women that struggle with thoughts of suicide,” Narcisse says. “There is so much diversity in being a trans person. No one’s situation is the same.”

Narcisse believes the future of SOS is unlimited and hopes to see it grow into a space that will include representation from other trans communities. Women of color who are interested in attending SOS meetings can reach out to the group through Facebook.

Both SOS and TWCUC will be involved in the Day of Remembrance events this month.

“Every time I walk out of my house, I know that I might not return, or I might come back to news that another trans person has been killed,” Narcisse says. “That’s why every day is a Trans Day of Remembrance to me.”•

Transgender Day of Remembrance Events

The Progressive Open Door Christian Center will host a TDOR memorial from 7 to 9 p.m. on November 15. Transgender Woman of Color United for Change will host a Transgender Day of Resources and Healthy Living from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on November 18 at the Montrose Center. TWCUC will also host the I Am She and She Was Me! Awards Gala, to honor transgender and intersex people and allies, from 6 to 9 p.m. on November 18 at the Montrose Center. Tickets are available at eventbrite.com. The Houston Transgender Unity Committee is hosting it’s annual observance of the Transgender Day of Remembrance on Saturday, November 18, 2017 at the A.D. Bruce Religion Center on the Main Campus of the University of Houston. Programing starts at 7 p.m. Transform Houston and HOUequality will premier Major!, a documentary about the life of Major Griffin-Gracy, a 75-year-old trans activist, at 6 p.m. on November 20 at the University of Houston’s Agnes Arnold Hall.

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Lourdes Zavaleta

Lourdes Zavaleta is a staff writer for OutSmart magazine. She recently graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in journalism. When Zavaleta isn’t at OutSmart, she tutors writing at UH-Clear Lake. She also runs a comedy Twitter account with over 34,000 followers.
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