Oppression in the transgender community disproportionately impacts trans people of color, according to Emmett Schelling.
Schelling, a Korean man who identifies as trans, is the newly appointed executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT), an organization dedicated to furthering gender-diverse equality. He vows to lead the organization with an intersectional focus.
“Trans people of color, specifically black trans women, face obstacles that their white counterparts do not,” Schelling says. “This is why TENT is programming through a racial-justice lens.”
Born in Seoul and raised with his adoptive family in Ohio, Schelling has made history as TENT’s first non-white executive director. The group, which was launched in 2002 to advocate for the inclusion of gender identity in an Austin non-discrimination ordinance, has historically been run by white trans women. Schelling says his first order of business was to bring more diversity to the organization’s board of directors.
Schelling’s team, which includes several trans folks of color, began their positions in January 2019. TENT’s new directors are chair Rocky Lane, vice chair Luka Rios, treasurer Ginger Chun, interim secretary Lauryn Farris, and directors Jamie Zapata, Nicholas Arvizu, Erika Richie, Eric Edward Schell, Katy Stewart, and Jessica Soukup.
“Our new board looks drastically different than it ever has before,” Schelling says. “Texas is very diverse, and having directors that reflect our community is extremely beneficial to guiding the mission of what we do.”
Lane, a black trans man who works in Austin, was asked by Schelling to become TENT’s chair after the two met at an ACLU training. Lane says he was immediately on board when he heard Schelling’s plan to expand representation for trans folks of color.
“Trans people of color, specifically black trans women, face obstacles that their white counterparts do not. This is why TENT is programming through a racial-justice lens.”
“Emmett’s idea of how TENT should work moving forward will help us protect and understand all trans voices,” Lane says. “Before, not everyone felt included. Diversity makes me, and many others, feel safe and accepted.”
Lane says that because Schelling is a trans person of color, he is able to authentically use his platform to expose challenges that those like him face.
“Trans people of color are at a disadvantage,” Lane says. “On top of being trans, there are hardships that people of color also go through—homelessness, higher unemployment rates, medical issues, and more. Emmett recognizes this, and is bringing these issues to the forefront of our work.”
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 folks reported being denied equal treatment, verbally harassed, and/or physically abused because of their gender identity.
For trans people of color, the stakes are even higher.
“If we didn’t acknowledge race and color in our work, TENT wouldn’t be doing its job completely,” Schelling says.
TENT will host a lobby day to discuss trans issues with elected representatives at the Texas Capitol on March 7.
Schelling, who currently resides in Houston, moved to Texas from the Midwest three years ago. After several years of working in corporate management and participating in LGBTQ activism in his spare time, his successful effort to help defeat a bathroom bill in 2017 inspired him to leave his job and become a full-time transgender advocate.
The proposed law to regulate bathroom use for trans Texans died in the summer of 2017, in part due to Schelling and other LGBTQ activists testifying at the Capitol about the dangers of banning folks from using public restrooms that match their gender identities. Following the victory, Schelling, who served as the 2016–2017 president of the San Antonio Gender Association, extended his work in advocacy when he was appointed as executive director of TENT.
“It was apparent to me that there was still a push against trans folks,” Schelling recalls. “I realized that sitting by idly and watching this happen to myself and to my community wasn’t good for anyone.”
Because TENT is based in Austin and operates across the state, Schelling says much of his time is spent on the road, sharing his testimony in public and private forums to educate people about his experience as a trans man of color.
Schelling admits that he doesn’t have much time off, but when he does take a break from work, he volunteers with Transform Houston and spends time with his partner, Andrea Segovia, and his teenage child.
For more information about TENT, go to transtexas.org.
This article appears in the February 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.