For Jasmine McKenzie, her work to empower other Black transgender women is rooted in her experiences as a child.
“I just didn’t know where I could go to help,” said McKenzie. “My goal is to help prevent as many young transgender women from going through what I had to face growing up.”
She serves as a case manager, HIV testing counselor and program facilitator for The League of Extraordinary Transgender Women at Pridelines Community Center in Miami, Florida. The organization works “to support, educate and empower South Florida’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth and community in safe and diverse spaces to promote dialogue, wellness, and to foster social change.”
McKenzie is a part of AIDS United’s first-ever cohort of the Fund for Resilience, Equity and Engagement and the Transgender Leadership Initiative Leadership Development Program. These leaders were chosen through AIDS United’s grantee partner organizations as representatives of transgender and gender-nonconforming people and Black gay, bisexual, queer and same-gender-loving men — populations in our communities most disproportionately impacted by HIV.
We caught up with McKenzie to learn more about her story and how she works to mobilize her community to stop HIV together.
How did you get into this field?
It started with being abandoned by family at 14, and I was living on the streets doing survival sex work at that age. With barely anyone to run to for help, I made it out of my struggle. I always told myself that, as a Black trans woman, I wanted to help as many other Black transgender women in South Florida as possible.
I used the ballroom and my role as a mother to help educate, push and show many of the individuals how to be the best that they can be. After being seen as a pillar of my community, I was asked to come to Pridelines as health program facilitator; then I was moved up to case manager months later. While I have been working in the field under an organization for just eight months, I’ve been doing this work alone with no help for about 10 years now.
How do we start to reduce the barriers preventing transgender women of color from accessing care?
The barriers that TWOC face in accessing care are related. The first is oppression: transphobia and racism. This results in poverty, the second major barrier, which results in issues such as a lack of reliable transportation. This means missed appointments and poor health management, even when care is available. Homelessness is another poverty-related barrier for TWOC: one in five experience homelessness.
The third major barrier is internalized stigma caused by rejection, discrimination and violence. This takes place within families, communities and overall society. It takes a huge toll on TWOC, especially those who live with HIV. Even hearing about Black transgender women being murdered can make us feel unsafe. Being hurt for being who we naturally are causes us to feel bad about ourselves, making us fail to take care of ourselves and use resources to get healthy.
I want to mention a fourth barrier: lack of legal protections. Identity documents are hard to get in most states. Without identification, one cannot travel, register for school or access many basic but essential services. Some states require evidence of medical transition, which is prohibitively expensive and not something that all transgender people want. There are fees for processing new identity documents that make them unaffordable for some TWOC.
If I could do anything, I would get involved in reframing institutional policies that are racist and transphobic in order to attack the foundation of these barriers. I’m interested in learning how I can create equity for TWOC.
What are some of the challenges preventing trans women of color from being in executive leadership roles? What are some of the solutions to addressing those challenges?
While funding is always a challenge, having the skills to use funding is just as important.
First, we need to learn the skills that we have not had the opportunity to learn. TWOC face so many barriers to education, training and employment. We need to learn communication skills, computer skills, time management and how to balance our personal issues in order to provide the most ethical leadership. We need to learn to build alliances between each other without feeling like we need to compete and to build allies outside of the transgender the community.
Racism and transphobia have oppressed and stopped us from becoming leaders. I believe that this can be overcome so that we can hold executive leadership positions. We must hold ourselves and leaders of existing organizations accountable to make room for us at the table, and we must seek training opportunities to create our own table.
Specifically, I would combat these challenges by seeking training in the areas mentioned above and then finding a few other Black transgender women who want to work on the same things that I do. We would agree on a plan to develop an initiative or organization and use our training to establish ourselves as leaders. As I am working on this, I would also seek to represent Black transgender women on boards, coalitions and other organizations in order to hold them accountable for involving Black transgender women in their work, not just as frontline workers, but in leadership roles.