Sophia Kass, the program coordinator for Transgender Law Center’s Positively Trans+ initiative, is dedicated to breaking down barriers for transgender women of color in the movement to end the HIV epidemic.
Moving to the United States from Lebanon, Kass can speak firsthand to the discrimination and bias that trans women of color, sometimes abbreviated as TWOC, face in today’s world. Over the years, Kass has dedicated herself to serving trans and gender non-conforming communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, empowering individuals and challenging injustices.
“In too many spaces, tokenism and disadvantageous recruitment processes, I feel, are preventing TWOC from accessing leadership and executive roles,” Kass said. “Believe and invest in trans women of color to lead the national awareness and response to HIV.”
Kass 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 Kass 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?
I came to the United States and started working in the field approximately five years ago, after I got fed up of being a victim and an easy target. In Lebanon, like in most Arab countries, living outside the traditional norms of gender roles and gender expression is considered heresy and an abomination against societal values and religious teachings — and therefore completely out of question. In fact, consequences are severe and can range from detention and imprisonment to death or murder, to even denial of last rites and burial.
How do we start to reduce the barriers preventing transgender women of color from accessing care?
Discrimination in employment, housing and health care create major barriers for TWOC accessing care in the United States. These often permeate into structures, laws and policies. Reducing these barriers will require our communities to continue organizing and building our networks, while centering the most impacted among us.
In order to reclaim power and control over our own narratives, we need to generate more community-based research and storytelling, as well as capacity building, so that more of us are present at the tables where decisions impacting our lives are made. Finally, coalition building with both stakeholders and allies will be crucial to advocate and lobby for policy and structural change.
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?
In too many spaces, tokenism and disadvantageous recruitment processes, I feel, are preventing TWOC from accessing leadership and executive roles. One way to address this challenge is through funder education, particularly for issues impacting our communities, so that it becomes a requirement from grantees to hire, train and retain TWOC in leadership positions. Fair compensation and accessible application and recruitment processes should also be part of the solution. We have to look beyond academic qualifications and professional experience and prioritize not only lived experience but also gained wisdom and transferable life skills.