April 1, 2021

Every Nov. 20, people gather for Transgender Day of Remembrance, to read the names of people who have been murdered in acts of transphobic violence. It’s a day to honor those who died, to mourn their passing, to call for change. 

But every March 31, people gather again for Transgender Day of Visibility, to acknowledge the accomplishments of transgender and gender nonconforming people — and to spotlight the actions society still must take to achieve trans justice.

Today in Oregon, many people who identify as transgender and nonbinary have comprehensive healthcare that provides for gender-affirming treatment and procedures. Across the nation, openly transgender politicians are increasingly elected to public office. In fact, the very language used to define gender has evolved; last fall Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary included the pronoun “they” to refer to someone who doesn’t identify with either binary gender. 

The annual day of visibility also centers the recognition that despite those gains, we must redouble our efforts in areas that still require change.

“When it comes to reflecting on the visibility and acceptance of trans and nonbinary people, I have heard people say times have changed. Every time I hear that I bristle a little bit,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said Thursday as the Board of Commissioners acknowledged the annual event. “Crediting the passage of time to where we are today erases the incredible labor and sacrifice that so many trans people have given, and the risks they have taken to move the needle. And it implies that the work for trans inclusion and acceptance is finished.”

It’s obvious that work is far from finished, Kafoury went on to say.

Black and Beyond the Binary Collective will be working with JOIN to distribute Multnomah County’s first investment in addressing housing instability in the transgender community. 

Fatal violence against transgender people continues to rise; last year at least 44 people who identify as transgender or nonbinary were murdered in the United States, a record number, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which began tracking deaths in 2013.

Transgender youth remain at especially high risk for depression and suicide. And transgender and nonbinary youth especially experience high rates of suicidal thoughts and self-harm. But even as research suggests that mental health improves when transgender and nonbinary youth have access to gender-affirming medical care, a cascade of proposed legislation nationally has targeted their ability to legally receive that care, among other basic rights.

Rates of substance use remain significantly higher for transgender individuals. During the pandemic, more transgender people than cis-gender people have reported a lack access to care and social supports.

People who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming also report higher rates of housing instability and homelessness, which exacerbate health conditions, jeopardize a person’s physical safety, and increase a person’s risk of interacting with law enforcement.

And there’s work to do locally in Multnomah County, where systemic barriers continue to endanger trans residents — with no barrier more clear than access to safe and stable housing. 

Housing partnership announced

That’s why, Kafoury said, it was appropriate that the Board on Thursday should also hear about a new partnership between the Joint Office of Homeless Services, JOIN, and Black and Beyond the Binary Collective. 

In the 2021 fiscal budget, the Board earmarked $250,000 in ongoing funding to serve transgender and nonbinary people experiencing homelessness. Working with nonprofit and grassroots partners, the County now has a plan to spend those funds. That community-shaped plan will include providing direct help with housing costs — including rent, security deposits, moving costs, utilities and utility deposits. 

“For too long trans and nonbinary folks have been left out of policy discussions,” Kafoury said. “So we agreed to commit the money first to show the trans community that we were serious about listening to them and ready to be led by what they told us they needed.”

In Oregon less than 1 percent of people identify as transgender. But the region’s most recent Point in Time Count, conducted in 2019, shows more than 2 percent of people experiencing homelessness identify as transgender or nonbinary. And that number is likely an undercount, experts suggest.

“Trans folks already experience discrimination in employment, housing, healthcare. And then you overlay COVID on top of that,” said Scotty Sherington, senior equity and inclusion specialist with the Office of Diversity and Equity. “We need to get housing so trans people can feel safe.”

And that’s where the partnership among JOIN, the Joint Office, and Black and Beyond the Binary Collective comes in. Black and Beyond the Binary Collective is a platform to build community and coordinate grassroots activism, to fundraise for food or makeup, for rent, a car, or surgery. The partnership with Multnomah County formalizes that community support.

“One thing we know as black trans and disabled folks in the community: People are in need. And money, housing and social recognition are key to making sure people can live full lives,” said Babatunde Azubuike, executive director of Black and Beyond the Binary Collective.

Black and Beyond the Binary Collective will be working with JOIN to distribute Multnomah County’s first investment in addressing housing instability in the transgender community. 

The program will specifically target housing services for black trans people, and its staff will also identify and gather data to inform future housing policy. People who identify as Black or African American, no matter their gender identity, also experience disproportionate rates of unsheltered and overall homelessness. But there is less available and accurate data on trans people of color.

Jerome Jones with Black and Beyond the Binary, said the organization focus housing funds specifically on services for black trans people, and they plan to identify and gather data that will help inform future policy.

“For Transgender Day of Visibility we talk a lot about wanting to be seen,” Jones said. “Visibility doesn’t always equal acceptance. We want to be heard, valued, housed, clothed, so we, as a community, can thrive.”

“These partnerships make sure resources are getting into the hands of the people who need it most. But there had to be some trust building,” Azubuike said. “This partnership comes from the solid folks employed at Multnomah County and the Joint Office, from relationships built over years and years. Scotty [Sherington] has done a lot in the black trans community to earn that trust.”

Trans activists of color say they hope this partnership seeds sustained funding and creative housing solutions in the Portland metro area — cooperative housing projects such as Queer the Land in Seattle and My Sistah’s House in Memphis. 

“It doesn't matter your age, gender, anything — housing has been the most consistent need. Governments give a couple hundred dollars for a hotel voucher, knowing that doesn’t work,” Azubuike said. “So we are working here to address real tangible needs now, but we’re also zooming out to ask, ‘How can we make this sustainable?’ We are excited and hopeful for this partnership, of what is to come.”

Housing is healthcare

Azubuike — who uses the pronouns xey, xem, and xyr— is passionate about housing not only after years of advocacy but also because of xyr own story. Azubuike was kicked out at 14 after coming out as a lesbian, before xey could define and put words to who xey truly were. As a teen, Azubuike lived out of a suitcase, from one couch to another — that is, when there was a couch to be had. Otherwise xey did their best to remain alert and awake. 

“I would walk all night just so I didn’t have to go to sleep,” xey said. “Without housing, I found myself, especially when I was younger, dealing with intimate partner violence and putting up with stuff I wouldn’t have to put up with if I had had a safe place to be. Housing changes things. When you know that basic need is taken care of, other things become possible.”

Azubuike worked as a line cook in xyr teens, rising up the restaurant ranks to sous chef. But when Azubuike came out as transgender at age 22, xey were fired. Azubuike took other odd restaurant jobs and started to organize for the rights of Black, queer and transgender people, through the Human Rights Campaign, Jobs with Justice and later Freedom to Thrive.

“What became very clear was that I wanted to do work for Black queer and trans folks,” xey said. 

The past decade has afforded Azubuike the opportunity to see society shift — not entirely, and not for everyone, everywhere, but fundamentally.

“One thing I think is really beautiful is the way language has changed over time. Even from now, I’m about to be 33. When I came out as trans, I was 22. I didn’t really have words for what I was feeling. At that time it was ‘he,’ ‘she’ and ‘they.’” 

And the shift is more pronounced for the generation of trans youth of color Azubuike supports through Black and Beyond the Binary Collective.

“One of the biggest accomplishments, of the organizing that has come before me and the organizing that comes after me, is that push of ‘I’m going to be who I am,’” xey said. “I work a lot with young Black folks. I see them be unapologetically themselves. I wish I could bottle that.”

Erin Waters, an equity consultant with Kaiser Permanente, has also witnessed a shift in how society treats transgender people, even if that shift hasn’t touched all places or all families. But activists and allies are changing things.

“It used to be you get pumped full of hormones, sever yourself from your old life and hope for the best,” Waters said. “We still do lose family and friends. But a lot more of us are in places where we can build better chosen families and keep blood families. That’s not everyone.” 

Access to healthcare has been one of the most tangible and life-alerting shifts toward transgender equality in the past decade, she said.

Until 2015, insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of medications, operations, and other care and treatments associated with gender dysphoria. Today in Oregon government and private health insurers recognize care for gender dysphoria as medically necessary. And providers increasingly enter the profession specifically to serve transgender and nonbinary people. 

“Ten years ago I could count the number of surgeons familiar with gender-affirming procedures on one hand,” Waters said. “Now it’s different. There are people getting into healthcare now because they want to provide this care.”

This isn’t universally true. Not for trans women. Not people living in rural areas. And not for people experiencing homelessness.

Some procedures require someone to be hospitalized for days, recovering while lying down and keeping still—with 24-hour care—for a week. Then they must avoid carrying weight for weeks after—and always with a place to wash and keep their wounds clean and dressed. Recovery from other procedures can take months.

“Even though we have access to medical interventions, we still might not get access to those because of housing. I can think of a dozen people who recovered in a shelter or were denied surgery because they didn’t have a place to recover,” Waters said. “Most of the work I do is centered around health. But housing is healthcare.”

Commissioners thanked the speakers and praised their work. Commissioners Sharon Meieran and Susheela Jayapal spoke of the trans youth in their own families — and their personal connections to the work of creating justice, guided by the journeys they’ve been able to witness up close.

“As the aunt of a brilliant brown transgender person, I appreciate the need to create a world where they are not just seen but loved, valued, heard, safe, fulfilled,” Jayapal said. “I’m so grateful to those who work everyday to make that world a reality.”