The Work Ahead

“So that no one is left behind.”

February 8, 2018

By Altaf Rahamatulla

Three months ago, Andrea Jenkins was elected to the Minneapolis City Council, becoming the first-out transgender woman of color elected to public office in American history. Jenkins’ victory was emblematic of a wave of momentous wins last November, as people of color, women, and LGBTQ candidates shattered barriers in elections across the country. During her acceptance speech, Jenkins profoundly related her experience, stating, “as an out African-American trans-identified woman, I know firsthand the feeling of being marginalized, left out, thrown under the bus.”

Against the backdrop of these historic wins, polling in 2017 indicated an actual decline in acceptance of LGBTQ people nationwide. While structural discrimination and prejudice are perennial challenges, the current era has been characterized by backlash, retrenchment, and regression. Propagating toxic discourse, the Trump administration and federal government have persistently undermined civil rights protections for LGBTQ individuals, and scores of regressive, anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in recent years.

Bigotry is pervasive, and manifests in shockingly direct and individual ways. Just weeks after Jenkins’ win, the Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition released A Time To Act, finding that 2017 was the deadliest year for transgender people, especially young women of color, in almost a decade. One of these tragedies occurred here in New York City last April, when Kenneth Bostick, a Black transgender person who struggled with homelessness and mental illness, was attacked and endured a severe head injury that ultimately led to his death.

LGBTQ communities, particularly those of color, face discrimination in employment, housing, healthcare, and education, resulting in poverty and heightened criminalization. For example:

  • The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality find that transgender and gender-nonconforming people experience double the rate of unemployment compared to the general population.
  • Among young people who are homeless, nearly half identify as LGBTQ. These youth may deal with social isolation, family rejection, bullying, a lack of appropriate services, and mental and emotional difficulties.
  • According to a 2016 report by the Movement Advancement Project and Center for American Progress, more than 20 percent of transgender women have spent time in prison or jail, compared to only five percent of all Americans.
  • Approximately 300,000 LGBTQ youth are arrested or detained each year, most of whom are Black and Latino. Although LGBTQ youth represent five to seven percent of the nation’s youth population, they represent 20 percent of those in the juvenile justice system overall.

The courage of activists and advocates standing for these communities is laudable.  Two grantee partners of the New York Foundation, which also appear in our cohort this grant cycle, are examples of a number of LGBTQ organizations that we have supported that work at the nexus of economic injustice, criminalization, and racial disparity.

Bronx-based FIERCE, founded almost two decades ago by queer youth who organized against police harassment at the Christopher Street pier in the West Village, has become a haven for its youth of color membership and provides space for them to lead social change efforts, develop a community in which their voice is centered and valued, and create plans for personal growth and economic sustainability. Through advocacy, organizing, and leadership development, FIERCE has played a pivotal role in initiatives to expand supportive services and programming for LGBTQ youth and advance police accountability. Through a sophisticated leadership and outreach model, FIERCE has reached thousands of young people in New York City.

Founded in 2002 and named after a civil rights activist and veteran of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, Sylvia Rivera Law Project addresses systemic discrimination on the basis of gender identity by working to remove barriers that hinder low-income transgender individuals and those of color. Often working in partnership with allies, the organization has waged strategic and determined campaigns to bolster access to health care and gender-affirming identify documents, protect transgender immigrants, provide supportive legal services, and safeguard transgender prisoners.

These groups are beacons in such a precarious cultural moment, and their policy vision illuminates a path forward for advancing rights protections, equality, and broader social inclusion. Just a few weeks ago, Jenkins was appointed Vice-President of the Minneapolis City Council. To commemorate the occasion, she poignantly described her mission in a line evocative of the role of this activism today: “In this troubled political time, it is imperative that we fight for equity and justice for marginalized community members, so that no one is left behind, and we all move forward together.”