Bali White Inspires

Comptroller Thompson Bestows LGBT Pride Award on Transgender Housing Works Staffer

Bali White is Coordinator of Transgender Services at Housing Works. But she serves as more than just a support to the transgender women in her program -- she's an inspiration.

"I like how the girls are impacted by working with a member of their own community. I'm an example of what you can do," said White, who is transgender. White was honored by New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson at an LGBT Pride Celebration on Tuesday for her work spearheading Housing Works' pioneering services for HIV-positive and HIV-negative transgender New Yorkers, a population especially hard hit by AIDS.

Many transgender women believe that sex work is the only option they have to earn money. Bali explodes that myth by her example. "When I realized I was transgender, I thought that if you were trans, you also had to be a prostitute. It was really sold to me together," White said.

White was able to avoid sex work through a combination of timing, a strong support system, and a commitment to education. But she realizes that, "when most girls get offered that opportunity, they don't have other options."

"I'm a Square"

Some of White's clients were initially skeptical of her. "They can sense I've never used drugs. I'm a square, as they say," White said, laughing. "But that doesn't mean I've never been homeless or had to deal with a lot of the struggles that they've had."

A member of White's transgender evening program, Vivian Lopez Ponce called White an "inspiration."

"She's educated, talented and has a fresh outlook on things," Ponce said. "She's encouraged me a great deal." White and Ponce were featured in this widely seen PSA.

White was also instrumental in mobilizing Ponce and other clients to take buses to Albany to fight for the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act (GENDA). This bill would make it illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of gender identity or expression, a particularly important issue for transgender people.

"Politics isn't something that necessarily excites me, but I go on lobby visits in Albany, because I know passing GENDA is incredibly important for transgender people to achieve equality in New York," White said.

An Extraordinary Path

White was homeless when she first came to New York in 2000, after attending Howard University for a year. She originally hoped to become a dancer, but hadn't yet transitioned, and was told she was too feminine to be cast.

She then got a job at Harlem United doing outreach with LGBT communities and started receiving hormones and transitioning from male to female.

White also received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia University in 2006 and 2007. She worked for a short time as a phlebotomist and thought about being a biochemist but realized her passion lay in helping other transgender people. She joined Housing Works in 2008.

White is also working to change the narrative around relationships among transgender women whose sexual partners are often ignored, to the detriment of effective HIV outreach. She fought for a program at Housing Works, where partners come in one night a week.

"We're missing half of the equation," White said. "There's this image of transpeople as solitary entities, but a lot of the girls are having sex, and their partners are exposed to the same risks."

White hopes to expand her work internationally. She brought a priest who works with the transgender community in India to Housing Works and was also interviewed in a forthcoming documentary about LGBT issues in Jamaica.

"A lot of the issues are similar globally, and we can learn a lot from what has been done in other communities," she said.