In New York City and nationally, one of the most prominent transgender activists living openly with HIV is Kiara St. James, cofounder and executive director of New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG), which fights for New York City, New York State, and national laws and policies that are affirming of trans and gender-nonconfirming (TGNC) lives. St. James, who grew up in Beaumont, Texas, and then with a foster family in Germany, lives in Brooklyn and has been organizing around issues affecting trans, black, and/or HIV-positive New Yorkers since her days working with Housing Works in the ‘90s. (Here is a very long interview about her life.) A few years ago, she cofounded NYTAG, which played an important role in finally getting GENDA, which bans discrimination based on gender identity, passed into New York State law. NYTAG also played a lead role recently in organizing New York City’s annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), commemorating TGNC folks, mostly black trans women, killed by transphobic violence.
On a rainy December afternoon, we sat down with St. James at NYTAG’s offices (in a WeWork space) in downtown Manhattan to talk about NYTAG’s ambitious agenda for 2020—as well as St. James’ determination this year to get help for her depression and anxiety, which affect many LGBTQ and/or HIV-positive folks, especially during the holiday season.
Tim Murphy: Hi, Kiara! Thanks for having me in today. So, start by telling us about NYTAG.
KSJ: Sure. I cofounded it in late 2014 with four other black and brown trans women: Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker, Celine St. John, Armani T. Taylor, and Cheryl Clancy. I knew we needed to become a nonprofit, which we did in 2015.
TM: What inspired you to start it?
KSJ: I got tired of going into spaces where I would see the data and stats about black trans women’s HIV transmission rates and unemployment rates. I knew that the root causes of all that is not because we’re black and trans but because policies are not affirming and inclusive. I wanted to create an organization that really prioritized getting the community acclimated to policy-making and not intimidated by it, really understanding that they have to be at the table.
TM: Where did you get your funding?
KSJ: The first year? Out of my pocket. I was on a fixed income. No office. I was still working at Housing Works, where I have a great relationship with the cofounder and CEO, Charles King, and with my former boss, Carmelita Cruz, so I could do some planning there.
TM: So five years later, what would you point to as the highlight accomplishments or projects?
KSJ: One of the major ones was GENDA, fighting for some 17 years for that, and it finally became law this year via bipartisan support as opposed to executive order.
TM: Yes, it was a very long fight for that here in New York State. What finally made the difference?
KSJ: Even when you look at NYC, the City Council, the landscape has not always been progressive. So having a large number of LGB folks elected to office there made a big difference. Then growing support statewide, and once we finally became a truly blue state when the Democrats took both chambers in Albany in November 2018. We have a lot more progressive Democrats than we did before. We also passed a ban on gay conversion therapy and on gay/trans panic as a crime defense, and restoration of benefits for “dishonorably charged” LGBTQ military veterans.
TM: OK, so what else in terms of projects or accomplishments?
KSJ: The fight is really about equity and making sure we have more TGNC (transgender/gender-nonconforming) housing, especially for TGNC folks who have aged out of youth programs, ages 28 to 62, a large demographic of folks who [don’t] have safety nets. So one of the things I really would love to see here in NYC and New York State is that we create more opportunities for that very vulnerable population.
TM: Is there any specific bill or ask for that?
KSJ: At this current point, no. But the TDOR 2020 planning is really about creating a black and brown trans equity fund that brings about a series of meetings about donations throughout the year, so that by TDOR 2020, we can do a Jerry Lewis telethon--type thing where if we raise half a million dollars, see if we can get a corporation or individual to match that amount. Then that money can go into addressing social and economic disparities.
TM: Would you want that money to go into more staffing and capacity-building for advocacy and lobbying, or into something direct like a shelter or residence?
KSJ: I think we have more than enough shelters. It’s really more about building up the skill set of TGNC folks.
TM: So like a vocational training program?
KSJ: Something that can be viable. Not every black and brown TGNC person wants to go into social justice. So creating opportunities for them to go back to school and get other types of skill sets.
TM: So maybe the money would go into a peer counseling/case management system for educational and vocational development?
KSJ: Absolutely. With help for something as simple as applying for a FAFSA [student] loan. Or bringing down barriers that keep black and brown trans women from getting into conferences to talk about issues impacting you. Sometimes you have to pay $600 just to register.
TM: Or application fees for applying to higher education.
KSJ: Absolutely. So that’s one of my visions, to help provide those opportunities.
TM: What are some of your other dream-out-loud goals for NYTAG and the broader movement?
KSJ: Definitely we need to create a center of trans excellence. We have the LGBT Community Center, but we need a center that is specific to the TGNC experience that centers, focuses, and prioritizes TGNC folks, as opposed to the Community Center, where we are kind of pushed to the back. A safe space, a brave space, for folks to talk about issues impacting them. But also recognizing nuances. As a black trans woman, I deal with different issues than a white trans woman, or a trans woman who’s undocumented. A space to have honest conversations about inequities within the trans community. We’re in the process of creating an anti-blackness curriculum, because anti-blackness is so deeply rooted.
TM: You mean like an anti-racism training?
KSJ: Anti-blackness is very different. You can be a person of color and be anti-black, have issues within black people. I’m from the South where we have the paper bag test, colorism [discrimination around the shade of one’s skin]. For us to get to a better understanding of who we are, we have to unpack why we feel the way we do about ourselves. And often, no matter where you are, the data shows that black trans women are at the top of social disparities. And so part of that is rooted in anti-blackness, if you don’t live up to the European beauty standards, you can be denied access to being an outreach worker, a receptionist at an organization. I and many of my girlfriends have had that experience. We have to address some of the deeply rooted reasons why black trans women have a hard time. Even just having agency over our bodies. Often we know to use a condom, but if we have low self-esteem because we’re dark-skinned and nobody will love us—
TM: You’ll do whatever someone wants who gives you love and attention.
TM: OK. So what do you think is more of a barrier, being black or being trans—or do you find that you can’t separate the two?
KSJ: Without a doubt, being black is a bigger barrier. When I travel, I’m aware of people policing me because I’m black. I’m somewhat passable as cisgender. But walking in my neighborhood, I remember years ago the NYPD stopping me, “What are you being out at this time of the night?” [I responded] “I’m coming from a party.” They didn’t know I was trans until they asked for ID, which I hadn’t yet changed at the time. I know that for a lot of community members who are black and trans, they will say, depending on their complexion, that being black has been a larger barrier. Even in my international travel. I love travel, but I think I get profiled for being black more than trans.
TM: For those reading this, what does NYTAG want from the broader community? Funding? Think out loud. How can people help/what do you want and need?
KSJ: There’s no question: equity, equity, equity. The scope of work I’m setting out to do with my amazing team [of two full-time staffers] requires funding. I would not be able to have an amazing staff if I were not able to pay them. Also, for people reading this, we’re looking for pro bono grant writers.
TM: Where is your funding coming from currently?
KSJ: So currently we have funding from Public Health Solutions, which is NYC-based. We just got renewed funding through the New York Women’s Foundation. We’ve been awarded two funds from the Stonewall Foundation. AIDS United has funded us twice. Our operating budget right now is about $250,000.
TM: If suddenly the budget were $1 million, what would you do with that money?
KSJ: One of the biggest issues for me is making sure all my staff has health care. Three of us. And Tanya isn’t full-time, but she gets paid for going to community events, doing trainings, driving us up to Albany. She should be better compensated. Also, with a $1 million budget, we’d definitely want to move out of this WeWork and have our own dedicated office.
TM: What would be the best neighborhood for that?
KSJ: There’s a lot of trans-led organizations in Manhattan, so I would say to prioritize Brooklyn. Downtown Brooklyn is very gentrified. I’m thinking East New York. Take the Trans Day of Action, the Friday before Pride [in June]. We’re always having these rallies on the [Manhattan West Side] pier, then we march through the Village and we’re like, “Yes, we did something.” But no, we just talked to and validated one another. The real fight for me and people who look like me is having that fight in black and brown communities, getting them to understand that we are part of them.
TM: So East New York, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights?
KSJ: Flatbush? I live in Flatbush. That’s where the work has to get done. I do a lot of work with faith-based organizations. There’s been some resistance, but I see that a lot of folks leave those trainings being a lot more understanding of the role they play in the violence that black and brown trans folks have been dealing with. Our work has to be implanted in our communities where we live.
TM: OK, now, let’s talk about mental health. There’s sometimes stress and anxiety doing this work, because resources are scarce. So there’s depression, anxiety, stress, trauma. What’s your own relationship to that? You mentioned before that you started therapy recently. For the first time?
KSJ: I did. Because I realized it wasn’t normal for me to feel the hopelessness that I was feeling. I don’t tend to walk through the world feeling like a victim, and for the first time this year, I felt fearful of leaving my house, to the point where it really infringed on my social engagements. I felt the safest at home. Even in what were supposed to be safe spaces like the Community Center, certain conferences, I don’t feel safe.
TM: What does that mean to not feel safe in a space like the LGBT center or a conference?
KSJ: There’s this expectation that you are supposed to perform, people expecting you to show up a certain way. So when you’re dealing with anxieties—I’m usually pretty exuberant and a people person, but for the first time this year at the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) in D.C.—I usually go to everyone’s workshop, but this year I could only do mine, then I had to go to my hotel room and center myself. Even watching TV in my hotel room was triggering. It’s been a really strange year for me because I never saw myself as—
TM: You never saw yourself as vulnerable and scared? Why do you think it happened this year?
KSJ: People would say to me, “It’s because we’re dealing with Trump.” I was like, “No.” I was pissed about Trump, but I wasn’t scared. I think also what happens a lot when you come from marginalized communities, being a black trans woman, there’s that trope, “strong black woman,” that you always have to live up to. That’s a form of violence—
TM: To say, “Don’t be human, don’t be complex. Be a rock all the time.”
KSJ: Right. “You’re resilient!” It’s a form of violence. Why aren’t black women given the same amount of freedom to be vulnerable as any other women? Cis white women, white trans women, you name it—they’re all allowed to be vulnerable. But if you’re a black woman, trans or cis, it’s like, “You come from strong stuff.” No, we’re still human beings and we still want to be loved, have relationships, be seen as vulnerable and have someone take care of us, open the door for us. Maybe not all of us—but I still like that! Instead of, “You’re gonna have to hold it down.” This year, for the first time, I felt feminine. Before I felt like my energy still had to be masculine, “You’re not gonna fuck with me,” or I’d have a gotcha! moment. This year I became tired of that. Also, my grandmother passed away, and three months later my aunt passed away. So, dealing with loss, dealing with the fact that life is fleeting, people who played a big role in your life as a child are no longer here. I cried about that. And I’m not a crier. I found myself in public spaces breaking down.
TM: So was the decision to go to therapy a kind of permitting yourself to acknowledge that you are vulnerable and human?
KSJ: Yes. I’ve learned to be a lot more empathetic toward community members. In the past, I’d say, “Just go get your cup of coffee and walk around the block.” No, it doesn’t work like that. Depression and anxiety, panic attacks, can happen at any given time. “Oh, you still depressed, girl? You still going through that?”
TM: That’s not helpful.
KSJ: That’s not helpful. I think about community members who’ve taken their lives. I remember periods of their being depressed, then the next time I would see them they were happy, then the next thing I hear is that they took their life. They wanted to show the rest of the world, “Oh, no, I’m good.” They felt like they had to show the world that they were pushing through, “I found my joy again.” That performative art. Nobody wants to be around a Debbie Downer. When you’re an executive director, you don’t make a lot of money. So I had no health insurance—
TM: Nothing? Not even New York State Medicaid?
KSJ: I spent almost two years without any health care except Amida Care/ADAP for my HIV meds and care. I knew I wanted to have gender-affirming surgeries and that I couldn’t do that if my viral load wasn’t suppressed.
TM: Are you covered now?
KSJ: Yeah, since October. I saw a therapist for the first time Oct. 16. I go to Mt. Sinai for primary care, which serves a lot of TGNC folks. I don’t like a lot of medical facilities that are specifically LGBTQ. I don’t feel safe there.
TM: Can you explain why?
KSJ: LGBTQ-specific spaces are not necessarily safe spaces, because people are coming in with trauma, operating out of trauma. The receptionist saying to me [snaps fingers], “Alright, Miss Thing, yaaas!” No, I’m not here for that, and I’m not your Miss Thing. Don’t get familiar with me—be professional. I like going into a clinic space that is quiet. I don’t need to hear 20 different conversations.
TM: OK. So this is your first time in therapy?
KSJ: I tried it 15, 20 years ago but it wasn’t a good fit. I also thought it was, I go in and you give me suggestions to make my life better, like the movies, and I wasn’t getting that. But one of the beauties of being afforded the opportunity to mature is knowing what you want and being more specific about what areas of your life are really barriers. So being able to be honest and vulnerable, this time around, is very freeing. I have a great [social] support network, but I just didn’t want to bombard them with the 3 a.m. calls, “Girl, can I talk to you?” my panic and anxiety issues. I wanted a professional to help guide me through repressed memory, PTSD. I’ve been through some shit. I’ve experienced sexual assaults, but I always thought, “Oh it’s different for me, because I’m stronger.” So I think this year was like a dam that, no matter how strong it was, the water pressure was gonna break through. This was my year of the water breaking through. Being triggered if I’m around cis male college students, walking by Yankee Stadium when there’s a game. I found myself having panic attacks, having to get off the train. My anxiety can make me feel nauseous, blurry vision, disoriented. It’s very scary. It actually happened once at home where I couldn’t find my keys and it triggered—the racing heart. I started crying and had to stop and get on my knees and process it for 10, 15 minutes. Even my partner started laughing at me once, because I was looking everywhere for my phone, but it was in my pocket. I started crying, but he thought it was funny.
TM: Are you still having the anxiety and panic attacks?
KSJ: Yes, but not on the level of the past where I might have nine to ten attacks a day, on the train. I’d walk by Macy’s and have to go in the dressing room and center myself. [Openly positive trans man] Teo Drake said to me, “We are perfect in spite of our flaws.” I realize that what I was dealing with was normal. It didn’t mean I wasn’t meant to do the work I do. Activists of old didn’t get to talk about their depression the way we can today.
TM: Have you found in therapy that you can let things out and process them and it’s not going to break you?
KSJ: Yeah, it’s been very cathartic to have a therapist be sympathetic to what I’ve been through.
TM: What is the most helpful part of therapy? Hearing a professional say, “This is normal”?
KSJ: I think just understanding that I’m a human being and not having to show up, like, “I’m the competent one.” Sometimes you have to say, “I’m having issues right now, I can’t come in.” I need to give myself permission to be sympathetic toward myself. I don’t think I’ve ever had compassion for myself. I have survivor’s guilt. The majority of the folks I met when I first came to New York are no longer here. So I’d think, “Who are you to feel sorry for yourself—you’re still here.”
TM: So now, on a daily basis, when you feel anxiety come up—did you ever talk about medication?
KSJ: Just having other people say to me, “Look, I’m dealing with depression, this is what I’m taking now.” Having people witness my vulnerability this year, saying, “I’m on a low dose of anti-anxiety medication.” And these are people in some prominent positions. That’s why I love conferences, you can have heart-to-heart conversations with people in your national family who say, “I’m going through the same shit.”
TM: Have you learned any new ways of dealing with anxiety?
KSJ: You have to process it. The more you try to avoid it—it’s like the dam. It’ll break. But knowing that this too shall pass.
TM: Is your therapist black or LGBTQ?
KSJ: He’s a cis gay white man. A lot of black therapists aren’t covered by my insurance. But in the meantime, I’m satisfied. I didn’t want to procrastinate on going to therapy.
TM: So you would say that therapy thus far has been beneficial?
KSJ: Definitely. I’m a lot more understanding of the stuff I’ve been through, rather than, “Who am I to feel sorry for myself?” That stoicism. No, sometimes you have to process what you’ve been through or it’ll creep up on you in your relationships. Don’t stay stuck in it. But you have to find ways to process and live with it. I hate the holidays, this time of year. When I first came to New York, I was homeless, and even black churches denied me food because of how I looked. In Times Square, my girlfriends and I would engage in sex work, and these young Jamaican church kids would yell at us about the wages of sin. We’d be like, “Can you get off our corner?” [laughs] So this time of year can be triggering if I get bumped on the street by someone. I don’t confront people like I did when I was younger. I understand now that not every battle is mine to fight.
TM: Yes, so it is the holidays and a lot of people, especially LGBTQ people, struggle with depression this time of year. What advice would you give to friends?
KSJ: I wouldn’t just say, “It gets better!” I’d say to them, understand that this is something you have to go through, so reach out to someone you can trust and say, “I’m having these feelings.” And understand that we’re human beings and we’re not Teflon, whether we’re black, queer, trans, cis. We’re gonna have emotions and it’s OK to acknowledge them.
TM: What do you think about the idea of, when people say, “Call a friend and ask how they are and get out of your own head”?
KSJ: I couldn’t do that when I was in trauma. But being in a relationship now, it’s helped me to focus on what’s going on with him. There’s a cis black man who came to our TDOR event, and we had a conversation around using service animals for black and brown trans women. So I’m looking to see if we could have that as part of our advocacy.
TM: Where in New York City would you recommend other trans women of color go for mental health services?
KSJ: Ask your contacts and networks. I had many community members who gave me suggestions for therapists. People can reach out to me via NYTAG or Facebook. This is a very important conversation, to talk about burnout among activists. That should be ongoing.
TM: Can I end by asking you what are sources of lightness and joy in your life on a daily basis?
KSJ: I have these lava lamps at home, so sometimes I listen to very focused music and look at my lamps and focus on positive energy. Also I get lost in history, trying to unpack how we got to where we are today. I love documentaries. And I love the royal family!