On Chicago’s historically Black South Side, Brave Space Alliance (BSA), established in 2016, may well be the nation’s only Black- and transgender-led LGBTQ community center. “At least in the Midwest,” says LaSaia Wade, a self-described Afro-Puerto-Rican Indigenous trans woman who cofounded BSA, which she runs with Stephanie Skora, who self-describes as lesbian, trans, and Jewish. The group, among several trans-led organizations nationwide that just received portions of $4.5 million from drugmaker Gilead, provides a safe space for (primarily) LGBTQ people of color on Chicago’s historically Black South Side—and also takes its “Trans 101” training module out in the community. We chatted with native Chicagoan Wade about how BSA came to be, her vision for the group’s future, and why Leona’s Pizza is crucial to her self-care.
Tim Murphy: Hi, LaSaia! Thanks for talking to us today! So, tell us your story.
LaSaia Wade: I grew up in Chicago Heights [south of the city center] but moved to Tennessee when I was 16 and went to college there.
TM: When did you get into activism?
LW: After college, I was fired for being trans in 2012. I was working in communications at a corporation and one night went to a gay club, which I normally don’t go to, but I wanted to have fun with my homegirls, and I saw a gay male colleague there who, the following week, said to me, “I didn’t know you were trans!” And another coworker overheard him and told my boss, who fired me the next day, saying that I had been “deceitful” in my application [by saying I was a woman]. Tennessee is an “at will” state, which basically means they can fire you for your hair color. [Ed.: A 2018 U.S. appeals court ruling banned workplace discrimination based on gender identity—but the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the case next year.]
I was young, I didn’t know any better, so I said, “It is what it is.” But then I became angry about it and started doing some activism. I started working with Black Lives Matter in Nashville. It was difficult at first [being a trans woman in BLM], but they got used to me because they liked my politics. I was with them for three years, then I moved to New York, then San Francisco, then Florida, and in all these places, I was doing internships to learn different aspects of activism—at the Audre Lorde Project in New York and the Transgender Law Center in SF.
Then I moved back to Tennessee and started my own organization called the Transgender Journey Project. I was trying to build up the trans community in Tennessee, but it didn’t go well, because white trans people have different politics than Black and Brown people, especially in a state where whiteness reigns supreme. Nobody trusted a Black trans woman.
TM: What do you mean by different politics?
LW: If you’re white, even if you’re trans, you still have the privilege of being white and being able to navigate society. So then I moved to Chicago, where I met my [life] partner, Xavier MaatRa, who I live with here now. Chicago is a really good place, a beacon of Black and Brown culture and of what liberation could look like.
TM: What did you do when you first got to Chicago?
LW: I was depressed. I was trying to get a job, and nobody would hire me. I was turned down from Howard Brown [LGBTQ] Health Center, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, and a lot of places because I was too educated. So then I started organizing with groups including BLM Chicago, Assata’s Daughters, the #LetUsBreathe Collective, and BYP100.
But then I quickly saw that there was no Black- and trans-led organizing in Chicago. So I was a part of founding Trans Liberation Collective and the Black Trans GNC [Gender Nonconforming] Collective, organizations fighting for sex workers and pushing back on organizations that don’t give a living wage to trans and GNC people. But my partner said, “Why don’t you create a real nonprofit to combat the organizations that are not trans-led?” Because most organizations are not going to listen to a collective, but they will listen to another 501c3 [registered nonprofit] that will challenge the politics of what they’re doing.
So we named it Brave Space Alliance and hit the ground running with $500 in startup money. We wrote a mission statement, then started challenging other organizations about hiring trans people. We worked with the Transformative Justice Law Project in getting passed a state bill requiring that single-occupancy bathrooms be gender neutral. And we worked with Howard Brown to pass a bill requiring Illinois Medicaid to cover gender-affirming services like surgery.
TM: Tell us more about the work you’ve done.
LW: Trans people have a high turnover rate in a lot of organizations, so we tried to [educate about] how many trans people working for minimum wage still have to do sex work to get by. We pressured one LGBT nonprofit that I don’t want to name into giving all the trans and GNC folks a raise. Then places started contacting us to do Trans 101 training, about things like retaining trans employees or encouraging them to apply for high-quality positions, their bathroom policies, allowing trans and GNC people to put their preferred names on their work badges, training cisgender [non-trans] people in how to treat trans coworkers.
We’ve done at least five or 10 trainings a month. We also do Trans 201, in which we talk about pushing the narrative against the [gender] binary, and we go deeper into politics.
TM: What are the most common questions people ask in the trainings?
LW: They say they’ve never met a trans person, and they ask, “How do I proceed to decolonize myself? How do I unlearn what I was taught when I was younger?”
TM: All that teaching sounds like a lot of emotional labor for you and the other trans trainers.
LW: I enjoy this work. I love teaching people. I’m very extroverted. In this political climate, I tell trans and GNC people to let people know that they are trans or GNC. I’ve seen throughout my life that not divulging that information to cisgender people, to not say right up front, “I’m trans”—
TM: Partly because that’s what happened to you at your job in Tennessee?
LW: I’m talking about in friendships and relationships. As jobs go, I think my credentials should be able to tell you everything.
TM: Tell us more about what Brave Space Alliance does.
LW: We do trainings, resume-building, and education. We offer a lot of basic necessities like clothes. We have a program called VAMP, which stands for HIV/AIDS Manifesting Prevention. We have conversations in which trans people living with HIV are able to talk to one another, talk about sex work, HIV prevention, how trans people can lead these conversations.
We also offer a Brave Space drop-in center on Thursdays, as well as in the afternoon at various South Side libraries, where people can get resume-building help and photos taken for their resumes, as well as resources to housing and Medicaid.
TM: What is your take on PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] in the trans community?
LW: I don’t think PrEP should be pushed down trans people’s throats by cisgender overseers.
TM: Where does your funding come from?
LW: We have many different lines of private funding. The Gilead grant of $200,000 is our biggest. With it, we’ll be able to push VAMP to the next level and hire a full-time program director so I can do more administrative stuff. We have four staffers, and we’re trying to get two more.
TM: What would be your advice to other trans folks of color looking to start agencies?
LW: Keep it up! A lot of us feel alone. But people need to see you in the spaces to see that you can do it. I know it can be draining and hard because we’re being attacked every day, but keep fighting, getting on their nerves and making them mad!
TM: I was at a trans rally last week where there was a debate about whether trans folks should have to be “articulate” or talk in a certain way when interfacing with cisgender people and institutions. What do you think about that?
LW: I’m a ’hood-educated Black trans woman. I speak the way I speak, but I also know that in a lot of spaces, they’re not going to listen to me unless I speak a particular way and use particular words.
TM: Do you think the community is too preoccupied with this idea of respectability politics?
LW: I think we’re too preoccupied with fighting one another instead of building things together, who wants what and who gets what instead of trying to figure out how we can share and grow the resources.
TM: What would you like the cis gay male community reading this to know?
LW: Trust us in leading. But also know that we don’t need you in the space to do the work. Your financial support helps, but we don’t need you dictating what we need to do.
TM: What are your organizational goals for the next three years?
LW: Turning us into the first $1 million-budget trans-led organization in Chicago. We can then offer more jobs for trans people and push out more programming to serve the trans population. I would also like us to do our own HIV testing and to buy a building to house trans people and create a trans homeless shelter. And we want a stand-alone shop. Right now, we share space with other agencies.
TM: LaSaia, what do you make of your life up to this point?
LW: I’m an adventuress. I’m pushing back against the narrative of respectability politics and being a Black trans woman in power spaces that we’re never invited into.
TM: Are the doors opening?
LW: They’re cracking open.
TM: What do you do for self-care and joy?
LW: Xavier and I travel across the country camping, as well as to New York and San Francisco. We go to the movies and out for dinner. The biggest thing for me is pizza.
TM: What is the best pizza in Chicago?
LW: We love the Leona’s in Hyde Park. It’s cheap with good variety, and they also have good lasagna. I switch between meat and vegetarian.