An estimated 3,000 people packed Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation's capital on Saturday for the National Trans Visibility March on Washington, D.C. The march was a coordinated call to action for attendees to gather in D.C. with friends and loved ones, then return to their home states to pressure the U.S. Congress to pass the Equality Act -- a civil rights bill that includes non-discrimination protections for transgender people.
"Even community doubted we could do it, and if we did do it, that it would be this amazing. I can say for myself that I'm super proud of the team of the people," said Shawn Demmons, M.P.H., director of community engagement for the National Trans Visibility March. The organizers provided more than 1,000 scholarships to people to attend, including travel and lodging.
"It is important that black trans women be at the forefront of this march, and I think we succeeded at that," Demmons said.
The march was over a year in the making,and was at one point postponed. Still, the organizers persisted. The march, along with a day of workshops, focused on the successes and challenges faced by trans and gender non-conforming people, said Marissa Miller, one of the national organizers.
Activists Wanted to Show Trans Lives Matter
According to their press statement, organizers aimed to "show the world that our lives matter, that our health matters, that our present and future matters, that our voices matter, that our minds matter, that our feelings matter."
This year marks one of the deadliest years on record for transgender women of color, specifically black women. Eighteen transgender women have been killed in the U.S. in 2019. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 44% of black transgender women and 26% of Latina transgender women are living with HIV. Speakers at the march addressed these issues as well as health care, housing and job discrimination, economic inequality, sex work decriminalization, and inclusion in the U.S. census.
"There's a lot going on in our community," said Angelica Ross, one of the keynote speakers and star of FX's Pose and American Horror Story. "I want our elders to come together to show our youth how to hold their power, how to wield their power, and not burn themselves up in the process, because we need you here."
Other speakers included Tiq Milan, Mia Satya, Carter Brown, Masen Davis, Sheila Alexander-Reid, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, Bamby Salcedo, and Alphonso David.
Lynn Diana Prince Morrison, of Atlanta's Solutions Not Punishment Coalition (SNaP Co.), addressed the crowd with a burst of passion.
"It's about loving each other, honoring each other, trusting each other for what we need. We needed this march," Morrison said. "The free and the brave. Ain't nobody more braver than us that I can tell. Nobody. Nobody can endure the injustice we have and still stand strong. Nobody. It's about us today, us tomorrow, and from here on out. Our time is now."
Some D.C. Advocates Wanted More Local Visibility and Chose More Supportive Roles
While the march was a groundbreaking feat for trans community, some activists wanted more visibility of local leaders and the issues facing them in D.C. Tamika L. Spellman, advocacy associate at HIPS in Washington, D.C., was initially excited to participate in the march yet felt as if the local, D.C.-based trans community was not engaged enough by the march organizers.
"I just found it to be really strange that even still this close to march time that there's no conversation coming from them towards the local transgender leaders," Spellman said on Thursday before the march.
Though critical of the organizing efforts, Spellman still participated in one of the pre-march workshop sessions focusing on sex work decriminalization as a member of the Sex Workers Advocacy Coalition. The panel included speakers along from Black Youth Project 100, No Justice No Pride, and Whitman-Walker Health.
"[We] need to decriminalize sex work. That's a national issue. We're tackling it locally, but that is an issue that overwhelmingly affects black and brown people," she said. "We are experiencing massive amounts of cisgender and transgender black and brown females being incarcerated, and it is all because of people sex working. And that is because people are in such dire need. Affordable housing has shrunk so much that it's absolutely not even a commonly used word anymore because it's not affordable. What they say is affordable is actually still out of reach," Spellman added.
Dr. Lourdes Ashley Hunter, executive director of Trans Women of Color Collective in D.C., did not participate in Saturday's march. Instead, she opened up her home to local transgender advocates and those traveling from out of town.
"How are we providing opportunities for skill share, economic and systemic change?" she asked. "How are we feeding, housing, clothing, and loving our folk so that they leave with more than swollen ankles and a sore throat?"
Hunter cited two studies in expressing the severity of what many transgender people face. The Williams Institute, based out of UCLA School of Law, reported in 2016 that Washington, D.C., had the highest percentage per capita (2.77%, or 14,550 people) of trans people living in the U.S.. Also, according to the 2015 report, "Access Denied: Washington D.C. Trans Needs Assessment," the average income for 57% of trans women of color in D.C. is less than $10,000 per year. Black trans people there have an unemployment rate of 55%, and 74% of black trans women have experienced housing instability.
"We are being murdered simply for existing," Hunter said. "We are denied breath, we are denied life. We are stonewalled from getting jobs, education, finding affirming love, raising a family. Which is all rooted in white supremacy."
Organizers said they're planning future marches to continue their policy agenda and to continue to raise visibility. Hunter said that marches, however, need to be paired with other forms of activism.
"Actions like marches are not always accessible or sustainable," she said. "They are ableist by nature. We assume that everyone can actually walk. We assume that folks are not in threat of their safety weather they are sex workers, undocumented -- so when we partner with the police, we create layers of unsafety," Hunter told TheBody. "When we don't take into account that some of our folk experience anxiety in crowds or are neurodivergent, can't walk long distances, or are disabled or seniors, then actions can become inaccessible to our folk."
Many who attended, however, felt the march brought hope that a trans movement could be mobilized to demonstrate power to make a lasting impact.
"I'm here because of this movement," said Spellman. "I'm here because I need to have change, not just for me, but for those coming behind me."
Spellman was not alone. Sybastian Smith, 38, came to D.C. from Atlanta on a bus with about 50 other transgender and gender non-conforming advocates. Smith marched on despite using a leg support since tearing his Achilles tendon in a charity kickball game in Atlanta.
"I want to see more solidarity like this -- all of us of different walks, different identities all down the spectrum continue to represent for each other and continue to do things like this in our local communities," he said. "It needs to be an ongoing thing. I want us to take this motivation to our parts of the country [and] keep mobilizing, keep letting people know we're here."