In the middle of a frigid COVID February in the Bronx, Sean Coleman found himself playing a strange new role in his already remarkable life: de facto building superintendent. Due to the cold, the pipes had burst in the elevator of the 16-unit transitional residence he’d recently opened with $440,000 of New York City Council funding. The residence is for transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) current and former sex workers over age 25. Housed in a brand-new building, the residence is named SWITCH, which stands for Sex Workers Immediate Temporary Comprehensive Housing.
He was desperately scrambling to do damage control while working from home in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River. A trek to the site, in the Pelham Parkway area, looked imminent.
It was, he was learning, just one of the endless fires to put out when you’re in charge of a whole building. “I’m really starting to feel like a super,” he laughed, using the longtime New York City shorthand for a superintendent.
“But again,” he added, more buoyantly, “it’s all part of the process of shifting folks in.” Aiming to fill 16 two-bedroom units with bathrooms and kitchenettes meant to house two people each, he’d already prepared to welcome a dozen people in just the first few weeks of the residence being operational. Alongside a newly hired full-time social worker, he was in the process of doing psychosocial intakes with yet more residents, which would lead to the site soon being at capacity. And on top of that, he was in the process of setting up a community foodbank on the basement floor, in partnership with Food Bank of New York.
If it all sounds like a heavy lift in the middle of New York City’s second COVID lockdown winter, it’s actually perfectly in keeping with the ambitious Coleman, 52, a transgender man. In the past 25 years, he’s gone from being incarcerated to becoming a one-man lifeline for countless Black and brown LGBTQ people, particularly TGNC ones, in the Bronx—New York City’s poorest borough.
The opening of SWITCH, a 90-day program that requires that residents either work, be in school, or enter its job readiness program while living there, is actually the second major thing he has established. The first was Destination Tomorrow, a Bronx LGBT community center, which he founded in 2009. The center offers everything from HIV testing, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) screening, and housing case management to job readiness, financial literacy, GED prep, support groups, and a peer program that goes into local high schools.
“Starting Destination Tomorrow allowed me to grow into the professional person that folks now see,” Coleman said.
And plenty of folks now see that. “Sean is a remarkable human being,” said Cecilia Gentili, the longtime New York City transgender advocate who tipped Coleman off to the City Council funding for his residence and helped him write the proposal that secured the funding. “He’s a hustler, and he’s been able to put that hustle to use understanding nonprofits, government, and business in ways that help queer people in New York. Often, it takes folks like us, who’ve lived a difficult life, to know what the right solutions are for our communities. And we got there through street savvy, not academia.”
A Rough Start
Coleman’s current professional incarnation, though, was a long time in the making. He grew up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. In a recent interview, he talked of how he received formative guidance from his grandmother as well as the ballroom scene, famously depicted in the documentary Paris Is Burning and the more recent TV series Pose. In the ballroom competitions, he said, he got an early sense of what Black and brown queer community looked like. But his grandmother, who’d raised him because his mother was struggling with drugs, died when he was 19. Then his mother died from AIDS in 1994.
Amid these losses, he said, “I was running the streets trying to survive, without the support I needed to be my authentic self.” He fell into a group of fellow LGBTQ youth that made and sold fake military IDs. He used his share of the money to get the black-market weekly $150 testosterone shots he needed for his gender transition—years before New York State mandated that health plans, including Medicaid, cover gender transition–related care and surgery.
He was busted and spent 36 months in federal prison. “The white judge who sentenced me came down after and shook my hand,” he recalled. “He said, ‘You’re too intelligent to be doing this. We, the system, failed you—but I hope this is the beginning and not the end for you.’”
That judge couldn’t have known how right he was. While at Alderson women’s federal prison in West Virginia—the same minimum-security facility where Martha Stewart spent five months in 2004 to 2005—Coleman was put in his own cell to avoid harassment for his gender identity. Although denied testosterone, he managed to get his associate’s degree while inside. But once out, in the early 2000s, he found a doctor to continue transitioning with—and got a job at the Gap.
Pose once again comes into the picture here: One of the show’s stars, Dominique Jackson, was at the time working at Bronx Pride. Knowing Coleman from the ball scene, Jackson suggested he join her there to co-run a support group for TGNC folks. The agency’s leader at the time, Lisa Winters, liked him, promoting him all the way to director of programs. From there, Coleman went to work at Bronx AIDS Services.
But even before he’d left Bronx Pride, he felt that the center “wasn’t reflecting me,” meaning Black and brown TGNC people. “We weren’t the decision-makers.” To address that gap, he started Destination Tomorrow with a small sum of money from his Bronx Pride 401K. “I cashed that out to make flyers to advertise a drop-in program for young people.” The group met wherever it could, having no space of its own.
In 2010, the LGBTQ philanthropist Henry van Ameringen, who died recently, gave Coleman $10,000, then between $5,000 and $10,000 for many years thereafter.
“We put all of it into a youth program,” recalled Coleman, “but at the same time, we were also doing safe-sex surveys for Black trans men.” They surveyed 130 trans men, finding that their sex habits were putting them at greater risk for HIV than public-health types previously thought.
In 2015, the agency got $5,000 from the New York City Council, which allowed it to secure a niche in a larger space to hold small groups in the Bronx’s Hunts Point. “It was very young people in the beginning,” said Coleman. “They had a lot of discomfort in their home environments, and some had left home.”
A big break came once openly gay Demetre Daskalakis, M.D., M.P.H., became head of HIV prevention for the city’s health department and prioritized funding for trans-led groups, including Destination Tomorrow. The group got $250,000 for three years from the New York City Council, allowing it to get a much larger space of its own, where it is currently housed (despite a heavy COVID shutdown).
Coleman is especially proud of the group’s program that goes into high schools, building up LGBTQ cultural competency among teachers and staff and helping students set up Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) groups. “It’s important for young Black TGNC folks to see future versions of themselves,” he said.
He’s also proud of Destination Tomorrow’s growth. “To my knowledge, we’re the only fully Black trans organization [to get] a million-dollar grant.” From drugmaker Gilead, the money actually allows Coleman’s group to “regift” sums to smaller Black and brown trans-led organizations; $300,000 of such sums were recently disbursed, with another round of at least $300,000 soon up for grabs.
Once COVID is under control, he said, he wants to reboot efforts to open Destination Tomorrow sites in Georgia and Pennsylvania.
The Dream of Housing
Yet, said Coleman, “From Day One, I knew a residence [for TGNC folks with a history of sex work] was needed. The current city shelter model doesn’t work for young LGBT people because they don’t give you the tools you need to be successful.”
His dream came true in late 2019, when he secured $360,000 from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Sex Trafficking Initiative. The sum was enough to secure a 10-year lease on the brand-new building. Another $440,000 in summer 2020 from the City Council allowed Coleman to start actually preparing the site to bring residents in.
Breaking the old shelter model of not giving residents long-term skills is exactly why SWITCH centers work, school, job readiness, and GED prep. Coleman is currently applying to New York City’s board of education to turn some of the ground-floor commercial space into a permanent GED prep and testing site, with a focus on LGBTQ students of color. He’s partnered with TD Bank to help residents open bank accounts and acquire lifetime financial-literacy skills.
And on top of that, he’s already negotiating to acquire another building of 74 studio and one-bedroom units that would be a longer-term residence. When that happens, one of the residents might be Chin Tsui, 49, a self-identified “man of trans experience” and trafficking survivor who is currently living in the SWITCH residence after being released last March from more than two years in ICE detention.
“Having a roof over my head is everything,” said Tsui, adding that he hopes to soon go into permanent housing and, with help from both Destination Tomorrow and the nonprofit Safe Horizon, pursue a career in the culinary arts. He is waiting to see if lawyers can help him attain his Green Card. “I lost everything because of being in detention.”
He called Coleman “compassionate, because having had his own struggles, he wants us in the LGBTQ community to have a place where we’re safe, comfortable, and not judged. He’s so concerned about everybody’s situation. He’s a very busy man.”
And Coleman admitted that his multitasking leaves him little free time. “But I’m in therapy now,” he said, “learning to self-care better, to take a moment to decompress and realize I’m not going to solve all the world’s problems in a day.” He starts his morning with meditation and Mozart, spends most of the day listening to CNN or old-school R&B while working, and won’t respond to emails after 7 p.m.
Barring emergencies, weekends are reserved for time with his girlfriend, Janai, a fashion blogger with whom he lives in New Jersey and is planning to have children at some point. “She loves to shop and make me carry her bags,” he joked. He also has a 33-year-old daughter with whom he is close.
He admitted that his life thus far has been a wild and remarkable ride. “I think it took me time to grow into this role as a Black trans man speaking up,” he said, “finding my voice, understanding the power of my voice, developing into a leader, and bringing others along with me.”