For Trans Women in Memphis, WeCareTn Is Building a New Model on Community Strengths
Jasmine Tasaki Organizes to Make the Lives of Black Trans Women Better
WeCareTn (as in Tennessee) exists because Jasmine Tasaki cares. The organization was founded just last year after Tasaki, executive director and a black trans woman born and raised in Memphis, saw a need for an organization that would provide HIV prevention and treatment education -- but also go beyond it to address the total lives of black trans women in the city. I met Tasaki at the Saving Ourselves Symposium in Charleston, South Carolina, in early June and wanted to talk to her about her work, her strategy for Memphis to end the HIV epidemic, and how she sees changing the narrative of black trans women not just as victims of violence, but as capable agents.
Kenyon Farrow: How did you get to where you are now as the executive director of WeCareTn?
Jasmine Tasaki: So a little bit about my history: I did hair and makeup for 22 years. And I also transitioned at the age of 13. So in my transition, a lot of my career choices were what I did creatively or what I could do with my hands. I transitioned into sex work, just right at the brink of adulthood. And my life experiences in that work and my life experiences as being trans kind of started me to being an advocate. I went through some violent attacks -- I've been shot seven times, I've been raped 12 times. I was molested. So a lot of the things that I went through in life brought me to a place of advocacy.
So I was doing advocacy for a little while and started working in public health. So there, I was doing HIV testing, counseling, linkage to care, and PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] navigation. So I did that work and actually found that I like to create events and connect personally with everybody. I saw that I had a deep connection to my community. And with that, I kept working and actually transitioned into wanting to address some needs and concerns that I saw in the community and that were communicated to me by the community. And it just brought me to creating WeCareTn, so that I could directly serve in the community that I am a part of.
KF: You started transitioning at a very young age, at 13. What was that like?
JT: Well, it was actually, back then, for me, a very easy thing. I don't think that I really had the capacity to understand just how my life would change as a whole. But I will say that because I was so young, it was easier to transition, because I always felt this way. So I didn't know any other way. And it was hard, but I actually came up in the time where it was pretty unheard of, especially in a city like Memphis. It was 1996.
And I didn't know any other people that looked like me, so I was actually three and a half years into my transition before I met any other trans people. Or even any LGBT people in the community. I just hadn't had any contact with my community. But it was a very trying time. Because the deeper I got into my transition, the more I discovered the problems and the barriers that we face.
KF: What were some of those barriers?
JT: Just going to school was hard, because what I wore determined how my teachers treated me. My relationships were analyzed and assessed a little more by adults, especially, but even by other teenagers, especially when it came to me and other young men interacting. I found that going to church was different. I was the director of the mass choir, from the age of 11 years old. And, you know, it was a little different going to church and living my truth. And some family was resistant to my mother allowing me the space to express myself in that way that I was trans. Once she allowed me to live in my truth, I found that it was hard for some family members even to be around me, and especially to use proper pronouns. But in that time, pronouns were not a thing that I was concerned with.
KF: So, tell me about the kind of work that you're doing now with WeCareTn.
JT: Our biggest program is Trans Pro. And it's a program for current or former sex workers, led by current or former sex workers. It's a job readiness program that promotes healing justice and social justice, but also kind of reintroducing the women to themselves and give them an alternative route to capitalize off with talents and strengths they have as professionals. So that's the biggest program that we're doing.
But I also just am about to roll out another program that was finished, but we've actually gotten grant money to start back up, [which is] an emergency fund for trans women of color. The emergency fund is set up to allocate funds to trans women of color who are going through an emergency. We don't ask them to do any type of class or anything, we just allocate those funds to them for that emergency. Then we have a fund for trans women of color who are incarcerated. And in that program, I go and I put money on the ladies' books, and we write letters to them, just to keep them grounded and know that they have support.
We're doing a lot of education around sex work. We're doing some HIV prevention programming. And besides that, we go and we feed the homeless, we do homeless hygiene kits, we've done sex worker safety kits. So we hit the streets as well.
KF: What made you decide to take this other approach, as opposed to becoming your standard HIV prevention or linkage to care organization?
JT: Well, I think it is important when we are forming organizations, coalitions, collectives, to serve the community -- that we really hear the needs of community, and that we really serve the needs. So as a trans woman of color, and living in the South, my experiences, along with information I collected from other people of the same demographic, [inform my work]. We are often left out of prevention conversations, unless we're lumped in with gay men, and largely those conversations are about pills, which are specifically geared towards HIV prevention or HIV care. I wanted to find a way to support the women in other areas and aspects of their life, because we are still a marginalized community. I did this work, and I would go to conferences and meet people. I noticed that there were other cities and states that had support services geared towards trans women. And there were some of the services that I offer now. I do a support group for trans women as a whole, but within that support group, we also have another group for sex workers. So, you know, just wanting to support other areas, and not one to shame these women for their choices -- and not wanting to make yet another space where they did not feel accepted -- I wanted them to feel accepted. I also wanted them to be able to be vulnerable. So, you know, that fans out much farther than just their health, their physical health. We have to take into consideration their mental health, their job stability, and there's so much more. I just wanted to be able to approach it in a holistic way.
KF: So there's obviously a lot of news stories about the murders of black trans women in particular in the United States right now. What do you think about this issue and about the media coverage? Is there something the media is missing?
JT: I think the biggest part of the conversation that is missing is the fact that we are still not supported. And we're still not treated like humans in other areas of life. So in our death, it has become almost sensationalized in the media. And it's something to talk about, but something to talk about is also something to do. The more that the murders, the homicides have been talked about, it becomes more prevalent, in our country, for people to do this or for it to happen.
So I think that if people would support us more, and actually talk about what that looks like, when it comes to jobs, housing, education, and just any opportunity to have the same equity of life as anybody else, I think that's the biggest part of what's not being talked about. And what that support looks like should be talked about even more. I think a lot of people think support is just donating, or support is like, making a Facebook post. So it creates visibility, but it doesn't create visibility and support, it creates visibility of the violence. And that's the lasting memory.
I think people should take time to make organic connections with people they know. If they don't know trans people, they should make organic connections with organizations that service those people and bring them into spaces.
KF: The federal government is now embarking on this further plan to end the HIV epidemic by 2030, and focusing on specific counties in the United States. Memphis -- Shelby County -- is one of them. If that money came to you, how would you spend that money?
JT: Whoa, that's a good question. I think, here in Memphis, specifically, the money should be put into the hands of the community organizations. I think the work that needs to be done here in Memphis is work that needs to be radical. I think that a lot of panel discussions and open forums will be good here in Memphis. The people here love information, but it has to be repetitive, because you can't get everybody to come out to one event. I think that the event has to be innovative, and they have to be intersectional. I think that money should be equally handed out to organizations here. I also think the organizations here in Memphis should have a project where we are all a unified front so that we can collectively impact all of our networks. There's a lot of separation between leaders and organizations, and it causes the community to go underserved. I love my city. But, you know, we are a city where little has been deposited. So those little seeds and those little grapes and those little nuggets of wisdom, of understanding, of health literacy, financial literacy, of leadership, development, those are nuggets that people are not necessarily willing to share here. As a whole, the leaders are the gatekeepers of this community and need to do more things that are unified, so that our community won't feel pulled in different directions.
And also, I think money should go into changing the look of our literature here in Memphis, Tennessee. Those are areas that I think could really impact how people receive the information. And of course, how they receive or retain the information will inevitably determine how they use the information in their everyday sexual practices.
KF: When you say that the information needs to look different, whether it's community brochures or social marketing campaigns that hit bus shelters and that kind of thing, what do you mean by that? How should it look?
JT: I think that they need to be more intentional with getting trans women who reflect the trans women that I see every day. Also, even the gay men that are in the ads, I still feel like a lot of the information that is geared toward that community is still a little too polished. I think that there needs to be some grit. And in the decision-making when it comes to the verbiage used and the models used.
KF: Gotcha. There's a big push around PrEP access information, and also about making sure people who are living with HIV know about being undetectable and that it means being untransmittable, or U=U. And do you feel like those two things are getting out there in the black trans community?
JT: You actually made me have an epiphany. I think PrEP is largely known in the trans community here in Memphis. The campaign was pushed out really heavy by a lot of providers here in Memphis. And Memphis has, unfortunately, for the last 15 years, been in the top five for new infections and diagnoses in the country. So they really push the information out here. Now, when it comes to PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis], I don't know if people really know about PEP as much as they know about PrEP in the trans community. And when it comes to U=U, I feel like people really don't know about that unless they are working in the field. I think we need to do better in the areas of addressing the community who is in care. And we need to do better in bridging the gap, because there are a lot of trans women of color who are not diagnosed, but may be living with HIV. So I think that we need to really remember and keep them in mind.
U=U was supposed to be about people living with HIV being undetectable and being unable to transmit [HIV]. But the verbiage and the mindset when you hear about U=U -- it's all about the person [who is] negative. So I don't know how we can make people feel connected, who are in care, to that message. And I think what comes to mind will be love and how they love their own lives. And how they have learned to live through being positive. But being empathetic as to not wanting to make that a reality for somebody else.
But I think that's something that needs be assessed. I need to figure out how I can really push U=U, because I personally feel it is parallel to PrEP. And it also just opens up the doors to better adherence, because U=U is all about being undetectable for six months. But I just think, how do we break that glass between speaking to people who are not positive and speaking to people who are positive? And maybe it can look like ad campaigns that involve positive and negative people in a relationship? I wonder if we'll see a day when PrEP and U=U are promoted in the same campaign.