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Transgender Awareness Week: 'We're Having Our Own Epidemic'

Strive/Courtesy photo

As Transgender Awareness Week comes to a close each year, the Escambia County-based advocacy group, Strive, typically holds a Transgender Day of Remembrance to remember transgender people who were lost to violence.

But like so many events in 2020, the annual memorial/celebration of life will go virtual this evening.

“We were holding out, hoping the numbers would get better,” said Strive President Devin Cole. “It was a tough decision, because the event is about remembering lives lost, but it’s also a celebration of transgender people who are still living — and community is best made in person.”

Friday’s Zoom event will feature speakers and poetry readings. Cole said it will still be a celebration, but with a “digital spin.”

As COVID-19 numbers spike in the state and the panhandle, it’s a grim reminder of the tough year. And transgender individuals are even more vulnerable to being affected by the virus, said Cole.

“In terms of health, one in five transgender people have reported being denied medical treatment,” they added, referring to a 2010 study from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “And these doctors don’t have to tell you the reason is because you’re transgender.”

Cole also mentioned that not every doctor is transgender affirming, which affects the care that trans patients need. Cole pointed to Dr. Alexys Hillman of Pensacola Osteopaths, who specializes in health care for the transgender community.

Transgender individuals are also disproportionately at a higher poverty level and 20% to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. These are just some of the reasons that Strive has been stretched extra thin this year.

“This year has been particularly grueling,” said Cole. “We normally do benefit shows to raise $1,100, $1,200, but we couldn’t do that this year.”

Strive is not a 501(c)(3) and receives no federal funding or grants. The work is “entirely community-based,” said Cole. The group raises money for transgender individuals who may need extra help paying bills, looking for a new place to live, or just need groceries. Right now, a big need is donations of any amount. Annually, the organization serves about 100 people a year throughout the District 1 region (Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties.)

When it comes to trans rights, the past four years under the Trump administration have been an uphill battle for organizations like Strive. The Trump administration started to chip away at transgender rights in its first few weeks, first with the rollback of the Obama-era rule allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice, then with a ban on transgender individuals enlisting in the military. This year, the Trump administration removed gender identity and sexual orientation under the definition of sex discrimination, essentially allowing health care providers to discriminate on gender identity. In August, a proposed rule from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development would let shelters deny access to transgender people.

The last four years have been “horrific,” said Cole. But they don’t believe a Biden-Harris administration will be a cure-all.

“Trans people suffered during the Obama-Biden administration, too,” they said. 

Regardless of the president, the work doesn’t stop, said Cole — especially with a majority conservative Supreme Court.

Taking a more local approach, one big goal on the horizon for Strive is housing.

“It’s hard to get adequate health care without a job and it’s hard to find a job when you don’t have a place to live,” Cole said. “Without housing, there’s higher risk of violence. People are being beat to death on the streets.”

Before COVID, Strive was working on opening a shelter and that is still a goal going into 2021. To achieve that, they’ll need money and action.

“This is the first year the U.S. has documented over 30 transgender people have been killed,” said Cole. “Trans violence is increasing tenfold. We’re having our own epidemic. There has to be material solutions provided, it’s no longer enough to change your Facebook profile picture.”

While Transgender Awareness Week ends, Cole said they want people to remember that the struggle continues all year.

“We don’t want the fight to end this week,” they said.

The Trans Day of Remembrance is 7 p.m. today. For a link to the event, message organziers on the Facebook page

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.