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Black and Brown Trans People Have a New Place to Call Home in New York City
The first time Ceyenne Doroshow thought about owning a home was when she was forced into homelessness.
Not able to be herself at home or in public, Doroshow ran away from her home in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, as soon as she reached adulthood. She was looking to escape the lack of acceptance she received from all corners of society. With no shelter services offered specifically to trans people in the early ’90s, Doroshow eventually found herself living on the streets of New York City. At the time, trans women who had no place to live had to choose between the streets and men’s shelters, where abuse was rampant and had no legal consequences.
From the ages of 18 to 25, Doroshow experienced what it was like not to have a safe home space—she saw the treatment trans women received and knew that unless she adapted, she too would be attacked.
“Thank God that I’m kind of a Svengali in so many ways that I can talk my way into anything,” Doroshow said. “I watched girls get beat up for coming into a shelter identifying as trans…and it taught me what not to do. But it also taught me that there needed to be room for us.”
That was when Doroshow knew she would need to take matters into her own hands to acquire safe housing for her and her community.
Doroshow has since embarked on a 30-year journey to organize and advocate for the rights of trans people. She founded a grassroots organization in 2015 called Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society, or GLITS, and became one of the most prominent and recognized activists for the Black trans community nationwide.
In fall 2020, GLITS purchased a 12-unit building in Woodhaven, Queens, with plans to offer affordable housing to low-income Black and Brown trans and queer people. In a year when marginalized communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic aftermath, supporters say the GLITS building stands as a symbol of what the trans community can do for itself.
“Black trans people have been keeping themselves and each other alive for decades,” said Tian Appel, a program coordinator at Sage, a New York-based organization that provides services to elderly LGBTQ+ individuals. “For them to have access to this amount of power and equity—and for it to be seen as something that can be modeled for other places in the country—that is the answer.”
Protecting Their Own
A 2020 report from UCLA found that, queer and trans people have significantly lower rates of homeownership than non LGBTQ+ individuals and face more than twice the risk of becoming homeless. Within the LGBTQ+ community, poverty is especially prevalent among people of color and trans people.
“We have to protect our own and make these steps for ourselves, because if we don’t, we would never see each other thrive,” Doroshow said. “It sucks that we have to make that investment. Society does it for everybody else, but for our community, we have to do it for ourselves if we want to see our youth and each other grow.”
GLITS and community leaders say the Woodhaven apartment building is the first residential building in the city to be bought by a Black, trans-led organization. It is also the first time a building has been intended specifically to offer affordable housing to Black and Brown people in the trans community.
At the building’s grand opening event on Nov. 13, 2020, Doroshow held back tears while friends and family members spoke about how she had affected their lives. The drive and resilience they described were evidenced in how she pulled together the funding to buy the building in July. Through direct requests, online outreach, a couple of large, anonymous donations, and extensive community-led fundraising and volunteering, some which I participated in and helped promote through social media, Doroshow raised the necessary $2 million.
Doroshow knew the building in Woodhaven was the right one as soon as she saw it. She looked across the street at the 538-acre Forest Park and imagined residents walking freely around the tree-lined paths and playing tennis not far from the kind of living space they deserve—not a shelter or temporary housing, but a home.
The north-facing building had to go through minimal renovations. Doroshow also added glitter walls, a bright pink fire escape, luxury-style chandeliers, and a purple front door to the traditional New York apartment building.
All but two of the units in the building are now occupied, so it will be a while before Doroshow’s full vision will be realized. As current residents move out, GLITS will make the apartments available to Black and Brown members of the trans community. Those interested in living in the building will go through a review process that Doroshow has created with help from a San Francisco-based organization called TGI Justice. Applicants will be considered for housing as well as participation in the GLITS leadership academy. The application includes typical questions about education, employment, and references as well as essay questions about leadership, inspiration, and safety in the community. GLITS is already receiving applications and hopes to have more units available throughout the year.
“We have a safe space for our community,” said Qween Andy Jean, a community activist and friend of the GLITS team, at the building’s grand opening event. “That to me is the biggest dream that we could have, a selfless dream, a dream that not only will stand the test of time, but that will be something that we continue to talk about.”
How Progress Is Made
The Human Rights Campaign reported that 34 trans people had been murdered around the country this past year, the majority of them trans women of color. Familiar with these trends, trans community leaders have created direct-impact efforts around the country to provide some form of housing security and other services for trans communities of color.
In Seattle, the United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance, or UTOPIA, focuses on the urgent needs of queer and trans Pacific Islanders whose safety and well-being are jeopardized by their work in the sex industry. In Washington state, the Lavender Rights Project provides low-cost civil legal services and community programming for Black trans and queer low-income people. In New York, the Third Wave Fund offers a variety of services to trans and gender nonconforming people under 35, including COVID-19 relief efforts.
All these organizations are either led, run, or have been founded by trans community members—many of them present at the GLITS building grand opening event.
Among them was Stefanie Rivera, the director of client services for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and a supporter of GLITS for many years. Rivera first got involved with the law project (named after one of the leaders of the Stonewall riots, no relation to Stefanie) as a client in 2002 and has been working with them for 12 years.
To her, the Woodhaven building represents a significant step for the trans community, Rivera said, one she never thought trans community veterans would see.
“We had to fight really hard to be able to get it, but finally seeing it come to fruition is a beautiful thing, especially in the midst of all this chaos,” Rivera said. “I believe we’re on the brink of seeing that [progress] happen in other parts of the world…. I just hope this serves as a wake-up call for people to take action.”
Inspiration for Future Action
Doroshow’s leadership in obtaining the GLITS building in Woodhaven stands as an inspiration for prospective tenants and community members.
“I’m so proud of [Doroshow], because for the three years that I’ve known her she has talked about all the things she wants to do…” said a hopeful resident of the GLITS building. “But when you see it actually happening, it’s beautiful and so rewarding to just simply be part of it.”
Next up, Doroshow hopes to buy a second GLITS building, this one in Park Slope, that would serve as a community clinic. For Doroshow, giving back to the community that provided an anchor during her years of homelessness remains a prime motivation. She says she would have had a far more difficult time simply surviving had it not been for the help of friends and supporters.
She remembers people such as Tamaya Harvin, with whom she began a lifelong friendship when they met at a shelter in the Bronx back in the ’90s. It was a relationship that she relied upon through repeated instances of domestic violence and other struggles.
Harvin died recently because of complications related to COVID-19.
“That’s a sisterhood that I think taught me a lot about giving to my community and being there,” Doroshow said. “Because she was there for me in times when I didn’t ask. She was just there.”
Alejandra Pedraza Buenahora is a queer Latinx journalist interested in redefining standard journalistic approaches to reporting that will serve communities outside the status quo, and find alternative ways to accurately serve their communication and information needs, while magnifying the voices of its members. Working in conjunction with members of misrepresented communities, their aim is to rebuild trust and create a flowing and ever-adapting system that allows the community as well as the audience to have more agency in the information they’re receiving as well as the way they’re being portrayed. They hope this methodology serves as a way to repair the damage previously done to these communities by deep-rooted capitalist and White supremacist practices adopted by the news media industry. They have previously worked at DemocracyNow! Español and have written for Bronx based publications Mott Haven Herald and Hunts Point Express. They are currently pursuing an M.A. in engagement journalism at the CUNY J School and are working on an information acquisition project for trans sex workers.