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The end of LGBT? It’s time to put the 'T' first, transgender groups say

From the June 2015 Pride Parade
Sayer Johnson
From the June 2015 Pride Parade

They’re last in the LGBT acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and they were nearly last in this year’s St. Louis Pride Parade. Now the local transgender community is taking the lead.

They’re making themselves known and making plans to open a community center. It's an effort spearheaded by an organization called the Metro Trans Umbrella Group, or MTUG.

MTUG founder Sayer Johnson said it’s a project whose time has come.

“We’re just going to put the ‘T’ first. We’re not going to be at the back,” Johnson said.

‘Pulling every person up that I can’

Sayer Johnson on the far left with children River, Lyric and Devin and co-parent Sharona Johnson
Credit Sayer Johnson
Sayer Johnson on the far left with children River, Lyric and Devin and co-parent Sharona Johnson

Johnson, 43, is a transgender man who lives in the Metro East area and has three children. He founded MTUG two years ago, to support and nurture the local transgender community. As it turned out, the group was mostly male and mostly white (another long-standing group called the St. Louis Gender Foundation supports transgender females).

When some transgender people of color approached Johnson about MTUG supporting another, more diverse group, he was interested. Then, last August, the death of Michael Brown sharpened Johnson’s focus.

“It has upped my game as an activist,” Johnson said. “Any tiny little bit of power MTUG has built and this space that we’ve built, I am laying on my belly pulling every person that I can to get up here with me.”

Eli Chi and Sayer Johnson
Credit Nancy Fowler
Eli Chi and Sayer Johnson

The new group, called Queer and Trans People of Color(QTPOC, pronounced CUE-tee-pock), is now operating under MTUG’s nonprofit status and involved in the effort to open a community center. Eli Chi, a 27-year-old transgender man, co-founded QTPOC.

Chi came to St. Louis from Minnesota and once wondered if he’d have to relocate to a larger city to find like-minded people. Now, QTPOC is growing into an organization that makes Chi happy to be here.

“It’s very exciting to see this happening in St. Louis,” Chi said.

Who is 'queer?'

The word “queer” was once a pejorative, like “faggot” and “dyke.” But many, especially younger people, have taken back the word “queer” as an identity. “Queer” is both hard to define and easy to understand. The Advocate magazine says it applies to anyone who’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual (an older word sometimes used to mean transgender), intersex, asexual or who identifies in any way that falls outside of the mainstream.

Parents and children marched together in the 2015 Pride Parade.
Credit Sayer Johnson / Pride St. Louis
Pride St. Louis
Parents and children marched together in the 2015 Pride Parade.

Back when “queer” was a slur, St. Louis’ Pride St. Louis Parade was considered very much an outsider event. For the past two years, though, it’s marched down the city’s main parade route on Market Street.

But groups like MTUG and QTPOC still feel marginalized, even within the larger queer community. Johnson said his group and others waited for hours for the signal to jump into the parade.

“And we ended up being, I think, third or fourth from the last,” Johnson said.

The parade experience accelerated the effort to stake out a space in which transgender people can find appropriate clothing, health-care services and information about name and gender-marker changes. Anyone who’s queer or an ally will also be welcome at what's being called the Umbrella Center.

Reaction from wider community

St. Louis Black Pride president Randy Rafter
Credit Randy Rafter
St. Louis Black Pride president Randy Rafter

Randy Rafter, the president of St. Louis’ Black Pride organization, applauds the idea. Rafter hopes the center will help bring the community together.

"For far too long it seems  like there’s been a separation in the LGBT community, especially when it comes down to color," Rafter said. "This is an opportunity to encourage diversity and also provides people of  color more opportunities to be part of something."

Rafter envisions Black Pride partnering with the Umbrella Center, perhaps even sharing office space.

Sherrill Wayland founded SAGE St. Louis.
Credit SAGE
Sherrill Wayland founded SAGE St. Louis.

Sherrill Wayland is a well-known community advocate. The SAGE group she founded is a burgeoning resource for LGBT seniors. Wayland said the effort will fill a void and that “any time an organization tries to reach out and be supportive overall, that it is good for the LGBTQ community.” She also noted that the transgender population is a growing force.

“It does feel that our trans community and our gender-queer community are really starting to come into their own,” Wayland said.

MTUG hopes to open its center — ideally in a building it will purchase — before next June’s Pride celebration. Last week, Johnson and other members of the group sat down with representatives from Pride St. Louis to talk about what happened at the parade. The meeting was facilitated by the National Conference for Community and Justice and the Diversity Awareness Partnership. More talks are planned.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” Johnson said. “They seem to really want to do better.”

Trans community suffers from violence, racism

Marchers carry a "Black Trans Lives Matter" sign in the 2015 Pride Parade.
Credit Sayer Johnson
Marchers carry a "Black Trans Lives Matter" sign in the 2015 Pride Parade.

Transgender issues are a matter of life and death. A 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force reported that 41 percent of respondents had attempted suicide.

That compares with 1.6 percent of the general population. (Scroll down to view the executive summary.)

Underlying issues include job loss, poverty and being targeted for assault. A confounding factor impacts transgender people of color. “Especially devastating,” the survey’s report concluded, is “structural racism.”

“People of color in general fare worse than white participants across the board, with African-American transgender respondents faring far worse than all others in most areas examined,” the report stated.

2015 Pride Parade marchers carry a coffin in remembrance of transgender people who have been killed.
Credit Sayer Johnson
2015 Pride Parade marchers carry a coffin in remembrance of transgender people who have been killed.

Transgender women of color are increasingly a target of violence, specifically because of their gender expression.

A trans woman was killed in Kansas City last week, the 17th transgender person to die violently this year, according to a New York Times article.  Most are women. Most are black or Hispanic. The article said that number compares to 12 such deaths in all of 2014.

It’s hard to assess how many people are transgender. Many are reluctant to come forward. In 2011, the NCTE estimated thatup to 1 percent of the population has transitioned from male to female or female to male.But a new survey NCTE survey to be released next year promises to be much more comprehensive.

“Once we get the results of that survey, we’re going to have a much more accurate pulse of trans in the nation,” Johnson said.

National Transgender Discrimination Survey by St. Louis Public Radio

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.