‘Warrior women together’: Mothers of the Black trans family

Chicago activist LaSaia Wade is combating systemic inequality in the LGBTQ community by following in her role model Valerie Spencer’s footsteps.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

LaSaia Wade likes to say she is the culmination of every person who has walked before her, beside her and will continue to carve a path long after her.

“I am because we are” is her guiding principle, a translation of ubuntu philosophy that defines the human experience as being part of a collective. This thousands-year-old ethos originating from sub-Saharan Africa has been invoked by politicians, activists and theorists. Today, 33-year-old Wade uses the mantra to define the ever-growing families she belongs in.

In her home office in Chicago, surrounded by monitors and with her six-month-old baby cooing off-screen during a Zoom call, Wade imagines the future: she and her fiance are at the heads of a long table and every seat in between them is filled. Young and old, biological relatives and found family are joined as one, all of their stories inextricably linked to each other.

“I will not be able to eat without you. You will not be able to breathe without me. It’s something that me and my fiance talk about a lot. We are happy to have a child. We are happy to build our own family,” Wade says, her voice softening as she describes what she wants for her future. “Our dream is to be able, in our 60s and 70s at the tip of the table, [to] say ‘I am because we are.’”

Wade’s definition of family extends beyond her immediate circle. As an Afro-Latina transgender woman, she sees herself as one of many matriarchs that support generations of LGBTQ people.

“I am a mother to a community that has no mothers,” Wade says. “But I have yet to be recognised as an elder, nor will I place that title on me just yet, because I’m a new biological mother. I’m literally [learning] to really understand what it looks like to be a mother … and catering that into the work that I do looks completely different.”

Wade has had a number of role models who have taught her not only about motherhood but the kaleidoscopic experiences of being a woman. Her tone turns serious as she reflects on the lessons her mothers have imparted to her. Marea Wade, her biological mother, taught her how to be a woman and Valerie Spencer “taught me how to be a happy trans woman”, Wade says.

She first met Spencer some eight to 10 years ago, neither woman could remember exactly when, at a speaking engagement in Memphis, Tennessee, that hosted transgender women renowned for their activism across the country.

Wade remembers her excitement at being surrounded by her elders. Spencer walked up to her to tell her she was gorgeous and ask her if she was hungry.

“What I remember is we had so much fun. Often the warriors are fighting in their own silos, and we don’t get to be warrior women together,” Spencer says from her home in Los Angeles, California.

A therapist, minister and activist for nearly 30 years, 54-year-old Spencer delivers each word as if she is holding a sermon.

She had her own cadre of maternal figures, including her biological mother, who taught her to always be presentable. Even before she began her work in activism in the early 1990s when she was in her 20s, she knew she had to be a positive example.

A smile spreads across Wade’s face as she recounts how Spencer took her under her wing that day and describes how Spencer was, and continues to be, resolute and no-nonsense.

“She’s going to explain to you that, ‘Yes, I love you, I care for you, and I understand that you’ve gone through some trauma and so on and so forth, but also understand that other people have, as well. What does that look like? You’re talking all of this, but where is that work that you’re supposed to be doing?’” Wade says. “She’s very intentional around that. She saved me when I didn’t have anyone else to save me.”

[Illustration of LaSaia Wade by Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

The Brave Space Alliance

At that time, when Wade was just starting out in activism, she was mired in loss and a cloud of negativity. She began organising in 2010 after her friend, another transgender woman, was found murdered with her hands tied by the side of the road.

Three years later, Wade was fired from a communications job for being trans, and finding steady employment continued to be a struggle in the years that followed. Despite having multiple degrees – in business, human resources and accounting – Wade explains that no one would hire her because she was trans and involved in community organising.

“I was very toxic after that. I was angry, rightfully so,” Wade says. “You took away my sustainability. You took away what the world told me: that if I graduated, I will be OK.”

Eventually, drawing on her experience of living through hardship, she sought another way.

“I’m a hood-educated girl. I was a poor girl with roaches crawling all over me. I had to figure out ways to take care of my siblings when my parents were drug addicts,” Wade says.

That way was the Brave Space Alliance (BSA), Chicago’s first and only Black- and transgender-led LGBTQ centre. Wade announced its creation in 2017, as she led the Trans Liberation March in her hometown Chicago after returning from Tennessee. With more than 3,000 attendees, it was the largest demonstration for transgender people in the Midwest at the time.

Within the last year, the centre has become a focal point in combatting the myriad, intersecting struggles faced by Black and brown transgender and gender-nonconforming people in Chicago that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Wade explains that it has serviced more than 300,000 people dealing with food insecurity through the Crisis Pantry Network and raised thousands of dollars through fundraising and an expansive but targeted mutual aid programme.

I enjoy the work that I do, and I feel as though I am following in my ancestors’ footsteps to create an oasis in the midst of a desert.

by LaSaia Wade

BSA continues to prove what Black and transgender people are capable of accomplishing because the system has continually forced them to look after their own. Still one of the most segregated large cities in the country, there is a stark divide in the resources available to the South and West sides of the city compared with the majority-white North Side.

Before the pandemic, Black Chicagoans’ poverty rate was double that of white residents, and the unemployment rate for Black people in Chicago was 21 percent in 2017 – higher than the national average. Studies on LGBTQ life in the city are scarce, and it is even rarer to find analyses that take racial disparities into account. A March 2018 report by the Chicago Department of Public Health, however, said transgender adults were far more likely to have worsened physical and emotional health.

Chicago has also been haunted by the murders of Black transgender women as violence against them has continued to grow.

Historically, Chicago was one of the first cities to adopt moral laws that criminalised transgressing gender norms. The city introduced a fine equal to anywhere between $600 and $2,300 in today’s money for cross-dressing in 1851, which was much higher than the average punitive fine, according to A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History. Nevertheless, a flourishing LGBTQ scene developed and often transcended race and class lines in the city centre.

At the same time, Windy City Times reported in 2009, the South Side’s Bronzeville neighbourhood was Chicago’s Harlem: an enclave for creative and sexual freedom in the Black community. Things began to change as post-war urban renewal projects and redlining relegated Black residents to poorer communities and moved gay institutions farther north. The Civil Rights era also shifted attitudes towards LGBTQ people, the report said, as Black Chicagoans “began to lose their sexual freedom when they began to work toward equality, because the civil rights movement mostly worked to uplift the race”.

An oasis in the spider’s web

Within the complex community created by generations of oppressed people is a negative space created by city, state and federal institutions. Wade describes Chicago as “a deep hole”, a void that Brave Space Alliance needed to fill.

“I enjoy the work that I do, and I feel as though I am following in my ancestors’ footsteps to create an oasis in the midst of a desert, or in the midst of panic or trauma or drama – however you want to phrase it,” Wade says. “I just want people to understand BSA has built a culture that Chicago cannot live without any more.”

Now that Wade and her organisation are the focus of media attention and local acclaim, how can Chicago reconcile that the city is the reason they need to exist? Wade will not let that contradiction go unnoticed. She holds firm that there is no place like Chicago, and BSA could only thrive in a city that makes ruthlessness look natural.

“Chicago is like a black widow. She’s beautiful. She spins the most glamorous webs, the most intriguing types of understanding of what its biology is,” Wade says. “But the thing about Chicago is that it has no remorse when it comes to your life, who you are as a person and their politics. A black widow don’t take no wives or husbands. It will slay you after it gets what [it needs from you].”

She sees two opposing truths: The people make Chicago, and Chicago kills the people. The city’s history has been defined by being home to radical thought leaders while simultaneously attacking the ideas they championed.

Chicago was once home to Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and it was the birthplace of the Rainbow Coalition that is still the foundation for today’s social justice movements. It was also the city that killed Hampton in his sleep. As far back as the Haymarket riot in 1886, Chicago was the heartland of the labour rights movement and the centre of violent repression in response.

And in February 2021, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office honoured Wade with the LGBTQ+ Activism Award – while still embroiled in controversy over the city’s treatment of activists just like Wade.

The celebratory event came only days after a report by the city’s inspector general revealed massive failures by top city and police officials in responding to last year’s protests set off by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. That is why Wade ensured those who honour her must celebrate the whole of what she represents, including the fight to abolish the police.

“When you’re going to talk about LaSaia Wade on Black History Month and award LaSaia and Brave Space Alliance, you’re going to talk about how we’re an abolition organisation, too,” Wade says. “If you’re going to talk about me, you’re going to talk about me correctly.”

[Illustration of Valerie Spencer by Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Mother knows best

No matter how much acclaim Wade receives for her work, her found-family mother, Spencer, always expects her to achieve more.

“She’s the type of woman [to say], ‘Oh you got an award? All right. So are you not going to run for governor?’” Wade shakes her head, a grin playing on her face as she thinks of what Spencer would say about her accomplishments thus far. “I’m saving 300,000 people, and [she’s] worried about if I become mayor!”

Wade explains that community organising is like a bunch of nuts and bolts that are trying to build a structure, and people like Spencer are what brings it all together, even though Spencer is based thousands of miles away on the West Coast.

Wade says Spencer holds her accountable and offers new perspectives on implementing programmes as a board chair at BSA. The organisation has been rolling out gender-affirming rooms with donated items like lipstick and chest binders and will soon launch virtual mental health services.

The two are in constant contact about issues big and small and their interactions go both ways. Spencer laughs when she says that Wade had to force her to finally choose what redesigns she wanted for her home office after a year of indecision, a small moment that shows how they have pushed each other to grow throughout the years.

I want my people to be great, because I know them to be great. I’ve seen what they’re capable of. I know those skills are transferable to any area of life.

by Valerie Spencer

As much as Spencer has inspired Wade in creating BSA, she has had to evolve alongside the community. Spencer was present for the development of a new language in the 1990s, and now she is learning from Wade and the staff at BSA about gender-neutral pronouns and existing as gay and transgender, describing herself as a “very heteronormative” transwoman.

On the other hand, Spencer mentors Wade based on what she has learned from decades of activism. She took over the work of “AIDS Diva” Connie Norman in 1992 after Norman approached her in a church parking lot.

“She stepped out to have a cigarette and she said to me, ‘I’m dying and I want you to take over my work’,” Spencer says. That was when she continued Norman’s efforts to raise awareness around the AIDS epidemic and how it affected transgender women. Spencer moved on to work in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s HIV prevention planning committee in Los Angeles County for two years and continued to do social services outreach at local, state and federal levels in the years that followed.

“In the early days, it was difficult because people only knew us as transsexual transvestites,” Spencer says. “The word ‘transgender’ wasn’t around yet. I’m a part of an elite crew of women who made that word so.”

Norman died of complications from the AIDS virus in 1996. A Los Angeles Times obituary from that year captures what the language around trans identity was like then, describing Norman with words that are seen as outdated by today’s standards. In the years that followed, many could not envision transgender women as more than stereotypes, Spencer explains.

She also remembers a time when she was speaking at a clinic in Texas and asked where the trans staff members were. Her voice grows animated as she recounts a woman proudly telling her, “We ain’t got none of them people working here, lady.”

“Don’t be proud of that. You are at least 13 years behind civilisation, and because you’re the one that signs the cheque, nobody has told you how backward you are,” Spencer recalls thinking at the time.

‘Are my people going to thrive?’

“I want my people to be great, because I know them to be great. I’ve seen what they’re capable of. I know those skills are transferable to any area of life,” Spencer says. She believes in her community’s potential to thrive and pivoted her work to make it real. That is why she stepped away from HIV prevention at 37 years old to obtain a master’s degree in social work.

Along with practising behavioural therapy in California, she created the Holistic Empowerment Institute to offer master classes in leadership to Black and brown transgender women. She says her true agenda is to encourage women to pursue an education, and she wants to make that more feasible by teaching them the skills they will need to complete it. That includes laying the groundwork for academic tools, from learning proper research citations to working on emotional wellbeing in order to lead the community.

Having a healthy mindset is one of the crucial lessons she hopes Wade will internalise, describing happiness as something that must be practised. Spencer knows from experience that activists are often overcome by personal struggle, no matter how much recognition they receive for their work.

She details her own bouts of poverty earlier in life and how she had to balance organising against the systemic inequalities her community faced with fighting through it herself. Many pioneering transgender activists faced the same challenge, like Marsha P Johnson, who was a leading figure in the Stonewall Inn protests and gay liberation movement, but led a life plagued by addiction, homelessness and mental health problems.

Spencer warns that an oppressed community can become codependent with its leaders, so finding space to step back and let others help is imperative. She oversees the behind-the-scenes work at BSA – including finances and maintaining ethical guidelines – to assist Wade for that reason.

“I know that LaSaia is powerful, and so I don’t want a small existence for her. I want the biggest, happiest, juiciest, baddest, shiniest piece of happiness that y’all have for her in the store,” Spencer says. “I want LaSaia’s work – everyone’s work – to be lastingly recognised on a long-term basis so that it can be globally impactful. I don’t just want her to be an influence in Chicago.”

For Wade, the part of the story she wants people to remember is what will outlive her and any recognition she may receive: for generations, Black transgender women made space for their own definition of what it means to be, and that cannot be taken away.

“I don’t care about being erased. What I care about is: Are my people going to thrive? Regardless of what it looks like, I’ve made my stamp in Chicago and the state of Illinois. There is no one that can erase the work I’ve done,” Wade says. “I’m not in the work to be seen. I’m in the work to change the lives of people.”

Source: Al Jazeera