If there’s anything the 2020 has taught us, it’s that providing visibility to any marginalized community must go beyond Instagram posts and hashtags. It’s about finding meaningful ways to uplift that community and the livelihood of its members. The Trans Emergency Fund has figured out how to do exactly that, and then some.
The Trans Emergency Fund (TEF) has been Massachusetts’ only organization supporting homeless and low-income transgender people since 2008. The organization’s list of services includes everything from homelessness prevention and medical transportation to essential goods like clothing and personal supplies. One of the many trans women who benefitted from these services was Chastity Bowick, the Trans Emergency Fund’s current Executive Director.
In late 2013, Chastity found herself on the streets of Boston after escaping an abusive relationship. She was homeless, engaging in survival sex work and drug use, and alone. When one of the girls on the strip told Chastity about TEF, she initially didn’t think anything of it.
"The services I had gotten thus far – being discriminated against in shelters, being turned away trying to seek social services...I was very skeptical,” Chastity said. “I thought I was going to get a slice of pizza and an HIV test, and that would be it. But it was the complete opposite."
After stumbling across TEF, the organization’s cause quickly became her own. TEF immediately bussed Chastity from Boston to Worcester and housed her in a safe shelter for three months, which provided more than just a roof over her head. Those three months in the safe shelter gave Chastity the chance to restore her mental health, discontinue her drug use, and figure out “what do I want out of this life.”
“The one thing I kept coming to during those three months was that I want to be someone people like me who are going through a similar situation, or even worse, can come to for guidance and resources, because I felt that [trans folks] were lacking those,” Chastity said.
She started volunteering at TEF throughout 2014, then quickly rose in rank. From Director of Volunteers in 2015 to Executive Director in 2016, Chastity played a pivotal role in leading TEF to its 501(c)3 status. When Chastity first began volunteering, TEF could barely service ten people at once. Now, having served 187 trans and/or gender nonconforming individuals in 2020 alone, Chastity’s goal is to make TEF’s work in Massachusetts “a national movement”. She wants every state to equip trans folks with the tools to get in touch with their legislators and advocate for policy change, while also providing them the resources to lead sustainable lives, particularly transitional housing.
“We need [these resources] so much; we’re getting killed, especially transgender women of color,” Chastity said. “We hope other states will adopt our work and create [a TEF] for their state. I'm more than happy to give them the model and show them how we started because I think it’s critical and crucial that all states provide these services."
A Home is Where the Start Is
In the meantime, Chastity continues to facilitate the growth of TEF. From an organization that was founded in service of one trans woman of color in 2008, to a life-line for nearly hundreds of transgender people and nonbinary folk across Massachusetts, TEF has grown beyond its original founder’s “wildest dreams”, according to Chastity. Even in the face of all the challenges COVID-19 has created for non-profit work, the organization has still been able to continue its work and advocacy while securing funding from an array of local partners. Their services are more important now than ever before.
“The trans community is often overlooked and underserved, and with COVID-19 it was like we didn’t exist,” Chastity said. The service that’s been in highest demand during the pandemic is TEF’s homelessness prevention services. Housing insecurity and inequality have already worsened since the start of the pandemic. The situation takes on even more dire complexity for trans folks, whose housing options are already limited.
“Here in the state of Massachusetts, there are no housing programs for people who are transgender and are HIV-negative. On the other hand, there are housing resources for transgender folks who are HIV-positive. So, we stand out because we are the only organization in New England who assists trans people with homelessness prevention and rental startup regardless of their HIV status,” Chastity explained. “That being said, while [homelessness prevention] is our most crucial and unique service, it’s also our most costly service at the same time. So, it’s important people know that TEF solely operates on grants, fundraisers, and donations.”
Chastity explained that homelessness prevention and the fight for transitional housing are some of TEF’s "number one" initiatives, largely because of the lack of such services in other organizations seeking to support trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming communities.
“A lot of organizations are more focused on, ‘What money can we get in, and what is the least amount of service we can provide to maintain that funding?’” Chastity explained. “TEF, on the other hand, says., ‘No. These are all the services we want to offer. Now, let’s go find the funding we need to be able to offer these services, because this is what the community says it needs.”
If It Isn’t Intersectional, It Isn’t Right
TEF leads by example not only through the outstanding resources it provides, but by its innately intersectional approach. The organization prides itself on the individualized and tailored support offered to every individual it services. However, simply by nature of the disproportionate levels of discrimination they experience, transgender women of color receive particular consideration in TEF’s work.
“When you look at the transgender community at the moment, trans people of color have higher HIV rates, we have higher homelessness rates, we have higher murder rates, and we are most likely to be kicked out and shunned from our families. So, at TEF, yes, we do serve transgender and gender nonconforming people of all races. But we have a greater emphasis on trans people of color because we know the systemic differences and oppression specifically placed on transgender people of color,” Chastity said.
The realities she described started receiving national attention this past summer when iterations of #BlackLivesMatter discourse began highlighting the experiences of black trans women, specifically the violence they face. Not only do black trans women bear the crushing burdens of transphobia and sexism, but they also face the brunt of racism. Living at the intersection of each of these identities, when faced by rampant discrimination within your own community, results in unparalleled levels of violence. In fact, the number of black trans deaths in the summer of 2020 alone has been deemed a “pandemic within a pandemic”.
Even as Executive Director of TEF, Chastity still feels the weight of that compounded discrimination. She explains how the organization needs to be especially careful to “cross [its] T’s and dot [its] I’s” simply because of its black, trans leadership. In fact, she and a colleague conducted an experiment in 2016 in which they each posted a fundraiser promotion on TEF’s social media. Chastity’s post met little enthusiasm, reaching only a quarter of the fundraiser’s goal. When her colleague, a white trans man, posted the same exact content using the same exact language a month later, they received three times their donation target.
“Every time I show up to a meeting or formal affair, not only do I have to dress the part, but I need to be ten times better than a cisgender woman would. I’m already going to be looked at [differently]; ‘Oh, here’s the transgender woman of color, what is she going to say, how’s her attitude going to be...’ I have to know how to carry myself in these meetings,” Chastity explained. “Should I have to go above and beyond? No, I shouldn’t. But do I have to? To get ahead and be recognized for my value and what I can bring to the table - yes, I have to.”
Working Hard In & Out of the Community
Despite the injustice of this added scrutiny, it’s only pushed Chastity to work harder and to encourage her community to do the same.
“Because of [what I’ve experienced], I encourage the people I’m counseling [by saying], ‘Listen, trans people can be police officers, judges, doctors, lawyers...we can be all these things we’re seeking services from.’ It’s just going to take a lot of time and dedication and patience,” Chastity said. “Regardless if you’re trans, you can do it better, and you will be better, because you have more at risk. You have more to work for, you know what it’s like to not have. And that’s where my ‘umph’ comes from to continue doing this work.”
The kind of on-the-ground work Chastity encourages within the trans community is also what she promotes among allies. Beyond just “sitting behind a computer”, there’s plenty you can do to support the fight for trans equality and humanity, Chastity says, especially through organizations like TEF.
“Being an ally can come about in so many ways. It can be providing education [to your peers], donating to TEF, encouraging your friends and family to donate, but most importantly getting on the ground. We need our cisgender allies to also talk to their local and state officials [about] transgender issues,” Chastity said. Even signing up for the Trans Emergency Fund Newsletter to stay up to date on projects, like the upcoming transitional housing program, can be a gateway to doing more than posting hashtags.
What a Real Ally Looks Like
There’s so much both Chastity and TEF have to offer in terms of leading the way for true allyship and visibility. On the organizational level, TEF demonstrates just how important it is for collectives to “listen to the people you're providing services to”. On the individual level, Chastity emphasizes the importance of owning your privilege and "always being willing to educate yourself.”
“Back in my day, when I was transitioning, it was only ‘LGBT’, now it’s ‘LGBTQIA’! There’s always something new to educate yourself on. Be that person, and act like that [trans person] is your daughter or your son. Another thing about allyship is [thinking about] how would you want someone to treat that person if it was your child?”
Please visit transemergencyfund.org for more information on how you can support Chastity’s work and the Trans Emergency Fund.