Identity

The People Making a Crowdfunding Platform for Incarcerated Trans People

A team of trans activists, including Grace Dunham, aim to redistribute wealth back where it's most needed.
July 11, 2016, 6:35pm
Photo by Dicko Chan for Mel Magazine

A team of three trans 20-somethings—Grace Dunham and Blaine O'Neill, who both identify as gender nonconforming, and a trans woman named Rye Skelton—is crowdsourcing fundraising for a crowdsourcing platform that would raise money for incarcerated LGBTQ people. In the days since the campaign's launch, they have successfully raised more than $7,000 towards their initial $50,000 goal.

In an interview with Broadly, Grace explained that the group's proposed platform, Support.fm, "is going to serve as a secure and efficient tool for people who want to raise money for bail, bond, or commissary." Donated money will also go towards the legal fees and legal costs of any LGBTQ person battling criminalization.

Read more: The Shocking, Painful Trauma of Being a Trans Prisoner in Solitary Confinement

Grace—who is a friend of mine and uses the pronouns they/them—told me about this project when I was visiting Los Angeles, where the team is based, last winter. They met me at a ramen shop in Silver Lake, and at the time, they were uncertain what the project would become. O'Neill and Skelton are both computer programmers, and they had approached Grace in September of 2015 to see if Grace would be interested in helping create a resource for transgender people. But neither knew what that resource would actually do, and at that time, neither did Grace.

After dinner, Grace drove me back to my hotel; I gave them my encouragement but had no idea what the project would amount to. I've seen all kinds of general resources appear online for trans people, with goals too vague and undefined. What were they trying to accomplish, really?

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Over the next several months, Grace, O'Neill, and Skelton met regularly to try and figure that out; whenever Grace was in Los Angeles, they'd all spend a day brainstorming. "We talked about the intricacies of some of the different barriers and lack of access to resources that most intensely affect trans and gender-nonconforming people of color," Grace said.

Trans communities have so many crucial needs that it was hard to land on a single focus. "Lack of access to housing, lack of access to employment, how to get money when you can't get a job because of gender dysphoria and employment discrimination," Grace listed. "We were really going through a lot of these structural barriers and thinking about ways we could create a digital platform that could provide some form of harm reduction." Because Grace had already worked on transgender advocacy initiatives as well as prison reform, they knew that there is an "urgent need" for funding for trans people who are incarcerated or otherwise in the throes of the criminal justice system.

There's seemingly unprecedented visibility for LGBT people, but the truth of the matter is that these changes benefit white people.

"The number of times I saw a campaign to get someone out of jail, a campaign to bail someone out of detention, a campaign to help someone with legal fees—the number of times I saw one of those campaigns posted on GoFundMe on YouCaring and then shut down, the money dissolved, the money disappeared, it was just countless," Grace said. They reached out to their activist network to see if anyone knew of a secure crowdfunding platform for bail. The answer was no. "There's literally not [one]," Grace said. It was obvious what the project should focus on.

It is a statistical reality that poor people of color are disproportionately incarcerated in the United States, but Grace and their team didn't see that reflected in existing activism efforts. "All of us [at Support.fm] believe really strongly in the abolition of the prison system as we know it, and all of us have really strong feelings about the failures of mainstream LGBT activism," Grace said. "There's seemingly unprecedented visibility for LGBT people, unprecedented state protection, unprecedented inclusion, but the truth of the matter is that these changes benefit white people."

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Because of social media, the gross inequity of marginalized groups is now being broadcast to a worldwide audience, creating globalized news and public discourse. There is now a constant influx of brutal images and videos depicting police violence against people of color, and articles offering annual tallies of murdered trans women of color.

This reality is shocking to many white and cisgender people, but it isn't surprising to those who have confronted discrimination and violence throughout their lives. People are disturbed by the stream of horrific news stories—my Facebook newsfeed is inundated by caring, concerned friends who are speaking out to their online circles in condemnation of systemic racism. But many of my friends are also questioning the value of those posts; what can a social media status update really do about a massive system of inequality and violence?

Grace and their team don't believe that donating to Support.fm will end violence against people of color or the prison-industrial complex—but it is something that users could do to make immediate change in someone's life, to materially help the people who are most victimized by racism, transphobia, and state violence.

Read more: Trans Woman on 31st Day of Hunger Strike to Protest Housing Conditions in Jail

Instead of opening Support.fm to the public to launch individual campaigns, Grace and their colleagues have allied with organizations around the United States that have been working against the criminalization of LGBTQ people of color for years; these groups—which include Familia PQLM in Los Angeles, Trans Queer Pueblo in Phoenix, Arizona, and Black and Pink, which is a support network for incarcerated LGBTQ people and incarcerated people with AIDS—will be able to set up their own campaigns to which individuals can donate. Support.fm's current $50,000 goal is funding that will be used to create the functioning website itself. "That is an extremely modest estimate of the amount of money we can use to adequately compensate a team of developers to build this website in approximately six months," Grace said. Once they've succeeded at that, Support.fm's coalition of organizations will be able to use the platform to launch campaigns. According to Grace, in addition to raising more than $7,000, they've also attracted more organizations from around the country since the campaign's launch.

"The purpose of this project is to introduce grassroots organizations to people with access to resources—people with money who, to be totally honest, may never have supported work against anti-criminalization or prison abolition before. We've already seen that happening," Grace said. One anonymous, high-profile donor had never given to work like this before but made an incredibly generous contribution.

The local organizations Support.fm has partnered with do their own emergency fundraising. For instance, "Black and Pink might run a commissary for someone in prison who is HIV-positive who's been unjustly incarcerated, trying to make sure that they are supported throughout their sentence and have enough money to get snacks, get clothes, stuff like that," Grace said. Or another organization may hold an emergency fundraiser to get a trans girl out of detention before she's deported. "What we're really trying to do is build long-term relationships with donors," Grace said. "The entire purpose of this project is to create new channels for economic redistribution."


Photo courtesy of Mel Magazine.