Identity

My Struggles with LGBTQ+ Nonprofits as a Black Trans Woman

"I’d always been treated like a cancer whenever I’d reached out to nonprofit organizations for help, and carried a deep feeling of distrust. Then I stumbled across My Friend’s Place."

by Ashlee Marie Preston; illustrated by Kitron Neuschatz, and Lia Kantrowitz
Oct 24 2018, 4:00pm

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz, photo illustration by Kitron Neuschatz

This story appears in VICE Magazine's Power and Privilege Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

My heartbeat came to a thud as my boss delivered the news. “You can talk to Kaiser about COBRA benefits once your coverage expires at the end of the month,” he explained, sliding over an envelope containing my final paycheck from the LGBT nonprofit I’d been working at in Los Angeles. It was only the second time I’d ever been fired.

Ten years earlier, at another job, working in retail, when I began presenting as female instead of the “male” who was hired, I was harassed, bullied, and discriminated against to the point where I was let go. Why go through the hassle of creating a safe and inclusive work environment when the trans woman who made everyone uncomfortable could just be gotten rid of?

Unable to make rent, I found myself, then 19 years old, on the streets of Hollywood. I pondered going back to Kentucky, where I’m originally from, but I didn’t know how my family would handle my transition. I decided to weather the circumstances, engaging in survival sex work and other forms of street economy because that was what my trans peers were doing in order to support themselves.

It was difficult for me to level my inhibitions to sleep with my first john, so I used drugs as a numbing social lubricant. There were moments in which I attempted to secure temporary housing at various local homeless shelters that received a majority of funding through the federal government, but I was always turned away. Women’s shelters wouldn’t take me in because of my assigned sex at birth, and men’s shelters wouldn’t open their doors because I was too cis-passing as a woman and it was felt that my presence would create a disturbance and pose a liability. As nonprofits, these shelters were to serve specific target demographics. And under the government’s stringent requirements for services, based on antiquated, binary-based classifications, I was deemed unworthy.

Then I stumbled across My Friend’s Place.

My friend's place is a drop-in center in Hollywood where many of my peers were going to receive services. Better known as “MFP,” My Friend’s Place first got going in the late 1980s as a Friday night food-drive, when cofounders Steve LePore and Craig Scholz would meet up with more than 100 teens living on the streets of Hollywood and hand out sack meals. Today, MFP provides an abundance of resources, including snacks, hot meals, showers, clothing, workshops, and case management geared toward preparing clients for a promising future.

But in the moment, I was a bit apprehensive. I’d always been treated like a cancer whenever I’d reached out to nonprofit organizations for help, and carried a deep feeling of distrust. This place was different, though. Being almost entirely privately funded, My Friend’s Place avoided so much of the bureaucratic bullshit and assorted red tape that previously blocked my access to community resources. The center could focus on indiscriminately addressing my basic human needs, and helping me rediscover my dignity. MFP wasn’t specifically LGBTQ+ but intentionally made the space safe and welcoming for everyone. That was important for me because at the time, trans identity wasn’t a topic of national conversation, and there was little protection for trans people.

I eventually landed back on my feet and vowed to never let other trans people go through a similar nightmare simply for being who they are. If anything, the experience taught me that many mass LGBTQ+ nonprofit organizations, despite using a philanthropic veneer as a shield, were subject to systemic racism, transphobia, and ableism. There was a large demographic of us, I realized, who felt alienated by such “catchall advocacy”—which didn’t catch us all. I wanted to somehow change that dynamic, so I began going to community meetings that employees of many of those organizations also attended. There, I voiced my concerns about the ways in which many of the disenfranchised were slipping through the cracks, and about the social responsibility of those operating those spaces to do better.

"Many mass LGBTQ+ nonprofit organizations, despite using a philanthropic veneer as a shield, were subject to systemic racism, transphobia, and ableism. There was a large demographic of us, I realized, who felt alienated by such “catchall advocacy”—which didn’t catch us all."

Before long, I began receiving job offers from some of the very nonprofits that had turned me away when I was a homeless teen. Not only would I be able to continue advocating for others while doing what I loved, I thought, but I could now also make a living doing so. I would quickly learn what the writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde meant when she spoke of how “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The abuse of power and privilege I witnessed within LGBTQ+ nonprofits, in this case, not only exploits much of the demographic it boasts of empowering, but also exploits those it employs, typically community activists like myself who don’t quite know what they’re getting into.

When I and other staff members spoke up, for example, about the injustices we saw trickling down from the executive level and the negative impact those decisions had on our clients, we were often reprimanded and told to stay in our place. Though most organizations claim to serve a diverse demographic, trans people, women, and people of color working for these groups are rarely in any real positions of power, and in many cases are only a paycheck away from being in the same dire straits as the demographic they serve. They’re forced to choose their own sustainability over that of others like them.

I continued to speak out, which led my employer at the Los Angeles LGBT center to show me the door. As my boss handed me my final paycheck, I felt like the sky was falling in. I feared I’d go back to the streets.

I could have applied at other organizations, but ultimately decided to leave the nonprofit sector altogether. I refused to kowtow to trauma pimps concerned with marketing our marginalization over our social advancement. Working with youth was the best job I’d ever had, but by funding many of these organizations, the federal government is able to monitor, derail, and disrupt social justice movements by recruiting activists into career-based models of “activism” that replicate the same capitalistic system that oppresses us to begin with. I couldn’t bear to support a system that was merely a microcosm of what it’d claimed to be dismantling on the macro level.

With my final paycheck and my dignity, I sought opportunities to do the work at a grassroots level. However, many grassroots efforts don’t have the fiscal resources required to meet the demand of those in need, and all the more so for many radical activist spaces that conflate white supremacy with all white people and often reject financial contributions from them. Yet when I left the nonprofit world and transitioned into media as a vehicle for my activism, it was wealthy white patrons who supported my efforts and helped sustain me.

As I’ve become more prominent through my writing, speaking engagements, podcast, and other multimedia appearances, I’ve begun to use my platform to drive accountability and speak truth to power, while leading the dollars of donors who have historically funded our oppression toward programs that are in the trenches, doing the heavy lifting. In the end, it isn’t the sole responsibility of a corporation to take care of the disenfranchised, nor does it serve its interest. It is the civil duty and social responsibility of a community’s members to look after their own, much like the founders of MFP did.

I’m reminded of a quote often attributed to the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This is the full essence of activism.

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