Transgender Activist Ciora Thomas On The Challenges Facing The Black Trans Community

Sep 22, 2017

Transgender people face many challenges, from housing discrimination to fatal violence. 

This year’s Trans Pride conference in Pittsburgh covers a range of topics addressing those issues, including self-defense, neurology, and more. 90.5 WESA’s Virginia Alvino Young spoke with 28-year-old Ciora Thomas, a trans activist and organizer who will be presenting at the conference. 

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

VIRGINIA ALVINO YOUNG: What has your personal journey been like in Pittsburgh?

CIORA THOMAS: My journey as a trans woman in Pittsburgh has been a scary journey and it's been a journey of those around me needing to understand who transgender people are, and trans women and black trans women and those different intersections of trans people. I was homeless most of my young adult life, involved in sex work and drugs and violence, and that was no fault of mine. That was the fault of my surroundings. And I was unaware of that at that time. But now that I am aware of that,  I'm in a position  to give back and to guard our community.

ALVINO YOUNG: This upcoming conference covers everything from name changes and mental health to employment and housing rights. And another topic of discussion is self-defense. Why are those issues, particularly physical self-defense important for the trans community to be familiar with?

THOMAS: It's been highlighted recently because of the deaths and murders of trans women of color around the country. So right now the community is defending ourselves at all cost and there are a lot of us being killed that has gone unreported. So those defense classes are really, really important, especially for youth, as well.

ALVINO YOUNG: You mentioned that you yourself have been subject to some violence. Why is it that trans women of color are so particularly vulnerable?

THOMAS: We're put into a position of complacency because of the marginalization that we experience from white supremacy. So when we think about navigating within this cisgender-dominant community, that's why we're more vulnerable to those negativities because people really aren’t paying attention to us. So these things are happening to us knowingly and unknowingly.

ALVINO YOUNG: One of the panels you'll be speaking on about transitioning from sex work into a structured work environment. How common is it for trans individuals in Pittsburgh to be involved in sex work and why is that so prevalent?

THOMAS: Sex work comes along, again, with the supremacy that surrounds us. It's hard for people of color in general to get a job within Pittsburgh. And we're thinking about a different intersection of black people, transgender black people, how difficult that is. What I've found in my years of growing up in Pittsburgh (and) navigating these spaces is that if we don't look cisgender enough, it's not even really about our experience or anything like that. If we don't look cisgender enough to be in that establishment to "pass," it's not going to work for them because to them it's making their company look bad.

ALVINO YOUNG: Essentially this conference is for the education and empowerment of trans individuals themselves. What else does the city of Pittsburgh or organizations in Pittsburgh need to do to better support the trans community here?

THOMAS: So the white trans community of Pittsburgh has been being served for a long time now. And with the black transgender community there are services out there that are serving us. But again, they're only giving us crumbs, a little bit of something to sustain us for a day or a week or something. Well we need something permanent. So having a permanent space that we can shelter our trans women and men and our non-binary community in western Pennsylvania, and then we can focus on a permanent housing solution.

ALVINO YOUNG: What do you hope that attendees of this conference are able to gain and walk away with?

THOMAS: When we have these trans conferences, it's always great to see the different intersections within our trans community. It's not just a white or black thing. As trans people, we are so fluid and we all have different religions, we have different cultures and all of that, and for that to be in the same room together is powerful. So that's what I would love for people to take away from that is that power and just being recharged. I know for me personally when I'm around a large group of transgender people my body just recharges. And I'm just like ready to go and continue this fight. So just come out and get recharged.