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Black trans people struggle to find therapists after a tough year. Non-profits are taking action.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/27/2021 Sammy Gibbons, NorthJersey.com
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The fear of leaving the safety of your own home is something all of us can relate to during COVID-19. 

For many Black transgender people, that fear is nothing new.

“COVID made a lot of things I was struggling with 100 times worse,” said Naori, a Black trans person who asked to use their online name for this story to protect their identity.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Members of the LGBTQ community in Manhattan's Greenwich Village hold a Black Lives Matter march Nov. 5, 2020. With tensions high throughout the city as the nation awaits the results of the presidential election, police presence was increased, almost to the point that there were as many police as there were marchers. Police eventually broke up the march and made several arrests. © Seth Harrison Members of the LGBTQ community in Manhattan's Greenwich Village hold a Black Lives Matter march Nov. 5, 2020. With tensions high throughout the city as the nation awaits the results of the presidential election, police presence was increased, almost to the point that there were as many police as there were marchers. Police eventually broke up the march and made several arrests.

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Naori — who uses they/their pronouns — were cut off by loved ones after they came out, and felt angry glares from people on the streets.

Naori struggled with mental health before 2020, but said it “tanked” as the pandemic wore on. 

Black transgender people face racism, gender bias and transphobia — and often homelessness and abuse. The intersection of these struggles — coupled with COVID-19 and a year of social justice reckoning — makes it difficult to find an affordable health care provider who can understand these unique needs. 

"It was more work than I expected,” Naori said. “I don’t have any income to be paying for a therapist, but on top of that I have to find … not just a normal therapist but someone who understands the specific issues of a Black trans person.”

But during the pandemic, nonprofits have stepped up to fill the need. Some, like The Okra Project, created funds to pay for therapy sessions for Black trans people. Others, including National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, worked to connect people with mental health providers who know how to care for activists at the forefront of social justice movements and Black trans identities. And some counselors in training are giving their help for free.

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This year, Black trans people fought through “fear and such immense grief and loss,” said Okra Project Founder Ianne Fields Stewart, but they weren’t necessarily talking about how they were feeling.  

Living as a Black trans person can induce anxiety on a regular day, one Black trans person said. (He also wished to remain anonymous.) In 2020, though, he's noticed "tension on a bunch of fronts makes it difficult to move through the world with these things looming over you, directly and indirectly."

The deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Daniel Prude at the hands of police catapulted the Black Lives Matter movement into the mainstream this year, galvanizing protesters, artists and activists.

But the deaths by police of Tony McDade, Layleen Polanco and Angel Haynes went largely unnoticed. These Black people were trans. 

“This work is so important for [Black trans people] to be out on the street, to remain active and activated,” Stewart said. “However, I think that when we spend so much time fighting and we don’t spend enough time healing, we don’t set ourselves up for success.” 

By August, Human Rights Campaign data indicated 2020 had already broken a record for the number of transgender people violently killed in a year. In 2020, at least 44 trans people were murdered in the U.S., most of them Black or Latinx. The campaign notes the actual total is likely higher, but these stories are often overlooked or misreported, possibly because the person was not identified as transgender. 

American Public Health Association research found that young transgender women of color face a higher risk of being murdered than their cisgender counterparts.

A Yale School of Public Health study found that negative intersectional experiences — like being Black and trans — could exacerbate feelings of identity conflict, which can lead to psychological distress among Black LGBTQ+ people.

"When you're transitioning, or when you are fully transitioned, there's a lot of stuff that comes up — a lot of sadness, a lot of working through past trauma in order to become the healthy person that you are," said Alex Francisco, the youth services coordinator for Rockland County Pride Center in New York. 

To help, The Okra Project created mental health funds named after McDade and Nina Pop, two Black trans people who were murdered in 2020. 

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The Pop and McDade funds gave Black trans people one free session with a Black therapist. Founder Stewart said 125 people used that support for mental health help since May. 

Much like The Okra Project’s funds aim to support people involved in recent protests, the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network practices a framework called healing justice.

It examines “the ways we respond to grief, trauma, violence and harm in our communities,” the network’s Founder and Executive Director Erica Woodland said. He said it calls upon people to interrogate structural violence as the root of suffering among Black and LGBTQ communities.

“When communities are highly traumatized, they're much easier to control,” Woodland said. “You can kind of initiate violence across generations that continues because we've been robbed of our cultural traditions and practices to actually heal.” 

a group of people holding a sign: Protesters make their way up East Ridgewood Ave. as part of a march organized by Ridgewood for Black Liberation and Black Lives Matter in Ridgewood, NJ on September 5, 2020. They were protesting a shooting in Kenosha, WI. and a death in Rochester, NY back in March. © Chris Pedota Protesters make their way up East Ridgewood Ave. as part of a march organized by Ridgewood for Black Liberation and Black Lives Matter in Ridgewood, NJ on September 5, 2020. They were protesting a shooting in Kenosha, WI. and a death in Rochester, NY back in March.

Woodland noticed significantly more mental health practitioners joined the network’s directory in 2020, including some from states the group did not previously have contacts in.

He also saw a significant increase in people seeking crisis services. That’s a welcome change for people like Naori, who had difficulty reaching someone on crisis lines during the pandemic. 

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The National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network is on track to provide mental health care for about 60 people this year. Woodland expects to spend $35,000 this year for up to six mental health sessions for each person supported by the fund. 

Woodland said grassroots organizations, like his network and The Okra Project, cannot be stand-ins for broader health care coverage. The network cannot meet the many requests to extend supported care at this time, and Woodland acknowledged six sessions is not enough to address crises people are facing.

A number of providers involved with the network specialize in care for activists and organizers. Such therapists, which Woodland called politicized therapists, understand specific issues, particularly security concerns “highly criminalized and surveilled” people experience.

“If you're directly confronting the state, you're confronting trauma in real time and confronting historical trauma,” Woodland said. “Having politicized therapists is really essential because if you don't, you have people who are essentially trying to help you cope with oppression instead of trying to change it.”

'Giving people what they need'

The National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network’s directory lists about 200 mental health practitioners. There are resources available for Black trans people, but it's not enough, said according to Francisco, the youth services coordinator.

"We need to be able to provide that specific part of the community with everything they need to succeed," Francisco said. 

Woodland believes the network's directory is the only one serving queer, trans, Black, Indigenous people of color (QTBIPOC) communities that only includes providers of the same identities. People in the directory list their gender identity, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity so people seeking care can find someone with a deep understanding of their background.

The network and The Okra Project rely in part on donations to continue offering mental health support to Black trans people. Woodland said sharing the directory helps get the word out, and Stewart wants support in the form of ideas. 

“It's always helpful when people kind of come to us and say ‘I've looked at what you've done, and here's the thing that I think I can do to help,’” Stewart said. “That's really great because then people are able to offer us resources that we would have never thought to ask for.”

All the groups share a goal, summarized by Woodland: “We're literally just trying to make sure people have what they need.” 

After about six months searching for a therapist who understands the intersectional needs of a Black trans person, Naori started seeing someone in October, and says the experience has been positive.  The therapist is a counselor-in-training offering services for free, but Naori isn't sure how long they'll be able to see them. Either way, Naori plans to continue getting mental health care because they said a strong foundation is necessary before transitioning. 

"I've known a few trans people that aren't here anymore that were struggling really bad with mental health," Naori said. "They really needed those resources and they didn't have them and they passed away. I'm lucky to have what I have."

More organizations that support the Black transgender community: 

  • Fearless Femme 100 formed a project to provide free mental health care to QTBIPOC in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Harriet’s Apothecary defines itself as an intergenerational healing village led by Black women, queer and trans folks that strive to build affordable, accessible, inclusive healing spaces.
  • For the Gworls raises money to help pay for rent and gender-affirming surgeries for Black trans people. 
  • Black Trans Travel Fund is a mutual aid-based organization that helps Black trans women in New York and New Jersey access safe transportation.
  • Trans Women of Color Collective focuses on healing justice, like the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, and aims to uplift the communities' voices while pushing for liberation.
  • The Marsha P. Johnson Institute protects Black transgender people through advocacy and organizing as a way to reclaim the life and legacy of Johnson, a leader in the initial LGBTQ rights movement. 
  • The Audre Lorde Project educates and mobilizes LGBTQ people of color to push for community wellness and social justice. It’s also a community organizing center focused on the New York City area. 

Contact Sammy Gibbons at (920) 737-6895 or sgibbons@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @sammykgibbons or Facebook at www.facebook.com/ReporterSammyGibbons/

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Black trans people struggle to find therapists after a tough year. Non-profits are taking action.

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