The uprising that first emerged as a result of the Minneapolis Police Department’s killing of George Floyd has now spread across the globe. In the U.S., the protests have led to a reckoning with racism in the journalism industry, the food industry, and the nonprofit sector, and it will have sociopolitical effects for decades to come. White people across the country are being forced to think critically about racial injustice. For the first time, many Americans are joining abolitionists in imagining a world without the police. It feels like a revolutionary time, but from Janetta Johnson’s corner of the world in San Francisco, California, she says nothing much has changed for her or the Black trans people she serves as executive director of the Transgender, Gender-Variant, Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP).
Multiple tragedies have unfolded for trans people over the last several weeks. On Friday, the Trump administration wiped out healthcare discrimination protections for all trans people in the United States. During the uprising in Minneapolis, a Black trans woman named Iyanna Dior was publicly beaten by a group of men inside of a convenience store and while it was caught on camera, no one came to her aid. And as people continue to take to the streets to protest police brutality, few outside of Black queer and trans communities are talking about Tony McDade, a Black trans man in Florida killed by Tallahassee police. And last week alone, two Black trans women have been reported dead in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
As a formerly incarcerated Black trans woman whose organization helps transgender, gender-variant, and intersex people inside and outside of prisons, jails, and detention centers, Johnson is uniquely situated. Not many have her experience; her personal insights about the connections between policing, criminalization, anti-Blackness, and transphobia; or her organizing know-how. After all, she was mentored by Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, one of the trans women of color behind the 1969 Stonewall riots that effectively launched the LGBTQ+ rights movement and sparked the modern trans movement. But in this moment, few are calling on her leadership or expertise—not that she has the capacity to take on more.
Johnson is singularly focused on providing the trans people in her community with housing. Because she has to be. It is a basic, fundamental need that routinely goes unmet for Black and Latino transgender, gender-variant, and intersex people, especially those who have been in the criminal justice or immigrant detention systems. Even during the height of the pandemic, Johnson was unable to shelter in place because she and her team don’t have the funding or resources to not be on the front lines. That was the case when TGIJP started 15 years ago under Miss Major’s leadership, and it’s certainly the case today.
Johnson recently took the time to speak with Prism about her organizing work, what keeps her going, and misguided calls for “police reform.” Our conversations have been combined, condensed, and edited.
Tina Vasquez: Since the nationwide uprising began about three weeks ago, has anything changed about your organizing work or the needs you are responding to in the community?
Janetta Johnson: Nothing has changed. We are still facing discrimination, we are still trying to respond to basic needs and just house trans people. We are having trouble even finding hotel rooms for trans people because they want trans people to be invisible. They don’t want more than one of our girls in the hotel or if one of the trans women has a guest in the hotel who behaves badly, they don’t want to let any trans people in the hotel. This has happened twice in two weeks. They want all trans people out.
The amount of time and energy I have to spend having these conversations with people about how having a place to stay during the pandemic is just very basic and they can’t discriminate against trans people. I’ll call one day and they’ll say the deposit is a certain amount and then when I show up at the hotel with the trans woman who will be staying there, the deposit price increases. This keeps happening too. They are profiling us.
Because of the protests, we have seen an increase in individual donations to our organization, but so much more is needed. We are currently housing 30 people right now who have nowhere else to go during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s what we are doing with those donations; we are housing people so they are safe. That hasn’t changed at all.
Vasquez: The last time we talked extensively, it was in “the before times,” during the height of the pandemic—before the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade, before the protests. As a trans leader who has worked as an activist for decades, what does this moment feel like for you?
Johnson: Things are hard and scary. I am feeling incredibly frustrated because it’s evident that Black trans-led organizations are struggling to get the resources we need in order to support the populations we serve. On Zoom calls, I hear leaders of other organizations talk about how they are working while sheltered in place. I am a Black trans executive director and I am working on the front lines, like many other Black trans leaders. I can’t shelter in place because, like many other Black trans organizations, TGIJP doesn’t have the funds to hire enough staff to do the work on the ground. So, I am on the streets making sure that houseless Black trans women are safe and housed. I am responding to emergencies faced by Black trans women. I have been doing this work for decades and it is so frustrating to see that Black trans organizations are still underfunded; we are still barely scraping by. This is all while we do the heavy lifting of ensuring that Black TGI people are taken care of when other organizations that receive all the funding exclude Black trans people from receiving services.
Vasquez: It’s Pride Month, and we know the LGBTQ+ rights movement began with the Stonewall riots against police. Black trans leaders are still omitted from conversations about policing and police brutality, and the mainstream LGBTQ+ movement still fails Black trans people. How would you like to see those things addressed in this moment?
Johnson: Cities and counties should use all that money that they would use for Pride celebrations and put it back into low-income marginalized communities. We need safer opportunities for people coming out of jails and prison. We need people to pay for hotels and to allow houseless people to shelter in place. We need to use that funding for permanent housing for people, so that they still have housing once the pandemic is over. What people have not learned, and what Black trans women leaders have been saying, is that these are the communities we need to invest in. As I say, when Black trans women are free, we will all be free. When the most marginalized are liberated, we will all be liberated.
It has just been very disappointing. I know that we are strong and we have such amazing organizers in our Black trans, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary communities, but we don’t have the resources and the capital we need to support our work and be more available for conversations about defunding and abolishing the police.
Vasquez: Even while the entire nation is protesting for Black lives, the brutality Black trans people face at the hands of the police is still being invisibilized, including the story of Tony McDade. His story has mostly just been uplifted by queer and trans Black people. As a formerly incarcerated person, and as an organizer who works with other trans people who have been incarcerated, you know the ways that Black trans people are policed, criminalized, and brutalized by law enforcement. As people talk about “police reform,” what do you want them to keep in mind?
Johnson: We need Black trans people in the conversation about “police reform” because we should not be talking about reform. We should be talking about abolition of the police and reinvesting the police budget into our communities. We need to focus on permanent housing, education, and health care that is safe for Black and Indigenous [transgender, gender-variant, and intersex people]. We need to invest in Black communities, especially Black TGI communities. We need to fully defund and divest from the police. TGIJP is currently advocating for the abolition of the San Francisco Police Department and reinvestment in communities. We also need to recognize that policing is just one part of the criminal legal system that causes harm to Black and brown communities, especially TGI communities. We also need to abolish prisons and jails and invest in restorative justice models.
Vasquez: Through all of the frustrations and problems, why do you continue doing this work? What keeps you motivated to do it?
Johnson: Back in 1997 I came to know Miss Major [who oversaw TGIJP when the organization officially first began in 2005]. One day we were talking and I asked her: How do we do this, how do we keep trans people housed? She said the only way we could do it was one at a time. Because of that talk with Miss Major, TGIJP is taking a shot at doing it 30 people at a time. We have 30 people currently sheltered in place. They will be housed because of the labor of love and passion for the people that Miss Majors instilled in me and my leadership here at TGIJP.
Thanks to TGIJP’s amazing staff and amazing director of housing, John A. McKinley, we are housing people. We’ve been working hard over the years to provide some kind of housing structures for Black and brown trans people coming out of prisons and detention centers. When I receive a no, I keep working to find a yes and find a starting point. [This is possible] because of our amazing invested staff who are about freedom and liberation for Black trans lives, dismantling injustices through our work in reentry, and creating safer opportunities [for Black trans people].
Vasquez: We talked about it before and you’ve touched on it here, but funding is a consistent problem for you and other Black trans-led organizations. How does it impact your work on a daily basis?
Johnson: The lack of funding means that TGIJP does not have a permanent building; our lease is up in July and we have to move again. We have moved at least 10 times since TGIJP was founded [in 2005]. We are still seeking a permanent home with office space and room for a Black Trans Cultural Museum, which would be the first Black trans museum. The dream is to have housing on site so we know we can safely house our membership. The lack of funding means that we are understaffed. Like I said, I am not able to shelter in place because I am out [trying to house] people. We are doing so much, but we could do so much more if we had the funds.