Having experienced a life of hardship, Cheryl Courtney-Evans took the lead in standing up for transgender people of color. She was born in Kansas City in 1952; Her life would be fraught with hardship, for Cheryl was born male. Early in her childhood, her mother and elder siblings noticed her preference for girl toys and activities. Her family’s doctor, quite progressive for his time, told them how their young boy was inherently feminine by nature and could not be changed medically, psychologically, spiritually or otherwise. During high school, Cheryl was an honor student. Yet, she loved to go dress in female attire to visit the Kansas City gay bars by night. She was accepted to Harvard University. Back in the early 70s, Harvard campus offered no support nor the vaguest understanding of her gender-transformed nature. After her first year, she left her studies and worked at various jobs up in the Boston area. Yet, of the many cities in which she lived, Cheryl made her home and made her greatest impact in Atlanta, GA.
Cheryl moved to Atlanta in the 1980s, because it was one of few cities in the Eastern U.S. with a sizable transgender population living openly. Gay and lesbian people continued to be stigmatized at the time. Meanwhile, cross-gender people were the marginalized and ridiculed ‘minority within a minority’ coexisting with the larger, gay populations within large cities. Transgender as an identity barely existed during the 1980s, where cross-gender and gender-nonconforming people were labeled transsexual or transvestite. During a time when no place was hospitable to transpeople, Atlanta boasted one amenity: a physician who prescribed hormone replacement medications without letters of recommendation from a psychologist (Psychological and psychiatric services are often prohibitively expensive for transpeople). Cheryl thus pursued in Atlanta her hopes and dreams, despite overwhelming hardships due to societal rejection.
Over more than thirty years of living in Atlanta as a transgender woman, Cheryl endured police brutality, incarceration, exclusion from employment, poor housing, and intervals of outright homelessness. Rather than becoming lost in bitterness, drug-addiction, or abusive relationships, Cheryl grew a selfless, independent, justice-impassioned spirit. She refused to be powerless, always reaching out to her fellow sisters and brothers. For example, she often went to the Fulton County Jail to sign money onto a friend’s tab; Many of her friends and sisters, like Cheryl herself, spent time locked up for similar arbitrary, ill-defined charges. In the early 2000s, Cheryl became an activist for transgender rights, participating in organizations such as La Gender. In 2007, Cheryl started Transgender Individuals Living Their Truth (TILTT), a support group combined with an activism organization for transgender people of every color, faith-persuasion, and gender presentation. Such is the vision and strength of spirit which grew within Cheryl.
During her last two years, Cheryl struggled with emphysema and lung cancer. She continued hosting the twice-monthly TILTT meetings, attending LGBT-rights demonstrations, and raising hell at Atlanta City Council meetings. Yet, during her final month in this world, she told how she was tired. She was “the kind of tired which sleep would do no good.” With her oxygen tank, she explained how she could breathe better, but really couldn’t breathe. Such is the spiritual and social condition of all her Trans sisters and brothers — she said in her final weeks. We cannot breathe.
I can only refer to Cheryl in the present tense, for she feels continually living. For transgender people of color, along with their transgender, gay, lesbian, or straight families, she continues to live with us. Those of us in Cheryl’s family are of a mindset similar to that found among many peoples of African descent. In the faith-traditions of many Native Africans and Africans in the Diaspora, kings, queens, chiefs, warriors, and other leaders never die. The strong-spirited soul passes on to dwell among the Ancestors, while also continuing to be active among the living. What is Heaven but Inclusion? Cheryl fought against the worldly damnation of inequality and exclusion all her Earthly life. She is now home within the radical inclusion of Divine Love. Yet, her spirit persists among us, her warriors.