Remembering the Life of a Sister ahead of Her Time

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 C. Courtney-Evans, a beloved warrior for transgender equality in Atlanta.

Cheryl C. Courtney-Evans, a beloved warrior for transgender equality in Atlanta.

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.

Cheryl at the Trans Liberation Tuesday rally at Five Points on August 25, 2015.

Cheryl at the Trans Liberation Tuesday rally at Five Points on August 25, 2015.

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.

Cheryl with her Atlanta family of recent years.  Luckie, her adopted son sits at the center.  Tracee McDaniels, to the right, and Monica Helms, standing at center, are trans community leaders close to Cheryl.  July 12, 2014.

Cheryl with her Atlanta family of recent years. Luckie, her adopted son sits at the center. Tracee McDaniels, to the right, and Monica Helms, standing at center, are trans community leaders close to Cheryl. July 12, 2014.

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.

Cheryl Courtney-Evans, standing at center, enjoying the company of trans-women and trans-men while setting up the booth for Atlanta Pride, 2016.

Cheryl Courtney-Evans, standing at center, enjoying the company of trans-women and trans-men while setting up the booth for Atlanta Pride, 2016.

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.

Atlanta Rally for #BlackTransLivesMatter and #TransLiberationTuesday

August 25 was a clear, non-muggy day in Atlanta. I was engrossed in the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Hyatt Regency. The preceding evening, my friend and mentor, Cheryl Courtney-Evans, sent me a message. Our TILTT support group was to participate in a street action in lieu of our usual fourth-Tuesday-of-the-month meeting. The action was to start at 6 pm across from the Five Points MARTA station beside Underground Atlanta. Two weeks ago, Cheryl attempted communication with an African-American transgender woman who had been attacked on MARTA only to be arrested while her assailants walked free. This recent incident echoes a widely-publicized attack on two African-American transwomen on MARTA in May 2014. Worse yet, as of the day the action was being organized, 17 male-to-female transgender persons, most of them African-American, had been murdered in the United States since the start of 2015. Thus, I felt it my sacred duty before the Goddess to leave the conference early and stand with my sisters and brothers in the demonstration.

Organizers, Raquel and Holiday.

Action organizers, Raquel Willis and Holiday Simmons, addressing the gathering.

I met Cheryl, along with one of the organizers, Holliday Simmons, and, Anna, a photojournalist from Toronto, as they left the Five Points MARTA station a few minutes before six. We waited in the still-quite-intense evening sunlight under the Underground Atlanta arch across Peachtree Street. Raquel Willis, the other main organizer, soon joined us. Around 6:30, the main group of the participants arrived from the MARTA station, having ridden from the West End station with their posters and placards. Additional accounts of persecution suffered by local transgender persons, along with dozens of moving photos, are provided by Matt Hennie in his Project Q article.

Unsafe MARTA

Gathering for visibility to drivers, pedestrians, and MARTA commuters. The poster-board bearing the MARTA logo reads “#ServiceFailure Keep Trans Women Safe”.

With the hundred or so participants gathered, they chanted “Black Trans Lives Matter.” I unpacked my two small hand drums and added percussion to the necessary noise. Raquel, Holliday, and several others spoke to the participants and onlookers. Cheryl Courtney-Evans pointed out the sign held by one activist, “35 years, average life expectancy of a black transwoman”. Cheryl expressed outrage at these grim statistics while expressing gratitude at beating such odds in her own, significantly longer life. Holliday read a list of ten “Dear Everybody” requests from African American transwomen to all the rest of us who enjoy at least one gender, racial, or class privilege. As related by Patrick Saunders in his Georgia Voice article, Holliday also urged non-transgender persons to respect our gender pronouns and chosen names. Finally, as the gathering wound down, everyone hugged.

Icon

Toni-Michelle (left), Raquel (center), and Jessi holding up the names of 17 transwomen murdered since the start of 2015.

No television news stations nor mainstream newspapers covered the Atlanta #BlackTransLivesMatter demonstration. The effort of my trans sisters of color to fight back against a near-genocidal system seemed futile. My own efforts to support my sisters feels hopelessly inadequate. Compared to other populations within the transgender community, transwomen of Color suffer disproportionately from poverty, homelessness, HIV infection, and violence. Today, during a seminar for the final day of my Emerging Infectious Disease conference, I challenged researchers on sexually-transmitted infections to include transgender persons as a defined demographic in their studies. It seems my prayers to the Divine Feminine, my attendance at #BlackTransLivesMatter, and my words of advocacy cannot stop the combined assault of hatred and indifference. This evening, August 26, I found a report in The Advocate listing the number of transgender female lives lost in 2015 at 19.