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.

Transgender and Proud Forever!

For Atlanta Pride, Saturday, October 10, and Sunday, October 11, the transgender and gender-queer people from Georgia and all over the southeast made their presence known. For the third year, Transgender Individuals Living Their Truth (TILTT) hosted a booth in Piedmont Park. For the second year, TILTT also took part in the Pride parade.

Setting up the booth with my sisters and brothers at Piedmont Park, October 10, 2015.

Setting up the booth with my sisters and brothers at Piedmont Park, October 10, 2015.

Everyone in TILTT, transgender women and men, plus supportive family members, contributed to setting up the booth around 8:30 am Saturday morning. Though the day started off overcast and drizzly we presented positive, successful faces of transgender. To honor the Divine Feminine, I played my drums beside Lake Clara Meer. A positive energy filled me with each drumbeat, building my strength and confidence for what was to be a busy weekend.

The next day, Sunday morning, around 8 am, we began decorating a U-Haul pickup and trailer to use as our float. We taped together disposable tablecloths in light blue, pastel pink, and white to drape out the U-Haul in colors of the Transgender Pride Flag.

Draping Transgender Pride colors onto the U-Haul pickup and trailer, October 11, 2015.

Draping Transgender Pride colors onto the U-Haul pickup and trailer, October 11, 2015.

After decorating our float, we gingerly drove it towards the corner of West Peachtree and Ivan Allen, where we lined up to await the start of the parade.

Camp Drag performers at Pride 2015.  They turned down my offer to help them become girls full-time!?

Camp Drag performers at Pride 2015. They turned down my offer to help them become girls full-time!?

Over the next few hours, other affinity groups in the parade fell in and well-wishers mingled among the resplendent diversity on display.

With Lynne, a dear sister.

With Lynne, a dear sister.

With Raquel, an activist for #BlackLivesMatter

With Raquel, an activist for #BlackLivesMatter

The wait for the start of the parade did not seem long, for I found so many lovely people with whom to acquaint myself. I reserved most intense of my affections for my sisters, buxom Roxanne and elegant Lynne, with TILTT, plus sultry Raquel, marching with another group.

Roxanne, Queen of TILLT, holding court!

Roxanne, Queen of TILLT, holding court!

I met other affinity groups, with Atlanta Angel Action making the greatest impression on me. Later in the day, towards the end of the march, Angel Action was to make the most profound and eloquent statement for GLBT acceptance I have witnessed in years.

Atlanta Angel Action with their facilitator, Meredith, guiding preparations.

Atlanta Angel Action with their facilitator, Meredith, guiding preparations.

Around 2 pm, our section of the march moved forth in the procession. I started from the truck bed of our float. Then, as we turned the corner at Peachtree Street, I could not contain my longing to connect up close and personal with the crowds lining the street.

In truck bed of the float after starting in the parade.

In truck bed of the float after starting in the parade.

Roxanne, our “Queen”, remained poised upon the cab of the float, drawing admiration from afar. By contrast, I hugged and shook hands with as many of the spectators along the street, being dressed in my humble medical scrubs.

The trailer of the TILTT float during the parade with Atlanta Angel Action following.

The trailer of the TILTT float during the parade with Atlanta Angel Action following.

There were many more transgender participants and spectators at 2015 Pride than in previous years. A spirit of unconditional love and acceptance animated the city. The few right-wing extremists who preached anti-gay and transphobic hate were verbally treading water. When Angel Action marched to confront them, their cold, toxic message faded amidst the warmth of True Love.