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.

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Resistance against Resurgent Anti-Semitism: The Pumpkinhead Threat

Over twenty years ago, I wrote a review on William F. Buckley Jr’s book, “In Search of Anti-Semitism”.  The late Mr. Buckley analyzed instances of anti-Semitic language perpetrated by both conservatives and liberals.  During those times, my teenage years, I was the product of a rural Georgia Evangelical upbringing.  Though I was conservative by temperament, I’ve always been possessed of an intellectual curiosity that branded me “liberal” in the eyes of my classmates and neighbors.  Moreover, my commitment to spiritual growth and study of scriptures led me to an awakened passion for racial justice and ethnic inclusiveness.

Today, in 2016, my heart hurts.  The Republican Party, an institution I grew up respecting, has been hijacked by a corrupt real-estate mogul who advances a political agenda bearing the characteristics of Neo-Fascism.  I loathe to mention this presidential candidate’s name, for he does not deserve any additional media accolades.  I refer to him merely as “Pumpkinhead”.  I have felt deep revulsion at this candidate’s intolerant contempt for women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Muslims.  Yet, only this past week, when I read reports from the Anti-Defamation League, did I fully realize the threat Pumpkinhead poses to American Democracy. Though Pumpkinhead himself has so far refrained from uttering anti-Semitic vitriol, many of his followers embrace White-Supremacist ideologies and target Jewish journalists for harassment. Many Jewish Millennials, students and professionals, now fear anti-Semitism for the first time in their young lives, all because of Pumpkinhead’s popularity.

 

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) leads efforts to educate children in tolerance and acceptance. The ADL was founded in 1913 to address anti-Semitic violence but has since expanded to promote tolerance and civil rights for all marginalized peoples (http://www.adl.org/about-adl/).

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) leads efforts to educate children in tolerance and acceptance. The ADL was founded in 1913 to address anti-Semitic violence but has since expanded to promote tolerance and civil rights for all marginalized peoples (http://www.adl.org/about-adl/).

 

One particularly worrisome camp among Pumpkinhead’s supporters is the Alt Right.  Since 2010, the Anti-Defamation League has tracked the emergence an ultra-conservative group of white supremacists, the Alt Right, who reject mainstream Christian conservatism and its goodwill towards Jewish people. Alt Right activists make slick, anti-immigration, populist appeals through social media to try to win over young people.  For example, the Traditionalist Youth Network follows the teachings of David Duke while attempting to redefine diversity as the segregation of all races and ethnic groups.  Within the course of the last 9 months, as Pumpkinhead seized control of the Republican Party, the Alt Right has created two new racist, anti-Semitic symbols: the triple parentheses symbol and Pepe the Frog.  The triple parentheses, (((echo))), is used by Alt Right hackers and cyberbullies to target Jewish social media users, bloggers, and journalists for online harassment. Pepe the Frog started out as a harmless cartoon, but has been used by Alt Right cyberbullies by adding Ku Klux Klan hoods or Hitler mustaches to the frog character’s face.

When I wrote my book review on anti-Semitic speech years ago, I was convinced such bigotry against the Jewish people was passing away from the United States.  The terrifying developments of this year’s presidential campaign show that anti-Semitism in word and violent deed has grown like a cancer. The extraordinary disregard Pumpkinhead shows for women, immigrants, and people of color only serves to embolden overtly violent bigots among his followers.  The Anti-Defamation League illustrates this phenomenon of cumulative bigotry as the “Pyramid of Hate”. The pyramid shows how small instances of bigotry, if widespread and unmasked, can build upon more overt and more violent expressions of bigotry.

 

The Anti-Defamation League shows how extreme and violent forms of bigotry are enabled by subtle and less violent forms. I added my own notes to show how the current Republican Presidential Candidate feeds upon the growing racism and anti-Semitism in the United States.

The Anti-Defamation League shows how extreme and violent forms of bigotry are enabled by subtle and less violent forms. I added my own notes to show how the current Republican Presidential Candidate feeds upon the growing racism and anti-Semitism in the United States.

 

Despite the fearful political developments in my country, I am daily encouraged to see the voices of diversity and social justice increasing in strength.  Although I do not agree with all of the protest tactics of Black Lives Matter, my heart hurts whenever an African-American is shot dead by law enforcement.  I also despair at the mass incarceration of Black and Hispanic men. Black Lives Matter assures me there are many young people in the United States nurturing a passion for racial equality and justice. In any case, it is essential that all Americans of goodwill, all races, all religions, both conservative and liberal, cast their votes against Pumpkinhead, preferably for Hillary Clinton.  Hillary and Bill Clinton possess qualifications which have already been proven to bring prosperity to our country.  

As a Transgender activist, I hope to find common cause with the Anti-Defamation League and other anti-racism groups.  Recently, it has been found that Americans self-identifying as Transgender comprise nearly 1% of the population in several states, Hawaii, California, Texas, and Georgia.   In addition to the District of Columbia, Georgia, Florida, and California have large Jewish populations. I believe that tolerance and acceptance of Jewish communities is essential for acceptance and diversity for everyone. States with large Jewish populations tend to be safe for Trans and LGB people. Conversely, increasing acceptance of Trans and LGB people should contribute to a safe society for Jewish people. The Amazon series, Transparent, beautifully illustrates how Jewish family and faith create a supportive environment for the heroine, Maura, in discovery of her transgender identity. It seems apparent that Transgender and Jewish activists should seek every opportunity to work together. Even if Pumpkinhead somehow fades from the limelight, his neo-Fascist wolf packs will remain a threat to tolerance, goodwill, and democracy itself.

 

High percentages of Jewish and Transgender people in California, Georgia, and Florida illustrate how acceptance of Judaism is coupled to overall diversity. During a time of increasing bigotry, it would be wise for Jewish and Transgender activists to work together.

High percentages of Jewish and Transgender people in California, Georgia, and Florida illustrate how acceptance of Judaism is coupled to overall diversity. During a time of increasing bigotry, it would be wise for Jewish and Transgender activists to work together.

A Drumming Mass to Bid Farewell to Summer

On this clear, sunny Labor Day weekend, I felt a calling to perform my morning prayers outdoors. For over a year, I have committed myself to performing a “drumming mass” each morning in honor of the Goddess Cybele. On weekdays, my morning drumming may only be a five minute hymn and prayer in my living room. This past Saturday (Sept. 5), the hour-plus-long drumming mass beside the Chattahoochee River felt joyful and fulfilling. Whether five minutes or an hour, morning drumming and prayers attune my heart, mind, and body to Divine Mother.

Wading while drumming at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. September 5, 2015.

Wading while drumming at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. September 5, 2015.

 

My faith in the Goddess sustains me better than any philosophy of the secular world or established churches. I have spent my entire adult life struggling against depression. My direct experiences of the Divine Feminine have brought me a life of triumph over depression. For such joy, as well as my wholeness through gender change, I drum and sing my thanks to my Mother Goddess. I am also thankful for my partner, Monica, who produced this video of my outdoor performance:

 

Even with my inner joy, I struggle in a world abounding with such negativity as homophobia, sexual repression, racial prejudice, homelessness, and apathy about the environment. Divine Mother as Cybele empowers me to stand against the foul and degrading attitudes which break down civil society. My engagement with #BlackTransLivesMatter last week is an example of how I hope to serve in GLBT advocacy for years to come. Yet activism is exhausting. I needed to drum and pray before the Goddess to restore my mind to positive thoughts and my heart to unconditional love.

Butterflies are embraced by many transgender women as symbols of new life and maturing from maleness to femaleness. A Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, September 5.

Butterflies are embraced by many transgender women as symbols of new life and maturing from maleness to femaleness. A Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, September 5.

In an ideal world, I could find other people who experience the Divine Presence as Feminine and could join in on my drumming. Yet, akin to Henry David Thoreau, I fear that I alone can hear and emulate the Goddess-drumbeat. In this world dominated by the angry, masculine God, I would hope to find others, especially among my GLBT sisters and brothers, who seek the Divine Feminine and her joy. Yet, it seems much of my GLBT family has given up on spirituality and seem content with an agnostic worldview. I do not fault any gay, lesbian, or transgender person for rejecting faith or religion. Too many negative people, from G.O.P. presidential candidates to the Kentucky court clerk, invoke their Christian faith and/or religious freedom as an excuse to oppress gay, lesbian, and trans persons. I do not wish to attack anyone else’s faith or lack thereof. Even the people whose minds are muddled by homophobia or transphobia deserve compassion and respect. Such people are not evil, but merely negative. I only hope to show there is a third way distinct from both the established, patriarchal religions and non-spiritual secularism. In conclusion, I post a short cut of video from yesterday showing an alternate style in my drumming: