Small is beautiful

Kayla Gore is making the world safer for trans people in the conservative south

Kayla Gore
Kayla Gore, left front row

As an advocate for trans equality in a hostile part of the country, Kayla Gore is used to dreaming up big solutions. But as executive director of My Sistah’s House, a nonprofit organization in Memphis, TN, one of her most important accomplishment may well be thinking small: Building dozens of tiny homes to house the region’s burgeoning homeless population of transgender women.

Gore’s timing could not be better. One in five transgender people report facing housing discrimination, and more than one in ten have been evicted from their homes because of their gender identity, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Tiny homes offer a sustainable financial solution to housing insecurity. My Sistah’s House is working with the Shelby County Land Bank on land donations, which means the tiny homes will not have mortgages. Furthermore, tiny homes have much lower regular expenses as they require less energy and maintenance to operate.

My Sistah’s House has raised over $200k of the original $100k goal. At $10k per home, it’s goal is to build 20 tiny homes by June 2021. Eligibility is extended to My Sistah’s House members as well as online Emergency Housing applicants – recipients will be given permanent homeownership. The first three homes will be completed by December 2020.

While this may be the most ambitious of Gore’s projects, it’s hardly the first. The Memphis resident has a long history of working for equality. She served on the Tri-State Black Pride Board from 2016 to 2018. Currently, she serves as Chair of the Tennessee Transgender Task Force with the Tennessee Department of Health and is the Southern Regional Organizer for [email protected], the largest national trans-led organization advocating, protecting, and advancing the rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming people.

Queerty talked to Gore on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance 2020.

How do you identify?

I use she, her pronouns and I identify as a Black Trans Woman.

How did you come out?

I came out via a text message to my mother. I didn’t want her to find out about my transition from another family member or even a stranger so I sent her a picture of myself. It took me a while to get to a place where I could even send a picture. It’s been a very rocky transition living in the south. There are many financial barriers Black and Brown transgender or gender- nonconforming (TGNC) people face when transitioning and mine was no different. I used black market silicone and hormones due to the scarcity of visible providers and lack of access to affordable healthcare.

What the situation like for Trans women of color in Memphis and in the south generally, given the waves of anti-trans and anti-black violence that is sadly on the upturn.

The current climate for Black people is pretty hot, especially for Black trans women. In the most recent deaths, the violence against Black trans women is taking place in the Midwest. I believe it’s due to the uprising against police violence happening in those general areas, which increases disparities among communities who were already experiencing despair. There have been waves of anti-trans and anti-black violence that is sadly on the upturn. We are responding by increasing our direct services and extending them to anyone Black who experiencing homelessness or lack of resources.

What kind of experiences do women describe when you meet them?

Many share similar and common experiences. They have been disowned by their biological family, they have spent time in jail or prison, there is a history of substance misuse, anti-trans violence, and they face heavy discrimination when accessing social services, housing, employment, and education/training. They often engage in sex work/survival sex.

Given the stress of the situation, how do you on a personal level deal with it?

Outside of work I’m an avid driver, I enjoy gardening as a hobby, and I’ve become very into home remodeling since purchasing our current location two years ago. Also, once we’re able to again, I volunteer with the Memphis’ blight crew. Other than that, I’m a homebody like most Virgos I know.

The Trump administration tried to strip trans people from anti-discrimination protection in health care until a judge stopped it (at least temporarily).

Our current federal government has waged war on the most vulnerable living in the “United States” since being sworn in. These attacks aim to alienate those of us who have been historically marginalized already. We believe these efforts mean to devalue our lives and it sends clear messaging that our lives hold no value, and in turn, we see steadily increasing violence against us simply for our mere existence.

You have a background in HIV prevention. How is HIV affecting the community today, and are you seeing parallels with the corona pandemic, given that it is hitting marginalized communities harder also?

There have always been health disparities within communities of color. The way HIV and COVID-19 are hitting African-American communities is no different. The response from our current administration is also no different. Even though both diseases were found to affect Black communities at higher rates with even higher mortality rates, the administration once again sent a clear message that the lives of the affected hold no value. During this time, we have local and state elected officials allowing its constituents of color to be evicted, electricity turned off, denied benefits they are rightfully entitled to in order to create an atmosphere of desperation within these communities.

How did My Sistah’s House come up with the idea for the mini-homes?

We came up with the idea for Tiny Homes when many of our members who never experienced homelessness were facing it for the first time. We needed a permanent solution to homelessness and eventually landed on Tiny Homes. Currently, there are no shelters that explicitly express concern for trans people and accepting attitudes.

Where you are in the process of building the homes in terms of construction, selecting tenants, and fundraising.

We are in the design phase of the project and have closed on five plots of land within Shelby County.

The houses look comfortable. What do you think of them?

I think they’re awesome personally. We have had some naysayers saying demeaning things about the size of the homes compared to some of the folks who will be receiving these homes. We have actually taken into account many of our member access needs. We are in the planning phase of classes for our potential recipients. The classes will aim to prepare folks for homeownership and financial stability.

What other services are available to the trans people who are moving in? Are there health care and employment opportunities?

All of the MSH services will be available to the residents of the tiny homes, including healthcare advocacy, social support, career coaching. Like housing, trans folks experience discrimination across the board so these are vital services. If they’re hired in the first place, which is the first barrier of entry, trans people of color especially experience workplace discrimination and have even lost jobs. Harassment and violence are present when seeking jobs, housing, social services, healthcare, and beyond.

Are you seeing positive trends despite the political climate of fear and division?

In the long-term, you could say there is a trend toward positive change, generation to generation. But there are still too many issues that put trans people’s lives at stake. The current climate has raised awareness of the violence experienced by trans people, in particular trans women of color, on a day-to-day basis. But we’re still seeing the same rates of discrimination and violence that keep our community in danger. When lives are at stake, justice needs to happen now.

Were you surprised by the Supreme Court decision adding gender and sexual orientation to the Civil Rights Act, especially because the court now has a socially conservative majority?

It was certainly unexpected but long overdue. The Civil Rights Act, nearly 60 years old at this point, prohibits discrimination based on sex, which is inherently a trans issue. Our community was happy to see the Supreme Court finally agreed on that.

What are your plans for Transgender Awareness Week?

We have an event planned to commemorate the lives lost due to anti-trans violence, which will be held virtually.