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‘Before I’m Trans, I’m Black’: Dallas Event Aims To Empower Black Transgender Community

Jessica Diaz-Hurtado
Monica Roberts is a long time activist in the transgender rights movement.

Texas legislators are considering Senate Bill 6, the so-called bathroom bill -- it would require transgender people to use the bathroom in schools and government buildings that matches the sex on their birth certificate. The bill is on the minds of those gathering in Dallas this week for the National Black Trans Advocacy Conference

But the conference is more than just legislation -- it's about empowerment.

Talking about issues 

Inside a conference room at the Dallas Quorom Marriott Hotel,  it feels like a family reunion. There’s hugging and laughing as folks catch up. They’re here for the national Black Trans Advocacy Conference. The group has been meeting in Dallas for six years. And attendance has been growing.

“Before I’m trans, I’m black," Monica Roberts, says. 

She's a long time transgender activist from the Houston area, and she hopes the conference helps change the conversation on transgender issues in the U.S.

“Transitions, and the way that we talk about transitions have been talked about from a white perspective. It’s rare that we’ve had the opportunity to talk about how transitions work in the black trans community," she says. 

Roberts has been able to inspire others, like Jade Lenore, a transgender woman. Lenore says she struggled with making her transition. She says she needed to be around people who were like her. So when Lenore met with Roberts, that reassured her. 

“I was like 'oh, my gosh. So she’s…OK so, I wonder if that’s what I need to do. I wonder if that’s me.' At that moment, I realized I could be who I was in the inside on the outside," Lenore says.

Credit Jessica Diaz-Hurtado / KERA News
Jade Lenore is the Black Transwomen Inc, Dallas representative at the conference.

Now, Lenore is a representative for the Black Trans Advocacy Conference, a place that she says provides a support system. For her, it's an opportunity to talk about issues that affect black transgender people.

Organizers of the conference say unemployment, violence and access to health care disproportionately affect the black transgender community, and they explore this through workshops and events. They also want to raise awareness of recent murders of black transgender women in the United States. The Human Rights Campaign says at least nine black transgender women have been killed this year.

'Like seeing family'

The annual conference also celebrates the black transgender community. They have planned an awards gala honoring transgender leaders. And there’s even a Mr. and Mrs. Black Trans International Pageant.

Trenton Johnson is Mr. Black Trans Dallas, and he says he looks forward to meeting up with friends.

“It's like seeing family that I haven’t seen in a very long time," Johnson says. 

Credit Jessica Diaz-Hurtado / KERA News
Trenton Johnson is this year's Mr. Black Trans Dallas.

A place to heal

For some people, it’s the only family they have. Jabriel Williamson, faith and social justice coordinator, says, “There are many people that are coming here from all over, and this is maybe that one week where they may be able to freely be themselves.” 

The husband and father of five says this conference is life-changing.

"When I first came to the conference, I was lost. I was going through a depression and when I saw the great things here, I felt a magnetic attraction to everyone," Williamson says. 

For Williamson, this conference isn’t just a chance to reconnect with friends — it’s a safe space, and a place to heal. 

Credit Jessica Diaz-Hurtado / KERA News
Jabriel Johnson is the Faith and Social Justice Coordinator for the conference.

Jessica Diaz- Hurtado is an NPR Kroc Fellow. As part of her fellowship, she’s spending several months reporting at KERA.