By Kristal Poland and Jenesis Gibson, DEI committee co-chairs
Pride Month is currently celebrated each year in the month of June to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. The Stonewall Uprising was a tipping point for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States. (Library of Congress, 2022).
In this article, we take a look into the life of one of our LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) consumers, who has received services across four youth-based VOANLA programs since 2015. La’Kimberly is a 20-year-old African-American trans-woman who began her transition 8 years ago. A trans-woman is someone who was assigned male at birth but whose gender identity is female.
A year into her transition she met Kayla Anderson, a former Communities in Schools site coordinator, at Booker T. Washington High School in the “Gems and Gents” mentoring program. As a CIS site coordinator, Kayla got her enrolled in the program and assisted La’Kimberly to break down the barriers that kept her from school. Kayla provided a listening ear to her problems at home and provided academic help at school as well as coordinated food and clothing to help keep La’Kimberly in school. She also enrolled her in Lighthouse services to receive homework help and gain exposure to enrichments that motivated her to come to school and improve her grades. As time went on, Kayla recognized the need to make a referral to Youth Behavioral Health services following a mental health crisis La’Kimberly had at school.
Enter Andrea Pugh, former Youth Behavioral Health licensed clinician. Andrea began to provide La’Kimberly with intensive outpatient counseling services to help her manage several issues ranging from her being bullied, improving the relationships with her family, and overall self-esteem. Andrea was there whenever La’Kimberly needed her, even picking her up in the middle of the night when she was stranded. La’Kimberly expresses a deep bond with both Kayla and Andrea and appreciates that they never judged her but met her where she was and only wanted to help her be her best.
La’Kimberly found success with their support and successfully moved on from both programs.
A year later, the COVID-19 pandemic began. In 2020 La’Kimberly found herself at a crossroads. She had dropped out of high school and was now homeless and lacking any significant family support. She reached out to the one person she knew would help her, Andrea. Andrea made the call to her former co-worker and friend, now new Level Up Program Director, Jenesis Gibson. She explained that La’Kimberly needed VOA’s help and a spot in Level Up, the new permanent supportive housing program for homeless youth. Jenesis and her Level Up team picked La’Kimberly up from the Greyhound station after work hours and moved her in the same night. She was provided with stable housing, furniture, paid utilities, clothes, phone, food and all items needed to live independently. Jenesis and her team made sure to take a trauma informed approach with her, ensuring that those around her would respect her chosen pronouns and were sensitive to the previous trauma she’d endured. The Level Up team made sure that she obtained proper medical care, set her up with a GED program, helped her obtain employment, and educated her on basic independent living skills. Now two years into the program, La’Kimberly is one of Level Up’s brightest success stories. She is maintaining employment, program compliant, and participates in weekly group counseling and individual case management twice a week.
La’Kimberly credits her motivation to improve her life to her trans-sister, Brooklyn. Brooklyn was also a trans-woman that La’Kimberly identified as “closer than family.” Brooklyn was tragically murdered in her apartment after being unheard from for days. La’Kimberly was crushed and identifies her death as the lowest point of her life. Through this tragedy, La’Kimberly has chosen to find strength to live the life she feels was robbed from her beloved friend. Brooklyn’s murder is a sobering reminder of the dangers trans-woman face in present society. Violence against members of the LGBTQ community, especially in the transgendered community, continues to be an issue. Three out of four homicides against transgender people have been as a result of gun violence. In minority communities, the figures are slightly worse with eight out of ten homicides against Black trans-women resulting from gun violence.
Two months after Brooklyn’s death, La’Kimberly made the call to Andrea and found her way to Level Up, which started her journey of healing and independence. La’Kimberly’s hope for the future is to go to cosmetology school, grow her hair care business, and reconnect and mend the relationships with her family. When asked what she wants others to know about the transgender community, she said, “One transgender person does not speak for us all. Get to know us on an individual level; we are all different. Even though we are a small community to you, we are a big community to us. Get to know us before you judge us. A trans-person could be a blessing in disguise to you and you won’t even know it if you are too busy judging them.” Displaying wisdom beyond her years, La’Kimberly issues us all a direct challenge to “Love your neighbor as you would yourself” (Mark 12:31), casting aside our judgements and leading with love in all we do.
We asked La’Kimberly what Pride Month means to her and she said, “People should learn all they can about it. It is a celebration of the LGBTQ community and you should read up and learn about the history and the journey our community has faced. Educate yourself and inform your opinion based off your feelings, not someone else’s.” LaKimberly has charged us all with doing our homework. Educating ourselves and learning about the continued journey for equal rights of the LGBTQ community.
VOANLA’s array of youth services helped La’Kimberly through the best and worst of times and has been a part of her journey for the last 7 years. La’Kimberly is living proof that the work we do matters in our community, including clients that identify as part of the LGBTQ community. Kayla, Andrea, Jenesis and others proved how important allyship is. An ally is defined as anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, who stands up for, supports and encourages members of the LGBTQ community. Let us all follow the example of these ladies and be an ally to those in this community that find their way to us.
We thank La’Kimberly for sharing her story with us and hope you all challenge yourself to learn more about the origins of Pride Month. Research the leaders and defining moments in a movement that stands for being true to yourself no matter how you identify or who you love.
Happy Pride Month, everyone.