Would constant fear of harassment and assault motivate or defeat you? Would you turn inward, mentally tucking yourself away on the outskirts of society if you felt unloved and unappreciated in almost every instance of your life? If you felt that your mere existence made others feel uncomfortable, could you still love yourself?
These are the struggles faced by many transgender women of color in the United States and across the world every day. Transgender women of color are engulfed in fear of becoming the next statistic in the American transgender murder epidemic. Violent deaths in Dallas, Jacksonville, Kansas City and across the nation often instill a sense of perpetual panic.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, advocates tracked at least 26 known deaths of transgender and nonbinary Americans in 2018. As of Nov. 2019, there have been at least 22. The common trend among these deaths is that victims are mostly young black transgender women. Too often, these killings result in news stories that misgender the victims and transphobic murderers who roam free.
GLAAD says the life expectancy rate for a transgender woman of color is 35 years of age. If you’re a transgender woman of color, living life in your truest form takes courage and living it out of the closet may take even more impetus as the outlook can become bleak.
There are tenacious individuals in this community who are compelled to make a change to these statistics and bring forth a new era. One where transgender women of color are respected leaders, visionaries, game-changers and perhaps most importantly, mentors for younger transgender people.
Watermark spoke with one such individual who is ready to lead, inspire and fight for other transgender individuals – especially women of color.
Yasmine Prosper is a 35 year-old, black transgender woman currently living in Orlando. Like so many others, she has endured intersectional discrimination where sexism, racism and homophobia cross paths, leading to damaging emotional exchanges and violent physical altercations.
She started her life in the Virgin Islands, living with a single, overworked, religious mother. Yasmine says her first recollection of knowing she was transgender came around the age of four. “I hated wearing boys clothing,” she explains.
Instead of activities like basketball and other sports, Yasmine explains, she enjoyed “hanging out with the girls, playing house and with dolls.”
In fact, boys in general made Yasmine feel uncomfortable. “Older boys realized I was a lot more feminine and began bullying me at five years old.” She says they named her Yasmine “as a way to call me a faggot.” The older teenage boys would harass her brother, insulting the way she presented herself and because she enjoyed the company of feminine companions.
In the mid-90s, when Yasmine was nine, a category five hurricane destroyed their home and most of the Virgin Islands. During the aftermath, her family packed up and moved to Winter Park, Florida where she would begin her journey on stateside American soil as a closeted transgender child at Winter Park Elementary school.
“At first I wasn’t picked on because I was femme, but because I had an accent,” she says, adding that middle school is where harassment for her gender identity began. “I felt extremely femme and in middle school I did not like what I was supposed to be and what I was becoming. I wanted to be a cheerleader and fit in with the girls and not be ostracized.” This did not go over well with her male classmates.
“Harassment from the boys traumatized me,” Yasmine says, noting that she persevered through years of playground torture to high school, where she was an outspoken, funny fashionista and enjoyed creative makeup and on-trend hairstyles. She was friends with all of the girls and lived by the motto “learn to read or be read,” yet she still faced harassment and felt she didn’t belong.
The situation became dire at 16, to the point where she grew scared of going to school. In fact, Yasmine missed so much school that her mother was almost charged for truancy. Afterwards, Yasmine’s mother asked if she would like to move to Washington, D.C. to live with her gay uncle and his partner.
Yasmine accepted the offer and moved, along with her 15 year-old cousin who the family also suspected was gay. Within the first few days, Yasmine’s uncles took the teenagers out for dinner and asked both of them if they were gay. Initially, Yasmine said “no,” but her response changed when her uncle said he was sent on a fact finding mission by her mother. That’s when Yasmine said “I am gay,” and officially came out as a member of the LGBTQ community, along with her younger cousin. She did not mention being transgender.
After Yasmine turned 17, she started attending plays, joined a dance team, participated in drama club and developed a deep longing to come out as a transgender teenage girl. “I’m just going to do it,” she told herself, beginning her social transition by wearing more feminine hairstyles and clothing. During this time Yasmine was traveling between D.C. and Florida to visit her mother.
She wanted to share the news with her in a soft way, deciding to convey her truth through poetry. She wrote her mother one poem expressing her feelings and vulnerabilities. The response was cold and hurtful, she says.
“What if my friends at church find out?” Yasmine’s mother asked. Instead of supporting her, she tried repressing her transgender teenager by threatening exile, advising her “you cannot be a girl in this house. You either continue to live as a boy or you leave.”
Yasmine did not let her mother stop her transition. With support from her boyfriend and friends, she proudly came out to her world and boldly chose Yasmine as the name best representing her to “take power back from the bullies” who traumatized her as a child. “Choosing the name Yasmine helped me reclaim self- respect,” she says, allowing her to process a devastating childhood where “I felt constant shame for simply existing.”
News of Yasmine’s transition came as a culture shock for her mother. This was not a surprise to Yasmine as her mother held her religious convictions tight and was from a small island lacking openly black, transgender people.
“She had a hard time finding acceptance for me,” she says, explaining that the Virgin Islands’ only source of transgender visibility at the time was the Jerry Springer talk show of the 90s, which depicted scandalous secrets and raunchy relationships involving over-dramatized couples. The show’s representation of transgender women of color were individuals deemed as drag queens and “not viewed authentically as women by most people watching the show.”
After graduating from high school, Yasmine moved back to Florida and in with her boyfriend. At times she felt a sharp confliction regarding how she was supposed to be versus who she was. These feelings led to loneliness, sadness and claustrophobia from her inability to verbalize the flooding emotions. That’s when she began searching for guidance and found her way to the Youth Minority Association (YMA) in Orlando.
The program launched to provide a safe space for LGBTQ youth within Central Florida. “YMA is a place where kids could find a blueprint on how to live better lives,” Yasmine says. “YMA brought me to a place where I met others like me who felt lost and how I met my gay parents who adopted me when I was 17 years old. They were my biggest supporters and closest friends. I felt protected, loved and acknowledged as a daughter by them.”
During this time, Yasmine earned her college degree in psychology and human services. Upon graduation she finally received the validation she had been yearning for her entire life. “Mom felt more comfortable and finally said she was proud of me,” she says. This was a major turning point for her as she felt like a burden most of her life and was now proud college graduate.
Yasmine is currently a human services specialist that tackles mental health for a large aeronautical company’s employees. She is still working through demons and childhood episodes of traumatic events, processing transphobic memories and navigating a world where childlike transphobic harassment now comes from adults.
“These people want us dead,” a re-traumatized Yasmine says. The bullies of her youth have grown up and are in workspaces, governments and neighborhoods. “My anxiety is forever on 10. Whenever I get into a Lyft, I immediately bury my head into my phone. I avoid face to face contact in most situations and feel uncomfortable shaking hands.”
However, her grim reality allowed her to realize exactly what she wants from life. “If I’m going to die today, I want to die a martyr protecting other transgender people,” she explains.
This is evident in her adoption of 10 “sons,” beginning shortly after her college graduation. “I felt like something was missing and I knew I needed to be of service,” she explains. “I knew I needed to create a safe space for young boys who had been kicked out of their homes for their sexuality and identity. I became a gay mother to take kids off the street into a home where they were fed, clothed and empowered to finish school.”
When asked to detail her experiences existing as a black transgender woman in the workplace, Yasmine’s description is oppressive and grim. “There is a certain level of fear residing in you. In spaces where there is discomfort the thought – ‘maybe this is the day that I die’ always crosses my mind.”
Yasmine, a guardian of her colleague’s mental health on the job, was outed at work by a fellow co-worker who immediately put her life and mental health in danger. Not only did they expose her to other employees, but they began asking intrusive questions regarding her body and the deeply personal topic of her transitional surgeries. “Some people feel that after they learn someone is transgender that they are given the right to that person’s business.”
“Each day is filled with decisions mostly based out of fear,” she continues. “I am just trying to exist.” Planning and executing daily tasks turns into a lengthy process just so she feels safe going to work or grocery shopping. Perpetual fear easily turned into a daily paralysis, where agoraphobia ravaged Yasmine’s mental state, leaving her mostly homebound with anxiety and using hyper-planning strategies like getting ready for work three hours early and tactical planning of when, where, and how to show face in public. “When a girl gets killed the agoraphobia heightens. I’m always triggered because my livelihood is at stake.”
In an attempt to curtail moments of discrimination and harassment targeting her, Yasmine says she stopped putting herself out into the community, even though she was passing as a cisgender woman. “For transgender women, the biggest threat can be from gay men.”
Although Yasmine is a mother to 10 “gay sons,” she stresses the LGBTQ community can be extremely transphobic, especially cisgender gay men. “Gay men have a habit of breaking us down on superficial standards. You’re ‘still a man’ if you have certain parts. I’ve even been outed at a straight bar by a gay man who interrupted a conversation my girlfriend and I were having with someone to say we were guys and inform them of our deadnames.”
Trauma and subsequent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from events such as these left Yasmine feeling depleted. “Every day you have to find a way to feel comfortable in a new space. This makes for a hard life. People must change their way of thinking by being respectful and aware of others existing. Opinions should not have you eradicated. This isn’t the 1960’s anymore.”
However, Yasmine says she knew she had arrived in her transition when “men started opening the door for me and calling me by my proper pronouns.” For some transgender individuals, this is a euphoric feeling – one of long awaited acceptance and a newfound confidence emerging from a dysphoric echo chamber of one’s mind. However, the joy of “passing” quickly fades when your transgender siblings are still targeted by hateful speech and slain by acts of violence. “I’ve watched people get harassed and couldn’t defend them because I had to choose my safety first,” Yasmine shares.
After witnessing multiple instances of harassment and feeling helpless, she decided it was mandatory for her to become an advocate for other transgender women of color. Yasmine became more compelled to protect transgender adults and teens by providing them with tools of empowerment, opportunity for growth and the help needed to protect them from harmful situations.
That led her to the One Orlando Alliance, the 501(c)3 nonprofit and support network founded in the aftermath of the Pulse tragedy that unifies and empowers Central Florida’s LGBTQ organizations. She came onboard to help homeless LGBTQ youth in Orlando.
She says her experience with homeless youth and transgender minorities helps her speak to the community about these issues. “I have a non-judgmental spirit,” she says. “There is disparity across areas of resources for people of color, especially black agencies, but One Alliance Orlando is actively engaging with minorities and people of color to help connect with those communities cast to the margins.” After volunteering with the Alliance, she felt more of service to the LGBTQ community but was still yearning for more in terms of personal growth as an activist.
By happenstance, Yasmine’s best friend reminded her about the inaugural National Transgender Visibility March on Washington D.C., held Sept. 28, 2019. It rallied members of the transgender, gender nonconforming and nonbinary communities to take a stand against discrimination and hate in the nation’s capital.
The march saw up to 3,000 attendees from all across the country, including numerous ambassadors and activists from Central Florida and Tampa Bay. They partnered to call for the passage of the Equality Act, which includes equal rights, fair housing, financial equity, healthcare equality and physical safety, as well as to raise the profile on the murder epidemic taking place among transgender women of color.
Yasmine knew she had to attend. She was tired of boarding herself at home out of fear, having done so since she transitioned at 17.
With her intentions set, she created a list of goals that she wanted to accomplish during the trip, including enhancing her coping skills for interpersonal communication and experiencing the one-of-a-kind event featuring a multitude of other transgender and nonbinary individuals, allies and other LGBTQ community members.
It was music to her ears and the perfect way for her to declare her new-found desire to become a leader teaching others to lead. “If not me, then who?” she asked herself, deciding to become a resourceful, driven woman with purpose while reestablishing her truth.
This trip to D.C. was going to change her life.
Yasmine boarded a packed bus with all kinds of people, including transgender, nonbinary and other LGBTQ Floridians leaving from Longwood at 10:00 p.m. the Friday night before the march. “The bus ride was the best part of the trip,” she says. “There were opportunities for camaraderie, fellowship and learning. It was like a 15-hour bonfire connecting with each other.”
During the trip to the Capitol, “personal stories were told because everyone felt comfortable with each other. I’ve been told that I make people feel comfortable opening up about life but I didn’t have confidence it was true until then.”
Of the trip’s most impactful stories, Yasmine recalls one in particular. “During the bus ride there was a person I knew from the YMA who transitioned. She opened up her about experience with drug abuse. No one talks about self-medicating, especially in those early years of transitioning, and then several other similar stories were told including drug and alcohol coping mechanisms.
“I was in awe because these people had it together,” she continues. “These were leaders of vital LGBTQ organizations exuding poise and grace who’ve survived addiction. It was inspiring.”
Yasmine and the many others catching the bus to D.C. proudly showed solidarity for transgender and nonbinary people of color during the march. It started after a two-and-a-half hour rally at 11:35 a.m. in Freedom Plaza.
“There were a lot of people,” she says, “speakers with music playing, vendors selling transgender and LGBTQ pride merchandise. The atmosphere was jovial.”
Speakers included “Pose” and “American Horror Story: 1984” actress Angelica Ross, who highlighted the need for inclusiveness, unity and compassion within the transgender and LGBTQ equality movements. Many pro-trans equality political and nonprofit leaders spoke at the event as well.
“I got to see a black transgender woman speak her truth and tell her story while Rise Up was playing in the background – I felt relieved and the message was heard,” Yasmine says. “This march gave me the opportunity to be part of change happening to protect trans lives.
“The experience of marching for my community was surreal and emotional,” she continues. “I felt how Martin Luther King Jr. and other Freedom Fighters must have felt marching on Washington, in my own right. I was happy just like when President Obama was elected.”
She adds that there were transgender and nonbinary people marching with an enormous flag, likening the day’s atmosphere was that of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Activists traveled along Pennsylvania Ave. carrying signs that read “Trans Lives Matters,” and more, eventually ending at the Capitol.
“Tourists and other spectators wanted to know why we were there,” she recalls. “I told them that we’re here demanding equality and to bring awareness surrounding the killings of black transgender women. The people agreed and cheered us on.”
The march added gas to the passionate fire burning within Yasmine’s activist heart.
She says she “left knowing there was more work needing to be done, including protecting homeless transgender youth, and that [she] needed to come out more loudly; to be publicly transgender to help change the world.” She came back to Orlando feeling renewed and uplifted – ready to make her voice heard so that others could do the same.
Attending the march changed her life because it made her feel “comfortable being visible,” she says. “You can’t expect to see change if no one stands up. I’m tired of sitting around – now I’m motivated to tell my story.”
When Yasmine returned to Florida she was greeted with a request from Come Out with Pride to convey her perspective. Passengers on the bus ride to D.C. also advocated for her to speak at the celebration, and she gave a speech that paid respect to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the transgender women of color who many agree launched the LGBTQ equality movement at the Stonewall Inn in 1969.
She also echoed “Orange is the New Black” star Laverne Cox, saying “It is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist.” She spoke about the trans murder epidemic and told the crowd “we will not be erased!” She finished with a call to action, asking attendees to stand up and get involved.
Yasmine plans to continue working with the One Orlando Alliance, actively engaging the community with public service. “Instead of talking about it, I will be doing the work to show people they can live their lives,” she says. “This is my way of honoring my ancestors by being a keeper of my brothers and sisters.”
She is now organizing Central Florida’s next bus trip to D.C., which she envisions transporting 150-200 people to the 2020 Transgender Visibility March to highlight the Sunshine State’s growing transgender and ally community.