Black-Listed: How Discrimination Forces Transgender People Of Color Into Poverty And Prostitution

It only took seconds for Kenya Inge to ruin the face full of make-up that her best friend had spent hours applying.

The tears came in heavy waves, sending streaks of mascara and eyeliner cascading through the layers of highlights and contours powdered onto her skin. Even though she was already in her 20’s at the time she had only ever seen herself dolled up this way in her imagination.

“I looked at myself in the mirror and I said ‘that’s her,’” Inge recalled. “That’s who I’m supposed to be.’”

Fresh out of the closet and eager to show the world what she was made of, she knew that she was no longer going to be William Inge, that confused and depressed little boy who had tried to kill himself when he was 14 years old.

No, Inge was finally free to be herself and she was going to be fabulous, honey- all six feet and seven inches of her.

Her battle was hard-won. When she was still in high school, Inge’s mother had plans for her son to become a minister, or maybe a pianist. She and her husband were alarmed at their son’s feminine tendencies but, nonetheless, they thought they had time to nip it in the bud before it was too late.

When their son started sneaking female clothing into the house and dying his hair blonde in order to look like T-Boz, the fashion-forward lead singer of TLC, they decided he was going through a phase. Even after Inge attempted suicide, her parents remained in denial.

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To this day, Inge’s family holds firmly to the belief that she will someday change her mind, get married and become a minister.

More than two decades have passed since she left her home in Eutaw, Alabama. She’s worked as a fast food worker, a custodian, a stripper, a drag performer and, more often than not, as a prostitute. Unlike the drag queens she performed with when she was younger, Inge doesn’t transform back into a boy during the day. The last time Inge went to an official job interview the employer stared at her and demanded to know which bathroom she would use.

Now 42 years old and living in a cramped efficiency apartment just two blocks from the only gay bar in Tuscaloosa, Inge has paid a heavy price for choosing to be herself.

Her tiny room is like a jail cell. Each wall is lined with cooking dishes and piles of clothes, leaving just enough room for Inge to sleep on a small air mattress, using only a single tattered blanket to fight off the cold draft that creeps in through the thin walls.

“Aren’t you Riley’s son?,” the woman asked. “I knew that was you!”

She can’t stand to sit idly for too long. Since the cute new mailman still hadn’t delivered the new EBT card she’d applied for, she decided to walk over to a local church that offers a food pantry. Usually, she doesn’t have to venture far from her front door to hear people howl in laughter at the sight of her.

“What is that!” people shout according to Inge’s telling, aghast at the sight of man so tall and bone-thin with the nerve to walk out of the house in a mini-skirt. “Is it a man or a woman?”

Things were different this morning, though. If someone stared or snickered, Inge just brushed it off and kept on moving. She even found a six-pack of beers someone had abandoned on the sidewalk. When she arrived at the church she was surprised at how accepting everyone was of her. No one stared or asked her to explain herself. Then she ran into an old family friend from her father’s church. Inge’s heart skipped a beat as the woman spotted her and waved her over.

“Aren’t you Riley’s son?,” the woman asked. “I knew that was you!”

Inge stewed over this for a while, sure that the woman had only been trying to humiliate her. She gathered her groceries and walked back to her room.

“She’s too tall to be a woman,” Starr said in a retelling of what others tell her. “She’ll blow your cover.”

Normally, Inge isn’t concerned with what other people think of her. She’s used to hearing other queens mock her cheap outfits. Others are sometimes annoyed if she asks them for money. She doesn’t talk openly about her prostitution, but people are used to seeing her pace the streets near her apartment.

“Everyone has their way of doing things,” Inge said. “Others girls do the same thing I do, they let a man take care of them and pay their bills. They just don’t have to walk the street for it.”

Inge’s closest friend lives in the building across from her, in a room roughly the same size.


 

Montasia Starr is what Inge must have been like when she was a few years younger- louder, freer and less apologetic about her lifestyle.

The two are like sisters, they both say. One borrows money from the other, they get angry if the other doesn’t pay back on time, and then they quickly get over it. People tell Starr not to hang out with Inge, though.

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“She’s too tall to be a woman,” Starr said in a retelling of what others tell her. “She’ll blow your cover.”

Starr doesn’t mind, though. Her mind is usually occupied with her dreams of moving away to New York City. She speaks of it as if it’s a Wonderful World of Oz for trans girls. There, she could get all sorts of benefits like housing and food assistance. That would help her to get on her feet, and she could finally finish her transition.

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Kenya Inge poses for a picture one recent night in Tuscaloosa, AL. Photo Credit: Judah Martin

“That’s when I’m going to be real fish,” she said, the word “fish” meaning she would be like a real woman. “I’m gonna have boobs, body, everything. I can just wake up in the morning and put on my clothes without having to pad my body… real fish, honey.”

But Starr’s journey to New York City is anything but a certainty.

Until then, she makes her money the same way that Inge does. For Starr, prostitution is a chance for adventure, it’s a distraction from the boredom of sitting around in the same apartment each day, making small talk with the same neighbors. While Inge said she does her best to “mentally check out” when she’s working, Starr is determined to make the best of it.

Every bit the 21st century entrepreneur, Starr made herself a Craigslist ad under the headline “Sexy Black Girl From the South” and she has plans to take her brand a step further by building a website so that men can pay for her to fly out to see them. She got the idea from a friend of hers who works as an escort.

“She goes everywhere, from New York to… to… she goes everywhere,” Starr said of herself in the third person. “The men pay for your hotel fee and everything. That’s what I want to do, I want to travel.”


 

Harper Jean Tobin is all too familiar with the struggles of trans women like Inge and Starr. Tobin serves as director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, a social justice advocacy organization founded by transgender activists in 2003. Tobin has spent the last eight years advocating for public policy changes that will end the discrimination that forces so many trans Americans into poverty.

“Most folks are doing sex work because it is the best economic opportunity available to them right now,” Tobin said. “How do we increase their economic opportunity and help them protect their health? Not by arresting them. We change it by providing social services that don’t discriminate and that help them meet their real needs around safety, housing, health care, addiction, and barriers to other jobs. We change it by ensuring Medicaid pays for their hormone medications, and that there’s a clinic in their neighborhood that provides hormones and HIV care and where they’re not stigmatized for being trans or doing sex work. We change it by ensuring they don’t get stopped for ‘walking while trans.’”

Tobin, who is also a transgender woman, has watched numerous friends endure countless forms of discrimination.

“Things are getting a lot better for a lot of people, if you’re lucky enough to be someone who lives in a family that is accepting and you go to a school where people are accepting,” Tobin said. “However, we still see extraordinary levels of discrimination, and that is impacted by factors like your race and where you live.”

Montasia Starr. Photo Credit: Montasia Starr/ Facebook

Montasia Starr. Photo Credit: Montasia Starr/ Facebook

Even as transgender Americans gain more visibility in popular culture, employers and landlords alike are free to discriminate against them, and there’s not much anyone can do about it yet.

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Technically, this can be classified as gender discrimination. Still, only 19 states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have passed laws that specifically address employment discrimination against LGBTQ workers. Only 17 states, along with D.C., protect against discrimination in public accommodations. Without laws that prohibit LGBTQ discrimination specifically, employers can easily find loopholes.

“In some cases, employment discrimination, lower wages, and lack of legal protections make it harder for transgender people to cover basic necessities like rent, food, clothing, and healthcare, let alone save for the future,” Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center said. “In other instances, legal inequalities mean that transgender people are forced to pay higher costs for needs like housing, healthcare, and education.”

This discrimination has had devastating impacts on the quality of life for transgender people.

According to data from the Movement Advancement Project, an independent organization that researches inequality levels among LGBT people, trans people report unemployment at twice the rate of the general population and are four times as likely to have a household income of less than $10,000.

“Now that I’m back on the scene I’m not going to take it for granted,” Inge said. “I always say that Genesis is my angel. She looks out for me.”

According to Tobin, this lack of economic stability means that many trans people are deprived of adequate health care. For trans people of color like Inge and Starr, these inequalities are compounded by additional racial inequalities.


 

Inge still believes in a sort of optimistic cosmic fate. After all, the stars and galaxies above can’t judge.

Inge said that she believes that if one puts positivity out into the universe, the universe will eventually return the favor. She believes that despite all of the ugly statistics, despite everything that she has been through, things will eventually turn out okay.

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Kenya Inge poses for a picture one recent night in Tuscaloosa, AL. Photo Credit: Judah Martin

Early in August, Inge was still reeling from her last break-up. She was looking for a little luck but she knew it wouldn’t come to her if she continued to lay in bed moping. Racking her brain for some way to busy herself, she had an urge to fix her room up a bit. Even the smallest efforts toward improvement can lead to big rewards she reckons.

“Something told me to turn the bed around,” she said. “As soon as I finished moving the bed, that’s when Genesis called me.”

Genesis Hughes is sort of the head honcho of the drag shows at Icon, Tuscaloosa’s one and only bar that caters to the LGBTQ crowd. She’s the club’s main event just about every weekend, and it is up to her to decide which queens get booked. It just so happened that Hughes was going to be out of town a few weeks later, and she wanted Inge and Starr to perform in her absence. Inge was taken aback by the request. She hadn’t performed at a club in at least 12 years. She would have to find a way to scrounge up the money for an outfit, but was excited.

“Now that I’m back on the scene I’m not going to take it for granted,” Inge said. “I always say that Genesis is my angel. She looks out for me.”

The night of the performance fell on a weekend when the Alabama Crimson Tide football team was playing an away game.

With Icon’s main performer absent and most locals out of town for the game, the club was nearly empty.

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Inge and Starr were like two little girls left home alone to prance around in their mother’s high heels. The crowd mostly consisted of a few regulars and a few of their friends who came out to support them.

Inge went on stage first. She spent about $10 on her first outfit, a short flower print skirt and matching tank top. While she couldn’t afford to dress like the usual queens who take the stage, she could out-dance just about any of them. She knew there were people in the crowd who were staring her down, expressing dismay at how tall she was or judging her clothes, but she danced on anyway.

“People are always focused on what you have and what you don’t have,” Inge said. “They think if I have less than them then somehow that makes me irrelevant. I tell them if you can put on Miss Kenya’s size 12 sandals and walk in them better than me then you can tell the story.”

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About the Author
Judah Martin is a senior studying journalism at the University of Alabama. He is interested in using ethnographic journalism to explore the ways in which social injustices impact the daily lives of marginalized peoples. Martin can be contacted at jmmartin5@crimson.ua.edu.

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