More than nine months after a deadly pandemic hit the United States and amid a national racial justice uprising, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) trans communities are finding ways to support themselves and build care networks. In the face of structural inequality and ongoing violence, trans-led organizations and BIPOC trans leaders are resourcing their communities through mutual aid efforts, creating healing spaces, and organizing for justice.

When we examine trans history and admire the leadership of our transcestors and queer trailblazers, our interdependence and fierce resilience should be commended.

In a year in which the federal government failed so many and completely ignored people who have been historically neglected, BIPOC trans communities knew that our government would not help us. The limited safety nets set in place continue to discriminate against and, ultimately, fail trans communities.

Even so, as a nonbinary TransLatina immigrant working for the Fund for Trans Generations at Borealis Philanthropy, I do not believe our communities should have to rely on grassroots fundraising as their sole source of financial assistance during a global pandemic. Philanthropy should interrogate its practices and double down to support those living in the margins. The lives and livelihoods of countless BIPOC, trans/queer, disabled, and undocumented people, and those living at the intersections of these categories are at stake.

About the Fund for Trans Generations (FTG)

In late March, after hearing from frontline organizers bracing for the impact of the novel coronavirus, a group of funders formed the COVID-19 Collective Fund for Trans Communities, housed at the Fund for Trans Generations (FTG) at Borealis Philanthropy. Now entering our fifth year of grantmaking, FTG invests in trans-led organizing to support a future where transgender, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary people can live with freedom, safety, and self-determination.

FTG is committed to resourcing trans movement building and building power for and by trans communities. In this intermediary role, FTG acts as an intermediary that helps trans-led organizations access institutional philanthropy, particularly for BIPOC trans leaders, while also partnering with funders as a space of co-learning in our donor collaborative. The demands for COVID-19 made it essential for FTG and its funding partners to move quickly to share and co-fund proposals as much as possible, and to spread the word that there would be funding for mutual aid.

FTG Rapid Response Grantmaking and Trans Community Needs

Knowing BIPOC trans communities would need flexible dollars immediately, we converted our capacity building small grants (totaling just over $400,000) to general support grants for our existing grantee partners and eliminated the application process. Before this moment in the pandemic, funding mutual aid—that is, the redistribution of grant dollars directly to individuals with relationships to the organization—was not a favorable or popular practice even among many social justice funders. For many trans-led emerging groups that offer direct services while also organizing, leading advocacy efforts, and base building, we know that offering mutual aid to support their members’ basic needs is essential to power building and larger trans movement building. As funders, we cannot expect individuals to lead campaigns or be meaningfully involved if organizational members are living in distressed conditions.

Despite the tensions between organizing and direct services, especially in philanthropy, our team felt it was essential to launch a COVID-19 specific fund for trans communities. This work began with a funder briefing in early April. The fund was launched subsequently with a $1 million goal. To date, we have raised over $800,000.

Since April 2020, FTG has been able to move over $500,000 in rapid response grants to trans-led groups in the United States. Out of 87 grants made thus far, 80 percent went to BIPOC trans-led groups, with nearly half grants going to Black trans-led groups. These grants supported mutual aid efforts that provided for basic needs, including housing support (shelters, starting transitional housing programs, paying for hotel stays, and opening up home/offices for houseless people), food (deliveries and setting up pantries), medical services (trans-related medical care, disability-related), and transportation costs (for frontline workers still working, medical services).

As these organizations play a significant role in their communities, I should underscore that these emerging trans-led organizations need more than our fund is able to offer them. The average amount of our rapid response grants, after all, works out to well under $10,000 per nonprofit, which is admittedly modest support. There is so much more work to be done.

Creating Spaces of Healing as a Response to Grieve, Loss, and State Violence

In addition to basic needs support, too many members of trans communities grieve the loss of members have lost their lives due to the virus. Among these people is Lorena Borjas, a movement leader and founder and executive director of Colectivo Intercultural Transgrediendo (CITG) in Jackson Heights, New York.

As NPQ wrote in May, Borjas emigrated from Mexico to the US in 1980. During the HIV crisis, she turned her home into a clinic. More recently, she helped bail out over 50 trans people and helped over 100 trans people obtain immigration and legal support. She had just become a US citizen in 2019; she was 59 at the time of her passing.

In the context of extreme state violence like the murder of Tony McDade at the hands of the police, it is clear that structural violence and racism that has allowed for this pandemic to spread uncontrollably and disproportionately, and interpersonal and partner violence that continues to murder Black trans women at alarming rates. These women, who live at the intersection of white supremacy, gender-based violence, and transphobia, are particularly vulnerable. In the face of all this, trans-led groups have had to create spaces of healing in order to process and seek additional support for mental health and spiritual care, even as they also continue to organize to advance the needs of their community and the cause of social justice.

As a senior program associate for a foundation who is also a migrant trans femme of color, the data point from Funders for LGBTQ Issues that reminds me that “for every $100 awarded by US foundations, only three cents focuses on trans communities” feels jarring. Surely the statistics for BIPOC trans-led groups are even more dispiriting.

To counterbalance this, now is the time to uplift BIPOC trans-led leadership, particularly those organizations with Black trans women leaders, who have been at the forefront of the larger LGBTQ movement.

With hardly any philanthropic support, grassroots groups—like My Sistah’s House in Memphis, Tennessee; TRANScending Barriers in Atlanta, Georgia; and the Knights & Orchids Society in Selma, Alabama, to name a few—must make a lot out of very little. These are small organizations. My Sistah’s House has a staff of three, Knights & Orchids has five staff, and TRANScending Barriers six. But small though these grassroots trans groups may be in terms of staff and budget, their reach is broad and deep. They often act, effectively, as one-stop shops that provide wrap-around services for trans people often pushed out and discriminated against from other social service organizations and institutions, including even from cisgender gay and lesbian spaces.

This range is immediately evident with just a quick review of their websites. My Sistah’s House, for example, provides bail out assistance and emergency housing. TRANScending Barriers promotes a broad agenda that promotes sexual health and economic justice, addresses trauma, and advocates for prison abolition. Knights & Orchids has distributed over 92,000 pounds of food and essential supplies and assisted over 1,000 people in Alabama.

With everything that trans communities are facing, foundations should approach grantmaking with a healing justice lens and also fund healing spaces for staff and members of trans-led organizations.

What can funders do right now to support trans communities?
  1. Fund trans-led groups directly and trans-led intermediaries. Whether you fund women and girls, education, policy advocacy, direct services, arts and culture, or anti-violence/community safety work, there are trans-led organizations leading this kind of work in just about every state. Connect with FTG and/or other trans funders to offer suggestions on organizations and fiscally sponsored projects to support. We’re happy to connect you directly to trans-led organizations.
  2. In addition to flexible general support grants, emerging groups could use flexible dollars for capacity building work. Funding trans-led groups to meet the basic needs of their community, or to respond to violence and death through rapid response grants, is certainly crucial in this moment; however, philanthropy needs to fund life-giving work, too—work that is grounded in joy, care, and life-sustaining arts and cultural work.
  3. Include trans people in your decision-making processes. It is imperative that BIPOC trans people see people in the foundations that are supporting them who are part of their communities and who bring movement-building experience to philanthropy. At FTG, we have an advisory committee composed of five BIPOC transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary activists whose role is to inform and help decide which groups to fund. This has been one way to share power with trans movement leaders and for them to inform our fund’s priorities and strategy. By doing so, we can build stronger, more trusting relationships with trans leaders and movements as a whole.

What lies ahead? One thing is clear: our commitment will not change: We will continue to fund emerging trans-led groups, most of whom are working with modest budgets of $300,000 or less. Indeed, the majority of them have budgets of less than $100,000. The issues that these small but mighty groups address are wide-ranging and include anti-violence work, decriminalization, healing justice, education, and health.

There are obvious steps that are required for grants to flow to grassroots groups of this scale effectively. The application process needs to be accessible. This includes not insisting on written proposals and instead being willing to accept proposals via video or by phone—often in Spanish. Reporting requirements must also be limited, so that reporting requirements and final reports do not detract from the vital work being done in communities.

Building and fostering trust is also critical. It is only through building trust and supporting trans leadership and brilliance, that movement leaders and community organizations can be freed up to determine the best solutions for their own communities.

While movements must lead, philanthropy does have a critical role to play. Movements are not sustained solely by virtue of hope. For my foundation colleagues, I encourage you to sign the Grantmakers United for Trans Communities (GUTC) pledge to show your solidarity with trans communities as a start. Trans communities deserve to be able to vision for a future where their basic needs are more than just met, and where they can dream of a world that’s marked by thriving, abundance, and possibility.