We’re going to have our moment of silence,” said Grace Detrevarah, LGBT Liaison–Senior Reentry Peer/Health Facilitator, Osborne Association, as she facilitated the organization’s Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) webinar panel last November.
“Let me say something about the moment of silence. I want you to think about that trans male, that trans woman, that LGB person, that nonbinary person that you recognize or see in your travels. If you are cisgender, if you are an ally, please…honor us by acknowledging us, simply saying hi, as you travel about your day. As you read the names of those who have been murdered, not ‘died,’ not ‘passed away,’ murdered, realize that, when you are on that train or in Walmart buying something or at your pharmacy, you may recognize us, you may see us—acknowledge us with a smile, acknowledge us with a head bow. It matters, because the strife that we go through as a community, we don’t even get that.
“So I ask you as you look at these names, these young people, these older people, these trans males, these trans women, nonbinary, the LGBTQIA, they all matter. A moment of silence.”
The speakers assembled—Mimi Shelton, Destination Tomorrow, the Bronx LGBTQ Center; Jevon Martin, Princess Janea Place; LaTravious Collins, Brooklyn Ghost Project; Tabitha Gonzalez; Tatiana Fermin, Bridges for Life; Dr. Thomas Ryer and Liz Gaynes, Osborne Association; and keynote speaker Cecilia Gentili, as well as those who tuned in—memorialized and mourned those individuals of transgender/gender nonconforming/nonbinary (TGNCNB) experience who had so far been murdered in 2021. TDOR is an annual observance, on and around November 20, to honor individuals of transgender experience who have been killed because of who they are and to commit to fight for justice and changes in society that will make a positive difference in the lives of people who are transgender.
The need to address the violence is urgent. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s 2021 report on fatal violence against transgender/gender non-confomring people, 66% of the victims were Black women; 86% were people of color; and 69% were killed with a gun. At the time of the report’s publication, at least forty-seven people had been murdered. It should be noted that this number suffers from underreporting, commonly because of misgendering and dead-naming by police and other officials.
Along with Detrevarah, the advocates spoke out to end the violence, all violence, interpersonal and systemic violence, and all that makes trans people vulnerable to oppression in all of its forms. In this regard, they advocated for the needs of many individuals who are TGNCNB, including greater and sustained healthcare access and affirmative support along the care continuum; housing; increased employment and professional development; increased educational opportunities; and equity when it comes to policing and the criminal justice system, among others.
Some of the advocates also pointed to the support needed for those facing challenges as a result of stigma and discrimination; immigrant status; disproportionate rates of HIV (especially among transgender women); and the criminalization of sex work. Some reminded listeners of the simple need to feel safe. The need for organizations and governmental agencies to create and support trans-affirming policies and to fund programs that endure. The need for everyone to work on trans empowerment for the other 364 days of the year.
Importantly, the advocates also championed the need for friendship, allyship, and community. They celebrated the contributions made by individuals of trans experience, as professionals, as friends, as colleagues, as family members, as spouses, and so on. They touted past accomplishments, such as the passage of New York’s GENDA (Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act), the repeal of the Walking While Trans law, and the amplification of Trans Day of Visibility, while they looked toward the future.
“There is so much I am doing and love doing; it’s my breath,” shares Detrevarah, about the TDOR webinar and her many other duties and accomplishments at the Osborne Association. As part of the team at Osborne, Grace Detrevarah has found a space where she has been able to bring her expertise and skills to bear. Osborne provides direct support services to individuals who have been through or need alternatives to the criminal justice system. It promotes people-centered policies and practices, and focuses on “equity, healing and transformation” while seeking to dismantle mass-scale, long-term incarceration.
Osborne, she says, creates an environment for the advocate within to flourish.
Malcolm Davis, Program Manager, Wellness and Prevention at Osborne Association, tells A&U that “Grace has proven to be an asset as a regional and nationally recognized advocate representing TGNC individuals who are affected by the criminal justice system; as a formerly incarcerated individual who has evolved forward in her professionalism; and as a dedicated and productive employee with the Osborne Association.
“Grace has begun national discussions on reentry as it pertains to TGNC folks returning back to their communities. Grace also began virtual discussions which can be used as a guide to inspire and empower TGNC folks: Grace puts a lot of emphasis on physical and mental health resources.
“As a public speaker Grace continues to collaborate with other community advocates who are concerned with individuals returning back to the community post incarceration. Grace is always looking for more ways to better service the TGNC Community, she is admired by many and she has proven to be a voice for those unheard.”
As a Peer Advocate-Health Facilitator, she often visits the homes of participants in the organization’s programs for reentry and reintegration, and housing support. “Most times they are SROs or shelters,” she explains. “It’s one of the most humbling of my duties. One gets to observe how folks are concurrently [experiencing] homelessness, but at the same time other issues like drug addiction [and/or] tackling medication regimens. Visiting these establishments can really affect one’s advocacy because of the visuals—medical wasting, lack of nutritional diets, and mental health. Therefore, I seek to address the forgotten ones, those in these marginalized places.”
She adds: “My type of advocacy is to tackle what in my opinion isn’t enough.” She takes a holisitic, bread-and-roses approach, of which securing housing for individuals is a first step on a grander staircase that helps people move “from temporary to independent living, [and accessing] medication, mental health services, education, and for some, employment.”
As a former client of Osborne, Detrevarah knows what it is like to rebuild a life, both inside and outside of prison and as an HIV long-term survivor. She has worked hard——as a person of trans experience in the justice system—to survive, to educate herself, and to thrive.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, the justice system has failed to protect people of trans experience and has often multiplied their punishments in pernicious ways. Often, police harass and profile trangender people of color and betray their trust, so much so that, “according to the 2015 US Transgender Survey, a majority (57%) of transgender people are afraid to go to the police when they need it.” In prison, with gender-appropriate accommodations, transgender people face disproportionately high rates of physical abuse and sexual assault by staff and fellow inmates. Staff often deny TGNCNB inmates proper medical care, including hormones and other gender-affirming care, and torture them through long bouts of solitary confinement. TGNCNB inmates are also at higher risk of acquiring HIV compared to cisgender inmates.
According to the Women & Justice Project’s fact sheet, “The Incarceration of Trans, Nonbinary, Intersex & Gender Expansive People”:
• Trans, non-binary and gender expansive people, particularly Black, Indigenous andPeople of Color, and especially Black trans women, are targeted, criminalized, and incarcerated at extremely disproportionate rates.
• 1 out of 2 Black trans & GNC people have been incarcerated during their lifetime
• 8 in10 trans & GNC people report emotional pain due to having to hide their gender identity in prison
The fact sheet also underscores the lack of data: “Incarcerated trans, nonbinary & gender expansive people are routinely erased in government studies because gender is reduced to sex assigned at birth. No federal government studies provide data about incarcerated nonbinary, intersex, or gender expansive people.”
Detrevarah is passionate about why she is steadfast in her commitment to individuals who are impacted by incarceration. “When it comes to TGNC prisoners in NYC/NYS jails and prisons, GBTQ prisoners have ongoing dilemmas, whether it’s simply existing, or having to hope to make it through a day without harassment, name-calling, and other horrific situations. As the 2000s came along, with national attention on prison reform, New York City and State Corrections began creating task forces to address sexual assault, harassment, and other disparities.”
She points to a recent op-ed she wrote for USA Today, based on the now-updated groundbreaking report, It’s War in Here, started by Sylvia Rivera Law Project. In the article, she discusses her rape and physical assaults while in prison and her choice not to report them for fear that doing so would hurt her chances to reenter society.
The last update of the report, It’s Still War in Here: A Statewide Report on the Trans, Gender Non-Conforming, Intersex (TGNCI) Experience in New York Prisons and the Fight for Trans Liberation, states: “Housing placements do not affirm gender identity, are structured to recognize only a male/female binary, and are otherwise unsafe. TGNC people diligently advocate to transfer to safer housing placements, but are often ignored by formal systems. Instead, many TGNC people have no other option but to intentionally receive disciplinary tickets or be placed in solitary confinement in order to remove themselves from unsafe housing situations. Nearly all participants had been in housing other than general population during their time in New York State Prisons.”
TGNC people do resist through the proper channels and do advocate for themselves, the report points out, but are often met with punishment for seeking resolution and justice.
Says Detrevarah about her own experience: “When it came to disclosure of my health status while incarcerated, I was disrespected all the time. It was in a time—eighties and late nineties—where fear ran wild when it came to HIV. “ On Rikers Island, she notes, staff commonly assumed that anyone who identified as GBTQ was living with HIV/AIDS.
To survive this culture of fear at Rikers and elsewhere, she says, “many GBTQ individuals in custody either denied [being GBTQ] or just lived the best they could.”
As for Detrevarah: “I just took my medication at the time: Combivir, Truvada. Though, later, I would come to have issues with taking my medications. I just was numb in the reality of my status. All I had was a feeling of wanting to live.”
The feeling of wanting to live won out.
During her carceral experiences, explains Detrevarah, “I became fascinated and empowered by ‘prison law’; therefore, I became a ‘jailhouse lawyer,’ which empowered me on how to challenge directives, rules and case law. When I returned to the street, I wanted more in my life—I was tired of jail, prison, and all that brought me to ‘that world.’”
That point in her life was a long way from her HIV diagnosis in 1988, when she went on an “unfortunate journey of denial.” To survive and help others survive she enrolled in P.A.C.E. (Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education) while in the NYS-DOCCS Sing Sing prison facility. She joined an in-custody group focused on HIV, hep C and other health disparities.
“This was brave and potentially dangerous in the nineties. An out TGNC individual in prison.” P.A.C.E. attendees and facilitators were commonly individuals who were Muslim, gang members and others who Grace assumed might discriminate against her. She explains why she persisted: “I knew that the information which P.A.C.E. had in their space held life-saving pathways.”
Her step forward allowed other GBTQ prisoners to attend P.A.C.E. classes, studying and helping educate about HIV, hep C, and STIs.
In 2000, when she was transferred to another facility, Fishkill Correctional, she continued with classes with P.A.C.E. as a facilitator. Upon release in 2002, she was encouraged to address her HIV health by attending the Osborne Bronx site.
Joining P.A.C.E. classes was indeed helpful and she has continued to educate herself and be an educator. While incarcerated she participated on several Prisoner Advisory Boards (including that of Sylvia Rivera Law Project) and clerked in a prison law library, one of the first out GBT prisoners to do so. Later she studied at The Audre Lorde Project’s TransJustice Community School, and of course works at Osborne. She also serves on NYC Boad of Correction’s Task Force on Issues Faced by TGNCNBI People in Custody.
Detrevrah is cautiously optimistic about the pace of progress for individuals who are TGNCNBI and experiencing incarceration. “In my opinion the prison-industrial complex is slowly listening to representatives of prisoners. However, there will always be those zealots with political power who detest any form of humane-ness. Whether they are LGBTQIA or not, I believe that LGBTQIA prisoners will always need advocates and the public to keep corrections humane. When it comes to those affected by HIV, hep C and COVID-19 I’d like to hope that the stigma which comes with HIV will not be [multiplied]. Till that occurs, it’s best that those incarcerated equip themselves with education, safety, and support…. ”
When released from NYS-DOCCS in October 2017, Grace found a helping hand and a fundraising drive in her name. Daniel Williams had created a TGNC-LGB community-based care package drive, #Hope4Grace, for at-risk trans women, particularly black women, post-incarceration, post-rehabilitation or dealing with a chronic illness. The care package included reentry items, such as meal and gift cards, Metrocards, hygiene products, journals, self-help books, and so on. Williams reflects: “My relationship with Grace Detrevarah came unexpectedly. #Hope4Grace was the beginning of my support for black Trans women coming out of prison. I knew of Grace; however, we weren’t close. Meeting her and staying connected changed my life.”
The Peer Adherence Educator at Sun River Health and ThriveBX continues: “Watching and learning more about her made me feel like a proud parent. In the first six months Grace came home and got a job and little decent place to stay. It was a prime example of how coming home with good support systems can assist in folks thriving past their circumstances. Now, Grace is a strong advocate and supporter for others. Working in this community requires one to be sound and stable person. Grace has been both those things as an advocate and professional in the community.”
Carmen Neely, President, Harlem Pride, who honored Grace for her advocacy in 2020, shares: “I consider Grace Detrevarah to be a friend and colleague. She is also an outstanding community advocate and activist. Her work in the LGBTQ community generally, and with the formerly incarcerated specifically has helped countless people get back on their feet and living better lives. Grace is dedicated, hard-working, and thorough. Not only is her heart in the right place, but her work ethic is too. She doesn’t just talk about reform and community needs; she is a change agent who plans and works diligently to make things happen. I am excited to see what she does in the future because once Grace takes on a task or project, she is an unstoppable force seeing it through to its success. We as a community are lucky to have her leadership and I count myself lucky to have her as a peer.”
“What can I say about my Lady Grace,” says Neje Bailey, who helped Grace post-incarceration through Cookie’s Joint and has since become a godparent. “Since she has come into my life I’ve seen what growth and self-love can accomplish. I’m honored to know and love her.”
Detrevarah comments on her own evolution of her efforts to create a better life for herself and others: “My speaking up was a process, when it came to me wanting to empower myself and those with histories such as mine, Femme, Trans and definitely [individuals who are] marginalized, homeless, incarcerated and street-wise, especially those who were affected by living while being TGNC, Black and different.”
Asked what it was like growing up as an individual of transgender experience, Detrevarah says, “To be clear and direct, I grew up a Femme; I grew up to become Transgender in my late forties.” She did not find a safe space in her family nor hometown of Detroit, Michigan, for expressing her gender identity, and, at eighteen, she eventually ran away and landed in New York City in 1983 as “a young, attractive and ‘green’ femme individual.” She found a nurturing and protective trans community, but struggled with homelessness. She met a choreographer who lived in Harlem and moved into his condo, staying with him for two and a half years. After he died of AIDS-related causes, Grace was forced to survive on the streets, she says, in the “‘Deuce’ (42nd Street), trying to participate in sex work. Which I was never good at, because I was more concerned about not being on the street. So I found myself begging ‘dates’ to give me a place to stay. Like I mentioned, I was ‘green.’ I would ultimately [increasingly engage in] ‘criminal’ activity full-time and eventually completed three prison terms.”
She says she began to transition at forty-two, taking prescribed estrogen along with her HIV meds. “Growing up as a feminine young person, my evolution was a problem for others. I lived in my truth when it was uncomfortable, even dangerous. However, I transformed late in life, dressing in women’s apparel, taking bootleg medications—hormones and other medication. It’s been a process which hasn’t [been easy] and still comes with making many sacrifices.”
Throughout her own experiences as an individual who had been homeless, engaged in survival sex work and incarcerated, “I was always transformed into wanting to make pathways for myself and others in similar predicaments.”
Doing so energized her. Part of her work while incarcerated involved being a liaison between prison adminstrators and prisoners. Understandably, she says, “I always found myself being somewhat of a big mouth!”
About her HIV health, she says, “I would not see the seriousness till 2012, after returning back to the community from a parole violation.” She became certified in various health and labor modules, but by that time she had become seasoned as an educator addressing HIV and hep C, among other issues.
“I became known for inspiring and empowering LGBTQIA prisoners through educating those who attended P.A.C.E. classes. I would eventually be offered a peer educator position with Osborne in 2017. This would be my ‘coming out,’ i.e., an opportunity to bring the LGBTQIA to the table in a planned and empowering type of way at Osborne.” With her guidance, Osborne started groups with “sex worker organizations and community groups which had no space to mobilize or educate LGBTQIA on health disparities.”
Since then, as a representative of Osborne and as an independent advocate, Detrevarah has spoken at regional and national conferences/events and been sought after for speaking engagements, television and radio appearances, and op-eds and features in newspapers and magazines. Her educational efforts have taken her to John Jay College–CUNY, Parsons School of Design, and the New York City Department of Health, among other sites that are concerned about the needs and empowerment of TGNC-LGB folks. She appears in the Episode 4 (“The 1980s”) of FX’s Pride, now streaming on Hulu. She has also been featured in the book Trans New York: Photos and Stories of Transgender New Yorkers, by Peter Bussian, which, Grace says, is set for a relaunch.
In closing, Detrevarah shares: “As one who advocates for the Transgender (female/male) who are affected by HIV and AIDS, I’ve found that intersectional work with communities which communicate with the LGBQ & Transgender individuals, families and allies [is vital]. My mission has been personal because historically the LGBQ community has not fully communicated or brought Transgender individuals to the discussion regarding policies, monies or positions (which are not salaried positions, only temporary grant positions). Therefore, my mission primarily has been to connect with and update communities [that are] not necessarily vocally inclusional when it comes to TGNC people regarding health disparities [around] HIV, PrEP and COVID-19, with the purpose of providing information [and] referrals to all communities.” She tackles “uncomfortable subjects,” too, like housing, sex work, and surviving in a major city.
Over the years, Detrevarah has come to realize that transgender community activists and advocates are very often not included when it comes to “service, employment and the positions to inform, inspire or empower. We of the TGNC community have had to do outreach, front-line work to save us.”
To this end, she is building a “regional and national platform specifically for those affected by HIV/AIDS. Especially those in the sex work community (transgender women and men) and those in the prison-industrial complex, specifically in NYC-NYS facilities. “
Asked about her top three goals as an advocate, Detrevarah says, “First, to continue to be healthy to ‘do the work’ I call ‘legacy building.’” That means, in part, inspiring and empowering those in the cis community as well as in the LGBQ community to stop ignoring or excluding individuals who are TGNBNC and their concerns. Gender-based stigma and shame pervade langauage and policies, and that has to stop.
Says Detrevarah: “It has and continues to silently hurt that far too many advertisers, community centers, hospitals/clinics employ and/or provide information on HIV/AIDS, through the common and comfortable settings with LGBQ folk. However, Transgender advocates on HIV/AIDS aren’t seen or provided representation.”
Secondly: “To have Transgender individuals, especially those who have been trained, certified and have degrees, are sought after for positions regarding health, safety, social work. Not some position which is safe or disposable.”
And thirdly, she wants to be remembered as an advocate grounded in reality who championed health disparities, as well as “a survivalist of transphobia.”
Of all the possible descriptions of her journey, Grace is most proud to call herself a survivor: “It has been a task to be darn near sixty years old, thirty-three years of it all, I carried this virus, HIV ,with me, everywhere. As I continue to live life, loving life.”
“As I continue to become more comfortable with my past, my estrangements with family and friends, and my diagnoses, I have earned a place in this world to save my own life, by being a vessel for TGNC folks, especially those affected by the disparities [caused by] HIV diagnoses and incarceration.”
For now, Detrevarah will continue working on her memoir and adapting her advocacy in the time of COVID to find ways to address more than one pandemic. When COVID first impacted the U.S., she became apprehensive, based on her experience living with HIV since the eighties and having a career in the health/reentry community. Why? “Stigma and other health and soul-destroying methods. I waited for the avalanche,” she says. Yet, even as the numbers affected escalated, the animus was not comparable to that of the AIDS pandemic.
COVID-related suffering and deaths shocked her, of course, and she became apprehensive again. “I would go through several moments of worrying about those affected—but I gotta be honest: I was concerned about my tribe, those affected with HIV and other health disparities and those affected by the criminal justice system, as an advocate for ‘the marginalized’ [at Osborne].”
She worries about stemming COVID and HIV codiagnoses and supporting those who might be struggling with illnesses related to one of the viruses or both. Says Detrevarah: “Come to terms with vaccination, stay vigilant taking meds. Survive and live!”
Grace Detrevarah will not stop highlighting what is possible: “I’m just satisfied that I have created a legacy along with those pioneers, advocates, and activists who, like myself, simply are bound by passion, love of community, and survival.”
Grace gives thanks to Ceyenne Doroshow, an activist and founder of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (GLITS) for being her “inspiration, friend and Sista.” She is also “eternally grateful to her ‘Godparents’ for being there through it all, at the right times.”
Big thanks to dirty sugar studios in Ridgewood, New York City, for the generous donation of space and time. Visit them at dirtysugarstudios.com.
Make-up, hair and styling by Madison Gathers of Faces of Cassis.
For more about photographer Stephen Churchill Downes, visit: stephenchurchilldownes.com.
For more information about the Osborne Association, log on to: www.osborneny.org.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. He interviewed poet and activist Steven Reigns for the September 2021 cover story. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.