FAIRMOUNT HEIGHTS — Following the murder of two transgender women of color in Fairmount Heights, the Prince George’s County Human Relations Commission held a “United In Equality” community conversation for people to join together in solidarity and share their experiences in the LGBTQ+ community in the county on July 8.
It was standing room only at the Fairmount Heights Town Hall as six panelists shared their experiences and knowledge on LGBTQ+ relations followed by audience members asking questions and talking about their own experiences.
The panelists for the event were HIPS Development Associate Shareese Mone, catholic transgender activist Hilary Howes, LGBTQ Dignity Project Founder Crystal Oriada, Free State Justice Staff Attorney Sandy James, Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD) Captain Cindy Thompson and University of Maryland Sociology Professor Kris Marsh.
“We are all part of this community, that’s what’s so important about this conversation,” said Human Rights Commission Executive Director, Renee Battle-Brooks who moderated the event. “And communities thrive, we grow, we become stronger when we all come together to share and understand each other.”
According to Mone, 11 trans people have been fatally shot and killed in 2019 with two of them being killed in Prince George’s County. She said there is a “clear transgender bias” as they are killed by their acquaintances, friends, partners and strangers as they face harassment throughout their lives.
Trans women of color are harmed at a higher rate, Mone said. Often deprived of things like housing and deployment, there are very few places where they feel safe.
“For many trans women of color, the threats of violence are constant, and there are few, if any, places that we feel safe,” said Mone. She revealed that the two women killed in the county were her nieces.
She shared her experience as a trans woman of color and how she ended up at HIPS, a nonprofit that provides harm reduction services, advocacy and community engagement for communities impacted by sexual exchange or drug use, for help. Three years later, she became their development associate.
Mone called being trans like wearing a bulletproof vest because of all of the barriers trans people face, from the stigma and violence, and at times being afraid to leave their homes.
“Coming into society and facing all the other barriers we have, to add trans to the matter, to feel unsafe leaving your home in the morning not knowing if you’re going to make it home that night because you said no thank you or I don’t want it. It’s so much stigma our here, so much violence.”
Howes explained that she transitioned back in the 1990s, a time where the term “ally,” the internet and many of the services available now did not exist. Crimes like those that happened in the county hit home for her because they exist, they are powerful and they are just the tip of the iceberg of violence that happens every day.
“There aren’t that many transgender people, we’re less than a percentage point, but we deserve to live too,” Howes said.
Oriada, and later, James, talked about how hard it is to have their lives on display as members of the LGBTQ+ community. They said it is hard to get out of bed every day and face the struggle of the labels people put on them while thinking about how they will be perceived.
“I always tell this to people, I don’t want to be an activist, I wish I did not have to be an activist,” Oriada said. “It is important to understand that because there are some people that activism is a luxury, and I say that because they’re not fighting for their rights. They’re fighting for abstract beliefs or thoughts for other groups.”
She also talked about how there is a gap in Prince George’s County when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. Those in the room agreed that many times they have had to go to Washington, D.C. for services and that there should be a section of the county government that directly assists LGBTQ+ people.
Thompson explained how the PGPD has created a panel for LGBTQ+ relations. Led by Thompson and made up entirely of police officers that identify within the LGBTQ+ spectrum, the goal is to provide support for the community as well as gay officers.
Although Thompson stressed that the PGPD is working to correct their relations with minority communities, a few people in the audience expressed that they do not feel comfortable going to the police for help because of negative experiences they have had in the past.
One resident shared with the group that she did not feel comfortable being in the room with police officers because she, a trans woman, and her husband had been assaulted and misgendered by county police in the past. Another resident shared how he and his husband had been harassed in the park by teenagers, but when they called the police, they were not given assistance.
Howes pointed out how while the community requires more support from the government and the police department, the school system is also at fault because some teachers and students do not feel safe. However, “it’s a community problem. Not just police or government or schools,” she said.
Dedra Spears-Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit Heart to Hand that provides HIV services to the LGBTQ+ community, said that she had not been aware of the meeting until someone mentioned it to her. While stating that there needs to be more outreach to the community. She also said that there should be more LGBT agencies.
“It’s really going to take the people in this room. It’s going to be a grassroots effort if we’re going to do something,” she said.
Following the meeting, people stayed and talked amongst themselves to further the discussion. Marty Drake also said it was “wonderful” to have the police there, as well as elected officials such as most of the Fairmount Heights City Council, Board of Education Member Pamela Boozer-Strother and Delegate Jazz Lewis.
Isaiah Lawrence said it was a good start to the conversation, but he would have liked it to go more in-depth.
“There needs to be more discussion,” he said. “I would have liked the police to address how they plan to break barriers. They spoke on it a little bit, but the community wants specifics.”
According to Battle-Brooks, the Human Relations Commission plans to hold a similar event during the first week of August and might have a third one at a later date to discuss the next steps for creating a more inclusive community.