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By now, it’s become pretty normal to see website after website and magazine after magazine make lists of “America’s Gayest Cities” or the “Top Ten Most LGBT-Friendly Cities,” or even “The 21 Most Lesbianish Cities in the US” every year, so it seemed to me like making a list of the Ten Best Cities for Trans Women would be the next logical step. As a trans lesbian, those lists help me some, but just imagine how great a list of the Ten Best Cities for Trans Women would be! While I knew it would take some work, I was ready and excited to look up statistics and trans-friendly laws and talk to other trans women to find out what cities belonged on my list.
That was the mindset I had when I started working on this project, back before summer even started. I started looking at which cities had non-discrimination ordinances and other laws and policies in place to help trans people. I looked at Refinery29’s article about which states are the most trans-friendly, I looked at a list of the Top Ten Trans-Friendly Colleges and Universities, I looked at the HRC’s Municipal Equality Index (not saying that the HRC hasn’t had a pretty rocky history with trans women, but this had some helpful stats) and I looked at the LGBT Map’s Snapshot: Transgender in America infographic.
I felt like I was starting to get somewhere, even if most of the information was on a state-by-state level, and not city-by-city, and I had really no way of telling if or how these policies were being implemented. These reports also didn’t give me a good idea about what the actual communities were like. Were there trans support groups, community centers, trans-friendly doctors or trans community events? Plus, I wanted to make sure that the trans women who actually live in the cities I was looking at thought that their cities were good places to live. Who better to tell me the Best Cities for Trans Women than trans women themselves, right?
I had some idea of the cities I wanted to look at, and so my next step was to find trans women in those cities and ask them if they thought their city should be on the list. I made posts in four different popular trans women Facebook groups asking for women to tell me why their city was particularly good for them, and put out similar calls on Tumblr, Twitter and in articles on Autostraddle. I did this multiple times over several months. I heard back from four people.
While I did hear some good things from trans women about Seattle, New York City and Los Angeles, others I heard from weren’t exactly singing the praises of the cities they live in. Jess from Portland told me that while she thinks “there is a good atmosphere and the people are nice,” she’s never felt like there were very many resources for a trans woman like her. Lexi Adsit said a couple positive things about the Bay Area and then pivoted into a less positive outlook on her community.
I also want to recognize that we’ve lost a number of trans women of color throughout the years from Gwen Araujo to Brandy Martell and most recently Taja DeJesus. I also want to acknowledge that while we have a lot of organizations that offer resources such as API Wellness Center, Tri-City Health Center, and the Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative, that most of these programs are funded for HIV positive clients. So for those girls who continue to come to the bay thinking it’s a gold mine of resources, many of the service providers I’ve worked with have wanted to send a message that that is not the case and to be careful before completely uprooting your life and moving here. Especially with the increased gentrification we’re facing losses in nonprofit organizations and community institutions that have historically provided these institutions.
It seemed like reaching out to individuals wasn’t going to help me as much as I had hoped.
When I tried to do a similar thing by reaching out to individual trans groups in the cities that I was thinking of including, the response was similarly sparse. This time only three groups got back to me. I had statistics, maps and infographics from a dozen different sources, but without input from other trans women I wasn’t comfortable touting these cities the top ten anything. I was starting to get somewhat pessimistic about the project at this point, but it wasn’t until I reached out to some national organizations for help that the whole thing turned on its head.
Eli Erlick from Trans Student Educational Resources painted the brightest picture, but even hers was mixed at best. “In terms of education, trans students only have the explicit legal right to access programs and facilities with their own gender as approved by state legislature in California (which, may I add, is often not adhered to),” she told me. Erlick then added her personal take on some California cities.
On a personal note, living near the Bay Area and then living near Los Angeles… the least I can say is that The L Word has lied to us. It’s far from a queer/trans haven. LA is certainly a difficult place for trans activism as well. The lack of public transit makes it hard to travel to events and mobilizing people within such a large geographical area is also incredibly difficult. This is especially true for trans women who are disproportionately discriminated against and have a lower income on average. The Bay on the other hand has an amazing community and is better to travel within but is unfortunately being gentrified to a point where it is uninhabitable by many trans people, especially those of us working with nonprofits. California may be one of — if not the — best state for transgender people to live but it is far from being a safe place for all of us. Like all other states, there’s still a long way to go.”
When I contacted the National Center For Transgender Equality, Vincent Villano told me that they’d be happy to answer some questions, but added that he “would just note, however, that NCTE acknowledges a vast difference between cities/states that are livable versus cities/states that have laws and policies that protect trans people in everyday life. Additionally, there is very little city-specific data out there to objectively evaluate livability of cities for trans people. Therefore, Arli [Christian, another person I talked to from the same organization], can focus her comments on the kinds of laws and policies that help improve life for trans people, without judgement or reference to the ways trans people experience life in specific states.” When I talked to Christian, she was very helpful in telling me about some policies that cities and states can set in place to help trans women, but made sure to add “I don’t think we can weigh in on which states are doing the best to enforce these laws, as that is a very subjective measure.”
Jill Marcellus from the Transgender Law Center gave the depressing reply, “Thanks for reaching out. Unfortunately, there really is no ‘safe’ city for trans women, and we’re a little concerned about giving false hope by representing any city or state as a haven.” She also suggested that instead of making this list, I should focus on individual programs, events and arts, as “there are both great things and terrifying things happening in all cities.”
All of this was extremely relevant information. The problem is that it’s relevant to another type of article. I definitely don’t want to give the impression that the TSER, NCTE or TLC, or any of the individual people I talked to weren’t helpful or willing to talk to me or anything like that — they all definitely did the right thing. They’re all organizations that I’d definitely recommend to anyone looking for ways to help trans women and they definitely helped me. It just turns out that they didn’t help me figure out the ten best cities for trans women, instead they helped me to figure out that really, there is no list of the Ten Best Cities for Trans Women to be made.
By far the most disheartening thing to happen while I was working on this project was finding out about the murders of nine trans women in less than two months this summer. This wave of horrific violence aimed almost exclusively at Black and Latina trans women reminded me, and many other trans women, that no matter how many trans women are on TV and no matter how many non-discrimination ordinances are passed, Trans Women of Color still aren’t safe in any city in America.
I would really love to be able to help trans women figure out which cities are going to be the best ones for them, and some of the links I provided earlier might be able to do some of that, but really, it would be a mistake to advertise these cities as something that they’re not. The non-discrimination laws and policies found in some cities and states are important, but laws and policies don’t mean much when they’re not being enforced, and they don’t mean much when trans women of color still aren’t safe. Sometimes I’m really happy with the progress that we seem to be making when it comes to helping trans women not just survive, but thrive. Other times, like when I was working on this project, I’m reminded just how far we really have to go.